Expectation versus reality can be wildly different on a holiday to Bali. Instead of beautiful beaches, serene scenes of rice paddies and distant volcanos, delicious food and exotic experiences, a poorly planned trip can make a trip full of the opposite – polluted coasts, sleazy nightlife and an inauthentic version of island life. Here’s how to find the former and avoid the latter on a trip to Australia’s tropical neighbour.
Don’t bother with Kuta. Boozy backpackers spill out of seedy clubs and bars and it’s almost impossible to walk down the street without being yelled at to buy something. It’s anything but relaxing.
Instead, go to Canggu. A 40-minute drive further along the coastline, Canggu has upscale hotels, restaurants and shopping in a more laid-back atmosphere (and the beach is much cleaner). Stay at The Slow, a chic 12-room boutique hotel on main thoroughfare Batu Balong a few minutes’ walk to the beach, or at Hotel Tugu, a luxury property set in leafy grounds and decorated in traditional Indonesian style.
There are plenty of restaurants to satisfy even the fussiest foodie in Canggu. Fishbone Local, helmed by Australian chef Nathan Sasi of Nomad and Mercado fame, serves up fresh, sustainably caught seafood: think tuna tostadas, fish tacos, barbecue swordfish tikka skewers and Vietnamese slaw.
At The Lawn, you can spread out on cushions beneath big umbrellas steps from the beach. The menu of hearty Asian and Western dishes includes char siu pork bao buns, truffled mac and cheese balls and sticky tamarind pork ribs.
Don’t spend all your time at the beach – some of Bali’s most beautiful spots are away from the coast.
Instead, go to Ubud. About an hour’s drive north of Ngurah Rai International Airport, Ubud is a rural region of lush green terraced rice fields, dramatic mountain views and important spiritual sites such as 1500-year-old Pura Tirta Empul, built on a natural spring.
Five-star luxury can be found in Ubud. Hanging Gardens of Bali has opulent private villas and a terraced swimming pool that overlooks the mountains. But there’s an abundance of affordable accommodation, too. Set among the rice fields 15 minutes out of central Ubud, Tegal Sari has simple rooms with private balconies to sit with a coffee, juice or Bintang and $4 nasi goreng to unwind and recharge.
Don’t jam-pack your days. It’s counter-intuitive if you want to leave feeling relaxed.
Instead, resist the urge to tick off a list of activities, bars and restaurants. Choose a couple in each place you visit, whether it’s Seminyak, Uluwatu, Ubud or Canggu, and leave the rest of your time open for spontaneous massages, devouring a book by the pool and taking afternoon naps. This concept is referred to as being on “Bali time”.
Don’t go for the cheapest option when making the boat journey to the Gili Islands, a popular diving and snorkelling destination that includes Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air. Public ferries are slow and overcrowded.
Instead, spend as much as your budget will allow and research a boat company before you book. A fast boat from Padang Bai, about an hour north-east of Seminyak, with Blue Water Express takes around 90 minutes to Gili Trawangan.
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Don’t hire a scooter unless you’re experienced – and even then, it’s at your own risk. Accidents are common and there have been cases of foreigners spending long periods in jail after being involved in a fatal incident.
Instead, hire a driver, take taxis or download the GO-JEK app, Bali’s answer to Uber. There’s a scooter option on the Indonesian ride-sharing app so you can have the wind-in-the-hair experience while letting someone more experienced do the driving.
Don’t be ignorant about Bali’s spiritual side. It’s easy to fall into the swim-eat-swim repeat cycle but there are deeper experiences to be had on the island. Locals practice Balinese Hinduism – unusual in Indonesia, where the population is around 87 per cent Muslim.
Instead, visit an ancient site like Lempuyang Temple. Perched on a mountain top in Bunutan on the eastern side of the island, about two-and-a-half hours north of Seminyak, it’s one of the oldest temples in Bali (nobody can confirm exactly when it was built but it’s estimated to be at least 1500 years old). It’s a staggering 1700 steps to the summit but you don’t have to hike the whole way to experience the surreal, mystical beauty. The ‘gate of heaven’ is only a few steps in, where a gap in the temple wall perfectly frames a view of a mountain with clouds floating above it.
Don’t assume everything is cheap in Bali.
Instead, be aware that at upscale restaurants, bars and beach clubs the food, drinks and entry fee can cost the same as in Sydney, Melbourne or New York. Allow for worthwhile splurges such as an afternoon at Sundays Beach Club in UIuwatu or Potato Head in Seminyak but balance the budget with some cheap eats – ask a local where is best.
SEE ALSO: The Ultimate Guide to All Things Bali
This article was originally published in 2018 and has been updated.