Elizabeth Gilbert has a lot to answer for. Her 2006 best-selling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, later made into a movie starring Julia Roberts, has filled 40-something women the world over with the illusion that they can find love in Indonesia.
Is there something magical about the archipelago in Southeast Asia and Oceania? Something that casts a spell over its visitors and helps them see the world – and themselves – with fresh eyes? And what are the chances of a single woman visitor getting knocked off her bike by a Javier Bardem lookalike, falling into his arms and living happily ever after, just like in the hit movie? There was only one way to find out...
The country is made up of 13,466 islands; five major ones – where the majority of the population and tourism industry are concentrated – and thousands of smaller ones, many of which are uninhabited. Collectively they’re described as an emerald green belt across the equator, rich in culture with about 350 ethnic groups with their own language and dialect, and the freedom to embrace religion guaranteed by the government.
The best-known islands of Java and Bali – where Eat, Pray, Love is set – are beautiful, but if you want to explore a smaller and less-developed island, fly to Lombok, which is part of the chain of the Lesser Sunda Islands.
Whether you’re in search of romance or already happily loved-up and in need of a blissful break with your partner, I can’t think of a better place to go than Gili Trawangan. Off the north-west coast of Lombok, it is reached by boat, and once on the island, which measures just 3km by 2km, you are in splendid isolation.
The speedboat trip is a healthy dose of good old-fashioned fun. It takes about 15 minutes – depending on if you need to stop part way there to tilt the petrol tank to get the dregs out to get you to shore, as we did.
No big deal. Why get uptight when you know you’ll get there eventually? There’s no harm in taking a few moments to soak up the view of the lush, green mountains of Lombok on one side and the pristine white shores of the island waiting to welcome you on the other. That’s when Indonesia starts to work its magic – it forces you to slow down, stop clock-watching and forget about the emails piling up in your inbox.
I stayed in Hotel Vila Ombak. Built along the beach, the hotel is a collection of air-conditioned villas, rooms and huts – though they’re of the five-star variety. The traditional lumbung huts make the most of the lush outdoors, with a spacious terrace and an elevated lounging area, known as a bale. There is no fresh water supply to the island, but that only adds to its charm.
My bedroom had an opaque glass door that led to a beautiful open-air bathroom. It’s private – you might share your saltwater shower with a gecko, but he’ll promise not to look if you don’t – but you also have the chirping of wildlife while you shower in the balmy air. Just scoop fresh water from the tap by the shower and rinse to deal with sand and salt. There is no motor transport on Gili Trawangan. It takes about two and a half hours to stroll around the island, or if you’re feeling energetic, you can hire bikes to pedal by the shore, stopping to swim or simply stare
out to sea when the fancy takes you. And it will.
If cycling sounds like too much effort – you are on holiday, after all – there are charming horse-drawn carriages called cidomos on offer.
Once you’ve got the lay of the land, there’s lots of relaxing to do. Luxuriously comfortable sunloungers (none of that nasty white plastic) are scattered along the shore, with generous shade-giving umbrellas, perfect for dozing with your book.
The hotel’s slogan is ‘Come and let the waves embrace you’, and as those waves lap the shore just beyond your lounger, you relax and melt wholeheartedly into that embrace.
There are also two pools, one of which has three levels and a Jacuzzi, for the times when you want to be embraced by relaxing bubbles, too.
If you’re not one for hours of lounging in Zen-like comfort, grab some snorkelling or diving gear and explore one of the best dive sites in the world. The year-round sea temperature is about 28°C, there’s varied topography and the stunning marine life includes turtles, manta rays and white pit sharks, not to mention coral and tropical fish in vibrant, electric colours. You might even get to see a pygmy seahorse.
The hotel has its own diving academy, so if you’re qualified, remember to pack a copy of your Padi certificate so you can enjoy the crystal-clear waters in their full glory.
The academy also offers programmes for those who have yet to earn their water wings, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more beautiful place to learn to dive. If you like your action on the water rather than under it, the hotel can also arrange glass-bottomed boating trips, banana boating and canoeing.
Exertions over, to wind back down into chill-out mode, indulge yourself at the hotel’s spa. I tried the traditional Balinese massage, which was a blissful 60 minutes of drifting off, as any remaining knots of city tension were eased from my body.
The spa offers special packages that guests can utilise over the week; if you’ve already found your Mr or Mrs Right, the Tropical Romantic Couple package is the one for you.
The magic of romance
In the evenings, the place becomes even more magical, as the gardens, restaurants and seashore are illuminated by round lanterns that cast a warm, alluring glow of their own. Overlooking the sea, in its own stretch of shore, I saw a table that had been set for dinner for two, under an open pagoda-like tent, where one lucky couple were to dine under the stars. Later that evening, I saw fireworks light up the sky above the pagoda; surely the icing on the most romantic of cakes?
I loved the atmosphere of the island of an evening, with people strolling along the low-key string of small shops, restaurants and bars looking sun-kissed, relaxed and completely at peace.
The food is fantastic. Rice is the staple, but there is culinary variety, as is shown by the differing preparations of the soup soto, which can be made in up to a dozen different ways.
Every meal included a platter of the freshest tropical fruits, which made you feel healthier just by looking at it. The fish – as you’d expect – was a highlight, but there was something to suit all tastes, with no one course overwhelming you by its flavours or proportions. This island really is all about balance. So is it possible to have your sense of self brought back into focus in Indonesia? To clear your mind, breathe deeply and appreciate the ‘now’? I think so.
There’s a line in Gilbert’s book, spoken by a Balinese medicine man, that reads, ‘Smile with face, smile with mind and good energy will come to you.’ Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Go on, give it a go. It just might work.
All about Bali
If you really want to follow in the footsteps of Eat, Pray, Love, then head to Bali, the largest tourist destination in the Indonesian archipelago. Its popularity shows – the airport is being expanded, the tour buses are that bit bigger and have AC that works that bit harder. That’s not to say the island has lost its charm, of course. It is an attractive destination for conferences, and is ever-popular for weddings and honeymoons. The popularity of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book also led to the introduction of specially created tours around Bali, visiting some of the places she wrote about.
I stayed at the Discovery Kartika Plaza Hotel, which has a stunning beachfront location in Kuta. I was lucky enough to check in to one of the hotel’s six villas, and as I entered to the sound of the Balinese version of Café Del Mar chill-out music, I knew it was going to be difficult to check out.
The villas have two bedrooms with a king-sized bed in each, living room, kitchenette and – best of all – a private garden with pool and a gate to the beach. Oh, and a butler. The hotel has lush, sprawling gardens to explore, and numerous restaurants serving top-quality cuisine. To work off all that excellent food, there’s a gym, beach volleyball court, tennis and squash courts and jogging track. Or you can exercise your mind with a game on the giant chess board – you just need the muscle to move your king into place.