Beautiful white sand beaches: check
Tropical weather: check
Uncrowded streets: check
Relaxed atmosphere: check
Great coffee and food: check
Safe and cheap: check
As far as tropical islands go, Nusa Penida has a lot going for it. It's relaxed, casual, cheap and quiet, and there are posh pool bars serving amazing food and cocktails. Of course, anywhere you can get a perfect espresso coffee is not exactly off-the-beaten-track, but this is Bali.
In comparison to the touristy busyness of southern Bali, Penida is a gentle tropical island paradise; relaxing and traffic-free. The warm sea breezes, and swaying palms will calm you the moment you get off the ferry (and past the small group of touts).
Getting to Nusa Penida
Nusa Penida is a 45-minute fast boat ride from Sanur and about US$35. Check a few ticket places; you might get a better price. They tend to go every half an hour or so in the mornings but less often in the afternoons. If you are like me and get seasick in a kayak, ginger tablets from a Bali chemist will help you out immensely. These will also be needed for your snorkelling. No matter how bad your seasickness is, you don't want to miss out on this — we saw turtles, mantas and dozens of tropical fish types in one amazing morning.
A day trip to Penida is doable (leave early), an overnight stay is great and a couple of days is perfect. For just one full day in Penida, I recommend the earliest fast boat (7:30 am) and get straight on a private snorkelling trip. You will have plenty of time to relax on the boat and can technically spend all day swimming to and from the beaches, stopping for lunch and enjoying the scenery. You might slip in a short drive to one of the main cliff edge sites before a late afternoon trip back to Sanur. If you can stay overnight, choose one day for snorkelling and another for exploring the island.
Snorkelling in Nusa Penida
There are shared and private snorkelling tour companies. For a group of two or more, just get your own boat. You should be able to get one for 1 - 1.2 million rupiah (about US$80) for about a 2-hour trip, so it's pretty good value for even a small party. These guys are experienced and know where to go... let them take you around. They chat to each other and are aware if there are manta, or if the current is too strong in any of the bays. Your stops (3 or 4) will depend on the information from the guys' network.
They will supply snorkelling gear and water for your group, and there will be one guy who will come snorkelling with you as a guide. They will likely take you first to a little cove (Manta Bay) where the gentle and enormous manta rays swim gracefully beneath your flippers. There is another area called Manta Point where you are apparently guaranteed to see manta rays; you can also get your boat team to take you here which will be less crowded, but you won't have much time to then stop off elsewhere. If you get a private boat, they will be pretty flexible, so chat to them about your options. I saw mantas on all my trips here, sometimes just one, and sometimes dozens. You want to try and get here first, and leave as early as possible, to beat the boats.
After the mantas, you may stop off at Crystal Beach to swim around the boat and take in the view of the beautiful beach. You could potentially swim to the beach itself and pick up something to eat if it's that sort of time. Another stop, Gamat Bay, is my favourite, and I wish we had skipped Crystal Beach and stayed here longer. The boat drops you at the north end of the bay and you float with the current, watching the colourful array of tropical fish beneath you, then the boat picks you up from the south end. It's a pretty relaxed way of snorkelling with no energy expenditure and lots to see.
We also had a swim in the very deep waters of the harbour. Our guide heard a rumour that there were sunfish but unfortunately we didn't see any. This was a cold swim, with deeper waters and little reef but the current was fast so it was fun.
Amok Sunset bay was also super fun as the current takes you swiftly in a half circle around the bay. Another place you might get to go to is a coral reef along the cliff called Toyapakeh Wall (or cliff wall); again you get dropped at the east end and float happily along watching the huge array of fish beneath you, then get picked up around the corner. I thought this was probably the best dive in terms of water clarity and sheer number of fish.
Evenings in Nusa Penida
For your early evening cocktail and sunset, check out Green Kubu, Amok Sunset or Penida Colada where you can swim, drink, eat and watch the sun go down over Bali. There are loads of local options in Penida, but I live in Bali and eat local most days, so I relish the large menus and Western-Asian mix of tempting food options at these fun bars. Did I mention that the pool is free in these bars? That's one more reason to love them. I'm also a seafood fan and many places do a delicious and inexpensive platter. Note that Green Kubu and Amok Sunset are on the dicey tertiary roads, so get a driver if you are an inexperienced scooter rider (and/or plan for a cocktail or two). For an alternative fun and relaxed night out, try out Penida Colada where there is often a great band. For great local options, see the list at the end.
Speaking of pool bars, there seems to be one around every corner in Penida. On your trip around the island, you can stop off to cool down with a dip and a refreshing drink. You don't need to pay to enter, just buy a few cold drinks and you can use the pool. They may charge a small extra fee for a towel if you need one. Check a short list of pool bars and restaurants at the end of the post. My new favourite is a gorgeous and brand new Cactus. The food here is some of the best on the island and the pool is amazing.
