During my first visit to Bali, I fell head over heels in love with the island; the people are genuinely friendly and warm, the landscape is jaw-dropping and there's such a refreshing, spiritual atmosphere. But to save you the Eat, Pray, Love cliches, here's a short list of the greatest things about Bali.
Balinese architecture is very intricate and colourful, drawing inspirations from Hinduism (the dominant religion on the island) and the abundant, lush landscape, creating a sense of serenity in all settings whether it is a cafe or a temple or a residential home. Each structure maximises the amount of sunlight on the premise with open-air pavilions and gardens. Large, gilded doors, carvings sprawled across walls, ceilings and pillars, and bodies of water are also common elements in traditional Balinese architecture.
2. Beaches / beach clubs
Bali is known for its soft-sand beaches and to make things even better, there are many great clubs set up no more than a few meters from the ocean that offer a space to eat, drink, unwind and breathe in the salty air. What more could you ask for?
- Potato Head is the place to be if you're in the mood to party the day away with quirky cocktails, an infinity pool and great music.
Tip: Get there early if you want a good spot to watch the sunset.
- Nestled at the bottom of a cliff and isolated from the island, Finn's Beach Club rocks a more relaxed vibe. You'll have access to water sports (paddle boards, canoes etc), food and drinks, and showers.
Tip: You'll need to buy a day pass (about US$20 / person), which will include credit for food and drinks.
Indonesia is one of the world's top 5 coffee exporters, a lot of which is cultivated in Bali. Also, Bali is home to the famous (and controversial) Luwak coffee, with many small scale plantations breeding civets for the refined coffee beans. Coffee really is a big part of the culture and Bali is dotted with cute cafes that serve really great cups of smooth and strong coffee.
I was most impressed by Seniman Coffee Studio, nestled on a side street in Ubud (pictured below). From the name itself and the funky decor, it's clear this cafe places a lot of emphasis on the craft of roasting and brewing. Beans are brewed in-house and sourced responsibly. The baristas are artisans and each coffee on the menu is a result of their experimentation; their coffee tasting platter, which consists of five different roasts and beans including a coffee liquor, is a must-try. The food menu is delicious and healthy.
Coffee, coffee, coffee. Bali and coffee go hand in hand - you get the picture.
There are a quite a handful of players in Bali right now that are really shaking up the culinary scene. The island is becoming a hotbed for adventurous and experimental chefs from around the world bringing in their own visions, passions and creativity. There are so many fantastic restaurants and it is really difficult to narrow it down to a list but here are the top two I would suggest are must-gos, both are up in Ubud:
- Mozaic: Mozaic is the brainchild of Chef Chris Salans and the food here uses only seasonal local ingredients so that the menu is constantly changing and evolving. Each set course is almost like watching a performance, an exciting journey from start to finish, with Chef Salans' creativity really taking the limelight with items like fresh kaffir lime jelly and mushroom and jackfruit soup. There is no a la carte option, just a choice between 6 or 8 courses and the rest is a mystery until it arrives on the table, set in a mystical candle-lit garden. This place is harsh on the wallet but it is a delightful experience that really shouldn't be missed.
- Locavore: This one is a relatively new kid on the block and has already gained quite a reputation that it is almost always full. Founded by chefs Plasmeijer and Adriansyah, the restaurant cooks up a fresh and modern take on European food using locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients. The restaurant has a buzzing energy about it and just watching one of the chefs behind the open kitchen counter is enough to convince you that there is a lot of passion and heart going into each dish. Again, there is no a la carte - just a series of set tasting menus going from 3 to 9 courses.
Tip: Both these restaurants require advanced bookings; it is almost impossible to get a table on short notice.
5. Rice fields
Bali's stunning rolling rice fields are actually listed as a UNESCO cultural landmark because agriculture is not just about the crops here but about an entire system that brings together spirituality and religion, community cooperation and nature. Visit the beautiful Tegalalang rice terraces in Ubud to get a sense of all three elements coming together into an inspiring whole.
Find a good spot to catch the fiery colours. Ayana's Rock Bar (pictured below) is very popular so go early, as are all the beach clubs. But getting to a viewing point is definitely worth the effort - it will take your breath away.
Bali wouldn't even have made it on Elizabeth Gilbert's radar if it wasn't for the temples and spirtuality. A trip here is incomplete without a little holy hopping even if just to take in the beauty of the carvings and sculptures. All the temples I visited had their own unique charm but my favourite was the Tirta Empul (pictured below) temple, which consists of a fresh water stream that can supposedly wash you of your sins and cure you of your ills. Legend has it that the spring was created by Hindu God Indra because his soldiers had been poisoned and compromised by his enemy so he provided them with these purifying waters to save them. Worshippers to this day come here to cleanse and revive themselves.
Tip: All temples will expect both men and women to wear sarongs, so bring your own if you have them handy. Some temples may charge a small entrance fee.