The mere mention of ‘Bali‘ evokes thoughts of a paradise. It’s more than a place: it’s a mood, an aspiration, a tropical state of mind.Yes, Bali has beaches, surfing, diving, and resorts great and small, but it’s the essence of Bali – and the Balinese – that makes it so much more than just a fun-in-the-sun retreat.
It is possible to take the cliché of the smiling Balinese too far, but in reality, the inhabitants of this small island are indeed a generous, genuinely warm people. And there’s an awful lot to do in paradise:
1. A festival of festivals
There you are sipping a coffee at a cafe in, say, Seminyak or Ubud, when there’s a crash of the gamelan and traffic screeches to a halt as a mob of elegantly dressed people comes flying by bearing pyramids of fruit, tasselled parasols and a furred, masked Barong or two. It’s a temple procession disappearing as suddenly as it appeared, with no more than the fleeting sparkle of gold and white silk and hibiscus petals in its wake. Dozens occur daily across Bali.
2. Aaah, a spa
Whether it’s a total fix for the mind, body and spirit, or simply the desire for a bit of serenity, visitors to Bali spend many happy hours (sometimes days) being massaged, scrubbed, perfumed, pampered, bathed and blissed out. Sometimes all this attention to your wellbeing happens on the beach or in a garden; other times it’s in stylish, even lavish surroundings. As the Balinese massage techniques of stretching, long strokes, skin rolling and palm-and-thumb pressure result in an all-over feeling of calm, it’s the perfect holiday prescription. Aaah…
3. Sybaritic stays
On an island that honours art and serenity, is it any wonder you’ll find some of the world’s finest hotels and resorts? From blissful retreats on south Bali’s beautiful beach in Canggu or Seminyak to perches on cliff s above the dazzling white sands that dot the Bukit Peninsula, these stylish hotels are as lovely outside as they are luxurious inside. Further resorts by vaunted architects can be found in Ubud’s river valleys and in remote idyllic coastal locations.
Off with his head! You won’t hear it but you might think it as another chicken is prepared for a meal in a traditional family compound. It’s but one of many moments within the daily rhythms of life as three or more generations make offerings, prepare food, come and go from the rice fields or perhaps create a spot of music. Many families have a couple of simple rooms they let out to visitors, so for the price of a night’s sleep you can witness this tableau.
5. Bali’s food
‘Oh goody!’ It’s virtually impossible not to say this when you step into a classic warung for lunch to find dozens of freshly made dishes on the counter awaiting you. It shouldn’t surprise that this fertile island provides a profusion of ingredients that combine to create fresh and aromatic dishes. Local specialities such as babi guling, roast suckling pig that’s been marinated for hours in spices, will have you lining up again and again. Try lunch at one of the excellent Balinese cafes in Denpasar.
A wisp of smoke rises from an incense stick perched in an exquisite array of orange flower petals on a banana leaf no bigger than a deck of cards. You’ll quickly realise these Balinese offerings are everywhere – outside your hotel room door, a tiny shrine on the beach, even at the end of the bar. They come in all shapes and sizes and are made throughout the day and night. Some are grand assemblages of fruit and food but most are tiny, appearing as if by magic.
7. Crafts of the islands
Using a simple knife others might use to cut an apple, a Balinese craftsman sits in the shade of his family compound’s frangipani tree and carves a masterpiece. Yes, schlock is sold here in profusion, as it is everywhere, but true local crafts draw on experience handed down for generations and nurtured through the years. Wood carvings are used for temple ceremonies and traditional performances such as the Barong, where colourful, animated wooden masks are integral to the story, while in Batubulan stone carvers create art from rocks.
8. Balinese dance
The antithesis of Balinese mellow is Balinese dance. It’s amazing how people who relish lounging in bales (open-sided pavilions) can also produce art that demands complete methodical precision. A performer of the Legong, the most beautiful dance, spends years learning minutely choreographed movements from her eyeballs to her toes. Each movement has a meaning and the language flows with a grace that is hypnotic. Clad in silk and ikat, the dancers tell stories rich with the very essence of Balinese Hindu beliefs and lore.
