Travel Diary: Bali
Bali, home to batik and beaches, Buddhas and Bali belly. The magical island that stole my heart. Bali and I got off on the wrong foot, so I never imagined I’d be writing this post. My first two weeks on the island I was telling anyone and everyone who’d listen, how stuck I felt, and how I couldn’t see what everyone liked about this place. And like it they did – everyone I spoke to before coming to Bali went on and on about the weather, the people, the shopping, the beaches – so what was I missing?
When I first arrived I was shocked at how developed Bali is, or at least the southern part of the island, where tourism (and, as a result, business) has boomed. I expected the abundant rice fields and rural landscapes seen in Eat, Pray, Love (because we can totally believe everything we see in the movies, no?). But instead, on my ride from the airport to my hotel, my first impression was of a wide six-lane road lined with big box stores and parking lots, reminiscent of the suburbs of southern Florida. We were not off to a good start.
I spent the next couple of weeks feeling frustratingly trapped. Taxis in Canggu (a small surfer town on the southwest coast where I spent most of my time) are practically non-existent and walking was out of the question since sidewalks in Bali are as rare as the Hope Diamond, and where they exist, they’re fraught with enormous sinkholes. I still wasn’t comfortable on a scooter after reading in my Lonely Planet that “every day, someone dies as a result of a motor accident in Bali,” (thanks for that LP), and all I wanted to do was explore. Add to that the surprising amounts of garbage littering the streets and beaches, the unbelievable volume of traffic, and the overcrowding in places like Kuta and Seminyak (where I spent a few miserable days) and I was an unhappy camper. But after a couple of weeks of being a total party pooper, whining about how tough I had it on this tropical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, I finally came to terms with three lessons that changed the game.
#1 – If you want to learn to love Bali, you have to learn to love a motorbike.
Despite my initial resistance to the motorbike as a method of transportation (since no one in Bali follows any road rules known to mankind), my resistance to inertia was greater. So I opened my mind to the possibilities of travel by scooter, and became a total convert. If I could, I would now ride a little Vespa or a little Scoopy everywhere. Preferably in red.
#2 – Friends make all the difference.
Travelling solo can be amazing – you can go where you want, when you want, and not worry about anyone’s needs but your own. But there are also times when it’s nice to have someone to turn to and say, “did you just see that family of four on the motorbike, carrying a ladder and a dead pig?” When I started to connect with people and make a circle of friends, it made all the difference.
#3 – Check yourself when you’re being a brat.
There are days on this journey when I’m down in the dumps about something or other, but to bitch and moan about being “stuck” on a beautiful island where the people are friendly, the weather is spectacular, and the beaches are plentiful is nothing short of obnoxious. I reminded myself how lucky I am to be here, and remembered one of my favourite expressions – You are not a tree. If you don’t like where you are, move.
Only instead of moving, I jumped in head first and somehow, over 10 weeks, two water ceremonies, 30+ hours riding the waves, countless temple visits, and one epic road trip, I fell HEAD OVER HEELS in love. And, like most people in love, I want to shout it from the rooftops and share it with the world. So here, hand picked, tried, tested, and true, are my favourite spots in Bali. I hope everyone gets the chance to experience this magical place at least once.
Canggu (pronounced “chain-goo”) is a small surfer town on the southwest coast of Bali, just north of the more developed Kuta and Seminyak. It was described in a Q&A on GaranceDoré.com as a great place “to watch some local rippers and hang out with cute surfers,” and that’s a pretty accurate description. It’s got the chilled out vibe of a beach town, where flip flops and cut offs are the uniform of choice, and sand in your toes is a daily delight. In general, most of my favourite shops and restaurants were on Jalan Pantai Batu Bolong, so if you want to explore, start at Old Man’s, beside the beach, walk up the street, and see what you find.
Despite the fact that my hotel included breakfast, I often ditched it to grab a bite at Crate, a testament to the amazing food and great atmosphere at this tiny raw space. The coffee is some of the best in the area and the dishes, each with a cool and catchy name, are an instant route to a happy belly. Peas Please, The Barber, and the Nom Nom Jar were three in my regular rotation.
