By Michelle Jana Chan
The morning light was blurred by the smoke of wood fires. Out of the haze an old woman came along the road carrying upon her head a shallow woven basket, the kind filled with marigolds, fragrant shredded palm leaves and a few grubby rupiah notes. She made her way to a roadside temple and passed through the carved stone gateway. I watched her vanish behind the grey wall to make her offering of the day. Behind her, a trail of other women followed, also carrying out the dawn ritual.
It is to witness timeless scenes like this which is Bali’s greatest draw. Spirituality here runs deep, as well as the age-old customs that attend the syncretism of Hinduism, Buddhism and animism. The rich culture – of exuberant art, of the power of healing and intimate coming-of-age ceremonies – is abundant and visceral, not the sort to be encased in museums. That is why, when there are so many other beautiful islands in the world – not to mention 17,000 other islands in Indonesia – tourists continue to come here in their millions.
When tourists have grown up and out of Kuta they graduate to upmarket Seminyak. Here are excellent restaurants, including the Starfish Bloo in the W Retreat & Spa, as well as bars such as Ku De Ta and Potato Head Beach Club. The shopping is also some of the best in south-east Asia. Surprisingly, perhaps, the beach is perfect for surfers.
Dining, drinking and dancing; a 24-hour lifestyle; travelling with a group of friends; shopping trips; surfing.
Where to stay
The W is the trendiest place in town, playing dance music or chill-out tracks throughout the day and hosting fashion shows/model shoots.
The remote northwest
A refuge for both wildlife and wildlife-lovers, Bali Barat National Park is home to wild deer, boar and macaques, as well as the blue starling, with its white plumage and startling blue eye make-up. There is also bountiful marine life in the protected waters offshore. Menjangan Island is one of the best places in Bali for snorkelling and diving, with huge schools of batfish, giant trevally and jacks.
Getting away from it all. The northwest tip of Bali is a half-hour ferry ride to Java, opening up travel to the Buddhist monument Borobudur. The rainy season is shorter here than in other parts of Bali, extending the tourist season to include April and November.
Where to stay
Menjangan Beach Resort has opened a string of beach villas and offers nature walks and guided dives on the house reef, home to resident mandarin fish.
The rural northeast
Close to the flanks of Mount Agung (which last erupted in 1963), this area is noted for growing some of the best mangoes in Indonesia. The beaches have black sand but very calm waters, and there are regular dolphin-watching trips to spot huge pods offshore. All along the coastline are fishing villages adhering to traditional customs.
Dolphin-watching; witnessing traditional village life; access to climbing Agung and Batur.
Where to stay
The seafront Spa Village Resort Tembok (over 16s only) has beautiful grounds and an exceptional spa reflecting ancient Balinese traditions.
The town is stocked with art museums and galleries and those with a keen eye will find good-quality woodcarving, silverware, textiles and sculpture. Regular musical and dance performances take place in the evenings. The town is spread out across parallel river valleys chopped up by rice terraces. Getting around is best by bicycle or scooter. Many bemoan how busy the town has become in recent years, but it still retains an aura and continues to draw anyone wanting to learn more about the alluring mysticism of Bali.
Art museums; shopping for arts and crafts; treks to local villages among rice fields; Balinese culture.
Where to stay
A number of high-end hotels perch above the glorious terraced ravine – coursed by the Ayung river – including the Samaya and the Amandari. All these hotels are a 10-minute drive from downtown (and run complimentary shuttle services), and may be a smart choice for longer stays. For briefer trips, Komaneka has two well-priced, centrally located properties including the newest, Komaneka Rasa Sayang.
The five-star south
There are a growing number of secluded properties on this anvil-shaped promontory known as the “bukit”, with its dramatic clifftop views across the Indian Ocean. Don’t miss a seafood meal at the nearby warungs or low-key local beachfront restaurants at Jimbaran Bay.
Anyone seeking R & R; dramatic clifftop views; honeymooners,and those who enjoy the privacy of a pool villa.
Where to stay
The Alila in Uluwatu has breezy open-plan rooms, one of the best spas on the island and a fantastic Indonesian restaurant called Warung; villas at the Banyan Tree Ungasan have more spectacular views and direct access (down 100 steps) to a wild sandy beach with crashing waves.
Michelle Jana Chan travelled as a guest of Western & Oriental. An eight-day trip to Bali combining five nights at the W Retreat & Spa in Seminyak (in a garden-view room), and two nights at the Samaya Ubud (in a hillside villa) costs from £1,785 per person, including seven nights’ accommodation with daily breakfast and guided private transfers. Price based on two sharing and includes return overnight international flights with Malaysian Airlines.