Dear Fellow Diver:
After an intensive dive trip on the Bilikiki for 10 days (for a full
review of the Solomon Island vessel, see Undercurrent's May 2012 issue), my
dive buddy and I planned a couple's retreat to Bali to wallow in tasteful
luxury, dive a bit and relax before heading home. In fact, if you dive anywhere
in Indonesia, Bali is a must stop.
Our hotel of choice was Amankila. Its location on the east coast, near
the town of Manggis, places it near choice diving, and the hilly terrain,
gorgeous three-tier infinity pool, scrumptious food, warm service and personal
spa services provide the ultimate antidote to the rigors of liveaboard living,
no matter how terrific. (Indeed, I love the Bilikiki. This was my third trip,
and Daniela and Csaba, the new cruise leaders, are probably the vessel's best
ever.) At the Denpasar airport, a delegate from Amankila whisked us through
immigration and customs (an expedited visa is US$25 a person). Ninety minutes
later, we arrived at our digs (some celebrities, I understand, take a helicopter
to avoid the drive), and two beautiful young girls in elegant local
garb offered floral blessings as the English-speaking staff welcomed us.
Diving in east Bali, particularly at nearby sites like Nusa Penida, Amed,
Seraya, Tulamben, Manta Point and Padang Bai, is part of the draw of Amankila.
Unlike the hotels in touristy Nusa Dua or Kuta, this location puts you within
15 minutes of many dive sites -- and it's an hour to the revered diving at
Tulamben. In the past, I always used the excellent Aquamarine Diving, but this
time I let Amankila arrange our diving with Geko Dive, the oldest shop on the
east coast. It's owned by European expats Cedric Saveuse, Olivia Harding and
James Rees, and they offer diving from the Nusa Penida area to Tulamben. It's
a serious operation that even offers tech diving courses. I asked James for
pure muck diving because we had done so much pelagic diving in the Solomons, so
he selected a partially built and abandoned jetty in Padang Bai, less than 10
minutes by boat from the dive shop. A treasure trove for muck divers. I could
easily spend three dives a day for two weeks at this site alone.
After an easy backroll near the pier,
I descended to 40 feet. Visibility is typically
low, maybe 20 feet at best, currents
low to moderate, and the water warm.
The guides worked hard to find interesting
critters. I wore a light wetsuit
and gloves because garbage and hydroids
abound, and fishermen have baited lines
in the water. My log reflects muck diving
joy: "inimicus (demon stingers) galore;
mantis shrimp of every hue and size; two
types of rhinopias (frilled and paddle)."
I sighted a rare crocodile snake eel poking
out of the sand, its massive toothy
jaw belying its shyness. Sandy-grained cuttlefish hovered in pairs, while
heavy-bodied, 12- to 18-inch pipefish
courted and snuffled for food. The pilings
revealed a mammoth frogfish larger
than a football. In the junk at the
base of the pilings, I found a pair of
frogfish the size of large softballs,
one a snowy white perched next to a
jet black hairy frogfish. Though few
would label stonefish as "cute," the
hot pink juvenile I found came close.
Scorpionfish abounded in every hue.
Large fearless octopuses hung out on
low coral heads, while the one large
coral head nearby housed a huge school
of adult eel catfish, presumably there
for mating. My log notes describe them
as "frenetic, disgusting, yet fascinating."
Perhaps my greatest delight was realizing that the drifting chunks of
palm leaf were actually robust ghost pipefish pairs.
As part of the muck dive program, Geko took us to Seraya, just north of
Amed, for a pair of shore dives. The rough entry was fine, though I earned
no style points as I crawled out on hands and knees after the dives. Compared
with the abundance at the jetty, Seraya was less satisfying, with strong currents
and patchier life. However, I enjoyed the variety of lionfish, crinoid
crabs, shrimpfishes and giant trevallys darting through the murky waters.
Seraya's sand bottom, like Tulamben's, is volcanic dark sand, so when currents
whip it up, visibility drops dramatically.
Why don't more people dive this part of Bali? Though some sites have
powerful currents and downcurrents where the Indian and Pacific oceans mix
between Bali and Lombok (see Undercurrent's March 2014 issue regarding some
Japanese divers who died here), the coral and life one sees is worth it for
the experienced diver. According to an article in the Jakarta Post, scientists
conducted a survey in May 2011 at 33 sea sites around Bali. They
discovered 952 species of reef fish, eight of which were new discoveries.
