Nusa Penida dwarfs nearby Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan, yet is almost devoid of tourists. For all intents and purposes there are only three (yes, three) places even worth considering staying at, despite miles upon miles upon miles of beautiful beaches, an attractive hinterland and a generally "unspoilt" vibe about the place.
Before you pack your bags, a couple of disclaimers:
The vast majority of beaches, with the notable exception of Crystal Bay, are given over to seaweed farming. While there is often coral beyond, it's not a simple throw-yourself-in-off-the-beach affair — do that and you'll likely satay yourself on one of the seaweed poles.
The interior is very pretty, with the north side of the island's interior offering some great views. It is also dotted with hamlets, where kids will dash out and wave hello. Of note is the weaving village of Tanglad towards the southeast corner of the island. While the road network is broadly speaking circular, around 76,342,654 side roads run off this with almost no signposting. Junctions are often in the middle of nowhere with nobody to ask directions from.
You will get lost — even with a map — and while getting lost a couple of times is all part of the experience, it can get very frustrating, especially when there is a "Save the Bali Starling" sign every few kilometres. Perhaps the starling crowd could have added a few road markers while they were at it?!
Yes, Nusa Penida is unspoilt. Coming from very developed Bali or bustling Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida can be a bit of a shock. There are very few places to stay. Eateries are comprised solely of simple warungs. The place is screaming out for a beach bar or two, but there are none (though you can get a cold drink by the beach at Toyo Pakeh for sunset).
There are very few cars, and traffic, well, like nearby Nusa Ceningan, Penida doesn't do traffic. Phone signal is patchy at best, non-existent at worst. You'll get a 3G signal at Toyo Pakeh, on the beach, in certain places, and also at random locations along the main pier. Elsewhere, forget it.
The snorkelling is great and, while we didn't try it ourselves, the diving on Nusa Penida gets great reports. The hinterland is beautiful and we found the locals all up to be a pretty friendly bunch.
You know what? We loved it.
Legend has it Nusa Penida was the original abode of Jero Gede Macaling — a demon and the original inspiration for the Barong dance. Pura Dalem Penetaran Ped in Ped village contains a shrine to his evilness himself making it both a totem for those learned in the dark arts along with those seeking relief from them. These demonic origins gave the island a bit of a reputation for wickedness, a reputation buttressed by the actions of Klungkung regency (of which Penida is a part) — back in the day, the regency banished political undesirables and those expert in the practice of witchcraft here.
Already an arid island receiving a fraction of the rainfall of lush Bali, these undesirables seemingly spent a lot of their time denuding the island's once considerable tree cover, and what topsoil there was went with it. Tree-planting programmes are now underway to try to restore some of the damage done, but as any ride through the interior will show, an awful lot remains to be done.
One bright light has been the Bali Starling programme, which is run by the Friends of the National Park Foundation. They run a volunteer centre just past Ped where you can volunteer, stay or just visit. It's a worthy cause doing some good work. See their website http://www.fnpf.org/what-we-do/nusa-penida-bali for more information.
Nusa Penida is no culinary capital. You'll find basic warungs scattered around Toyo Pakeh and Sampalan plus three or four warungs opposite Pura Dalem Penetaran Ped in Ped. Little distinguishes these three or four, but the easternmost one is the most restaurant-like and has the cheekiest cats this side of Cairo. The westernmost one does a good chicken curry.
Nusa Penida has two main villages: Toyo Pakeh on the northwestern tip, and around 6km to the east, Sampalan. Further east from Sampalan is Suana, while the main interior centre is Tanglad. Only Toyo Pakeh and Sampalan have accommodation and both have a limited selection of places to eat.
Sampalan has a BRI ATM, but it doesn't accept Visa and we've found BRI ATMs to be notoriously flaky, so you're better off to bring cash with you.
Sampalan also has a small internet cafe. The only place we could get a 3G signal was in a couple of random spots at Toyo Pakeh facing Nusa Lembongan, elsewhere you can only get GPRS if you are lucky.
The main roads are all sealed with occasional potholes. As mentioned above, signposting in the interior is a big issue.
For anything more than bruised pride, head to Bali for medical assistance.
There are a couple of fixers on Nusa Penida, the best of whom we found to be Rod. He speaks good English, has good advice and struck us as pretty honest and straight speaking. He'll find you. Really.