A First-Timer’s Guide to the Best Spots in Bali, Indonesia
Bali was once a magnet for backpackers and surfers drawn to the Indonesian island’s tropical climate, friendly locals, and laid-back vibe. But in recent years, a wave of stylish hotels and hip eateries have sprung up to cater to an increasingly sophisticated crowd. From flashy Seminyak to bohemian Canggu, peaceful yoga hub Ubud and surfer’s paradise Uluwatu, there's much to uncover. JS contributor Erin Van Der Meer shows us how to best discover Bali.
Seminyak’s unofficial motto is ‘swim, eat, drink, repeat.’ It’s home to Bali’s most sophisticated restaurant scene, not to mention some of the most stylish hotels on the island. When it comes to accommodation it’s hard to beat the Dusun Villas; private and peaceful luxury pool villas within walking distance of some of Seminyak’s hottest venues. Mama San is a modern South East Asian spot with mouth-watering food and cocktails—order the crispy lemongrass chicken with green mango papaya som tum and sweet chilli sauce. At Motel Mexicola you can satisfy a taco, ceviche and margarita craving in an upbeat, colorful space. For a day club vibe, try out Mrs Sippy, a bar/restaurant/pool combo where the menu diverges from your typical deckchair fare with dishes like pumpkin, kale and ricotta salad. Meanwhile, new addition Da Maria aims to ‘bring the Amalfi Coast to Bali.’ The Instagram-able space serves up Napoli-approved pizza and a mostly Italian drinks list, including pinot grigio, chianti, and apertivo. If a quintessential Seminyak experience is what you're after, head to the glamorous Potato Head Beach Club. Go early go nab a spot for sunset and while you wait, you can hang by the pool as the waves crash on the rocks below, snacking on authentic Indonesian cuisine.
For a slower pace than Seminyak, head about half an hour up the coast to Canggu, a five-mile stretch of killer surf break and fishing villages that offers a more authentic experience of the ‘real’ Bali. Cycling through rice fields and wandering around markets are the two main activities here aside from surfing, swimming, and eating—of course. Canggu is a hipster café dream; smoothies, acai bowls, and avocado toast, as well as nutritious modern takes on Indonesian fare reign supreme at cool kid spots like Crate Café, Betelnut Café, Milk & Madu, Poke Poke, and Deus Café. At sunset head to The Lawn, a sprawling stretch of grass overlooking the ocean where you can enjoy food and drinks on an array of mats and cushions on the ground, or on the large deck strung with fairy lights. For fine-dining, don’t miss Sangsaka’s modern take on traditional Indonesian cuisine; order the charred wagyu beef with coconut curry, or charcoal chicken with turmeric and baby beans. When it's time to settle down, consider recently opened boutique property The Slow, where you’ll fawn over stylish minimalist interiors (think: concrete, custom furniture made from locally-sourced materials, and carefully selected art). Try to book one of the ground floor rooms, if you can—they all have private pools.
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An hour north of Seminyak and away from the coast is Ubud, famous for its green hills, Hindu temples, and terraced rice paddies, as well as a yoga scene that’s been booming since Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about the area in Eat, Pray, Love. Ubud town can be hectic, what with traffic and pushy vendors, so stay outside the centre at five-star Kamandalu where private villas range from basic garden options to those with private pools and valley views. Guests can de-stress with complimentary daily yoga classes and access to the Chaya Spa, choosing from a range of indulgent treatments inspired by Indonesian traditions. Or for a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the Hanging Gardens of Bali—which boasts a jaw-dropping tiered swimming pool—is your go-to. Locavore spots rule the fine-dining scene in Ubud, where local ingredients are prepared and presented in an uber-modern style by world-class chefs, and buzzy ingredients like duck eggs, wildflowers, and fermented produce make the menu. For a more casual atmosphere, go for crispy skin chicken and spare ribs at Urbana. Either way, you can burn off your meal with a next-day sunrise hike to Mount Batur (the 2AM start time is worth it), a stroll along the Campuhan Ridge Walk (refuel at Karsa Cafe at the end of the trail), a visit to Tirta Empul Temple where locals worship in the water, or shopping for locally-made goods such as silk scarves and woven bags at the Ubud Art Market opposite the Royal Palace.
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Beloved by board riders thanks to reliably good surf breaks, Uluwatu—on Bali’s southwest peninsula—has a look and feel entirely different from that of Seminyak or Canggu. Hotels ranging from $50/night basic bungalows to luxe five-star resorts are clustered high up on the cliffs, looking down on turquoise waters lapping the sand below. If it’s decadence you’re after, look no further than Banyan Tree Ungasan. Perched on a hill, many of the resort's private pool villas have uninterrupted views of the rolling waves and horizon, and the cliffside infinity pool is practically impossible to leave. However, you should tear yourself away to experience the town's beach-chic bar and restaurant scene. Single Fin Bar is an Uluwatu institution, especially in the afternoon when flip-flop clad surfers and land-dwellers alike gather to sink cold Bintangs as the sun sets. The menu consists of standard pub fare like fried noodles, pizza and burgers, so if you’re looking for something a little more upscale, go for drinks and dinner at Rock Bar at AYANA Resort & Spa. Accessible only by an inclinator due to its location—it's nestled on a rock formation that juts out from the coastline—the 360-degree ocean views, soundtrack of crashing waves, and the innovative cocktail menu (trust us and go for the lychee martini) make it an unparalleled experience in Bali, if not the world. Dine on a seafood-driven menu of fish, grilled octopus, shrimp and lobster with a Greek influence—don’t skip the Greek dips and salads, as well as the sargali rolls stuffed with pistachios and walnuts for dessert. While you're in town, don't forget to visit Dreamland Beach, arguably the most stunning stretch of white sand in the area, and visit the ancient Uluwatu Temple. Just make sure you hold tight to your things—the monkeys that inhabit the temple are known to snatch up unaware tourists' belongings.
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