SARAH ISON soaks up the sun on a rejuvenated Lombok island.
On one of Perth’s wettest weekends, the first plane load of passengers flying AirAsia’s newest direct route take off.
Those below might look up for a second — sodden and already fed up by their first real cold front — wondering where the plane will land but they’re likely too busy battening down the hatches to lashing winds and a bone-chilling 17C.
After all, where would they go if they could?
Few places in Australia are any less miserable at this time of year, and without a long weekend in sight, the only other option is Bali — on the cusp of its busiest season.
And so, Perth travellers might succumb to their winter and the tyranny of isolation that prevent us from seeking refuge somewhere warm, peaceful and a relatively short direct flight away.
But that plane flying above them is about to change all that.
For it is bound not for the crowded shores of Bali but for its neighbour, Lombok.
For us, the island is still very much the new kid on the block. Or at least, the kid who went away for a year before returning all grown up and ready to take on the top dog everyone is secretly sick of.
Jetstar flew direct between Perth and Lombok for a few months, ending the service in 2014, admitting it was an experiment that didn’t work.
Then, in August last year, after being devastated by a 6.9 magnitude earthquake, the island all but closed its doors to tourists as it rebuilt the shattered villas, restaurants and town sites.
The quake was the biggest in 40 years and temporarily undid the tourism industry of both Lombok and the nearby Gili Islands, which had been reaching a bubbling peak over the 12 months leading up to the disaster.
Even as hotel rooms became available again six months or so later, the quake remained a fresh memory and deterred travellers — at least those who would have been willing to fly via Denpasar to eventually reach Lombok’s shores.
As the island spreads its arms wide to welcome back tourists from around the world, AirAsia launched its first Perth to Lombok direct flight on June 9, offering West Australians a tropical paradise eagerly beckoning to be enjoyed.
And all it takes is a four-hour flight.
Four hours to reach beaches lined with palm trees and impossibly clear waters.
Four hours to have a cheap-as-chips drink in hand and sand underfoot.
Four hours to trade the brisk winter for the tropical heat.
And the best part? Getting a reprieve from the Perth winter doesn’t come at the cost of relinquishing personal space — as you’re forced to do during high season in the tourist-drenched Bali.
The flight itself is comfortable, with good service and a meal provided by AirAsia.
From the quaint airport, relocated to South Lombok in 2011, travellers can be on the shore of the world-famous Koeta Lombok in just 20 minutes.
After a night spent on the stretching coast of Koeta, or in one of the luxurious villas by the picturesque Senggigi, explore the lush rainforests of Lombok.
Villages are tucked in among the canopy, filled with all manner of houses, temples and tents.
There are no luxurious villas here but instead a taste of how the locals live.
It might not be five star but is genuinely worth exploring if, for nothing else, than the warm smiles and waves from locals as your bus or taxi rumbles through the town.
As you head to the centre of the island towards towering Mt Rinjani, you may well see flickers of movement from the forest and even curious eyes staring back at you. These will belong to the grey monkeys endemic to the island, many of which seem content to sit on the roadside and stare seriously at you as you pass by.
Once you’ve taken your fill of rainforests and waterfalls, it’s time for a change of scene as you head to the harbour to the west of the island.
At the beach, you might realise the water you’re revelling in is a fair bit warmer than a typical Perth day in June or July.
In fact, the sea off Lombok is about 25C. Share that one with friends back home and see how “popular” you become.
It’s easy to let the days drift by while on Lombok and, like all good things, you’ll find your trip coming to a close — likely much faster than you would have liked.
As you prepare to head back to the bitterer weather there is one thing about Lombok you may find yourself missing most.
For every terima kasih (thank you) you offer the locals, the sheer warmth and sincerity of their replied sama-sama (you’re welcome) is undeniable.
After the earthquake that devastated their homes and ran dry their main industry, the people of Lombok are beyond pleased to see you.
Unlike nearby islands that have simply been soaked with tourists for too many years, Lombok is in many ways starting afresh.
This doesn’t just lead to quieter beaches but to warmer people, eager to see you enjoy yourself, and asking tentatively for you to let your friends and family know Lombok is safe and fun and once more ready to be enjoyed.
With all the island has the offer, the message will surely not go unheard for long.
It’s no overstatement that WA has some of the best beaches in the world. With perfectly white sand, blue oceans and frothing surf, we might not realise how spoilt we are. Until we travel abroad.
It is common for West Aussies to be utterly deflated when reaching the shores of “paradise” in places around the world, including east Asia. There can be black or dark sands littered with rubbish and throngs of people. Aussie travellers will be confronted with a far cry from their “normal” beaching experience.
But, given the drop-off of tourists since the earthquake, the genuine desire to keep the islands clean and, of course, the crystal waters and white sands that we all imagine in our minds’ eye, Lombok and the Gilis are home to the beaches we’ve all dreamt of.
While on the Gilis, you’re pretty much surrounded at all times by “the perfect beach”.
On the main island of Lombok there are a few in particular to look out for, most to the south of the island.
TOP BEACHES IN SOUTH LOMBOK
There’s more than one Kuta beach in Indonesia. While the shoreline by that name in Bali is well known (and boy does that show with the sheer number of people flocking there each year) Keota Lombok is just waiting to be rediscovered. An old haunt of surfers from around the world, the beautiful beach is still far less crowded than its Bali cousin.
Surrounded by green rolling hills and towering palm trees, this is the perfect beach to spend a day or so, with plenty of accommodation options available at the south of the island.
Selong Belanak Beach
With its powdery white sand, bright blue waters and islands dotting the horizon, Selong Belanak is a striking beach perfect for swimmers and beginner-level surfers. Just around the corner from Koeta the views from this beach are truly something to behold.
But before snapping that photo, hold your horses — or should we say, buffaloes.
That’s right, water buffalo are known to cruise the Selong Belanak’s shoreline, and the stark contrast of their muddied black and brown hides against the perfect whites and blues of the beach will be one the best photo ops you’re granted on your trip.
A favourite among locals, this is one of the most picturesque beaches at Lombok. Visit Bukit Merese hills nearby for a climb and look over the rolling coast below.
It’s not Maui, Hawaii, but Mawi Lombok has a character all of its own — with that upside of still flying relatively low on the radar for tourists. This is one for the surfer and swimmer, with rich reefs lying under clear waters before the break.
Yes, most West Australians have seen at least one of the Pink Lakes in the State but Lombok’s reply to this is something altogether new.
It is not the waters but the sands that are an incredible pink hue — a stark contrast to the bright blue ocean beyond. The “pinkness” of the beach comes from millions of tiny fragments of dead red coral but, beware, the brightness of the hue differs depending on the time of day and year. Located on the Ekas Peninsula, this spot is a bit more of a trek but attracts many a photo snapper for its sheer bizarre beauty.