Ubud is one of those places where a holiday of a few days can easily turn into a stay of weeks, months or even years. The size of the town's expat community attests to this, and so do the many novels and films that have been set here, creative responses to the seductive nature of this most cultured of all Balinese towns.
South Bali & the Islands
You won't have seen Bali if you haven't fully explored south Bali. The island's capital, Denpasar, sprawls in all directions from the centre with traditional markets, busy malls, great eating and lashings of Balinese history and culture, even as it threatens to absorb Seminyak, Kuta and Sanur. The Bukit Peninsula (the southern part of south Bali) has multiple personalities.
Sprawling, hectic and ever-growing, Bali's capital has been the focus of a lot of the island's growth and wealth over the last five decades. It can seem a daunting and chaotic place, but spend a little time on its tree-lined streets in the relatively affluent government and business district of Renon and you'll discover a more genteel side.
Exploring East Bali is one of the island's great pleasures. Rice terraces spill down hillsides, wild volcanic beaches are pounded by surf and traditional villages are barely touched by modernity. Watching over this region is Gunung Agung, the 3142m active volcano known as the 'navel of the world' and 'Mother Mountain'.
Kuta & Legian
Loud and frenetic, Kuta and Legian are the epicentre of mass tourism in Bali. The grit and wall-to-wall cacophony have become notorious through often overhyped media reports of tourists behaving badly. Although this is often the first place many visitors hit in Bali, the region is not for everyone.
Fabulous Seminyak is the centre of life for hordes of the island's expats, many of whom own boutiques, design clothes, surf, or do seemingly nothing at all. It may be immediately north of Kuta and Legian, but in many respects, not the least of which is its intangible sense of style, Seminyak feels almost like it's on another island.
The land on the other side of the map, that's north Bali. Although one-sixth of the island's population lives here, this vast region is overlooked by many visitors who stay trapped in the south Bali−Ubud axis. The big draw here is the incredible diving and snorkelling at nearby Pulau Menjangan. Arcing around a nearby bay, booming Pemuteran may be Bali's best beach escape.
Many consider Sanur 'just right', as it lacks most of the hassles found to the west while maintaining a good mix of restaurants and bars that aren't all owned by resorts. The beach, while thin, is protected by a reef and breakwaters, so families appreciate the limpid waves. Sanur has a good range of places to stay and it's well placed for day trips.
Even as development from south Bali creeps ever further west (via hot spots such as Canggu), Bali's true west, which is off the busy main road from Tabanan to Gilimanuk, remains infrequently visited. It's easy to find serenity amid its wild beaches, jungle and rice fields. On the coast, surfers hit the breaks at Balian and Medewi.
Hot and arid, the southern peninsula is known as Bukit (meaning 'hill' in Bahasa Indonesia). It's popular with visitors, from the cloistered climes of Nusa Dua to the sybaritic retreats along the south coast. The booming west coast (often generically called Pecatu) with its string-of-pearls beaches is a real hotspot.
Nusa Lembongan & Islands
Look towards the open ocean southeast of Bali and the hazy bulk of Nusa Penida dominates the view. But for many visitors the real focus is Nusa Lembongan, which lurks in the shadow of its vastly larger neighbour. Here, there's great surfing, amazing diving, languorous beaches and the kind of laid-back vibe travellers cherish.
'Relaxed' is how people most often describe Lovina, and aside from the pushy touts, they are correct. This low-key, low-rise, low-priced beach resort town is a far cry from Kuta. The waves are calm, the beach thin and overamped attractions nil. Lovina is sun-drenched, with patches of shade from palm trees.
Bali has a hot soul. The volcanoes stretching along the island's spine are seemingly cones of silence but their active spirits are just below the surface, eager for expression. Gunung Batur (1717m) is constantly letting off steam; this place has an other-worldly beauty that may overwhelm the attendant hassles of a visit.