From frantic Kuta city and all-over massages to sacred temples and diving with manta rays, Janine Kelso loves the Indonesian island
The soft chatter from the rainforest coupled with the steady patter of rain provided the soothing soundtrack to our Balinese spa experience. My partner and I were indulging in a massage side by side in an open-air spa complex surrounded by lush paddy fields.
Comfortably sheltered from one of Bali’s rare tropical downpours, we were being treated to a Javanese mandi lulur body scrub, based on an ancient two-hour palace ritual. We certainly felt like royalty as we soaked up the sweet fragrance of frangipani while being treated to a no-holds-barred deep tissue massage in a lofty room of high ceilings and exposed brickwork at a Balinese-style sanctuary, Cendana Resort & Spa in Ubud.
After the massage, my skin was thoroughly scrubbed and exfoliated before I was led to a sumptuous frangipani petal-filled bath. Just in case I wasn’t clean enough, my treatment ended with a whirlpool bath while sipping a hot ginger tea. Feeling thoroughly soothed and relaxed, we wandered through the resort alongside rice fields, scented flowers and Javanese carvings, stopping to chat to the resident parrot, a friendly bird who greeted us with a cheery: “How are you? I want money!”
Smack in the middle of the island and surrounded by brilliantly green paddy fields and terraced hillsides, Ubud is a bohemian town boasting some of the island’s best restaurants and a hub for artisans who sell their wares on the street and in its shops. The air is fresher here than on the coast, with cool mountain breezes at night.
Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, home to three ancient temples within a tangle of rainforest. Its untamed feel is reminiscent of Indiana Jones, teeming with monkeys keen to grab hold of sunglasses and other loose objects. We held on tightly to our belongings, although our water bottle was expertly swiped when we put it down to take a photo.
Most visitors to Bali have their first introduction to the island in traffic-choked Kuta, a brash, busy and polluted city with a mess of shops, bars and eateries. Traders relentlessly plied for our custom while we walked the shopping streets in Kuta’s main drag.
Escaping the busy thoroughfare, we found a labyrinth of narrow lanes with no pavement where avoiding being run over by passing mopeds became a daily challenge. That said, Kuta does have a certain charm — the shopping opportunities are endless and it’s home to some of the island’s best nightlife, with bars and clubs buzzing until the early hours. On our first day, I joined the surfers on Kuta’s not so attractive beach. But while the waves were spot-on, I didn’t enjoy paddling among plastic bags.
Nearby Seminyak is more sophisticated, with wide avenues lined by upmarket boutiques, art galleries and upscale restaurants. Wandering the streets is a much more relaxed affair as we managed to stroll freely without being hassled by touts. In fact, the pavements in Seminyak are more likely to be pounded by the rich and beautiful. The beaches are cleaner than its brash neighbour thanks to the beachfront being home to a string of five-star hotels.
South of Kuta is Jimbaran Bay, a former fishing village lined with palm-thatched open-air seafood warungs (restaurants) that come alive at sunset. Waiters vied for our custom as we strolled past diners enjoying their meal on the gently arching beach.
Once we’d chosen a restaurant, we were led to several tanks of freshly caught fish to choose our dinner, a scrumptious mix of squid, red snapper, lobster and prawns; the seafood is barbecued on coconut husks and richly spiced for a delicious flavour.
At our candlelit table, we watched the sun set and the lights of fishing boats sparkle on the sea. Plumes of smoke from the barbecues filled the air, while our toes sank into the golden sand. Stray waves lapped at our toes as we got stuck into our seafood feast at the water’s edge.
North of Seminyak is Pura Tanah Lot, a temple by the sea and a big hit with snap-happy tourists thanks to its dramatic location. As legend says that unmarried couples should not enter the temple site together or they will break up, my boyfriend and I went in separately so as not to tempt an unlucky fate. Perched atop an offshore rock where the waves crash in from all sides, the temple is said to have been the brainchild of the 15th-century priest Nirartha.
Non-Balinese visitors are not allowed to enter the temple, but we were allowed to admire its striking beauty from several vantage points. Highly commercialised, the temple grounds were teeming with touts wanting to take our photograph and sell us jewellery, but it didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the temple. We gorged on a seafood extravaganza by the cliff’s edge at one of the temple’s restaurants.
Heading east to Padangbai, a port for Bali-Lombok ferries and a good base for scuba diving, we skimmed through the numerous top-notch dive operators. Most of the diving companies are European and the prices reflect that, so the experience wasn’t as cheap as it is in Egypt’s Red Sea, although we were happy to part with our money for guaranteed high quality.
After a choppy boat ride out to the dive site, we descended into the tropical waters to dive with huge manta rays. We weren’t under for long before the majestic creatures appeared about two metres above our heads, casting a dramatic silhouette on the water’s surface. After a brief lunch, we went back underwater for a drift dive, spotting hundreds of tropical fish and brightly coloured coral.
We made like the locals and hired a moped to explore the island’s magnificent south coast beaches. Bali is easy to navigate and once we got out of smog-laden Kuta, the roads were calmer and flanked by lush foliage. We spotted scores of ceremonial offerings by the side of the road — small banana-leaf trays laden with rice cakes and flowers.
Away from the tourist hubs of Kuta and Seminyak, we found a mix of luxury resorts and rugged surf beaches. The Bukit Peninsula is a magnet for surfers, so we hired boards in Ulu Watu and hit the waves before getting our cultural fix at Pura Luhur Uluwatu, a beautiful sea temple which dates back to the 11th century. As with most of Bali’s temples, Pura Luhur has a high population of monkeys. We saw a tourist being scratched by one aggressive creature, so beware!
Nearby Nusa Dua’s beach is lined with five-star resort hotels, but since occupancy has fallen in recent years, the wide stretch of beach is gloriously free of people. The nearest town, Tanjung Benoa, is livelier and has watersports galore. We hired a jetski at sunset and rode the inky-blue waves, exploring the empty waters at breakneck speed before dining at Bumbu Bali, hailed as one of the island’s best restaurants.
Lantern-lit outdoor tables sit among foliage, while others are placed under thatched roofs, where diners are in earshot of the nightly frog chorus coupled with the call of ‘geck-oh’ from the geckos. Specialities include minced duck in banana leaf, seafood in yellow coconut sauce and chicken in peanut sauce.
Children in colourful silk costumes performed a traditional Balinese dance, characterised by graceful movements of the hands coupled with dramatic facial expressions. Linked to an ancient tradition, the dances are a form of religious expression and a reminder that despite the tourists, Bali has retained its rich cultural heritage and not lost touch with its fascinating roots.
Contact: Indonesia Ministry of Culture & Tourism. www.indonesia.travel