Emma Russell visits an island being touted as the new Bali
Warm salty air brushes across my sweaty and slightly burnt face.
As I reach for a water bottle to quench my thirst I hear kids laughing as they play soccer at the bottom of the hill, and waves crashing gently on the beach below.
Apart from the local next to us on the back of his rusty scooter, bumming a smoke, we (a couple of Aussies, a few Kiwis, a Malaysian, a Hungarian and our local tour guides) are the only people at top of Lombok's Sekotong Tengah. For lack of a better word, it's bizarre. Here we are looking out at a view like no other but there are no swarms of tourists with selfie sticks, or tripods being set up to ensure the best angle possible - it's absolute bliss.
As if this scene couldn't get any better, an old-fashioned horse and cart emerges from the steep narrow road we trekked up moments before. Its driver is resting on a cushion of unplucked chickens. The cart soon disappears down the other side of the hill, but we stay, not wanting to miss another Indonesian sunset on steroids.
At this moment the words "Lombok is like Bali 30 years ago" sink in. It was a comment my tour guide made to me earlier in the day, followed by "why you want to go to Bali, so much hustle and bustle, Lombok is paradise." If it wasn't for the rubbish dumped on the side of the roads and in the surf I might agree. He wasn't wrong about the "Eat, Pray, Love" vibe.
But did he also mean Lombok could become the new Bali? It's early days but tourism is starting to make an impact.
Lombok's economy has long relied on its many crops - including tobacco, corn, cotton, coffee, rice, coconuts and soybeans. However, more recently, crops alone have not been enough to sustain growth.
On August 5 last year, the island - home to more than 3.1 million people - was struck by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, causing catastrophic damage to North Lombok, claiming more than 550 lives and injuring at least 7000 people. Many, including a waitress I spoke to at Ashtari restaurant in Kuta beach, lost their families in the quake and were forced to start over in South Lombok.
Now, there is hope that the slow infusion of foreign wealth will help get Lombok back on its feet.
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After the earthquake, better pay prompted more locals to take jobs in the tourism industry, including the man who steered our rusty Indonesian-styled dinghy while we island-hopped around the Southern Gillis. He was a former fisherman who switched trades to better support his family.
Many of the island's resorts have undergone a major revamp, including Wyndham Dreamland Resort, where I stayed. And dozens more are popping up.
"Lombok is Bali 30 years ago", I later discover, is part of the Indonesian Government and Air Asia's "10 new Bali's" plan, an economic strategy to reel in tourists who might prefer the tropical holiday vibe Bali offers but without the chaos.
A 20-minute flight west of Lombok, Bali is bursting. Last year alone it attracted nearly 10 million tourists - evidenced by the traffic jams blocking the main streets and the massive resorts replacing rice paddocks. Even the airport has undergone a much needed revamp.
Back in Lombok, the resort manager signals for me to come closer and asks "why you want to go to Bali? Lombok much nicer to relax, away from all that hustle and bustle." He isn't wrong. Within a few hours I am ready to replace my laptop with a book and smell the roses - or the red hibiscus, in Lombok's case.
The Gili islands
The real gems of Lombok are the Gili islands. To most visitors to Indonesia the word "Gili" means the trio of legendary islands further north - Gili Trawangan, Air, and Meno - which rake in the crowds. But we explore a little-known cluster of Gilis in the southwest corner of Lombok.
The tiny Southern Gilis offer a more secluded experience. We skid across the Savu Sea in a rickety dinghy and pull into Gili Rengit for a snorkel. Diving into the warm water, we find ourselves surrounded by an underwater garden of delicate coral and spot all of Nemo's friends - sea turtles are the highlight.
Then, we pop over to Gili Layer. Though there are no cars or freshwater, there are half a dozen skinny cows grazing on dry grass and bamboo huts where tourists can shelter from the blistering sun.
We spend the afternoon sunbathing on the white sand beach and enjoy rubbish-free swims. As the day comes to an end I make a silent pledge to return and explore more of these hidden gems.
The heart and soul of Lombok
Though "tropical paradise" is its biggest selling point, Lombok is also a diverse blend of religion and culture. Most of the island's 3.1 million people are Muslim but Islam arrived after Hinduism and that came after animist religions.
The local Sasak tribe is the largest. At their village, families have lived in bamboo huts with clay foundations and grass roofs for more than 200 years.
At Sukarara village, weaving costumes has become a popular tourist attraction and the village is known for the manufacture of clothing and homewares such as sarongs, shawls and tablecloths.
The delicate brightly patterned songket motifs are made on traditional looms. Depending on the difficulty of the motif, one sarong can take months to create.
After a brief tour, staff will offer to dress you in traditional clothing and take selfies with you.
Inland Lombok also offers lush green rice paddies and soybean farms, loomed over in the north by Mt Rinjani. Our guide tells us about incredible waterfalls in the surrounding national park; a popular activity for more adventure-driven types is a week-long hike to the top of the volcano where there is a crater lake.
Driving along the south coast in one of the resort's mini-vans, we navigate through steep narrow roads and pull into Selong Belanak Beach, where a surfboard sign says: "You are friendly, we are more friendly. Have a nice day."
Down a dusty gravel road is a secluded surf beach where, for NZ$5, you can grab a deck chair and order your drink of choice from the dozens of bars spread across the beach.
Surfing is another Lombok hook, reeling in hundreds of tourists. As I gaze out at the surfers showing off their best tricks, a herd of gentle water buffalo plods across the shoreline, seemingly unmoved by the dozens of tourists, metres away, taking their photographs
After filling up with coconut water, and yet another stunning Lombok sunset, we are whisked back to our resort for a seafood barbecue - the perfect end to our trip. Lombok, I will be back.
Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Bali's Denpasar airport. Flight connections are available to Lombok, or you can get the ferry or fast boat from Padang Bai Harbour.
Wyndham Hotels and Resorts have a new property, the Wyndham Sundancer Resort Lombok .