BALI: Westerners have been calling Bali a lost Eden since at least 1930, when André Roosevelt, a filmmaker and cousin of Teddy Roosevelt, chronicled a “Western invasion” of the island that he predicted would result in Bali’s “destruction.”
Tourism did transform large swaths of Bali in the intervening decades, but the “Island of the Gods” still has plenty of romantic old charm: Temples that are centuries old, sublime beaches, world-class diving, seafood, killer spa treatments and handicrafts at bargain prices.
Even so, the island’s most indispensable attribute is its people; their warmth, generosity and dedication to preserving their culture are what set the place apart from other tropical islands.
Still, Bali is not a place to blunder into without careful research — 2015 and 2016 were record-setting years for foreign tourist arrivals (with a total of nine million plus), and pockets of south, west and central Bali have shockingly bad traffic and some unsightly developments. This itinerary focuses on Bali’s more authentic, less developed east, where Old Bali is still alive and well, and concludes in bustling Seminyak, where you’ll get a taste of the good life in Bali.
FRIDAY, 4PM, BALINESE CULTURE 101
Visitors in search of an unfiltered, uncommercial dose of distinctive, ceremonial Hindu culture will find a warm welcome at Pasraman Vidya Giri (PVG), a Balinese foundation dedicated to teaching local children English and Balinese arts. Turn up between 4pm and 6 pm, and you can join in the fun. Set in the lush, quiet village of Sideman, the centre is a great base for those in search of Old Bali. Visitors learn how to partake in traditional dances, play classic gamelan instruments, make ceremonial offerings and mingle with children eager to practice their English. If you fall in love with the place — and you probably will — the foundation also offers free yoga, meditation, treks and bed-and-breakfast accommodation that comes with a free foot massage.
7PM. FRESH SEAFOOD
Set in a tranquil garden uphill from PVG, Rad-Ha Warung is a humble, mom-and-pop type of restaurant with ridiculously affordable and tasty home-style Balinese food. Start with the crispy vegetarian spring rolls (27,000 Indonesian rupiah, about US$2) or the spicy pork satay (30,000 rupiah), and get the tum ayam, chicken steamed in banana leaves (45,0000 rupiah), or, better yet, the grilled red snapper marinated in banana leaves (50,000 rupiah).
SATURDAY, 7AM. TREKKING
Rise early to beat the heat, and hire a guide for a hike. Most guides in the Sideman area take hikers through rice paddies to see the old public baths, the ruins of a once-grand resort, a primary school and a few lost-in-time villages where life is still lived outdoors. You’ll learn about how rice and other crops are grown and will gain appreciation for the hard work that is involved.
NOON. LUNCH ON THE BEACH
For a bit of seaside R&R, head to Amed, a collection of six small beach communities in northeast Bali that serves as a base for those looking for the nostalgic, pre-mass-market tourism Bali. Stake out a table in the shade at Blue Star, a small hotel and restaurant situated on black-sand Jemeluk Beach, a prime spot for snorkelling or a snooze. There aren’t many places in the world where you can dine on fresh seafood for less than US$5 right on a lovely beach, but this is one of them. Try the grilled fish satay lilit, with grated coconut and a rich sauce of coconut milk and lemon juice (45,000 rupiah).
The Amed area has some of the best snorkelling in Bali, with an abundance of vibrant marine life often just a short swim from Jemeluk, Lipah and other beaches. Rent snorkelling equipment for 50,000 rupiah a day at Blue Star, and go for a swim at Jemeluk Beach. Then gravitate northwest to Tulamben, where you can see a portion of the USAT Liberty, a United States cargo ship torpedoed by the Japanese off the coast of Lombok in 1942 and subsequently towed there. The wreck, which has morphed into a reef, is less than 100 feet from the shore and is a popular diving destination. About a half-hour to the south, near the Baliku Dive Resort, you will find a World War II-era Japanese patrol boat wreck that is even closer to the shore (look for the white buoy).
3.30PM. ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE
There is no better way to see the quiet back roads of east Bali than on a downhill bike tour. East Bali Bike Tours creates itineraries based upon ability and interests, and provides free pickup from hotels, along with support vehicles and refreshments. One of their popular tours starts 3,280 feet above sea level at the eastern slope of Mount Agung, and takes cyclists through a pastoral landscape of rice terraces, bamboo groves and farms before finishing off at the unspoiled white-sand Perasi Beach (also known as Virgin or White Sand Beach).