Another pleasant surprise was reading that the east coast of Bali surpassed
the rest of the island for coral coverage.
Reef coverage ranges from patchy to dense around Padang Bai and between
Bali and Lombok. There are some sheltered sites with virtually no current
and relaxed reef diving (often accompanied by a beach BBQ lunch). The diving
around the small islands offers great variety. Nusa Penida is best known
for mantas and pelagics, particularly mola mola, known as ocean sunfish. The
currents can be unpredictable, and thermoclines are common. Your reward for
braving the waters is dense reefs populated with fish, and a great mix of
reef and pelagics. If the currents are kicking, appreciating the minutiae of
reef life as it whizzes past is challenging,
but the quieter sites allow you to
putter around varieties of anemonefishes,
clouds of anthias and butterflyfish
galore. Great "normal" and very safe diving
can be found at Tulamben.
If you're a culture vulture, this
part of Bali is heaven. Dance and musical
groups play less for tourists than for
themselves. Most hotels offer evening performances
by the local players. I love the
weaving village of Tenganan for fabrics,
particularly the exquisite double ikats
(gerinsing) made by Ibu Sudiata Gelgel.
Amankila is a pricey retreat,
best reserved for special -- very
special -- occasions. It is built
in terraces down the steep hill to
its black sand beach. Each villa
is set within the landscape for
the most privacy, and views are
of the ocean and the tropical garden.
The rooms (actually suites)
provide a deluxe bath, sitting
area with a Bose stereo and iPod
loaded with music to suit all
tastes, bedroom and terrace, where
we ate breakfast each morning.
The in-room WiFi was fast. Oddly,
the floors are so full of nonconductive
materials, when I walked
barefoot and touched a laptop or
tablet, I was treated to a full
220-volt shock. Wear the in-room
flip flops before finding out! The
resort's iconic, three-tier infinity pool seems to teeter on the edge of the
cliff. At beach level, an Olympic-size pool and bar offers guests more swimming
and service, and one can get massages on the beach in little bures. The
restaurant offers both Indonesian and Western dishes. I enjoyed poached eggs
and bacon for breakfast one day, followed by nasi goring the next, and while
I tended to eat the Indonesian dishes, my craving for an American hamburger
was completely satisfied.
Besides splurging on Amankila, beautiful hotels dot the coast, from the
Malaysian-owned chain of Alila in Manggis to small divers' hotels in Padang
Bai. The popular Puri Bagus in Candidasa is a great value and romantically
situated on the water; large rooms go for around $200. Its sister hotel, Puri
Bagus Manggis, offers cultural immersion in the village of Manngis at similar
prices; both offer dive packages. The Alila Manggis, about the same price, is
near Amankila, and its smallish rooms offer the amenities of a large resort.
Bloo Lagoon (in two locations in Padang Bai), are styled as eco-resorts, and
in addition to diving and eating, they offer traditional medicine and spa
treatments. Prices can be as low as $100 a night if booking a package. The
Watergarden in Candidasa sits near the village, with views of the mountains and
foliage. Like all local hotels, it offers diving, and its bures run around $200
with a package. The small divers' hotels in Padang Bai, such as Kerti Beach Inn
and Bamboo Paradise, offer simple accommodations near the beach as low as $40 a
night. Geko Dive can help you find one to suit your needs.
For my next trip to Bali, I will certainly allot at least a week to dive
around Padang Bai and loll in the muck under its jetty. Geko's James Rees
says he has even more great sites for muck fanciers. And the pelagic dives I
eschewed on this trip offer mantas, mola-molas in season and ripping currents
filled with life. For ease of diving, species delight, luxury, beauty and
romance, Bali's east coast can't be beat.
Divers Compass: Amankila rates start at $950 per night, including
transfers and full breakfast; add 10 percent for service
and 11 percent for tax . . . Diving Geko through Amankila
(there seems to be a little markup) costs between $95-125 for
two tanks and $160 for three, and that includes lunch, equipment
rental, drinks and transport; at the end of the trip, they
washed and dried my gear until even my booties smelled sweet .
. . Flying to Bali (Denpasar) is easy, with flights from Europe, Asia, Australia, and Indonesia; I took Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong.) . . .
Websites: Geko Dive - www.gekodivebali.com; Amankila - www.amanresorts.com/amankila/home.aspx