Famous in books and movies, the artistic heart of Bali exudes a compelling spiritual appeal. The streets are lined with galleries where artists, both humble and great, create. Beautiful performances showcasing the island’s rich culture grace a dozen stages nightly. Museums honour the works of those inspired here through the years, while people walk the rice fields to find the perfect spot to sit in lotus position and ponder life’s endless possibilities. Ubud is a state of mind and a beautiful state of being.
10. Echoes of the gamelan
Is there anything more stirring than hearing across rice fields the haunting tones of a lone musician practising on the gamelan on a quiet Ubud night? Bali’s village orchestras play any of 25 different gamelans, from a solitary bronze gong to long rows of split bamboo that are virtual organs of sound spanning the musical scales. The music is everything from vital and percussive to more intimate syncopations. No dance performance, temple ceremony or procession is complete without this melodic magic.
11. Bali’s never-ending night
It starts with stylish cafes and bars in Seminyak, open-air places where everything seems just that bit more beautiful amid the twinkling of candles and enrapturing house beats. Later the world-class clubs of Legian draw you in, with famous international DJs spinning their legendary sets in a glam scene that hints at immediate celebrity. Some time before dawn, Kuta’s harder, rawer clubs suck you in like black holes, spitting you out hours later into an unsteady daylight, shattered but happy.
12. Jatiluwih rice fields
Ribbons of green sinuously curve around hillsides crested by coconut palms: the ancient rice terraces of Jatiluwih are as artful as they are elegant, and a timeless testimony to the Balinese rice farmers’ love and respect for the land. You’ll run out of words for green as you walk, bike or drive the little road that wanders through this fertile bowl of the island’s sacred grain. This is one of the few places where the ancient strains grow, standing stout and bounteous in the flowing fields.
13. Underwater Gilis
Taking the plunge? There are few better places than the Gilis, encircled by coral reefs teeming with life and visited by pelagics such as cruising manta rays. Scuba diving is a huge draw – there are several professional schools and all kinds of courses taught (from absolute beginner to nitrox specialist). With easy access from beach to reef, snorkelling is superb too, and you’re very likely to see turtles. Want to take snorkelling to the next level? Try freediving – Trawangan is home to one of Asia’s only breath-hold diving centres.
14. Diving Bali
Feel small as a manta ray blots out the sun’s glow overhead, its fluid movement causing barely a disturbance in the surrounding waters as it glides past. And there’s another, and another. Just when you think your dive can’t get more dramatic, you turn to find a 2.5m sunfish hovering motionlessly, checking you out. Nusa Penida is but one of the many dive sites ringing Bali. The legendary 30m wall at Pulau Menjangan thrills, one tank after another.
15. Mawun Beach
Southern Lombok’s coastline has a wild savage beauty and few visitors, generating lots of talk about the vast tourism potential of the region. When you set eyes on pristine Mawun beach, it’s easy to appreciate the hype. With two great headlands, it’s perfectly sheltered from the raw power of the ocean, so the swimming is superb, in clear, turquoise-tinged water. At the rear of the bay is a crescent of powdery white sand. Most days this dream of a beach is all but empty.
16. Bukit Peninsula beaches
A little plume of white sand rises out of the blue Indian Ocean and fills a cove below limestone cliffs clad in deep green tropical beauty. It sounds idyllic, and it is. The west coast of the Bukit Peninsula in south Bali is dotted with beaches like that, such as Balangan Beach, Bingin and Padang Padang. Families run funky surfer bars built on bamboo stilts over the tide, where the only views are the breaks metres away. Grab a lounger and be lulled by the waves.
17. Jimbaran seafood
Enormous fresh prawns marinated in lime and garlic and grilled over coconut husks. Tick. A hint of post-sunset pink on the horizon. Tick. Stars twinkling overhead. Tick. A comfy teak chair settling into the beach while your toes play in the sand. Tick. An ice-cold beer. Tick. A strolling band playing the macarena. OK, maybe not a tick. But the beachside seafood grills in Jimbaran are a don’t-miss evening out, with platters of seafood that came in fresh that morning to the market just up the beach.
