What I Loved About Bali (And Why I Need To Go Back)

Feb 2, 2015

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I recently took an around-the-world trip from NYC (with a stay at the new Park Hyatt New York) and then on to Tokyo for 62,500 AA miles and $5.60, with award seats on American’s A321 first class JFK-San Francisco (SFO) and JAL’s Boeing 777-300ER first class SFO-Tokyo Haneda (HND). I hadn’t visited Tokyo for a long time, but it took me no time at all to fall back in love with the city during my stay at the Andaz Tokyo. I was then on to Kyoto and a stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto, followed by two Malaysia Airlines business class flights (with a whirlwind, 24-hour trip to Kuala Lumpur in-between) and a visit to the fabulous Indonesian island of Bali—where I’d already love to return.

At Bali's Ubud Monkey Forest: not the first time I've been mistaken for a tree.
At Bali’s Ubud Monkey Forest: not the first time I’ve been mistaken for a tree.

A Little Background on Bali

Called the “Island of the Gods,” Bali’s history and culture is a mix of Indian, Chinese and Dutch influences, and most of its native people practice a unique blend of Hinduism and Buddhism. On this island paradise, not only can you find killer beaches and beautiful landscapes, you’ll also see tons of palaces, ornate temples, fishing villages, and Bali’s green, iconic rice terraces, called sawah padi.

One of 17,500 islands in the Indonesian Archipelago, Bali is set just between Java and Lombok, bordered by the Java Sea in the north and the Indian Ocean in the south, and is divided in half by a mountain chain and a few active volcanic peaks. It’s only about 2,200 square miles in size, so it’s easy to get around on day trips since nowhere is too far away.

Bali's trademark terraced rice paddies, or sawi padah
Bali’s trademark terraced rice paddies, or sawah padi, are lush, green and gorgeous

If you like scuba diving as much as I do, know that Bali is surrounded by reefs, so you can just take your pick. The island’s southern waves are ideal for surfing, and at its heart, Bali’s rumored healing energy makes it ideal for a spiritual retreat.

The weather is tropical year-round, but if you’re heading to Bali from October to March, just beware of monsoons. (If you followed me on Instagram during my trip in December, you were sure to see a lot of rainy-day photos.)

My final approach into Bali's Denpasar (DSP)
My final approach into Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport (DSP)

Getting Around

I flew from Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport (DPS), located in the capital city of Denpasar, but the island is also a 90-minute flight from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta Airport (CGK) or about 2 1/2 hours from Singapore’s Changi (SIN).

Renting a car or motorbike on Bali isn’t advised unless you’re experienced with driving on the left side of the road with largely non-existent traffic rules, but it’s easy to catch a taxi outside of arrivals at CGK and take it straight into the center of Denpasar for around 70,000‑90,000 Indonesian Rupiah (IDR)/$6‑7 US.

To explore the island, consider asking your hotel to connect you with a reputable car-and-driver service (rates generally start at 120,000 IDR/$9.50 US per day), or if you don’t mind some waiting, ask about the public bus service (or bemo) that stops all over Bali and requires interchanges between major tourist and market areas (fares range from 5,000-10,000 IDR/40-80 cents). The bus apparently isn’t a glamorous way to get around, but you’d probably experience an authentic, local version of Bali that you’ll undoubtedly miss in a private car.

Ubud Palace
Ubud Palace is ornately spectacular

Four Spots for Sightseeing

Four is a number that pops up frequently in Bali. One of four names are given to every Balinese child, depending on their birth order (Wayan, Made, Nyoman or Ketutmain) and four main tourist areas to visit in Bali, each of which capture some of the island’s best features:

Ubud: Eat, Pray, Love‘s bohemian culture reigns in this artsy town, home to funky boutiques and markets like the two-story Pasar Seni Ubud art market, which is stocked with beautiful local handicrafts for which you should do a little haggling—they raise prices for tourists! Near the art market, you’ll find the ornate Ubud Palace (see above), which dates back to the 1800s, and not far south of that, I had a great time at the Ubud Monkey Forest, a nature reserve/temple complex where the island’s protected Crab-eating Macaque monkeys run wild; be sure not to wear flip-flops here, or you’ll encourage curious baby monkeys to bite your toes.For some traditional Balinese food, be sure to stop into Ibu Oka for the babi guling, a rich, salty dish of roasted and shredded suckling pig.

While I was in the mountainous outskirts of town, I visited the Tegalalang Rice Terrace, part of the UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces the area has become known for, but skipped rafting on the Ayung River and a visit to the Elephant Safari Park, a Sumatran elephant sanctuary.

