With unspoilt landscapes and the promise of a spiritual awakening, Bali is a haven for mindful travellers. But how to unlock the tropical paradise? Start with this definitive guide to beating the crowds and finding zen on Indonesia’s Island of Gods.
Bali is a place that knows how to party. But look beyond the scooters and souvenir stubby holders and you’ll find an island that not so long ago was the domain of enlightened travellers who wanted to (re)connect with nature and themselves. Popularised by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love, Ubud remains the isle’s spiritual and cultural heart – its name is derived from obat, the Indonesian word for medicine, and refers to the area’s long history of healers and healing – yet sanctuary can be found throughout the island. It’s there at sea level. It’s there atop mountains, volcanoes and cliffs. It’s in the silence... and the sundowners. Here’s where to find it.
More a standalone hilltop village than a bed for the night, Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve hotel is a master of elegant luxury and spaciousness. The 60 suites and villas are terraced over a sprawling, lush landscape, which manages to feel both intimate and majestic. Obliging staff in golf carts are on hand to whisk guests to and fro but walking is best for admiring the calming views. Guests using Mandapa’s eponymous spa can take post-treatment ginger tea in an exclusive relaxation suite fronting the Ayung River, while the valley vista at reception – particularly on a cool, misty morning – is something else. Equally photogenic is the food served at Kubu, the hotel’s signature modern European restaurant.
Best sunset spot
Coastal positions to watch the sun retreat? The Island of Gods has plenty, the hills and beaches of Uluwatu offering particularly rich pickings. But as an alternative, consider Bambu Indah, an environmentally minded boutique hotel 20 minutes from the Ubud town centre. Settle into a chair on the wooden deck and marvel at stirring views from the Sayan Ridge – a gin and tonic with cucumber from the garden is optional but highly recommended. Early riser? Making the two-hour ascent of Mount Batur for sunrise is a fine start to any morning (and a sure-fire way to hit that magic 10,000-steps-a-day target).
Best spa indulgence
Many spas place their faith in Spotify playlists awash with New-Age soundscapes but an open-air treatment at Çantika Zest is scored with the sounds of the surrounding jungle. It’s not the only way this health and beauty spa connects with its surrounds: owner Ketut Jasi and her team make the shampoos, scrubs and other products using flowers and herbs grown in Çantika Zest’s garden. Their handiwork is deployed in relaxing treatments such as the Meurut and Lulur, an exfoliating massage and scrub followed by a perfumed bath.
Best silent retreat
Bali Silent Retreat is exactly what it sounds like: an escape where guests take temporary vows of silence in the name of self-discovery. No matter how long you’re staying (a five-day spell is recommended, although you’re welcome to stay for as little as one night), all guests are asked to do away with their smartphones and small talk and replace them with yoga, meditation and an exploration of Balinese culture. Simple but comfortable wooden bungalow accommodation offers calming views of rice paddies and mountains while organic gardens supply the building blocks for nourishing vegetarian buffets. It all makes for an idyllic, distraction-free environment for reflection.
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Best health retreat
Spearheaded and inspired by Como Shambhala Estate, Bali has established itself as a global wellness superpower, with health retreats and spas popping up across the island. Set within the jungle and beside the sea in Tejakula in Bali’s north-east, Spa Village Resort Tembok concerns itself with the life less complicated. From the welcome (cue refreshing drink, cool towel, foot-wash and shoulder massage) to discreetly locking out technology (each of the hotel’s 31 plush rooms are wi-fi- and television-free), everything about your stay is focused on promoting mindful living. Daily activities cover the physical and cultural. In between multiple outdoor yoga sessions, guests are taught the ins and outs of everything from making essential-oil healing products to lontar (traditional palm-leaf manuscripts) drawing.
With a broad range of classes and an onsite café that serves nourishing food and smoothies, The Yoga Barn is a wellness hub with all the elements necessary for yoga enthusiasts to plan their dream getaway. As well as the diverse schedule covering all practices, instructors also offer lessons in meditation and martial arts movements. A vibrant program of monthly workshops includes everything from advanced yoga- instructor training to meditation accompanied by guitar. It’s the sort of community that everyone wishes they belonged to but one that could only exist in Bali.
