Bali. It’s on everyone’s bucket list. Everyone. And for good reason. Just whisper the seductive word “Bali” at a party and witness the dreamy, faraway look in the hearer’s eyes. Bali is more than just a destination. It’s the epitome of an exotic paradise.
An Indonesian island known for its lush terraced rice paddies, lively beaches, and cloud-capped volcanic mountains, Bali is also home to some of the world’s most magnificent temples. The island is just 8 degrees south of the equator, giving it a fairly consistent year-round climate with daytime temperatures between 68-93⁰ F in the lowlands and somewhat cooler in the mountains.
Between the American government lifting its travel warnings in 2008, and the runaway popularity of the 2010 movie Eat, Pray, Love based on the Elizabeth Gilbert book, American interest in traveling to Bali has been on the rise.
In addition, Bali offers diverse tourist attractions and adventures, delicious cultural food, and exuberant and friendly local people. All told, it should be no surprise that Bali has been consistently been named as one of the world’s best islands.
The best way to see as much of Bali as possible is to rent a car and drive where you like.
1. Visit a rice field
The first sight of the rice paddies is stunning. The terraces zig-zag up the hills, looking more like art than food planting. The fields are in the rural areas of central Bali, a short drive from Ubud, but away from the tourist crowds. Just the drive to get there is a visually stimulating experience where you can see workers in conical straw hats working the fields.
2. See a cultural dance performance
Drama and dance are an important part of Bali’s religious and festival celebrations. A lucky tourist may accidentally stumble upon an impromptu village performance, but there are also many staged performances complete with spectacular costumes specifically for tourists.
The Barong & Kris dance is a vibrant and elaborate ritual dance representing the eternal struggle between good and evil. Barong is a fearsome lion-like animal representing the good spirit and Rangda is a mythological monster representing evil. Be prepared for some edgy, almost obscene, stage antics in some of the small village performances.
The Kecak dance tells the story of Ramayana. Prince Rama’s wife, Sita, is abducted by the ogre Rahwana after ignoring Rama’s safety precautions. The most dramatic setting to watch Kecak is in the open near Pura Tanah Lot temple with the sunset as a backdrop.
Almost as entertaining as the professional performance was watching the little local girls practice the traditional Bali dances. As luck would have it, we were driving by one of the many temples in Ubud when our guide suddenly ordered the driver to pull over. He hustled us out of the car and over to the open-air practice. The girls were adorable! There were no other tourists here and I felt privileged to be allowed to spectate this part of their everyday lives.
3. Go scuba diving
There are a plethora of dive sites in Bali, clustered around the northeast tip, easternmost point, and south coast. You’ll find diverse marine life around the reefs and you may even spot an elusive sunfish. The USAT Liberty wreck from WWII, located in Tulamben, is one of the most famous dive spots in the world. The wrecked ship itself has become something of a living reef, enveloped in marine life, coral, fans, and seagrass. The vessel is open, filtering abundant sunlight, so it’s possible to swim in and out of the various ship compartments without fear of becoming entrapped. Throughout the island are various options for certified as well as first-time divers.
4. Visit one, or a thousand, temples
Bali is sometimes called “the land of 1,000 temples,” but it has been estimated that there may be up to 20,000 temples of various sizes on the island. The biggest and holiest of all temples is Pura Beskih, the “Mother Temple” 3,000 feet high at Mt. Agung. Sunset at Pura Tanah Lot is one of Bali’s best photo opportunities with its perch on a rocky outcropping. The stunning temple is always crowded, even though access to it is limited to low tide. Pura Taman Ayun was built in the 1600s and is a stunning example of a royal public temple. Gunung Kawi Sebatu Temple, locally referred to as Pura Tirta Dawa Gunung Kawi Sebatu, is distinctly different, as it’s one of the least visited temple complexes. Beautiful and peaceful, it contains a petirtaan or bathing structure spouting fresh spring water for the Hindu ritual purification bath.
5. Pamper yourself at a resort
If you want to avoid the chaos of Kuta, head to Nusa Dua in southern Bali. Here you will find luxury hotels, shopping, water-based activities, and the international convention center. There are some great values to be had in this area, such as the oceanfront four-star Grand Aston Bali Beach Resort. And here are some more luxury hotels in Bali.
It’s also a great place to base yourself to visit some of the best beaches in southern Bali, like Green Bowl Beach at the southernmost tip.
For peace and quiet, the islands off the coast of Bali have private resorts where you can spend a relaxing day. I highly recommend Bali Hai Beach Club on Lembongan Island!
