Uncrowded beaches, authentic warungs, great waves and not a tour bus in sight. Lee Atkinson investigates beyond Kuta.
BALI is busier than ever, with tourist numbers hitting record highs. However, sometimes it can seem as if the whole world has joined you to watch the sunset on Kuta beach. There are places where you can relax with very little company. Here are 10 places to take your towel.
In the 1960s, when Kuta was attracting its first wave of tousled-haired surfers, Sanur was the ‘‘in’’ place, where visiting royals, heads of state and superstars such as Sophia Loren holidayed. About a 30-minute drive from Denpasar airport on Bali’s east coast, Sanur is where Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall married in a traditional Hindu Balinese ceremony in 1990 and where celebrities flocked to enjoy upmarket hotels and resorts.
Fast- forward two decades and Sanur has been overshadowed by the glitzier Seminyak and party-hearty Kuta but there’s still a lot to love about this seaside resort area, even if some southern Bali expats call it ‘‘snore’’ rather than Sanur. Edged by one of the best beachside promenades in Bali, it has brilliant white sand, umbrella-shaped trees for shade, clear water, a few little waves to make it interesting, great cafes and bars and enough life to remind you that you are indeed in Bali. What Sanur doesn’t have is the aggressive sales pitches you get on Kuta, the traffic or the crowds.
On Bali’s north coast, Lovina is not just on the opposite side of the island to Kuta and Seminyak, it’s about as far removed as you can get. Laid-back, quiet and low-key, this is what Kuta might once have been but with volcanic black sand and minus the rolling waves. Hotels are shabby and cheap and almost all front the beach.
There are no upscale restaurants, although all the seaside warungs have million-dollar water views and there’s none of the pesky hawkers you find in some of Bali’s other beach enclaves. In fact, there’s not even very many tourists and the handful that are here don’t do much. It’s a wonderful place in which to laze around while making friends with the locals and eating grilled fish that was flapping around in the bottom of a boat at the beach only minutes earlier.
When you tire of that, head into nearby hills to visit Brahma Vihara Arama, Bali’s only Buddhist monastery, a mini-Borobudur with grey stone stupas and an overriding sense of calm, although there are plenty of Hindu touches as well. Or go to the magical Air Panas Banjar, the natural hot springs surrounded by lush gardens where you can stand under the demon-head fountains and let gushing warm water work its magic on aches and pains.
Bali’s second-largest city is not a tourist town but is well worth a visit. It was the capital under Dutch rule and you can still see traces of its colonial past in the architecture, particularly on the old harbour, lorded over by the cantilevered Yudha Mandala Tama monument to independence. A highlight is getting lost in the crowded warren of woven baskets overflowing with fruit and vegetables at Pasar Anyar, Singaraja’s chaotic and colourful produce market.
Bookish types will like the little library next to the Museum Buleleng (give the museum a miss, though: it has some dusty archaeological exhibits and a room with some images of the local rajahs of the 1930s but not much else) for its collection of lontar books made from dried palm leaves.
You don’t go here for the nightlife, surf, or the beach, although Candidasa is beside the sea. Sadly, most of the sand has been washed away, thanks to the mining of the offshore reefs in the 1980s. The beach is slowly returning but you can’t really walk the length of it because hotel walls drop straight into the sea in some places. Despite this, I love Candidasa for its relaxed attitude and easygoing nature. At the beach’s northern end is a fishing village where you’ll find coconut trees and chickens and piglets rooting around the gardens.
In the middle section is a beautiful lily-covered lagoon. If you want to swim, paddle or hire a boat, head to the southern section, where you’ll also find warungs serving fresh fish. Take a day trip back in time to the nearby Aga village of Tenganan, famous for its traditional arts and crafts, particularly the finely woven baskets, hand-woven ikat cloth and lontar books.
There’s no denying the village is touristy but it’s worth visiting. It’s the perfect place to pick up a souvenir or two and at least you know your money is going directly to the person who made what you buy. Remember, it’s cash only.
A seafood meal on the beach at Jimbaran at night is one of the most magical things you can do in Bali but be prepared to share the moment with several thousand other diners. Go during the day for a long, languid seaside lunch, however, and the place is pretty much deserted and the drinks are cheaper.
Start at the fish market at the beach’s northern end – it’s crowded, a little smelly and full of action. Watch where you step because there are fish scraps and puddles and try to keep out of the way of carters with baskets of just-caught fish on their shoulders. The best time to go is in the morning; by mid-afternoon, it’s all but over. By that stage, you’ll be enjoying the fruits of the fishers’ labour as you watch the surf roll in without a sea of people spoiling your view.