Best cultural experience
Bali’s natural beauty has given rise to a strong eco-consciousness throughout the island. One of its best-known proponents is The Kul Kul Farm, a permaculture holding committed to teaching others how to lighten their environmental footprint. In addition to a calendar of intensive garden-design and building-with-bamboo courses, the school also holds tours around the farm on Monday mornings. These 2.5-hour guided walks are an excellent introduction to Kul Kul’s green philosophy – and the Balinese attitude towards nature – and include a vegan lunch prepared from ingredients grown there.
Best on-water experience
While the island’s beaches are renowned, not all of its water-based attractions are fringed with white sand. A former retreat for the Karangasem royal family, Tirta Gangga deserves a place on any eastern Bali itinerary. Fed by a holy spring, the freshwater swimming pools may be a couple of degrees cooler than your average resort pool but are stunning. And the manicured grounds are equally worthy of your attention. Tirta Gangga is popular with locals on weekends so it’s better to visit the water garden during the week, preferably as the final stop on a mountain-bike tour through nearby hamlets led by local guide and village chief Mudi Mudiada.
Best private villa
Italian architect Valentina Audrito thought of everything when she designed Lalaland, her five-bedroom home on Bali’s south coast. The villa’s rollcall of attractions reads like the stuff of do-nothing, family-holiday fantasy. A tree house, home theatre and two swimming pools will keep kids happy. The garden teems with tropical fruit trees and ingredients for use by the in-house chef. If cabin fever does (inexplicably) strike, Canggu’s cafés, bars and world-class surf are all within striking distance.
SEE ALSO: First-Timer’s Guide to Bali
An ornate space filled with art and live jazz, Casa Luna is suave yet relaxed. Visit the downstairs bar on a Sunday to make the transition from the weekend to Monday easier, thanks to dishes from a kitchen that’s as proficient with Balinese classics as it is with Italian comfort food. Order the ace doughnuts filled with Nutella cream, a fun, Sunday-only addition to the menu.
Best place for meditation
Kuta may seem like an odd choice for taking time out but Tebing Karang Boma – the Karang Boma cliff – in the area’s southern reaches has nothing in common with the crowded, party-central beach and resort hub. Instead, peace and uninterrupted, sigh-out-loud views of the ocean are the clifftop’s primary stocks in trade. Just one catch: it isn’t the easiest spot to find and requires investigative work (hint: look for the secret path running off Jalan Batu Lesung). Although the vista is captivating all day, the golden light at sunset makes this corner of the island perfect for meditation at the end of a beautiful Bali day.
Best beach club
Bali’s beach clubs are largely the domain of the party set but not all sunset drinks have to be exercises in excess. The Lawn Beach Lounge Canggu, which opened last year, fits the brief for up-market, family-friendly and relaxed. The welcome is warm, the playlist chilled and guests can make camp in day beds, beach chairs and Middle Eastern-inspired floor settings. The action picks up at sunset so beat the crowds and visit during the day or later in the evening to road test the drinks list (bright cocktails; approachable wines) and the menu of punchy bar snacks (here’s looking at you karaage chicken and Tahitian tuna ceviche).
It takes a certain level of commitment (and fitness) to get to Nyang Nyang, a little-known beach near Uluwatu. Just finding it is an achievement, with its sand and shore a half-hour trek down stairs and over limestone terrain. But persevere and be rewarded with vast stretches of deserted coast – a rarity in Bali. As you’d expect at such an isolated destination, there’s a paucity of vendors on the beach (again, uncommon) so pack sunscreen, water, a book and other essentials before leaving your hotel.
Best long lunch
Looking out from the deck at Bali Asli, it’s easy to see why Australian chef Penny Williams fell hard for East Bali. The panorama of rice paddies stretched before Mount Agung is reason enough to make the trek to Karangasem but it’s Williams’ regionally focused cooking that will make you linger. Go for the megibung, an all-in of local specialities cooked with organic ingredients. Lunch might include a salad of green papaya and coconut or a grilled banana-leaf parcel of spiced fish paste. Stretch out your meal with Indonesian-accented cocktails, housemade beers or local wine and, just like the chef, you won’t want to leave.