Traditional Babi guling (suckling pig) at Ibu Oka per TPG reader Leigh's recommendation. I don't know exactly what each piece was (nor do I want to), but it was legendary. Thankfully my van has nearly lie flat seats, cuz it's food coma time
I loved the traditional babi guling (suckling pig) at Ibu Oka in Ubud, per TPG reader Leigh’s recommendation—and it turns out this place is one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorites, too!

Kuta/Seminyak: One of Bali’s most famous beaches, Kuta faces the Indian Ocean and is known for its resorts, restaurants, sunsets and surfing. It’s also garnered a reputation as a party place—especially among Aussies—so if you’re looking for a late-night scene, head here. Just north of Kuta, Seminyak is known for being hip and fashionable, with chic boutiques and fancy restaurants, as well as a bunch of upscale spas and swanky hotels like W Retreat & Spa Bali. If adventure is what you’re after, though, know that this area is also popular for bungee-jumping and paragliding.

Sanur: In this relatively laid-back area near Denpasar (just about a half-hour from DPS airport), you’ll find lots of locals on the white-sand beaches and tons of traditional, colorful fishing boats out in the water. Home to a big Fairmont and a Hyatt Regency, Sanur is best known for its Beachfront Walk, Bali Orchid Gardens and the Museum Le Mayeur, which houses about 90 paintings by a Belgian artist named Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur des Merpres who came to Bali in the 1930s, married a young local dancer and stayed for the rest of his life.

My 50-minute dive near Nusa Dua—with my dive-buddy, Aris—was one of the highlights of my trip
My 50-minute dive near Nusa Dua—with my dive-buddy, Aris—was one of the highlights of my Bali trip

Nusa Dua: I stayed in this resort-heavy, family-friendly area filled with private stretches of beaches and five-star hotels. Named after the two islands just off the peninsula, the area is home to tons of Hindu temples, such as the well-known Nusa Dharma Temple. It also serves as a hotspot for water sports—due to its lack of big waves or major undertow—so take off on a scuba diving trip to Lembongan Island for giant mantas and marine life and/or to Tulamben to find a U.S. cargo shipwreck from WWII. If diving’s not your thing, hop on a glass-bottom boat and see what lies just beyond the shore while staying nice and dry.

The St. Regis Bali
Not a shabby way to start my stay at The St. Regis Bali Resort

Best Points Hotels on Bali

Thanks to SPG Platinum Upgrades, I was able to book an upgrade in the absolutely stunning beachfront Strand Villa at The St. Regis Bali Resort (full review to come). Champagne, a private pool and the ocean right next door were a few takeaways from the one-room villa I called home while I was there. Oh, and did I mention the incredible butler service? When I wasn’t taking a dip in my private pool or having breakfast in my own Indonesian gazebo (called a Bale Bengong), I was recovering from my travels at the Remède Spa. An around-the-world trip is tough work, after all. I’d definitely recommend this hotel as a great use of Starpoints, but there are also a few other good points hotels on the island.

The Ritz-Carlton, Bali
The Ritz-Carlton, Bali

While I was there, the new clifftop Ritz-Carlton, Bali opened in Nusa Dua overlooking the Indian Ocean. What’s neat about the 313-room hotel’s design is that you never lose the beachfront view. So when you want to leave your clifftop villa—complete with private pool and butler service, of course—you can take a glass elevator down to the beach. If you want something more low-key, get the same view from one of the beachfront villas or suites.

The Laguna
The Laguna in Nusa Dua

The Laguna, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, is another SPG property in Nusa Dua with poolside villas, outdoor Balinese rain showers, private pools and gardens, and butler service. All of these modern-day luxuries are set right on the beach in Bali, with a spa surrounded by lagoons.

The InterContinental
The InterContinental Bali Resort Hotel

On the southern-coast Jimbaran Bay lies the 417-room InterContinental Bali Resort Hotel. Decked out Balinese-style, the rooms range from standard to suites and villas. Think four-poster beds, dark wood accents, and Balinese artifacts spread throughout.

Mandapa, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve
Mandapa, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve opening later this year in Ubud

Another hotel I’m really excited about is Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, which will be opening later this year in Ubud. Featuring just 60 suites and villas, the hotel will be slightly more private and secluded, focusing on the spiritual and natural side of things with views of rice paddies as well as yoga classes and bike rentals. It’ll still be more luxury than eco-retreat, though, with beautiful Balinese designs, bathtubs overlooking the rainforest, and butler service.

Have you been to Bali? What were your favorite things about the “Island of the Gods”?

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