Jalan Pantai Batu Bolong No. 60
Despite the geriatric name, Old Man’s is a decidedly hip hangout for all generations. From morning til night you’ll find a crowd at this beachside restaurant/bar, noshing on western favourites like nachos and fish and chips, listening to live music, or playing beer pong. There’s a shower where surfers will often rinse off, offering six-pack views along with your beer.
Jalan Pantai Batu Bolong
Just up the street from Crate Café, Betelnut offers a variety of healthy eats and delicious treats (check out the dessert fridge for some serious sugar-filled confections). The best tables are upstairs in the open air dining area, and don’t leave without trying the eponymous Betelnut smoothie, a treat for the eyes and the taste buds.
Jalan Pantai Batu Bolong No. 60
Technically called Deus Ex Machina – Temple of Enthusiasm, this spot that defies categorization. Equal parts surf shop, restaurant, bar, motorbike mecca, and once-a-week movie theatre, with a barber shop to boot, Deus is a local favourite. Tuesday nights offer tacos and free tattoos, because why not.
Jalan Batu Mejan No. 8
Haze & Glory
This German brand operates out of a design studio at Batu Bolong where they sell amazing fashions and accessories for men and women. The designs are edgy with sophisticated finishes like an amazing silk kimono with a black and white peacock print.
Jalan Pantai Batu Bolong
Horn is dark and brooding, filled with curiosities like taxidermied animals, avant garde sunglasses, curated fashions, and beaded skulls. Despite all the amazing items for sale, the store itself might be the biggest draw. Check out the geometric mosaic glass floors and the incredible art pieces from artists in the Pacific Rim.
Jalan Pantai Batu Bolong No. 76
Whether you’re a total beginner or a wave-riding pro, when you’re in Canggu, you’ve got to surf. More advanced surfers should head to Echo Beach, but the best spot for beginners is Batu Bolong (the beach in front of Old Man’s) where the waves are long and gentle. Try a lesson with the local rippers from Batu Bolong Board Rentals, a small stand next to the beach.
In recent years, Seminyak has developed to the point where every square inch of street frontage is filled with shops and restaurants, leaving no room for the natural beauty of Bali. For that reason, I don’t recommend making this your base, but the area is a quick 20-minute drive from Canggu, with a number of great restaurants and a long street of indie boutiques, so it’s worth coming in for an afternoon or evening.
This café sells a small selection of groceries and organic produce, plus a refrigerator full of “healthy” treats like peanut butter balls, gluten-free apple crumble, and rich raw chocolate. The restaurant section offers a menu full of health-conscious dishes, everything from breakfast bowls, to smoothies, to raw pizza. There is another location in Ubud, and both host nightly movie screenings at nearby sister cinemas.
Jalan Laksamana No. 99
The design at Mama San is more New York than Bali – think soaring ceilings, industrial windows, and leather couches. Dishes are designed to share, with the perfect combination (IMHO) being the massaman curry and Thai beef salad, with deep fried ice cream and nutella to finish the night.
Jalan Raya Kerobokan No. 135
For a very special dining experience, head to Bambu, the elegant open-air restaurant from the same owners as La Lucciola. I had one of the best meals of my life here, experimenting with a variety of dishes. By Bali standards it’s a pricey meal, but it’s guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.
Jalan Petitenget No. 198
This sprawling Mexican restaurant is a light-filled spectacle for the eyes, ears, and taste buds. There are a few tables available streetside, but inside is where the action is to be found, with three wings surrounding an open-air courtyard, and no shortage of people-watching morning, noon, and night.
Jalan Kayujati No. 9 X
Ku De Ta
For an evening spent in style and under the stars, beachfront Ku De Ta is where it’s at. Large lounge beds offer a comfy spot to enjoy a cocktail. The space is also open by day, and along with nearby Potato Head, offers the quintessential swanky beach club experience, with a price tag to match.
Jalan Kayu Aya No. 9
The best shopping in Seminyak can be found along Jalan Kayu Aya (also sometimes known as Jalan Laksmana or Jalan Oberoi just to make things complicated) on the stretch between Seminyak Square and Corner House restaurant. Here you’ll find a variety of indie boutiques selling jewelry, swimwear, surf gear, and fashions for men and women. Be sure to pop into Revolver Coffee for a caffeine fix that will fuel your shopping spree.
