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Best Indonesia Itinerary: Bali & the Gili Islands

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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 + award-points availability. And just like that, we put together an itinerary and 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 for the itinerary; 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.

Nusa Dua

First stop on the itinerary: 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.

Pool & Daybeds at the St. Regis Nusa Dua
Parasailing in Nusa Dua

Ubud: Bali’s cultural center

After settling into vacation mode in Nusa Dua, the next stop on our itinerary was 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.

Lotus Temple hidden behind the Starbucks…
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!
Totally terrified on this swing!
  • 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!
The artist Wayan RanaViews from the Ridge Walk
  • 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). If yoga is a must for your Bali itinerary, this is the place to do it.
  • 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.
Sunrise atop Mr. Batur
  • We also went to a Balinese healer in a nearby village. It was a unique experience on our Bali itinerary. Definitely do your research before you go – this is a good place to start.
Eats!

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.
Christian beyond excited for this roast pig
  • 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.

The pool at Villa Saraswati – perfect after a long day of touring in the sun

Up North: Amed

The Gili islands are only accessible from by boat, so we knew our Bali itinerary would need to include a coastal town as the launchpad for this leg of 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.

Gates of Heaven at Lempuyang Temple

The Gili Islands

We settled into the last leg of the Bali itinerary in the picturesque Gili Islands, situated just off the coast of Lombok Island, Indonesia (not technically Bali). 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.

Gili Air is off-the-grid paradise (and see how close it is to Lombok in the background?)
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.

The Mandana was a gem
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
Sunset drinks in Gili Air
What to do in Gili

The Gili part of our Bali itinerary was designated R&R for us. We mostly took this time to recharge but if you are into SCUBA diving or interested in getting your license, being in Gili 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

The final stop of our Bali itinerary. 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.

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Road trip along the Coast of Portgual: One Week in the Algarve + Portuguese Riviera

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An indulgent week of wine, cheese, fresh seafood, and coastline, at clearance sale prices…and only a short flight from the US.  Sound like a dream vacation?  Read on for our itinerary for a road trip through Portugal.

Ponta de Piedad, Lagos

The Inspiration

In 2008, I’d visited Lisbon, Portugal with my brother on our way to southern Spain.  After exploring the lovely, yet unremarkable, capital, we traversed the coast by bus, eventually crossing the border into Spain.  The views were breathtaking.  Watching the sun set from the bus window, I promised myself I’d return to explore the Algarve coastline.

Fast forward 9 years: Boyfriend and I are brainstorming week-long vacation locations.  We were attempting the impossible:

  • not too far for just one week
  • good food/wine/weather
  • beautiful scenery
  • A balance a relaxing and refreshing: so as not to feel as if we were just going down a Fodor’s checklist. 
  • Oh, and our first international vacation together.  Ante upped.

I offered up the idea of a road trip through Portugal. 

  • Quick, inexpensive flights from NYC. Check.
  • Sunny, not-too-hot days in May. Check.
  • Avoid the summer season descent of European tourists.  Check.
  • Seafood, cheese, and wine to our hearts’ content. Check.
  •  Small enough to visit multiple locations without spending alldayeveryday in a car.  Check
  • Oh, and Portugal is seriously inexpensive. The best of Europe, on clearance sale. 

After some quick Facebook crowdsourcing, we had our itinerary.

The Itinerary

Our road trip spanned one week in Portugal, flying into Faro and out of Lisbon; this itinerary could easily be done in reverse, or as a roundtrip in and out of the same airport.   In the Alrgarve, we stayed in Albufeira, Lagos, and Sagres; we finished our trip with two nights in the Portuguese Riviera (Estoril/Cascais). We spent ~ 2 nights in each town.  If we were to do this again, we would spend more nights in our favorite towns and just add in day trips to other places – which is what I’ll recommend below.

PRO TIP: If you know how to drive a manual car, rent that for your road trip.  We paid ~100 Euro for the week (which included the “one-way fee”), instead of 4x that for an automatic car.  If you don’t know how to drive stick shift: learn.  For Portugal and for life. And if you don’t know how to navigate a roundabout…don’t worry you’ll get plenty of practice on this trip.

