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swimming in culture If you want to buy knock-off designer watches or drink Bintang in a nightclub until the early hours, don’t go to Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida or Nusa Ceningan. These three islands off Bali’s southeast coast are all about the three Rs – rest, relaxation and recreation

words and photos: seanna cronin

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inding myself with a sideline seat to a pillow fight is not quite what I expected with a trip to Bali. After all, it’s not like I’d been invited to a 10-year-old’s slumber party. But such is the unique character of the three islands off Bali’s southeast coast that the opportunity to immerse yourself in local customs proves as memorable as any surfing or diving experience . The trio – Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan – is just 19km from the mainland, but the islands feel idyllically removed from the vibrant flurry of activity that is Kuta and Denpasar. Sure, you can still while away hours lazing on the beach or get the blood pumping parasailing, but there are no nightclubs, shopping malls, traffic jams or hawkers. Instead, there are picturesque beaches, surf breaks and some of Bali’s best scuba diving spots. The islands are half-an-hour by fast boat but more adventurous travellers can take the

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one-and-a-half hour ride in a traditional motorboat across Badung Strait, departing from Sanur. Nusa Penida is the largest of the three with inland mountains and tall sea cliffs, but it remains mostly undeveloped. The majority of holiday resorts and facilities are on Nusa Lembongan – the scene of some intensely contested pillow fighting come Independence Day – which is connected to the smaller Nusa Ceningan by a suspension bridge. One of the first things I notice on arrival are the rows of sticks marking dark squares just off the beach. A few hours later the low tide exposes the squares, which turn out to be rows of green and brown seaweed. Seaweed farming is the second largest industry on the islands, after tourism, and many locals have plots. Visitors can walk through the plots and owners are happy to answer questions about their farms. The seaweed is grown and harvested in six-week cycles, and the dried seaweed is

then sold by the kilo to Japan and Europe for use in cosmetics and as a food preservative. Even in high season the island has a slow pace. Walking paths connect sheltered beaches, which are rarely crowded, and traffic is non-existent. Lembongan is a popular spot with both divers and surfers, thanks to the dramatic sloping reefs which plunge into the deep channels that separate the islands. Just behind Shipwrecks, one of the biggest surf breaks, is a dive site known as Blue Corner – a reliable place to see large marble rays, spotted eagle rays, the occasional thresher shark and, in the winter, Bali’s star attraction: the sunfish, or mola mola. From August through to October these strange, large fish, which spend most of their time out at sea, gather around the islands at traditional cleaning stations. Cleaner fish eagerly await their arrival at Toyapakeh, Blue Corner and Crystal Bay at Nusa Penida.

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The sunfish swim up to the reef, assume a cleaning position and go into a trance-like state as the cleaner fish pick off dead skin and parasites picked up during its travels through the Pacific. It’s the equivalent of a sunfish day spa and the fish, which can reach lengths of more than two metres, clearly enjoy it. This annual gathering, which is also thought to involve mating, allows divers the rare opportunity to get up close and personal with these deepwater fish. But there is plenty of other marine life to please snorkellers, divers and

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underwater photographers during the rest of the year. Manta Point, on the south coast of Nusa Penida, is frequented by graceful manta rays. As many as 20 rays can be seen slowly circling their cleaning stations and hoovering up plankton like giant sea-vacuums. Toyapakeh, which means salty water, is a wall dive in the channel between Nusa Ceningan and Nusa Penida where pillar corals and large sponges tower over the reef. At Crystal Bay, a psychedelic mix of soft, hard corals and reef fish make

Left, a sunfish at Blue Corner off Nusa Lembongan. Right, the coral at Crystal Bay, Nusa Penida Opposite page: Left, a traditional fishing boat moored off Nusa Lembongan. Right, a manta ray at Manta Point, Nusa Penida

excellent photos. The sheltered bay is a popular lunch stop for diving and snorkelling boats and there is a footpath on the hill which overlooks the bay’s white beach and sparkling blue water. For visitors who prefer land-based activities there are many cultural and religious events on the islands, such as Independence Day, which marks the Republic of Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch. While the holiday is celebrated with street parades and music on the mainland, the day is marked in a much different way on the islands.


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The sunfish go into a trance-like state as the cleaner fish pick off dead skin and parasites picked up during its travels through the Pacific. It’s the equivalent of a sunfish day spa and the fish clearly enjoy it Lembongan residents hold a series of light-hearted competitions during the week leading up to Independence Day, August 17, that tend to involve more laughing and socialising than serious competition. There are boat and foot races, but the duck-catching race and the pillow fights draw the biggest crowds. In the duck race, a flock of ducks is released on to the water and competitors must swim out, catch a duck and bring it back to the beach – no easy feat. The chaotic spectacle is a mix of water, thrashing limbs, quacks and

belly laughs as the ducks easily out-manoeuvre their captors. The pillow fights are a bit more organised but no less amusing. The competition takes up an entire morning as participants compete in best-of-three elimination rounds. Competitors straddle a wooden log suspended above the sand and put their right hand behind their back. Then, they use chalk-filled pillows to try and knock each other off balance. The crowd roars with laughter each time someone cops a face full of chalk and tumbles head-first into the sand. Tourists are invited to join in and

one Aussie makes it through a few rounds but it’s a local teen who takes out the title of top pillow fighter. Independence Day is also one of the two times of the year when the island’s Hindu priest, who practises a form of Balinese Hinduism known as Agama Hindu Dharma, performs religious blessings. I wake up the day before the holiday to find all of the motorbikes along the street blessed with palm frond figures and flowers, and then see the priest in the middle of blessing our dive boat. Colourful blankets cover the deck,

seats and twin outboard motors and incense offerings burn as the priest, wearing white, recites the blessing. He has blessed all the boats on the island, which makes me feel a little bit safer when I depart for the mainland the next day. ●

Budget Accommodation: Bungalow No. 7 (www.bungalo-no7.com) Luxury Accommodation: Coconut Beach Resort (www.bali-activities.com/resort) Boat Transfers: Scoot Fast Boat (www.scootcruise.com) Scuba Diving: Bali Diving Academy (www.scubali.com)

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Relax with sunfish on Bali's trio of islands  

Nusa Penida, Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Cenigan offer a relaxing holiday escape, and they're also one of the few places in the world to reliabl...

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