Relaxing in the 'real' Bali is decidedly difficult - there's just so much great stuff to do, writes Steve McKenna.
THE plan was simple enough. Having diagnosed myself with work burnout, I'd spend my Balinese holiday doing little apart from lounging by the pool, sipping beers and cocktails and gorging on Asian buffets, with perhaps a few massages and shopping trips on the side. But when I landed at Denpasar Airport, I couldn't go through with it.
After eavesdropping on conversations in the immigration queue - "Oh, you're going there, are you? Fantastic!" - and having seen image after image of tropical temptations in my guidebook, I decided it would be a waste to laze around when there was so much to see and do.
The funny thing is, being on the move, with just a few do-nothing days, worked a treat. I left Indonesia feeling better than I had for ages.
Disappointed with Bali's busiest beach strip - I walked between Seminyak and Kuta, sidestepping litter and touts, and was struck by the giant cranes looming above yet more would-be resorts - I yearned for something less built-up and more laid-back.
My cousin, who was surfing on the Bukit Peninsula, south of the airport, urged me to get down there. I told him I didn't surf. He said it didn't matter. He was right. A handful of gorgeous, quiet, sandy beaches studded the western coastline. Padang Padang and Bingin were secluded little charmers, where surfers paddled out to catch board-crunching breaks, non-surfers dozed under colourful umbrellas and down-to-earth Balinese cooked up satay, nasi goreng and mi goreng by the shore.
With its five-star spas and hotels, blending modern luxe with traditional Balinese flavours, Ubud is considered the place to get away from it all. However, a walk around town to admire its ancient temples and funky galleries can leave you feeling hot and bothered - because Ubud is getting busier, and more traffic-clogged, by the year.
It still has its quiet patches, though, and remains a fine base from which to explore Bali's bottle-green countryside. Early one morning, I was whisked, by minibus, to the highland village of Kintamani, where we drank local coffee in a shabby restaurant with one of the best window panoramas I'd ever seen (Lakur Batur and Batur Volcano stretched out in front of us).
Then we got on bikes. In four leisurely hours, we covered about 35 kilometres, rolling down quiet country lanes surrounded by rice paddies and through hamlets peppered with vine-clad Hindu temples and home to generations of families doing woodcarvings, sowing crops and washing their clothes in rivers. Children would chase us, waving and smiling.
It was a wonderful insight into the "real" Bali - and exhaust fumes and scooter horns rarely crossed our path. See balibintangtour.com.
"When the sun is ready, Sanur is the place to be," read the giant Air Asia placard as we approached the Balinese seaside resort that some call "Kuta in a Cardigan" and others, simply, "Snore".
A decent, if overly sedate, spot for R&R, it's also the place to catch a boat to Nusa Lembongan, a little island with only a few clusters of development, bundles of character and no cars.
While honeymooners are drawn to the upmarket accommodation perched above Mushroom Bay, budget travellers pay about $10 to stay in the thatched cottages and bungalows fringing Jungutbatu Beach. Lembongan has a history of seaweed harvesting and it's fascinating to watch the locals wade out into shallow, sparkling clear waters and haul the stuff back in with their wooden boats and carefully made baskets.
Offshore, divers and snorkellers ogle tropical fish and turtles, while cousins of Komodo dragons are said to lurk in the mangrove forests edging the island's north-east tip.
Traditional festivals and holy days are regularly held on Lembongan and, during a relaxing bike ride, I got caught behind a heart-pumping musical parade. Later, I almost crashed into an old man who was ringing a bell, wafting incense and taking part in a roadside ritual involving a pig's head.
Lembongan's friendly, easygoing vibe made it hard to leave.
Every evening, about 6 o'clock, the old woman who ran my hotel restaurant would approach and declare: "Bintang time, boss! Happy hour! One-dollar beer."
No, not that Kuta.
Indonesia's most charming Kuta is actually on the south coast of Lombok, the island to the east of Bali. In stark contrast to its frenetic Balinese counterpart, this sleepy seaside village was quite a journey from Nusa Lembongan. My friend and I huddled our way into a little fishing boat, crammed with crates and sacks of seaweed, destined for the mainland.
Then we took a bemo (shared minibus) to the port of Padangbai, boarded a clunking old ferry across the Lombok Strait (five hours) and slipped into another bemo.
A three-hour drive on windy, rickety roads eventually brought us to a dark and whisper-quiet Kuta, where the only discernible sound was the call to prayer from the beachside mosque.
Like most Lombokians, the local Sasak population are Muslims and while they welcome tourists with open arms - a few dozen humble warungs (family-run restaurants) and guest houses vie for business - they are determined to preserve the village's character.
Kuta hugs two scenic bays. Its neighbouring coastline, in both directions, has wide-eyed visitors reaching for superlatives.
Near-deserted sandy surf beaches caressed by turquoise waves roll back against a canvas of green hills, banana and coconut plantations and creeks of bathing buffaloes.
A handful of vendors sell pineapples and handmade sarongs. But you can easily nab your own slice of tropical beach paradise without being disturbed.
However, with foreigners buying up land to build swanky resorts and the opening of a new international airport near Kuta's closest big town, Praya, its popularity is bound to swell in the coming years.
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