Cliff Beaches: Albufeira, Portimao, Praia de Rocha, Falesia

We flew into Faro and began our Portugal road trip with a quick drive to Albufeira, ~45 minutes away from the airport. Albufeira served as our base for our first few days to explore the cute fishing village of Portimao, the beach resorts of Praia de Rocha, and the dramatic “Cliff” beaches of Falesia. We would recommend driving the extra hour on day one and base-camping in Lagos.  All of the sights can be visited as quick day trips from there.  Must: eat at Os Arcos in Portimao.  You’ll need a reservation.  And you’ll need to get the seabass and the garlic shrimp.  You can thank us later.

Our recommendation:  Spend the majority of your Portugal road trip in Lagos and Sagres as your base-camps and take day trips from there East/West.

Lagos

 Lagos is a quintessential ancient port city with a small, cobblestoned “old town,” which is great for gift-buying. Lagos’s central location, great restaurants, bars, beaches and abundance of resorts & Airbnb options make it a perfect base-camp for your Portgual road trip.

Where to stay: Cascade Wellness Resort.  Out of the center of town (quick drive), beautiful pools and great food. Or – lots of great Airbnb options for houses with pools!

What to do: DO NOT MISS: sunset at Ponta de Piedade.  Rent bikes from Praia Dona Anna and bike to Ponta de Piedade, which we would’ve done with more time.  Go on a boat and explore the caves (we did this elsewhere).

Where to eat: Get the fish of the day at Dom Sebastiao, which is an old-school restaurant in town. At Cascade: order the tapas (black pork and Serpa cheese with pumpkin jam); we’ve talked about this dish for years.

Sagres

Sagres, sits on the end of the continent.  At the tip of the continent of Europe, surrounded by sawgrass, is the tiny Portuguese surfer village of Sagres.  It feels like the end of the earth in the most delightful way.  A real highlight of Portugal and our road trip.

Where to stay: Memmo Baleeira Hotel, incredible location, short walk into town and right on the water.  Great views.  Value pricing.

What to do: Spend part of the day at Cape St. Vincent, aka end of the continent. Watching the waves crash against the giant cliffs is simply breathtaking. Did I mention we took a tiny boat + a marine biologist for dolphin watching. Dolphins!!!

Where to eat: Eat at Vilha Venha – shrimp in piri piri, drumfish with coriander and garlic. Our friends have raved about Carlos, which is across the street.   Our personal favorite: the local grocery store, which had insanely good wine and cheese; we bought some and climbed the hill next to the hotel – which overlooks the port – to watch sunset there.  According to our hotel’s concierge, the views are just as good as those from the fort (which we skipped).  It did not disappoint.

End of the Continent, views from Cape St. Vincent, Sagres
Dophin cruiser!

The Portuguese Riviera: Estoril, Cascais, and the castles of Sintra

For the final days of our road trip in Portugal, we drove up the coast and explored the Portuguese Riveria resort towns of Estoril and Cascais and the UNESCO world heritage center of Sintra. 

Estoril and Cascais are located about 25 minutes outside Lisbon. Technically, this makes them suburbs of the capital. These coastal towns first gained popularity in the late 19th century as vacation spots for Portuguese royalty; during WWII, they became the residences of European royalty-in-exile.  The towns are beautiful – the architecture charmingly 19th century – and the two are connected by 3km beachfront promenade.

Walking along the promenade that connects Estoril & Cascais

What to eat: try a pastil de nata custard pastry (we had several!).  MUST: Get reservations at Conceito Food Store, one of the best meals we had in Portugal.  It’s a creative, curated tasting menu and experience, based on Portuguese cuisine. Epic meal.  Advanced reservations are a must.

If you have friends who have visited Portugal, chances are you’ve seen photos of Sintra.  Known for its Romantic architecture, photos of places like the multi-colored cake-topper known as Pena Palace have been the constant subject of Instagram photos.  Located in the Sintra Mountains/Sintra-Cascais Nature Park, a winding 20-minute drive from Estoril/Cascais (car sickness is essentially guaranteed), Sintra should be a must on your road trip itinerary.

Touring highlights included the Moorish Castle and Pena Palace. Shopping! We found some of our favorite gifts in Sintra.  We shopped and we walked and we ate. Recommendations include Cantinho Gourmet (16 euro for a to-die-for cheese and meat board, see photo!), chocolate shot glasses filled with sour cherry liqueur (found in every chocolate shop in town) and Port tasting in the wine store across from the Nacional Palace.

Pro tip: hire a driver for the day; Sintra is packed with tourists, making it hard to grab a cab outside the main sites

Could not have dreamt up a better itinerary for the first international trip w the boyfriend…which has only served to create a major case of double wanderlust.  More trips and itineraries to follow!

For other European Road Trip Ideas, check out our Balkan Road Trip through Belgrade (Serbia), Sarajevo (Bosnia), Mostar (Herzegovina), and Montenegro.

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7 Secret Passenger Rights

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We already feel like airlines are screwing us enough. Add long delays, overbooked flights, lost bags, and it turns into hell on runway. But there’s a silver lining, if you know what to ask for. Here are seven ways to get even.

Get refunded for bumping It’s hard not to freak out when you’re bumped off an oversold flight. But remember this: you can get paid back. According to the Department of Transportation, if you get to your destination between one and two hours of your original arrival time on a domestic flight, or between one and four hours on an international trip, the airline owes you 200 percent of the one-way fare (up to $675). If you arrive more than four hours later than planned, you’ll pocket 400 percent of the ticket (up to $1,350). Still can’t believe it? An AirHelp study found that the average payout is $643.

Ask for cash not flight vouchers Don’t let an airline ever give you a voucher for a bumped flight, or any other inconvenience. Vouchers are like Monopoly money. They look good on paper, but they’re not as useful in reality. Your best bet? Ask for cash or a check because credits almost always come with strings attached (i.e. blackout dates). So before you pass go, collect your $200 — in cash.

Opt out of a tarmac delay So you’re stuck on the runway, forced to watch Taken for the fifth time as the hours tick by. (No offense, Liam.) Lucky for you, you can’t be held on a delayed plane for more than three hours on domestic flights or four hours on international routes (if you don’t want to be at least). Airlines are also obligated to update passengers every 30 minutes, and serve food and water after a two-hour wait. Pass the pretzels.

Cancel tickets for free Got a bad case of buyer’s remorse? Don’t worry, most airlines allow you to cancel or change your ticket within 24 hours for a full refund. In fact, on some carriers (like Southwest) you can even change plans until right before boarding at no charge. But there are some exceptions. Take American Airlines: You can hold a ticket up to 24 hours, but once you book, you’re locked in. Also, keep in mind that third-party sites like Kayak and Expedia have their own set of rules, too.

Pay back for itinerary changes When flights are delayed, rescheduled or canceled, many passengers are forced to rearrange transportation. In situations like these, the airline must either cover all the expenses and fees to reroute you or give you a full refund — even if you bought a non-refundable ticket or were rebooked on a different carrier. So, if the only seat left on the next flight out is first-class, it’s yours without costing a cent. More champagne, please.

Snag a hotel voucher This will be the last time you’ll ever have to sleep at the gate, or worse, on the terminal floor. Airlines are required to offer free accommodations if you’re stuck overnight involuntarily. Just don’t expect the Ritz. These hotel vouchers can be claimed at any time, meaning if you decide to stay with friends instead of a Holiday Inn, you are still entitled to the coupon. It’s also worth asking if they’ll cover meals as well.

Cash in for lost luggage If your checked bag is lost, delayed or damaged, don’t settle for the small $50 sum you’re usually offered. Depending on how much your items were worth and how long your bags are MIA, you could be repaid up to $3,500 per passenger in liability for a domestic U.S. trip, and up to $1,675 on international flights. Hello, shopping spree.

 

By Chelsea Bengier reprinted from Smarter Travel

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