There are three warung strips, each with dozens of almost identical restaurants and cafes spilling across the sand and all charging much the same price for much the same food. The southern section, near the Four Seasons Resort, is the best pick of the three and the swimming is also best at that end of the beach.
Pura Taman Ayun
Despite being a stop on many tours to Tanah Lot, this former royal temple at Mengwi, built in 1634, is free of T-shirt sellers and the hawkers you find at Bali’s other big-ticket temples (Pura Besakih, ‘‘the Mother Temple’’; Tanah Lot; Ulu Watu) and seems to swallow the crowds the way other temples can’t. Perhaps it’s the beautiful gardens that surround the complex of three interconnecting yards.
Most tours stop here for half an hour but if you can avoid the pre-sunset crush about 3-4pm, you can wander almost alone on the riverside paths or relax in one of the pavilions scattered around the grounds, which are perfect for a moment or 20 of peaceful contemplation.
Ubud moves at a gentler pace than the tourist towns of the south, although that doesn’t mean the traffic is any better and sometimes it can feel just as crowded on Monkey Forest Road as it is in Kuta’s Poppies Lane. Ubud’s saving grace is that it’s so easy to escape the crowd – you have to walk only a block or two away from the shopping streets before you’ll be surrounded by terraced rice fields.
The Botanic Garden offers even more serenity. You could spend all day sitting quietly in these gorgeous gardens with its meandering creeks, rainforest gully, silent meditation court, love nest (just follow the signs), bamboo grove and orchid garden – and that’s without getting lost in the maze. It’s about two kilometres north of Ubud; a motorbike taxi will cost about 10,000 rupiah ($1.14) each way, or catch a ride and walk back down the gentle slope through rice paddies.
I can’t quite work out why this museum in Nusa Dua is often empty, given its extensive collection of art. Most of it is either painted by Balinese, or features paintings of Bali and the Balinese by visiting Asian and Western artists. All the big names are here, including Donald Friend, Arie Smit, Theo Meier and Le Mayeur, as well as works by luminaries such as Gauguin and Matisse.
For those who don’t fancy room after room of art, the Pacific Room has a fantastic collection of Pacific carvings, masks, canoes, jewellery and artefacts from across the Pacific and is well worth the price of admission (about $10, which is steep by Balinese standards).
For many tourists, Denpasar is little more than the name of the airport into which they fly before heading to their hotel in Kuta or Seminyak, hillside bungalow in Ubud, villa in Jimbaran or resort in Nusa Dua. Few visitors go into the Balinese capital unless they have business or an emergency.
If you want to get a sense of the workaday Bali, this is the place to go and, despite its (deserved) reputation as a sprawling, traffic-choked metropolis, you can see the best of the sights on a one-day walking tour. Start at the Museum Negri Propinsi Bali for a crash course on Balinese culture and art, visit the state temple, Pura Jagatnatha, next door, then head around the corner to Pasar Badung, Denpasar’s main produce market.
Just across the river is the art and craft market, Pasar Kumbasari, a great place to pick up a souvenir. It’s a wholesale as well as retail market, so this is where most of the work you see in the shops of Kuta and Legian comes from. The surrounding area is called Kampung Arab, the heart of the Arabic district, and the streets are lined with gold shops, where, if you’re bargaining skills are up to it, you can pay local not tourist prices.
A temple has been perched on the cliff-top at Ulu Watu since the 11th century. Non-Hindus can’t enter the temple courtyard but do go for the views of the line of sheer cliffs being pounded by the super-sized surf for which this part of the southern coast is famous. The best views are at the end of a short walk along the cliff edge and through the forest on the right-hand side, although the views are almost as good on the left, too.
Like Bali’s other famous sea temple, Tanah Lot, Ulu Watu is a popular sunset spot when tour buses from Kuta and Nusa Dua arrive to take in the scene and see a traditional Kecak dance, in which the singers enter a trance as they chant. Go early in the morning, though, and you’ll have the place to yourself. The delinquent monkeys may also still be half asleep and less likely to steal your sunglasses.
It will cost you the equivalent of about $10 each way by taxi (from Jimbaran; a little more from Kuta, Seminyak or Nusa Dua) and most drivers are happy to wait free while you visit the temple.
Frommer’s Bali Day by Day, by Lee Atkinson, will be published in April.
Garuda, Virgin Blue and Jetstar fly direct from Sydney to Denpasar. 13 31 33 www.flightcentre.com.au
You can obtain an Indonesian visa on arrival in Bali. www.balitourismboard.org
The Australian government advises travellers to 'reconsider the need to travel to Bali, due to a high threat of terrorist attack'. www.smartraveller.gov.au