No visit to Bali is complete without a visit to its geographic, spiritual, and cultural heart – Ubud. Go there first to absorb the essence of Bali before hitting the island’s famous beaches. This bustling bamboo and banyan tree-lined town of Hindu temples, galleries, cafes, boutiques, and yoga retreats completely embodies the Balinese experience. Extensive development defines Denpasar (the capital city), but natural beauty and authentic traditions can be found by getting off the beaten track and into the island’s enlightened center. For the Hollywood version of Bali, rent the film Eat, Pray, Love (or read the memoire) and plan your own journey of discovery.
Bali is part of the Republic of Indonesia (a sprawling archipelago of over 17,000 islands), with the Bali Sea to the north and Indian Ocean to the south. Just eight degrees south of the equator, its climate is tropical with a dry season from April to October. Although it’s a small island (about the size of Delaware or Costa Rica), it’s densely populated and very diverse: lush jungles, rice terraces, and towering volcanoes dot the interior; coral reefs and sprawling sand beaches (in Nusa Dua, Jimbarin and Semniyak) dot its coasts.
The Balinese people, a mix of Malay and Polynesian, with Indian, Chinese, and Arab culture blended in, are a welcoming people with a passion for authentic experiences – food, music, and dance are all intertwined with everyday life. Most adhere to Balinese Hinduism, (while the rest of Indonesia is predominately Muslim). Dedicated to family and ritual, a stable economy affords them the ability to take time out to practice the arts. Many tourists visit the island primarily to load up on Balinese teak wood furniture, sculpture, and handicrafts, sending it back to their home countries by container ship.
Of course, Bali offers outdoor aficionados all the essential land and sea adventures: hiking, white water rafting, cycling, jungle trekking, SCUBA, snorkeling, and surfing lessons. But, a visit to Ubud is what distinguishes Bali from other tropical isles.
BEST OF UBUD:
Ubud Market: Located at the intersection of Jalan Raya Ubud and Monkey Forest Road, it’s filled with handicrafts, souvenirs, clothing, fabrics, woven baskets and more. My boys always love an opportunity to bargain!
Threads of Life: This textile arts center sells authentic, handmade, natural-dyed Indonesian textiles, especially those featuring the famous Ikat technique, a weaving process that utilizes tie-dyed yarns.
Blue Stone Botanicals: An aromatherapy shop featuring products that are 100% natural and sustainable. Stock up on body balms, essential oils, and room sprays made from pure Balinese rainwater in delectable fragrances like lemongrass ginger, sweet orange, and bergamot, all in charming, gift-able packaging.
Biasa: Beautiful and high quality (but not high cost) Balinese clothing utilizes pure silk and linen materials and natural dying methods — hand woven and stitched by local artisans.
Bintang Supermarket: It’s always fun to stop at a local supermarket while traveling abroad. We picked up small souvenirs and locally grown spices and exotic produce like dragon fruit, snake fruit, Balinese oranges, and passion fruit and of course, pilsner-type Bintang Beer.
John Hardy: This famous, international jewelry designer is headquartered in Ubud. Call ahead for a pre-arranged tour: explore the open air workshop and design center, organic farm, and enjoy lunch prepared in their traditional Balinese kitchen joined by artisans and designers, and of course, a visit to the jewelry boutique.
Puri Saren Agung: Just across the street from the Ubud Market, this well preserved, Balinese-style palace was the home of the royal family that ruled from the late 1800’s to WWII. At night, dance performances are held in the central courtyard.
Museum Puri Lukisan: This museum of painting preserves and exhibits traditional and modern Balinese arts and, if you are interested in purchasing artwork while in Bali, this is a good place to become educated in the various styles before visiting the many local galleries.
Waring Babi Guling Bu Oka: Come to this simple, local café for an authentic and filling suckling pig lunch served in a rattan bowl with heaps of steamed rice, spicy vegetables, and secret sauce.
Batan Waru: Authentic Indonesian restaurant in the heart of Ubud with indoor/outdoor seating. Favorite dishes include delicious Lemper Ayam (sticky rice and shredded chicken wrapped in grilled banana leaf), local favorite Nasi Campur (mixed plate of rice, red chili chicken, sate, long beans, and prawn fritters) and Bebek Goreng (Peking duck).
Sacred Monkey Forest: Walk along a paved path through this lush forest preserve and temple complex and see the macaques up close and personal. Make sure to keep shiny objects, food and water bottles hidden lest have them snatched by these fearless and mischievous creatures! The Balinese hold these long-tailed monkeys in high esteem – they are believed to guard the temples against evil spirits.
Four Seasons Bali at Sayan: Located in a lush valley beside the Ayung River, the resort’s palm-tree lined winding paths take you past rice paddies, herb gardens, and lotus ponds, and features spacious suites and private villas with open-air living areas and plunge pools. Resort activities include Indonesian cooking classes, AntiGravity Yoga (with bespoke hammocks to support bodies of all ages and abilities into inverted postures), sunset meditation, and traditional Balinese healing sessions.
Viceroy Hotel: This small, boutique, all-villa property, owned by an Austrian/Australian family, overlooks the Valley of the Kings and the Petanu River with distant views of volcano Mount Batur. Villas, exquisitely decorated and appointed with artwork by local craftsmen, include private heated pools and outdoor living space with cozy day beds. Come before sunset to take in the views while sipping a cocktail at the handsome resort bar and stay for dinner at CasCades, an open-pavilion restaurant serving modern European cuisine.
EXCURSIONS FROM UBUD:
South of Ubud… Take a trip to Celuk, the center for metal craftsmanship and stop at Prapen, a silversmith boutique that preserves traditional Indonesian techniques. Visit Bali Bidadari to witness the ancient art of Batik, a delicate process that includes drawing, waxing and dyeing of fabric — a source of national pride. Take time out for a Luwak coffee tasting at Subak Bali Agro Plantation. Under the green canopy of palm and papaya trees, sample locally grown coffees and teas like coconut, ginger, or ginseng in your own private, breezy, grass-roof hut. For a hands-on experience, visit Sari Rejeki and take a turn at wood carving. Their gallery sells exquisite furniture, sculpture, and wall décor crafted from an impressive selection of wood varietals. The moat-ringed Royal Temple of Mangwi, Pura Taman Ayun, (which translates to “beautiful garden”) lives up to its name with landscaped terraces, broad canals, and soaring pagodas.
North of Ubud… Elephant Safari Park & Lodge features animals primarily rescued from the effects of Sumatra’s deforestation. Here you can touch, hand-feed, and take a ride in a teak wood chair atop a gentle giant as it winds its way through the cool jungles of Taro. Rice marks the daily rhythms of life in Bali, and in the central highland’s Jatiluwih Rice Terraces you can witness the preservation of these traditional farming methods along with a breathtaking view, 2,700 feet above sea level. Throughout the island, you will see the tiny offerings (little trays of flowers or petals) set upon the ground, made to the deities to ensure a good harvest, indicative of the Balinese nature-based worship and daily devotional beliefs.
Planning a stop in Nusa Dua? Include a stay at The St. Regis Bali. This gorgeous beach front resort on the shores of the Indian Ocean, offers Balinese inspired suites and villas, a meandering lagoon pool, lush manicured gardens, a luxurious spa, and a Kids Learning Center (with a varied program of classes in art, music, culture and cuisine).
Travel tip: Singapore, only a two-hour flight away, makes the perfect vacation destination companion to Bali. Click here to read my recent article on Singapore.
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