Other places to visit in Penida
After your snorkelling trip, you'll want to explore more of the island. There is a partial ring road that is pretty easy to navigate, but don't rely on signposts. WiFi is good, as with most of Bali, and Google Maps will do just fine for you. However if you go off the ring road like I did google maps is not so great!
Here are some worthwhile stops:
Crystal Bay: this is the easiest beach to get to and access, and it's, therefore, more crowded — particularly on the weekend with the day-trippers. There are loads of little warungs with umbrellas and beach chairs, and you can rent snorkelling gear and spend a few hours here very easily. As mentioned above, there is a colourful reef within an easy swim from the beach.
Atuh Beach: this spot is on the other side of the island to the harbour and the road isn't great. I managed to get a puncture and had to double up with my friend to get back (I left the scooter at a warung, took a picture and gave the scooter owner 50k to go and pick it up). There is plenty of parking lots for about R10,000. The outlook over Atuh and the natural rock arch are spectacular, and there are ubiquitous nests to get your Instagram picture from. The best lookout is just a short walk to the east from the main car park — it looks harder than it is. However, the steep concrete staircase to get down to the beach is 15 minutes of very hard work. There is a second staircase on the north end of the beach (with no parking fee) which is a little easier — about a 10-minute walk down. There are a good number of warungs on the beach with free loungers if you buy something. Try going to this beach at high tide.
Diamond Beach: from the car park on the south end of Atuh is Diamond Beach, which is accessed by another narrow, steep staircase. But it has handrails and is easy if you do it slowly — maybe don't try it if you have bad knees. If you go nice and early, you won't be fighting with other tourists coming up and down. When you get down, you will be welcomed by coconut-fringed azure waters and soft white sand. There's a little beachside warung and caves to explore. This beach CAN have a strong current and at low tide there ais a sharp drop off from the shallows. Please take care when swimming here.
Rumah Pohon Tree House: this is another Insta-famous spot with a small trek to the little house (where you can actually stay, although it's very basic) for an amazing view. However, you can't access the beaches beneath the cliffs here. The Tree House is on the far eastern side of Nusa Penida, and it's about a 10-minute hike down a cement trail from the ridge and costs R5,000 to enter. The Thousand Island viewpoint is amazing, but there may be a small queue of people wanting pics of the cute little treehouse with its amazing background. The trail ends a little further from the treehouse, and there is another beautiful view. There are ubiquitous small warungs around if you need some nasi goreng or noodles and a drink for less than US$4.
Pura Goa Giri Putri: if you get severe claustrophobia, you might want to skip this one. The temple cave is accessed through a weird and tiny hole in the ground that you have to slither through with no visuals as to where you might be going. After that freaky but quick experience, it opens up to an amazing large cave. Its actually not that bad, just a metre of two where you have to duck. This is a working temple and if there are ceremonies on the go please be respectful.
There is a parking area at the entrance to the temple grounds, and you may need to rent a sarong if you don't have one. A Mangku, a temple priest, will greet you with some holy water on the forehead, and there is a 'donation' box at the entry (R50,000). You can actually exit the cave on its other side or wriggle back through the little hole. When we were there, no ceremony had started and there was a group of Mangkus having a chin wag and listening to Indonesian pop music at the back of the cave. The foreign tourists were tiptoeing around bur they really wanted to chat, and were happy to get their photo taken.
Broken Beach and Angel's Billabong: Angel's Billabong is a natural infinity pool hanging out over the ocean. This is another attraction that's lovely to look at but tricky to get to, with sharp rocks in the way, but the pool itself is easy to walk around and lovely to swim in. The drive to this spot is easy and parking costs R10,000; try finding a shady spot for your scooter. Right next to the pool is Broken Beach, a naturally eroded bridge that you can walk across for spectacular views. Little warungs, like most of Bali, abound in these places, so you can grab a young coconut to drink or a bite to eat. In these little cliffside warungs, you'll get the best view with simple local food.
Warning: Angels Billabong can be dangerous, particularly at high tide. A tourist was swept off the ledge by a wave a drowned here last year. If you want a dip, please go at low tide and be cautious.
Kelingking Beach: this is the place that has a rocky outcrop that looks like a tyrannosaurus head. Kelingking actually means pinky finger, but once you see the T-rex, you can't unsee it. This is more of a view and photo spot. While you technically can walk down to the beach, the path is very broken, narrow, steep and dangerous. As inviting as the beautiful beach with its turquoise waters looks, this is one for a boat trip if you have an extra day. It is NOT recommended to make the climb; there are easier beaches to swim at.
