Bali, the ‘island of Gods’, is one of more than 14,000 isles in the Indonesian archipelago, is inhabited by warm and friendly people with a distinct Hindu culture and exudes a charm and beauty that is truly unique. From its majestic volcanoes, breathtaking rice terraces, ancient palaces and temples in the hinterland to the stunning beaches, spas and magnificent hotels that line its coast, Bali remains a favourite for many travellers from around the world. The island’s beaches, spas and luxurious accommodations are its main attractions but plan plenty of time to explore the sights and experience the intriguing culture Bali has to offer. Here’s a guide with the main Bali attractions for first-time visitors:
A brief guide to Bali
Balinese are gracious and laid-back people who are proud of their customs and traditions that stem from a localised version of Hinduism. When visiting Bali, take the time to see how various rituals are woven into the every day lives of the Balinese (such as the daily offerings to the Gods in little bamboo baskets at every doorstep, wondrous cremation ceremonies and spectacular dance performances such as the kecak and legong). Their craftsmanship is legendary. Evidence of this mastery can be found throughout the island in the form of ornamental gateways into homes, richly decorated temples and palaces, and art galleries that sell a myriad of batik paintings, wood carvings, stone sculptures, and intricate glass and ceramic ware, and jewellery.
Bali’s main beach areas are Kuta, Seminyak, Legian, Sanur and Nusa Dua. The Kuta-Seminyak-Legian stretch is by far the most popular, especially among surfers. This stretch has a broad range of accommodations for all budgets, and is chock-full with restaurants, beach clubs, bars, discos, shops, supermarkets, travel agents, car and moped rentals, banks, spas and every other imaginable facility.
Nusa Dua is a more serene area with breathtaking five-star hotels, beautifully-manicured gardens and a pristine, sheltered coast. The spectacularly situated Uluwati temple is close to Nusa Dua. Built on a cliff, the views are quite phenomenal (beware of the monkeys!).
Between Nusa Dua and the airport is a stretch of sand called Jimbaran where you can enjoy a seafood dinner at one of the many restaurants lining the beach. Do not miss this experience. Get in before the sun sets, order a cold drink, wriggle your feet into the cool sand and be awed by a brilliant sunset, then tuck into a fresh lobster platter by candlelight!
Lovina Beach, located on the island’s northern coast, is another popular beach area. Just off the beach are several coral reefs that are ideal for snorkelling.
It’s very easy to hire a car and a driver for a very reasonable rate either via your hotel or the hotel personnel (someone always has a family member who is a taxi driver/tour guide) for a day or several days. An alternative is to rent a small jeep and drive yourself around (though the Indonesian style of driving might frighten some!).
If you’re staying at one of the beach areas, I strongly recommend making a day trip to Ubud, Bali’s centre of arts and crafts. If you have the time, it’s actually better to spend a few days there as there is quite a lot to see and do and is probably the best place in Bali to really experience the centuries-old culture of this island. Surrounded by forests and verdant rice fields, Ubud oozes a unique atmosphere that is both soothing and intriguing.
Though relatively small, Ubud is home to temples, palaces, art galleries and museums (my favourites are the Agung Rai Museum of Art and the Antonio Blanco Museum), spas (don’t miss the Bodyworks centre for a wonderfully therapeutic massage), restaurants (if you love roast pork, try the roasted suckling pig at Bu Oka) and hotels that suit all types of budgets. I can also recommend a visit to the Monkey Forest for some lovely walks through the lush green forest and to observe the antics of those mischievous monkeys. You can also find a vast variety of handicraft and jewellery shops and stalls throughout the town, and at the Ubud Art Market. Being the cultural capital of Bali, there are various dance performances and ceremonies at the many temples or artistic centres (for example, check out the cultural programme at the Puri Saren Agung). I can recommend the kecak (fire), legong and the Ramayana ballet performances. Check at the tourist office for the times and places.
If you’re on your way to Ubud from Kuta, you may pass the small town of Batubulan (literally, ‘moonstone’). This small town hosts the largest collection of stone carvings I have ever seen and makes for a fascinating stop, if only to admire the many forms of carvings (from Balinese gods to fountains and animals…it really is quite astounding).
Another town that is worth a visit is Klungkung (Semarapura), the former royal capital. The town is home to the beautifully ornate Kerta Gosa (Palace of Justice) – the frescos there are especially striking. Next door, you’ll find the Bale Kambang (floating pavilion) which features ornamental ponds filled with water lilies and lotus blossoms, and an exquisite staircase. Close to Klungkung, in the town of Gianyar, you’ll find the Bali Bird Park. About 20 km from Klungkung rise the gorgeous pagodas of the temple complex of Besakih. Known as the ‘Mother Temple of Bali’, this temple complex is spectacularly situated at the foot of Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest peak.
The volcano Gunung (Mount) Batur and its crater lake is another highlight of a trip to Bali. It’s not the highest mountain in Bali – at 1,717m, it’s dwarfed by Gunung Agung (3,142m), another active volcano and Bali’s highest peak. You approach the mountain via a village called Penelokan. On clear days, the views from here of the volcanos (Gunung Batur and Gunung Abang) and the crater lake are truly breathtaking. For the adventurous visitors, it is possible to climb Gunung Batur – most climbing trips are arranged in the early hours of the morning to view the sunrise and for a stunning vista of Bali and the surrounding islands.
The most popular tourist attraction in Bali is Tanah Lot. At first sight, it’s little more than a temple on a rock at sea but the place has a certain magical quality to it. Maybe it’s the shape of the rock or the way the graceful temple stands proudly on an edge, with a cluster of trees partially concealing its full structure. The magic of Tanah Lot comes to life at sunset – hordes of tourists make this pilgrimage every day but don’t be discouraged by the throngs of people, the sunsets here are some of the most spectacular you’ll ever see.