Bali is the ultimate paradise. Conjuring screensaver images of beaches, centuries-old temples, pampering villas, and even healers, the Hindu-driven island nation within the country of Indonesia has rich culture and centuries-old rituals still practiced today. Temples are ubiquitous, as are moss-covered stone shrines. The Balinese people are some of the friendliest people on this planet. Indonesian food--if you're a fan of spice--gets high marks. And some of the world's best resorts have set up camp here. Many people visit and never leave, as evidenced by the wealth of ex-pats. From the cultural point of Ubud to the sublime coast of Nusa Dua, each of Bali's 8 regencies are unique, pleasing those who like diversity in their one-stop destinations. We compiled a starter kit to the most popular places to help you build a perfect itinerary to this exotic destination.
Seminyak is the hub of luxury hotels and villas, nightlife, local boutique designer shops, miles of beach, and easy access from the airport (about ten minutes). Small streets are cramped with traffic and speedy motorbikes and wandering dogs are everywhere in this popular region. That said, Seminyak harbors some of the island's best sunsets, $5 massage spas, and a handful of fantastic restaurants.
One such fantastic restaurant is Sarong, a modern eatery with stylish decor and Asian cuisine. While it's considered one of the more modern restaurants on the island, it doesn't break the bank (compared to the abundance of cheap eats). A more casual environment is Cafe Bali just down the street on the main strip. It looks almost like a colonial doll house from the front with bright lights, contemporary dￃﾩcor, and an old-world feel.
Stay: Anantara Seminyak Resort & Spa. Located on the beach, Anantara is a five-minute's walk to the main strip. Most of the suites have fantastic ocean views and great in-room amenities, including large outdoor verandas with private jacuzzi tub and showers with various pressure settings. The SOS Club on the fifth floor is where the cool kids perch to watch the sunset with a cocktail.
Romance gets completely amped up at Jimbaran Bay on the southern peninsula, only a twenty-minute drive from Seminyak. While they share the same coast, Jimbaran Bay beaches are substantially nicer, dotted with seafood restaurants and boasting commanding sunsets. In fact, those are the two highlights here, as there's a shortage of healers, nightlife, rice paddies, and jungle treks. It's a compact paradise luring foodies to the morning fish markets and surfers to the great waves, giving a more "retro" feel to the Balinese coast. Even the two luxury resorts here are attractions in themselves, for both locals and visitors alike.
If you want to feel the "old-school" atmosphere of Bali, head to Balangan Beach, a hedonistic strip of sandy beach and home to surfer competitions, $20-a-room hotels on stilts, and not much more. The more famous Aluwatu is home of one of Bali's biggest and most important shrines, and a traditional choreographed dance at sunset is idyllic.
Stay: Ayana Resort and Spa is a 200-acre, 368-room property that's so tricked-out, you don't have to leave--and most guests don't. There are five pools (both fresh- and salt-water), 12 restaurants and lounges, two wedding chapels, a sliver of private beach, a huge spa (that includes a truly pampering, 12-course aquatherapy circuit), and a sports facility that includes a gym, jogging path, yoga pavilion, tennis courts, and 18-hole golf putting course.
The open-top Rock Bar is set on a cliff outcrop where crashing waves, 360-degree views, and sublime sunsets (happy hour is popular here) create an atmosphere that's hard to duplicate.
Ubud is the heart of Bali--it's everything you imagined the exotic island to be. It's always been known to inspire artists, writers, hippies, and spiritual seekers. Cultural centers, retreats, and ancient temples abound. Small winding roads are lined with art studios and vendors while large, stringy vines hang from leafy trees. Most villas and resorts perch along the Ayung River, harboring some sublime views of jungle, rice terraces, and gorges. 14th century temples in the Sacred Monkey Forest are home to hundreds of free-roaming, Balinese Macaques monkeys, known to be sacred in this neck of the woods. Those who want to see a healer should make an appointment with Puri Negari, an 80-something guru who has that magic touch.
Culinary treats of all kinds--fresh juice concoctions, Indonesian dishes, BBQ, and even suckling pig--make Ubud a fascinating foodie destination. Make a beeline to Ibu Oka, where Anthony Bourdain claimed to find his favorite suckling pig ever. Get there early as seats fill up fast. An institution in Ubud is Naughty Nuri's, a smoked BBQ roadside "shack" where all locals and visitors get their ribs fix. While these restaurants will run you approximately $10 max on a full dinner, Mozaic marches to a more fine-dining beat. It's a Bali favorite, thanks to chef Chris Salans (graduate of French Laundry), who opened ten years ago and features a six-course tasting menu in a stylish, outdoor venue in the jungle.
Stay: COMO Shambhala Estate is high in the mountains (about 3,400 feet) right on the edge of a cliff that drops down to Ayung River. It's home to a natural sacred spring bursting with holy water, creating a handful of pools for natural dipping. The rustic-chic villas (stone walls, thatch roofs, green grounds views of a whole hillside of terraced rice paddies), personal butler attendant, and holistic program that includes unlimited yoga and pilates classes from some of the world's top experts make the stay.
Visit the Karangasem regency on the east coast, and you'll still see Bali pre-tourism boom. It's chock full of rice fields, home- and "street"-front shops and arguably the most smiles in the entire archipelago. Karangasem is as old-school as Bali gets. In fact, the small village of Tenganan was the first to be settled in the 11th century and still retains traditions and customs that have never changed. Tenganan is also home to ikat, a type of tapestry that's hand-woven and takes up to two years to make. This is the village that originally gave birth to ikat and is one of few places where production exists... and out of weavers' shops for that matter. The art form is so intricate and difficult that no one has learned how to duplicate it correctly.
Visiting shrines and temples are de rigueur for locals but tourists should plan to visit one during a celebration, which is much more moving.
Stay: The stilted, thatch-roof, free-standing suites at Amankila are bridged by raised walkways, completely removed in its own oasis. Aman groupies may recognize the resort by its signature three-tiered infinity swimming pool set into the cliff, facing the sea and flowing down a stepped gradient, similar to terraced rice paddies. At the base of the cliff on which the resort rests is the Beach Club, where myriad watersports are offered as well as another pool at a whopping 135 feet. Last word: best stargazing ever.
-- Jimmy Im