6. Get a reading from a local (or famous!) shaman
Whether you have a life-pressing question, a physical condition, or just curious, seek out one of Bali’s healers for a private consultation. In Ibud, I got to meet Ketut Liyer, the now deceased medicine man who was made famous as the healer in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. At his (then) advanced age, the stooped and wizened 9th generation healer did not give advice but sat nearby and observed as his son did the actual readings.
While this was an amazing experience for $35, I quickly determined I wasn’t going to make any life-altering decisions after my palm-reader said I wasn’t going to have any more children. Pretty much a no-brainer, but I gave him my most toothy smile, basking in the compliment.
7. Beachcomb at Kuta Beach
Kuta was one of Bali’s first tourist developments. Once a rustic fishing village, the Indian Ocean beach town is now a favorite entertainment spot with both locals and Australian tourists due to its reputation as one of the Top 10 Wildest Beaches. There is a white-sand beach behind a downtown spilling over with shops, bars, restaurants, and nightlife. The beach is usually very crowded with kiosks hawking food, beer, and souvenirs along the boardwalk. It’s not the best beach in Bali, but the quirky vibe is worth spending a day here, provided it’s not during peak season where vomiting partiers and vile tee shirts prevail.
8. Become a Balinese princess
If you want to channel your inner little girl, don’t miss this fun, one-hour dress-up experience. Literally, hundreds of costume options from traditional to wedding garb are offered from multiple photo albums. Once chosen, you are stuffed into a corset and dressed from head to toe. Next, authentic make-up is applied before you are led into the studio. The large room houses a variety of background sets, props, and lighting for the professional photo shoot. Kuku Indah fee includes transportation to and from your hotel, 12 printed color photos in an album as well as a photo CD.
9. Ride an ocean raft to the outer islands
Visiting Bali’s sensational sister islands Bali’s sensational sister islands – Nusa Ceningan, Nusa Lembongan, and Nusa Penida – off the southeast coast is a must. You can visit all three on an adventure day tour on a power raft (you will get wet!) or spend more time on one or more. For surfing, go to Nusa Lembongan. As part of the Coral Triangle, Nusa Penida, offers a variety of dive sites with diverse marine life in the reefs. Ceningan is the smallest of the three islands, a tropical paradise marked by calm, iridescent aqua and azure water lapping onto a white sandy beach.
10. Hike a volcano
Also known as the Land of the Gods, Bali’s looming volcanoes stand sentry to the heavens. Mt. Batur is an active volcano offering stunning views from peaks piercing the clouds down to Lake Batur, the largest crater lake on the island. There is a sunrise trek to the summit which is best undertaken by physically fit hikers, taking around two hours.
11. Feast on the local cuisine
Bali is one of the few regions in Indonesia where the major religion and culture is Hindu, not Muslim, so babi guling , or roasted suckling pig, is a savory specialty and something to try. Do opt for the traditional dessert – black sticky rice with freshly grated coconut and drizzled (or in my case, drenched) with sweet palm syrup. It’s delicious and tastes better than it looks! The best place to try Balinese cuisine? Why, any place with a view, of course!
12. Drink jungle cat poop coffee
The #1 most expensive coffee in the world is made of the #2 of a jungle cat. Kopi Luwak, aka Bali jungle cat poop coffee, is produced in the jungles of Bali. After spending about a day and a half in the civet cat’s digestive tract, the partially digested beans are expelled in clumps through the defecation process, thus gaining the alias “cat poop coffee.” The collected beans are harvested, washed and roasted. Believe it or not, the coffee has a smooth flavor with just a tiny hint of caramel.
Would you dare to try this cat poop beverage? Read more about my memorable crapachino experience!
13. Visit a monkey forest
While the Ubud Monkey Forest is more well-known, we visited the Sangeh Monkey Forest because (1) it was more convenient in our day’s plans, and (2) Ubud was notorious for money bites and attacks. The scenery and temples in Sangeh were not as visually stunning as in Ubud, but the monkeys here were not as rowdy as what I’d heard about Ubud. Note that the monkey forests are not zoos. The monkeys are wild, even though they are acclimated to human visits. I took the appropriate precautions – did not buy bananas, had no food, gum or mints in my backpack, did not approach the animals – so we had a great visit observing their comical behavior. Monkey bites are painful and can lead to rabies – ain’t nobody got time for that!
Make sure you’re prepared for all the adventures — here’s what to pack for Bali.
Need more time there? Here’s a great 2-week itinerary in Bali.
Revised; first published in Huffington Post 1/18/2016.
IMPORTANT! Never travel to any foreign country without travel insurance! