It isn’t often that the stars align for a last-minute bucket-list adventure. In October, we hit jackpot with the winning combination of last-minute time-off and award-points availability. And just like that, we were off on a last-minute ten-day trip to Indonesia (Bali & the Gili Islands).
For many, the name “Bali” conjures the images of a tropical paradise made famous 20+ years ago. However, we had been amply forewarned that undiscovered waters are far in the past. Only a three-hour flight from Australia, Bali’s southern beach areas are now over-developed and over-crowded with tourists that never leave the resort towns to explore or experience the rest of the island. It’s akin to an Australian Miami. There are plenty of snobs who have claimed that “Bali is spoilt.” Equipped with that warning, we planned an itinerary to find the oasis beneath the tourist façade. And Bali did not disappoint.
Knowing we’d be fresh off of 27+ hours of flights/layovers, we made a game plan; unwind with a few days of relaxation, get active with a few days of exploration, and finish with a few more days of relaxing before journeying back to the NYC hustle.
First stop: unwind and relax after too many hours of flying to Indonesia. Luckily, there is no shortage of beaches within 20-30 minutes of the Denpasar International airport. However, we knew the warnings about the beaches in Bali. The beaches in Bali are technically public beaches; most are, therefore, over-packed with throngs of holiday goers and an increasing amount of garbage. So we did our research and realized we had two options: find a great resort with a secluded beachfront or go to one of Bali’s off-the-beaten path options. We ended up doing both, starting with the first option so as not to add additional driving hours after a long-international haul.
Where to stay
We can’t say enough good things about the St. Regis Bali Resort in Nusa Dua. It was the most luxurious stay either of us has had, and an indulgently relaxing place to kick off our trip. When we landed at the International Airport, the St. Regis had arranged for the airport staff to pick us up at our gate and whisk us through both immigration and customs, so that we didn’t have to wait in the hours-long arrival lines for foreigners. That alone is worth it.
The resort is beautiful – with a large open lobby that shows off the manicured resort property all the way to the ocean. The service is second-to-none. The beachfront immaculate and the staff from the swim-up pool bar also serve beach guests. There are two giant pools that snake through the property – a regular pool with giant billowy cabanas and a swim-up bar adjacent to the beach – and a salt-water pool “river” that snakes through the property. The on-property restaurants were good, the cocktails were excellent, and the staff can arrange for any type of activity – we went parasailing. We spent a very-out-of-character two days not stepping foot off the property and loved every minute of it.
Ubud: Bali’s cultural center
After settling into vacation mode in Nusa Dua, we made our way to Ubud. Ubud is Bali’s cultural center; it is also the geographical center, making the jungled city the perfect base for the middle part of our trip.
Our very first impression of Ubud was…not great. We took a cab to the center of town, and we were absolutely taken aback by how touristy the city felt. The narrow, decrepit streets (and even more narrow sidewalks) were crammed with backpackers and trinket shops. Our first-impression was uninspired. However, after a few days, we realized that the city’s notorious beauty was quite literally behind the tourist exterior. Once we stepped off the streets, even into a restaurant, the shop would open to the back revealing serene backdrops of rice paddies. Do yourself a favor, when you see the Starbucks, walk through it – the back opens up to the most gorgeous temple on a pond of lotus flowers – almost completely hidden from the view from the street.
What to do in Ubud:
- Visit the UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces – breathtakingly lush and green
- Go on an extreme swing over the rice terraces – not for the faint of heart!
- Campuhan Ridge Walk – a ~15-20 minute light hike/walk with lush, sweeping hilltop views, that will take you right into town. Artisan shops and cafes dot the path, so give yourself time to meander and shop. Our favorite was Wayan Rana, whose minitature paintings were a must- and he gives art classes from his studio. We loved this!
- Try the famous Kopi Luwak, the most expensive cup of coffee in the world (definitely worth a taste) on a coffee plantation. Also known as “cat shit” coffee by my family, kopi luwak is made from coffee cherries eaten by wild civet cats…whose digestive systems remove the acidity. A pound of these beans goes for $100-500! Want to try it yourself: order some sustainably sourced Kopi Luwak.
- Go to the gorgeous Yoga Barn property for a yoga, meditation, or other holistic wellness class (or stop at the café for some delicious food & great ambiance)
- Shop! Ubud is home to dozens of artisans – painters, wood carvers, batik printmakers, sculptors, jewelers, kite makers, etc. We recommended hiring a driver (there is no shortage of taxis everywhere!) to take you to a few of the crafts villages outside of downtown, where you’ll get to see the craft process (and get better prices).
- We hiked up Batur, the volcano ~2 hours drive from Ubud. Yes, the sunrise views were beautiful. However, each of us had done enough prior sunrise hikes to note that this would be one we might skip. Be forewarned: to arrive in time for sunrise, you will need to leave Ubud by 2am. Bring serious sneakers or hiking shoes – and LOTS of layers, it gets seriously cold. It’s a real hike, but doable. If you’re short on time in Bali (or have done other sunrise hikes in your travels), you’re not missing much by skipping this one.
- We also went to a Balinese healer in a nearby village. It was a unique experience. Definitely do your research before you go – this is a good place to start.
Ubud has no shortage of great restaurants. A few of our favorites:
- Balinese Home Cooking is a must. Balinese people live in compounds made up of multiple family homes for various generations of kin and several gardens centered around a family temple. None of this is visible from the street, as these compounds are behind high-walled fences. The family-run Balinese Home Cooking invites you into the family compound, where you’ll get a rare glimpse into modern traditional Balinese life, set in the family’s beautiful gardens. The food is incredible and the prices are unbeatable. The owners are keen on encouraging cultural exchange and will come by and answer questions about how Balinese families live.
- Waring Babi Guling Ibu Oka 3. Made famous by a raving Anthony Bourdain, this roasted suckling pig joint is an Ubud institution. Just the best. Go early as they run out quickly. Once you’ve visited the original, which is sparse, try out Ibu Oka’s sister’s ambient downtown restaurant, Rai Pastis, which opens up to rice paddies, and gets Ibu Oka’s pig daily as well.
- Mozaic. Everyone told us about Mozaic, and it did not disappoint. This was fine-dining at it’s best. The restaurant tops Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 restaurants in Asia and is rumored to be gunning for Indonesia’s first Michelin Star. We ordered from the multi-course pan-Asian menu, made from local ingredients, and sat in the heavenly twinkle-lit garden. We loved the inventive cocktails, the top-notch service, and the food (our favorite meal the whole trip!). And while expensive relative to the rest of our meals in Bali, it was worth every rupiah (and let’s be honest, it wasn’t any more wallet damage than a meal in NYC).
Where to Stay in Ubud
Do yourself a favor and stay just outside the city, avoiding the noise and traffic of downtown. We stayed at Villa Saraswati a mile north of downtown and located along the Campuhan Ridge Walk. Owned by a retired Australian couple, Villa Saraswati was heaven – and they thought of everything. It’s a 5-room, adults-only villa, and has won Trip Advisor’s best hotel every single year. The rooms all have outdoor showers, the pool is beautiful, and the staff is helpful and lovely. They provide rides into town or to the top of the ridge walk and were extremely helpful with restaurant reservations. I’ll admit that we daydreamed about buying and living in the property more than once – it’s that wonderful. Couldn’t recommend it any more highly.
Up North: Amed
The Gili islands are only accessible from Bali by boat – and so we knew we’d need to get to one of the coastal towns to make the trip. We spent an evening in Amed, in Northeast Bali, which has world-renowned diving – and is especially famous for a Japanese WWII shipwreck, only a few meters from shore – one of the only wrecks accessible for beginner divers. If you’re going through Amed, we recommend the 25-minute drive to the Lempuyang Temple to see the Gates of Heaven, an awe-inspiring “split gate” style of Hindu Balinese architecture. We stayed and ate at Baliku Dive Resort, which is clean and well-appointed, with terraces that overlook a magnificent sunset over the sea. Be warned: there are dozens of steps to get to any of the rooms – not for the faint of heart.
The Gili Islands
We settled into the last leg of vacation in the picturesque Gili Islands, situated just off the coast of Lombok Island, Indonesia. There are three islands in total: Gili T (the largest and party island full of young backpackers), Gili Air (quieter with a mix of nice bars and restaurants) and Gili Meno (the smallest and quietest of the three). We choose Gili Air to get a mix of seclusion with options for grabbing a bite or a drink. The speedboat took ~1.5 hours from NE Bali to the Gilis, which are only about 3-5 minute boat one from the other.
Gili Air was off-the-grid paradise. Motorized vehicles aren’t allowed. No cars – and no motorbikes. To get around the island, your options are a bicycle or horse-drawn cart. The island itself is tiny – it took us about 10 minutes to bike the diameter from one side to the other – and would’ve only been about 45 minutes to go around the entire perimeter.
In Gili Air, we found the white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters that many mistakenly attribute to Bali. And while it took a little additional traveling, it was absolutely worth it.
Where to stay in Gili:
The Mandana Suites and Villas is Gili’s only boutique hotel. Newly constructed, it was a breath-taking accommodation. We took full advantage of our room’s private plunge pool and outdoor shower. The Mandana also had the best breakfast we had the entire trip.
Where to Eat & Drink:
- Warung Sunny – the best Indonesian food we had on the Island, and different from the Indonesian food we had in Bali (like the rest of Indonesia, the Gilis are Muslim, and so the food traditions are slightly different). The chef also does cooking classes here!
- Mowie’s Bar for sunset drinks and live music
- Pockets & Pints – if you need a break from Indonesian food, this new pita-pocket sandwicherie is a must. They also have dozens of fun games to borrow during your meal.
- Musa Cookery – Baja-California-style vegan café, perfect for coffee, bowls, and light fare
What to do in Gili
We mostly took this time to recharge but if you are into SCUBA diving or interested in getting your license, being in Gali is the perfect place and time to do it. We recommend 3WDive; the highly professional instructors were lovely, helpful, and just a lot of fun (I had no interest in doing scuba and ended up LOVING it!). The diving here is spectacular and this is a fairly inexpensive place to get your PADI. While we didn’t get certified we were able to go on a few dives to “discover SCUBA diving.” We spent an afternoon under the sea with a dozen giant turtles. Simply incredible.
Final stop: Seminyak
We spent a full day traveling from Gili to Seminyak (speedboat to a bus…a LOT of traffic near the coast), but we wanted to stay near the airport our final night to break-up the traveling. Seminyak, one of the more luxurious resort-towns, is filled with great restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. We had no shortage of recommendations from friends. As our luck would have it, I came down with a virus, and so we did none of the aforementioned. The silver lining is that we were staying at the majestic Oberoi Hotel & Resort. If ever there was a place to spend your final 24 hours doing nothing but unwinding and relaxing before a long international flight, that hotel would be a top contender. Not quite what we had planned, but no complaints from me (And if you’re looking for Seminyak recommendations, send me a note and I can pass them along!).
All in all, our 10-day itinerary had just a little bit of everything from relaxing to exploration- and we got to explore Bali & the Gilis beyond the standard resort-only trip. While Bali wasn’t entirely what we expected, we fell in love with some of its more-hidden charms, and were so thankful for this last-minute escape.