18. Surfing Bali
If it’s a month containing the letter ‘r’, go east; during the other months, go west. Simplicity itself. And on Bali you have dozens of great breaks in each direction. This was the first place in Asia where surfing took off , and like the perfect set, it shows no signs of calming down. Surfers buzz around the island on motorbikes with board racks, looking for the next great break. Waves blown out? Another spot is just five minutes away. The scene at classic surfer hang-outs like Balian Beach is pure funk.
19. Kuta Beach
Tourism on Bali began here and is there any question why? The sweeping arc of sand curves from Kuta into the misty horizon northwest. Surf that started far out in the Indian Ocean crashes to shore in long symmetrical breaks. You can stroll the 12km of sand, enjoying a foot massage and cold beer with thousands of your new best friends in the south, or revel in utter solitude up north.
People wander around Seminyak and ask themselves if they are even in Bali. Of course! On an island that values creativity like few other places, the capital of glitz is where you’ll find inventive boutiques run by local designers, the most eclectic and interesting collection of restaurants, and little boutique hotels that break with the island clichés. Expats, locals and visitors alike idle away the hours in its cafes, at ease with the world and secure in their enjoyment of life’s pleasures.
21. Surfing Lombok
From Lombok to the Antarctic is virtually half the globe – that’s some distance for the azure rollers of the Indian Ocean to build up speed and momentum, so it’s no surprise that the island’s coastline has some truly spectacular waves. Desert Point is the most famous of these, an incredibly long ride that tubes over a sharp, shallow reef. If that sounds a little too hard core, head to the town of Kuta, where you’ll find dozens of challenging surf breaks a short distance away, including Mawi and Gerupak.
22. Hiking Rinjani
Glance at a map of Lombok, and virtually the entire northern half of the island is dominated by the brooding, magnificent presence of Gunung Rinjani (3726m), Indonesia’s second-highest volcano. Hiking Rinjani is no picnic, and involves planning, hiring a guide and porters, stamina and sweat. The route winds up the sides of the great peak until you reach the rim of a vast caldera, where there’s a jaw-dropping view of Rinjani’s sacred crater lake (an important pilgrim site) and the smoking, highly active mini-cone of Gunung Baru below.
23. Pura Luhur Ulu Watu
Just watch out for the monkeys. One of Bali’s holiest temples, Pura Luhur Ulu Watu is perched on tall cliffs in the southwest corner of the island. In the 11th century a Javanese priest first prayed here and the site has only become holier since. Shrines and sacred sites are strung along the edge of the limestone precipice. You’ll swear you can see Sri Lanka as you gaze across an ocean rippled by swells that arrive with metronomic precision. Sunset dance performances delight while those monkeys patiently await a banana – or maybe your sunglasses.
24. Sunrise over Trawangan
If you think Gili Trawangan is a stunner by daylight, you should see it at dawn after a night of dancing to some of the hottest electro, trance, reggae and house music in the region. You won’t find slick decor, flashy visuals, door staff and stiff entrance prices in Trawangan, where the parties started as raves on the beach and still have a raw, unorganised spirit. Local DJs normally spin hypnotic tribal sounds and superstar DJs have been known to turn up and play unannounced sets. Parties are held three nights a week but are curtailed during the month of Ramadan.
Swim a short distance from shore and see the eerie ghost of a sunken freighter at Tulamben, or hover a few metres over the marine life teeming around the beautiful reef wall at Pulau Menjangan. Bali and the Gilis have oodles of places where you can slip on fins and mask and enter another beautiful world. The mangroves of Nusa Lembongan are a smorgasbord for a rainbow of fish that gather in profusion. Or simply slip into the calm waters off a beach such as Sanur and see what darts off into the distance.
Further reading: more Bali & Lombok articles here to help you get the most from your trip.