Olop Iyengar Yoga Studio
While the yoga scene in Bali is mainly concentrated in Ubud, there is an amazing studio in Seminyak that deserves a special mention. Classes with Olop Arpipi run just under two hours but fly by in an instant in the open-air bale set in the gardens of Olop’s home. Beginner classes run Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 4:15pm to 6:00pm and are the perfect way to end the day.
Jalan Drupadi No.07
Made famous thanks to Eat, Pray, Love and the subsequent Hollywood mega-hit starring America’s sweetheart Julia Roberts, Ubud has become a hot spot for women seeking peace and love. While that may be a somewhat tall order, what Ubud does deliver is a variety of healthy restaurants and almost endless options for getting into your downward dog.
Kafe is not a typo, but it is one of Ubud’s most popular restaurants. The mezze plate is hands down my favourite platter, offering a variety of Mediterranean and Middle eastern flavours, all in one dish.
Jalan Hanoman No. 44B
Spread over two and a half levels, this health-conscious restaurant offers views over the jungle ravine and options to sit at a tabletop or get grounded on cushions on the floor. Breakfast is particularly delicious.
Soma may be a vegetarian joint but even meat lovers will find food that satisfies. The Tower of Power is a definite win when your system is in need of veggies and your eyes are in need of a treat.
Jalan Dewi Sita
Seniman Coffee Studio
Seniman is a triple threat, offering great coffee, a casual environment, and punny humour to boot. Ayam is chicken in Indonesian. Gotta love a food-related philosophical pun.
Jalan Sriwedari No. 5
Bali Buda is similar to Earth Café – part restaurant, part organic grocer, part dessert haven. Their chocolate mousse cake is what dreams are made of, when my dreams are naughty, delicious, and rich.
Jalan Jembawan No. 1
Campuhan Ridge Walk
The Campuhan Ridge Walk is an easy 6km roundtrip walk on a cobblestone path through the rice fields of Ubud. There’s a sweet little café (Karsa Kafe) at the turnaround point, offering a great spot to refuel with a fresh young coconut before starting the journey back.
Directions to the Campuhan Ridge Walk
If you’re going to Ubud and you do any type of yoga, you’re going to want to check out Yoga Barn. With a huge schedule of daily classes and a number of visiting teachers from all over the world, this is the place to practice.
Jalan Raya Pengosekan
TAKE TO THE OPEN ROAD
Nearby Ubud, in the Gianyar region, this agro-tourism plantation produces a number of spices and species including cardamom, vanilla, cacao, and the famous kopi luwak. Tours are available of the grounds, and open-air lounge seating provides a spot to sample coffees and teas while taking in the killer views over the jungle.
Pura Tirta Empul
Tirta Empul is a Hindu temple famous for its holy water springs. Hindus go for prayer ceremonies and purification in the waters. It’s an incredibly moving experience for people of any faith.
Trekking up Mount Batur for sunrise is must-do adventure. Anyone who tells you to hike Mount Agung instead is (a) crazy, or (b) lying to your face. Batur is busier, but far better than Agung (which I can say from first hand experience), when you consider the amount of time required (2 hours each way for Batur), the safety factor (Batur is definitely an easier climb than Agung), and the experience at the summit (while Batur isn’t as high, it’s still above the cloud line, offering spectacular views at sunrise, and your guides will make a yummy breakfast of hardboiled eggs and banana and toast sandwiches). If you’re craving a bit of adventure and exercise, this is your best bet.
Lovina Dolphin Watching
If you make it to the northern coast of Bali and spend a few nights in the beach town of Lovina, you can have another sunrise adventure watching dolphins. Be warned, Lovina dolphin watching is a very popular activity for tourists, so be prepared to be joined by hundreds of boats on the water, all chasing the surfacing fins. It’s still pretty magical though, even just to watch the sun come up across the sea.
If you have even more time, make sure to make a trip to the Gili Islands. While technically not a part of Bali, these three small car-free islands (Gili T, Gili Air, Gili Meno) are a beautiful and even more remote experience with white sandy beaches, snorkelling, and nothing to do but eat and relax.
Lembongan and Ceningan
A little closer to home, the islands of Lembongan and Ceningan have a similar feel to the Gilis and are another great option to disconnect even more from real life. Be sure to check out Devil’s Tear, where the waves of the ocean crash up against the rocks in an awesome display of Mother Nature’s immense power.