Peguyangan Waterfall: this is not actually a waterfall and is quite out of the way on the south coast of Penida. You will need to pay R5,000 for parking and rent a sarong for an extra R10,000 if you don't have one. There is a temple at the bottom of the cliffs down the impressive but very dicey blue staircase. These are very steep and narrow and will take about 20 minutes to climb down, but at the bottom, you will find the little sacred water temple with its fresh water spouts flowing into the natural spring. You can swim in the little rock pools shaded under the cliffs and shower under the spouts. If it's a ceremony day, there will be locals burning incense and placing little offerings on the altars.
Cute video put together by my travel companion, the lovely Fransiska Retno
Getting around Penida
If you can't drive already, I recommend having a scooter lesson or two in Bali before you leave, as it's the best and easiest way to get around the island. The roads are relatively clear so actually pretty good for beginners — although maybe avoid the secondary roads if you are new to riding. Also, Penida is a less affluent island; the available rental scooters won't be new or even particularly roadworthy. But just check the lights and brakes, and you should be fine. If you have a more robust sense of safety, bring a helmet from Bali since you are unlikely to get one on the island when you rent a scooter. This is particularly important if you will be driving with kids. Otherwise, relax and go with the flow... the Penudians don't really pay much attention, and the roads are relatively free of traffic.
The main dangers are other tourists (avoidable), poor roads (not-avoidable but navigable with care), the random dog or rooster on the road (don't go fast) and a puncture or leak (you will always be in phone range). It was with a privileged sense of freedom that I experienced a maskless, helmet-less couple of days during the pandemic. If you can't ride, you can still get a car and a driver. Remember that the secondary roads can be very rough, and you may want to choose a hotel closer to the main road. Now I took a wrong turn somewhere on my second trip and we ended up completely lost for about 2 hours. We saw a lot of the little villages of inland Penida and actually it was a charming and fun trip. Broadband wasn't great until we finally made it back to the coastal area. If you're lost, just stop and ask someone where the port is.
Without a car and driver, your hotel will be able to organise one for you, and the dive places will all have someone who can pick you up. The island is large, and there isn't much to walk to and from. Besides, cycling is a long and hot endeavour. A day's scooter rental should be around R60,000, but you may get a tourist tax; try and negotiate for two or more scooters.
Accommodation is more rustic and thus cheaper than Bali, but there are many gems and some higher-level options if desired. The girlfriends and I stayed in a cheap and cheerful hotel one night which was a bit of a trek along very bad roads. The rooms were basic but clean, the view across to Bali was spectacular, and we had a sing-along with the staff and their guitars by starlight. The next night, we stayed in the glamping spot, Autentic Nusa Penida, which was as delightful as expected — highly recommended. We paid covid prices but it's really not expensive for something a bit different. On my second visit, my Australian friend forked out for fancy digs at the brand new Atalaya Villas. This is a stunning spot with a gorgeous pool and the friendliest, most relaxed staff I've met in Bali (which is saying a lot). The foods options weren't great for the evening so you might want to at out, although breakfast was excellent and the espresso-style coffee was great.
More recently I stayed with my sister at the newer Sea la Vie which is stunning. They're having some teething problems...there didn't seem to be enough people working there and no-one could arrange transport. However the view is spectacular, its perfect for sunset, and the hotel has a jetty. This meant we were able to get our snorkelling boat to pick us up and drop us back again instead of going all the way to the port. This alone made up for the otherwise inconvenient location and slow service. Note that there is apparently a walking track down to the port from here - to save you the lengthy and bumpy drive - but we didn't use it.
Help with scooters and tours
Wyn's Cafe owner, Julie, was of great help in hiring scooters and organising a boat trip. When I managed to lose my iPhone in the rush back to the ferry, she found it on the ground in the middle of the road and shipped it over to Bali, so I am forever in her debt. Plus the cafe has amazing coffee and quality, super cheap food. (Julie: 0812 3710 6667).
I also have another driver if you need someone (send me a note) and your hotel should be able to arrange the same, although with a slight premium. Note that as a small island, petrol and running a car is expensive so car rental is pricier than Bali.
Places to Eat and Drink
Maruti Beach Club
The Osh Bali
ESA-G Bar and Beach Club
Cactus (my new fave)
Hai Re Zen
Happy Eating (amazing cheap seafood)
Coffee (and cafe):
Papila's Coffee House
You can also check out this exhaustive list of more local places in Penida.
Tip: Bring sunscreen — it's roasting off the east coast of Bali, and you will need to re-apply regularly. It's very hot between about 10 am and 3 pm, so try not to go on any hikes at this time. Other than that, all you'll need is a swimsuit, a sarong, a shirt to cover your shoulders when you scooter or walk around and footwear that is slightly sturdier than thongs (flip flops).
There are ATMs outside Wyn's Cafe, but I didn't see any others.
PLACES TO STAY
MID LEVEL US$70-150