Mel and I hadn’t planned on visiting Nusa Penida, an island off the coast of Bali, until Kristen mentioned that you could snorkel with manta rays there. This sounded fun, and worth waking up at 6:00am for.
We took the hour-long drive from our villa to Sanur port, a bustling road along a harbor bobbing with ferries and speedboats anchored just off-shore. Mel and I had looked into the price of a speedboat both ways (a public ferry was cheaper, but took at least an hour longer) and discovered that it was around 350,000 total (with the boat Angel Billabong, which I’d recommend booking in advance if you can).
Of course, the moment we stepped foot on the road, we were greeted by a man in a yellow polo shirt who escorted us directly to his speedboat company, Nusa Jaya, and encouraged us to fork out 500,000.
“That other company is only charging 350,000,” Mel pointed out. She led him to the competitor and he returned saying, “Okay, 350,000.”
This was the first red flag.
Then, we boarded the speedboat and flew over these glorious blue waves out to Nusa Penida, where we docked at the less popular of the two ports. This was red flag number 2.
As they lowered the ramp into the water so we could wade off the boat, taxi drivers scampered down the beach and crowded the end of the ramp. Before I could even step foot into the water, they were thrusting pamphlets and price sheets in my face.
This is probably the closest I will come to understanding how celebrities feel when they’re hounded by paparazzi.
Once we made it up the beach, we began our negotiations. And by “we”, I mean Kristen and Mel.
We decided on a private boat that would take us to Manta Point, where we might or might not spot some manta rays. This would be followed by a trip to Crystal Beach, where we would leave the boat and relax for a hot second before joining a driver who would take us to Broken Beach and maybe Dinosaur Head if there was time.
The best part of this was the private boat. We watched dozens of other people pack into larger boats, all neon in their life vests, as the four of us paced back and forth along the spacious hull. Once we got going, with the wind in our hair, all the stress of negotiating and haggling blew away, too.
We knew we’d reached Manta Point by the number of boats bobbing in the choppy water alongside a steep cliff. As we drew closer, we could see snorkels dotting the water like so many colorful fins. I’d only snorkeled a few times, and I remembered that rough water was less than enjoyable to someone trying to float along the surface.
Nevertheless, we suited up. Our captain flapped his arms at the captain of a faraway boat, who waved his hands noncommittally in response.
“That’s the manta signal,” Kristen said, flapping her own arms. Then the captain pointed in the water and called for us to come and look.
A small manta was just diving down off the surface, and we made it to the port side just in time to see it go.
This was enough to fuel our hope of seeing more, so one by one, we dropped off the boat and into the water.
As I’d predicted, the water was rough and made it difficult to go anywhere. Plunging my head in, I scanned the blue depths and saw nothing.
Except for jellyfish. They were everywhere.
“Jellyfish!” Mel shouted to the captain, pointing at the water. He shook his head impatiently.
“Fine!” he assured us.
“Do they sting?”
Except that they totally did. This reminded me of the time we were island hopping off Donsol and Kacey, Sarah, and I ended up getting stung everywhere as we swam through water so concentrated with jellies it was practically gelatinous.
At that moment, Kristen waved her arms excitedly. She was a little ways away, and I’d need to navigate a garden of stinging jellyfish to get to her, but I was dying to see a manta.
“I was about to go back to the boat,” Mel told us later, “but then I told myself I had to be brave and just do it.”
I tried not to put my face in the water as I swam, because every time I did, there were more jellies. I could feel my thighs stinging with each close brush. By the time we made it to Kristen, I was covered in stings.
“It was just a coral, guys,” she said.
On that note, we hightailed it back to the boat to the confusion of the captain, who lowered a ladder so we could get back in. No mantas for us, but the journey back to Crystal Beach was full of sea breeze and a billion shades of blue.
Crystal Beach was nice: white sand, protected on all sides by steep cliffs, beach chairs and Bintang for a few rupiah. As we settled in our chairs, our driver appeared and told us not to spend too much time there as we needed to get a move on.
None of us listened. Kristen fell asleep, and Mel explored a steep staircase that wound up through some brush on a nearby cliff. She invited us to join her and see where it led, so Kristen volunteered to stay with our things and Andrew and I went with Mel.
We were an odd-looking trio, with Andrew in regular clothes, Mel in a sarong and practical Keens water shoes, and me wearing a bikini bottom and flip-flops. These are not good shoes to clamber up cliffsides in, FYI.
The hike was somewhere between 15-20 minutes, up and over the cliff, which was strewn with ragged brush and featured a barren landscape baked brown by the sunlight. This is why it was all the more exciting to turn a corner and spot a square of bright turquoise down below, a little postage stamp of glorious blue on an envelope of rusty brown.
We scampered down uneven stone steps until we reached Pandan Beach, an idyllic, quiet cove of soft white sand and waves of impossible blue. There were two other people on the beach. It felt like we’d discovered a rare treasure. We left what clothes we had on the shore and bounded into the waves.
Mel remarked that she had never seen waves this shade of blue before, and neither had I. Even far off the shore, the waves rolled in clear, bright aqua and cerulean and all the other blue shades you can think of.
It was actually painful to leave it behind.
When we did, we were hungry, and our driver assured us we had time for lunch. As we drove off into the interior of the island, up and down jungly roads, we passed by the occasional restaurant located on a cliffside, with a few tourists here and there.
I knew we weren’t going to those, though. He was taking us to a place that belonged to a friend, for sure.
And that’s exactly what happened. We were brought to a quiet restaurant with no customers, a staff of three, and a simple menu.
“What’s in your omelet?” I asked.
I ordered french fries. It was an unappealing meal, but we were excited to finish and see more of the island.
“No time,” said the driver. “We have to go back to the port.”
It was 3pm and our boat left at 5.
“But we want to see Broken Beach,” we said.
“Too much time at the beach,” he told us.
He said that the port was a 50 minute drive, so we understood why we had to head back now. Until, 15 minutes later, we arrived at the port.
“I thought it was an hour,” Mel said.
He opened the doors in a gesture that clearly meant get-the-hell-out-of-my-car, and we were left standing by the beach we’d arrived at.
Luckily, we found an empty beach resort called RockSand that offered shade in a breezy gazebo and decent cocktails and food, so we stationed ourselves there for the next two hours until our speedboat arrived.
Then it was a 30-minute boat ride back to Sanur, plus an hour and a half drive back to the villa. By the time we arrived, all Mel and I wanted to do was swim and relax and eat a good dinner.
Lucky for us, my wonderful friend Ashley had told me about Go-Jek (to be fair, it was also listed in the AirBnB guide, but we didn’t know what it was), the go-to app if you’re spending any time in Indonesia. The app lets you order everything – taxi cabs, taxi mopeds, food, drinks, etc. I set it up and ordered food from a nearby vegetarian restaurant to the villa.
Food by the pool with music on the speakers? Best way to end a busy day.