6.30PM. LET YOUR GUARD DOWN
Bali is saturated with massage parlours, and although the quality can vary, it’s hard to go wrong given the bargain prices. There are few better places to wind up an active day in east Bali than the Aquaterrace Spa, where you’re treated to a decadent 60-minute traditional Balinese massage for only 220,000 rupiah. (And it’s “buy one massage get one free” if you arrive during their happy hour from 1pm to 4 p.m.) Rubdowns not your thing? Then head over to Lipah Beach and hire a fisherman (approximately 150,000 rupiah depending on cruise length and your negotiating skills) to take you for a sunset cruise in a traditional, wooden jukung boat.
8PM. WHERE THE MANGO CRUMBLES
Komang John’s Café, at the Blue Moon Villas resort, offers food that is a step above typical Balinese warung fare and tables overlooking the sea in a romantic setting above Selang Beach. Fresh barbecued mahi-mahi, tuna, wahoo, swordfish, lobster and prawns are standout choices here (95,000 to 135,000 rupiah), as are the vegetable kebabs (80,000 rupiah) and the Blue Moon Balinese curry, which is prepared with freshly ground herbs and spices, fresh coconut milk and fish, chicken or tofu (80,000 to 99,000 rupiah). And Komang John’s mango crumble, served warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, is a sweet way to conclude your day in Amed.
SUNDAY, 9AM. BALI’S GOLDEN AGE
For a taste of colourful art, and a sobering dose of the island’s colonial-era history, visit the Klungkung Palace, also called Puri Agung Semarapura, before the crowds and heat arrive in full force. The palace, originally constructed in the 17th century as the seat of power for the Klungkung Kingdom, became a violent flash point on April 18, 1908, as the Dutch tried to impose a monopoly on opium trading. The rajah was shot dead by a Dutch soldier; his six wives and some 200 followers committed suicide as Dutch troops razed the place, burning most of the complex to the ground. You can learn more about this chapter in history at the adjacent museum, but the star attractions here are the vibrant paintings depicting scenes of heaven and hell on the ceiling of the 18th-century Kertha Gosa, the more impressive of two floating pavilions that are still intact.
NOON. THE SOUND OF MUSIC
Bali offers phenomenal souvenirs, but you need a plan and keen bargaining skills to get a good deal. You’ll find the best selection and prices in the villages that specialise in certain crafts: Celuk is the place for jewellery; Blahbatuh has lovely bamboo furniture you can ship home; Batubulan is known for its stone carvings; Mas for its wood carvings, and so on. Most of the shops in touristy, frenetic Legian carry an identical array of poor-quality mementos that are made in China. But if you want something truly special, which will do more than gather dust, seek out Ianshen, a small workshop where the Balinese craftsman Ian Aiman makes and sells exquisite handmade guitars, ukuleles, drums and other musical instruments for a fraction of what they would cost in the United States.
1PM. HEDONISTIC FAREWELL
Treat yourself to a lazy afternoon of brunch and swimming at the W Retreat & Spa in fashionable Seminyak. Feast on the decadent Sunday brunch spread at Starfish Bloo, which includes an unlimited sashimi bar, dim sum items, shrimp, lobster, clams and other fresh seafood, salad and dessert bars, barbecued meats and a lot more, at pool- and ocean-view tables. Then repair to the poolside WooBar, where your drink purchase gives you access to the resort’s magnificent pools that overlook the ocean and are layered like Balinese rice fields. Score one of the oversize rafts and drift off into a sated reverie.
Cepik Villa (Banjar Tebola, Sidemen) is a friendly, idyllic hideaway in lost-in-time Sideman, with impossibly good service and luxurious rooms overlooking postcard-perfect rice paddies. Double rooms from 1,500,000 rupiah. For those on a tighter budget, the Pasraman Vidya Giri foundation (Banjar Tebola, Sidemen) runs a small guesthouse next door with comfortable, air-conditioned rooms that cost 500,000 rupiah per night, including a welcome foot massage. Blue Moon Villas (Selang Beach, Amed), in easygoing Amed, is a small resort with excellent value oceanview villas and apartments. Double rooms from 1,000,000 rupiah per night.
By Dave Seminara © 2017 The New York Times