There’s really something quite special about Bali – and forget the hype, the reality is far more impressive. Too many don’t experience the real essence of the Island of the Gods, which, once you find it, appears to lodge itself firmly in your heart.
Discover (or rediscover) an island steeped in culture and tradition which has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of years, with a dash of astounding natural beauty.
Leave Kuta to the party animals and check out Bali’s east coast. Around the same distance from the airport as the very touristy west coast, Sanur is the perfect mix of tranquility with a load of dining and entertainment thrown in. Sitting on the edge of a large, shallow reef, the calm waters are perfect for a long ocean swim, kayaking at dawn, or quiet float carried only by the tide as it moves in and out. Hire a jukung (a local boat) and take a leisurely sail or cast a line and do some fishing.
The five kilometre, tree-lined beach has a heavenly walkable path for a stroll or bicycle ride with plenty of restaurants and cafes for an impromptu freshly juiced watermelon, cocktail or a nice cold Bintang – the extremely drinkable local beer. Fill your shopping bag while wandering the small market stalls and enjoy the banter while bartering with friendly locals without huge crowds of tourists.
Sanur’s main street (Jalan Danau Tamblingan) is great for a walk too. Adjacent to the beach select from an increasing number of eateries from fine dining to relaxed cafes. Even with the inevitable hum of taxis and motorbikes, there’s a relaxed rhythm that’s far removed from the hectic bustle of Kuta, Seminyak and Legian.
To the south of Jalan Tamblingan, the road twists through the oldest part of Sanur where the trees seem taller and the atmosphere notably changes. There’s a couple of larger resorts down this end yet there’s a sense of authenticity and discovery in the variety of tiny shops, spas, cafes and restaurants, and an even slower pace.
The road curves back to the beach (pantai) where a litany of small market stalls and warungs (small local food stalls) filled with the smells of barbecued corn on the cob, satay sticks and nasi goreng (fried rice) entice the tastebuds. Unlike the other side of the island, the locals enjoy the beach as much as the visitors which is why Sanur seems so different. This is also the location for the famed Kite Festival during Bali’s windy season each June, where locals compete with the largest and most creative kites you’re likely to ever see.
Sanur is also home to elite Hindu priests and legends of sorcery abound. Streets often close down for ceremonial processions from the banjar (local village councils) to the temples for all manner of celebrations, blessings and special religious days.
Bali’s first hotels were actually built in Sanur and attracted writers and artists, largely from Europe although Australian Donald Friend resided here for twenty years in the 60’s and 70’s. Even further back, Brussels-born artist Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur fell in love with the island and spent his life there from 1932 till his passing in 1958, marrying his muse – a local Legong dancer. A snapshot of his idyllic life remains at his beachside Sanur home, now the Le Mayeur Museum, which is open to the public.
Ubud, around a thirty minute drive from Sanur, is undoubtedly the artistic hub of Bali. The lush, jungle hinterland is revealing a number of new villas, homestays and hilltop restaurants. Spend an afternoon lazing beside the chic infinity pool at Jungle Fish while grazing from its fine menu, or climb a volcano if you’re feeling energetic. Mount Agung and Batur are a worthwhile trek for sunrise from the summit.
Enjoy a morning tea amidst the spectacular landscape of Ubud Hanging Gardens and take a walk or bicycle ride through the rice paddies while a local guide shares his knowledge of the island’s unique herbs and spices growing alongside them.
Splash out on a five star eco-retreat or spend a couple of nights in a small homestay on Ubud’s main drag – Monkey Forest Road. From as little as $25 per night, it’s a great option for a base while you wander the town and explore the myriad of tiny artisan villages in the pretty mountainous surrounds with a private driver. Save at least one day for a visit to Tirta Empul – one of Bali’s holiest temples and home to bubbling hot springs, considered spiritually and physically purifying.
Back on the east coast, take a trip up north. Around a twenty minute drive from Sanur, and home to a number of famed international surfing competitions, Keramas Beach is spectacular. Spend a day at Komune Resort and Beach Club and watch some amazing surfing skills in style from your underwater infinity pool seats and gigantic sunbeds. The volcanic, black sand beach is framed by giant bending palms that appear to sway in time with the crashing ocean. Stay in a beachfront pool suite or villa breathing in the fresh sea air and complete serenity, free from crowds and civilisation.
Further north the tiny coastal village of Candidasa is gaining in popularity with visitors, but not enough to lose its magic. Oceanside homestays and small hotels dot the coast and there are many day trips you can take to inhale more of the real Bali essence.
Forget what you’ve heard, the island has so much to offer. Try everything from the spa menus, take Balinese cooking lessons, visit the markets where locals shop in Denpasar and explore the hinterland and magical east coast. Flash resorts and raked sand are aplenty if that’s what you prefer but there’s only one true Bali. Find it and it will never leave your heart.