Top experiences in Bali: making the most of paradise
Immerse yourself in the colour and sound of a traditional festival, dine on local specialities, snorkel beautiful reefs, watch craftspeople at work, wander through lush rice fields, or just relax and be pampered at a Balinese spa. There's an awful lot to do in paradise and it's not all about the beaches.
Processions and 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. Besides these regular temple processions, some of the more important annual Hindu ceremonies on the island include Galungan, which pays homage to gods and ancestors; and Pagerwesi, which commemorates an ancient battle between good and evil. Dates vary for Galungan; in 2018 it will run from 30 May to 9 June, and from 26 December to 5 January (2019). Pagerwesi is 21 March and 17 October in 2018.
A Balinese 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 well-being happens on the beach or in garden – think Ubud's Taksu Spa – other times it's in stylish, even lavish, surrounds. 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. Alternatively, opt for a more unusual treatment such as a 24-carat gold facial (try Goldust Bali), a cappuccino body scrub or bamboo fusion therapy – a massage with bamboo sticks (try Bamboo Spa by L’Occitane).
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 beaches in Canggu or Seminyak to perches on cliffs 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. Alila Seminyak in Seminyak, Katamama in nearby Kerobokan, and Hotel Tugu Bali and Lv8 Resort Hotel in Canggu, are just a handful of the resort options.
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, such as the aptly named Family Guest House in Ubud.
'Oh goody!' It’s virtually impossible not to say this when you step into a classic warung, like Warung Teges in Ubud, to find dozens of freshly made dishes on the counter awaiting you. 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. A plethora of small roadside restaurants can be found all over the island, so it’s just a matter of picking one that suits your mood.
As sophisticated or as laid back as you like, Canggu is right on the top of Bali’s trendiest destinations list. The buffet of beaches that runs from north of Seminyak to the coastal temple of Tanah Lot is a mecca for surfers and sun-worshippers. The cafe and bar culture also thrives here, with an ever-growing number of chic venues offering everything from Australian beef steaks to vegan chocolate cakes. Best of all, many of the trendy dining and drinking options still sit side by side with traditional warungs.
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. Mas is famous for its community of wood carvers, whose masterpieces are used during temple ceremonies and traditional performances such as the Barong, where colourful, animated wooden masks are integral to the story. In Batubulan stone carvers create art from rocks.
The antithesis of Balinese mellow is Balinese dance. 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. There are multiple shows in Ubud at venues such as the Ubud Palace.
Featured in books and movies, the artistic heart of Bali exudes a compelling spiritual appeal. The streets of Ubud 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.
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 hipster-filled bars of Canggu or the world-class clubs of Legian draw you in, with local and international musos, or DJs spinning their legendary sets in a glam scene that hints at immediate celebrity. Some time before dawn, Kuta’s clubs suck you in, spitting you out hours later into an unsteady daylight, shattered but happy.
Jatiluwih rice fields
Ribbons of green sinuously curve around hillsides crested by coconut palms: the ancient rice terraces of Jatiluwih are 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.
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. Pemuteran is one of the many dive sites ringing Bali. The main attraction here is the bio-rock reef rehabilitation project, an underwater park that combines art with marine restoration. Meanwhile, the legendary 30m wall at Pulau Menjangan thrills, one tank after another.
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, 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.
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. 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. For a more local experience, head straight to the market, where fish vendors are on hand to grill you up a feast.
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 Seminyak's cafes.
Pura Luhur Ulu Watu
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. Sunset dance performances delight while monkeys patiently await a banana – or maybe your sunglasses.
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, enjoy a foot massage, or have a cold beer with dozens of your new-found best friends.
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 near Pemuteran. Bali and the Gilis have oodles of places where you can don 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.
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.
No visit to Bali is complete without spending a lazy day on a lounger at one of the island’s numerous beach clubs. While the amazing view is a given, great food, drinks and music are also nothing to sneeze at. Other attractions include beachside infinity pools, some with underwater speaker systems and swim-up bars. Most beach clubs are laid-back during the day, and party hubs at night when local and international DJs hit the decks. Clubs are found in various locations: Potato Head, Mrs Sippy, Sundays Beach Club and Byrdhouse Beach Club are just a few of the options.
A 30-minute boat ride southeast of mainland Bali, Nusa Penida is still relatively undeveloped, and not on the radar of most visitors to the island of the gods. This is surprising, as Nusa Penida abounds with stunning natural attractions. From azure beaches and volcanic rock lagoons to hidden waterfalls and fascinating rock formations, the island is a feast for the eyes. Nusa Penida is also a popular spot for swimming with manta rays.
Compact and relaxed, Nusa Lembongan can be reached by a 30-minute boat ride from mainland Bali. Slightly more touristy than the neighbouring Nusa Penida, this tropical paradise offers enough stunning sights to keep even the most avid nature-lovers content. Visitors to the island shouldn’t miss Nusa Ceningan, a tiny island with secret beaches and rocky coves just a short suspension bridge walk away.
A visit to a bona fide balian, a traditional Balinese healer, can be a life-changing experience. In Bali, becoming a healer is not a choice. It is believed that balian receive their gift from a higher power, with the tradition often passed down generations. For Balinese, balian are often the first port of call in cases of physical, spiritual or emotional problems, such as anxiety, depression or even sore joints. The treatment usually involves herbal potions, massage and intuitive guidance. It is important to be respectful and to exercise caution when seeking the help of a balian; start with some research at balihealers.com.
Last updated in December 2017