WHERE THE LAWN OF the Hotel Tugu Lombok meets the quiet expanse of Sira Beach, there’s a wooden sign next to a tub, which reads: “Shoes here, vows there, love everywhere.”
Vows aside, the words more or less sum up our stay. The Tugu provides barefoot luxury at its most genuine, and almost every guest we see is one half of a young and happy-looking couple.
Lombok may have earned a rowdy reputation, thanks to the famous surf off the island’s southern coast, but there’s none of that party vibe here. Sira is one of only two white-sand beaches on this secluded northern peninsula, and the Tugu shares its stretch with villagers and fishermen, one or two private bungalows and no other hotels, as far as we can tell. (The Oberoi is across the bay.)
Beyond the walls of the property, local life unfolds. Scruffy ponies and carts are not tourist attractions, but modes of transport. Boys in Unicef-branded football jerseys wheel around on bicycles yelling, “Ballup!” (“Let’s race!”). Mount Rinjani is nearby, an active volcano that takes three days to trek, and which is spoken of with reverence.
The Tugu Hotels group belongs to Anhar Setjadibrata, a Javanese antiques collector who established his flagship property in the city of Malang some 20 years ago. The Lombok hotel, which opened to guests in 2009, is one of the group’s most recent additions. Its extraordinary, eclectic design celebrates the island’s Hindu legacy.
As a matter of principle, the family (the group is now run by Setjadibrata’s daughter Lucienne) does not employ outside architects or interior designers, and it shows, in a good way. Walking through the six-hectare grounds, you often feel as though you’re on a wonderful scavenger hunt.
Large balloon lanterns hang from mature palm trees, while painted military helmets cover some of the lights along the pebble footpaths. We come across a new set of villas being built, which intend to pay homage to Indonesian Peranakan heritage. Over the doorway of one of the rooms, a dusty sign appears to welcome us to “Lombok Chinatown”.
Setjadibrata is, evidently, a hopeless romantic when it comes to his country’s rich and beguiling cultural history. His passion for old Indonesia suffuses the hotel’s foundation. As a result, nothing about this place feels contrived, from the emerald-coloured swimming pool and uncomplicated service, to the way its whole arrangement brings about a very natural, very clear sense of peace. And that’s before you submit to a Balinese massage at the spa pavilion, beneath a Hindu temple, lulled by a soundtrack of hushing waves and gecko calls.
The reception hall is a century-old house that was transported here piece-by-piece, with its Malay, Chinese, Arabic and European influences intact. The pre-loved guidebooks on its shelves show that most guests travel here on their way to or from Bali: Denpasar is a 20-minute flight away. The walls of the Lara Djonggrang Bar are lined with vintage ads from the country’s Dutch colonial period, while its name and many of its stylistic flourishes refer to an ancient Javanese legend. God is in the details – here, often literally.
Overlooking the pool, a rooster’s head with an enormous serpent’s body arches from the roof of the open-air dining hall, like a mermaid from the prow of an ancient ship. The design of the restaurant, named Bale Kokok Pletok (after the sound that roosters make), was inspired by the Hindu Majapahit legend of the princess Dewi Sri, whose father’s magic turned her into a rooster, and her brother into a snake. When the gods released Dewi Sri from the spell, she took the form of the Goddess of Rice.
Hindu deities appear throughout the gardens: A 10-metre-tall statue of Dasamuka, the 10-faced giant, stands over the lawn where guests can gather each afternoon for local sweets, savouries and tea, or coffee from the group’s own plantation in Java.
The Tugu Lombok’s 18 suites are unique, with brightly coloured walls and high ceilings, giant carvedwood mirrors, and beds with four posters like polished tree trunks, draped in sheer mosquito netting. The path to our Bhagavat Gita suite is lined with candles at night, and there’s a koi pond by the entrance. The shower is outdoors, behind a bamboo screen, while the bathtub is carved out of a river boulder and lined with mosaic. French windows open out onto a courtyard with a shaded daybed, a plunge pool and a little wooden table and bench for breakfast. Beyond is grass, cool and dewy in the mornings, then the sand and the tumbling, blue-grey sea.
You can eat anywhere at the Tugu. It’s one of the hotel’s many charming quirks. There are tables for two, of different styles, set up all over the property, including one white-painted filigree set on an “island” in the middle of a fishpond. The one for honeymooners is a table at the top of the temple, though dining on the beach proves to be the most popular option by far. One night’s simple meal of fresh grilled snapper with Indonesian spices, steamed rice and stir-fried vegetables, all washed down with cold Bintang beer, is the best I’ve eaten in a while.
And the sunsets. The sunsets are magnificent. They turn the ocean a pearlescent pink. The sky becomes a concert of colour. The low tide reveals studded starfish and rosy anemones. Children play with sand crabs in the pools along the shore. The squid fishermen begin to set up for their night’s work, and when it’s dark, the spotlights of their boats form floating constellations.
On the last morning, we watch the sunrise. To the east of us, mountains reveal themselves through the dawn mist. We’re blurry with sleep and there’s a flight to catch. But first, there’s this.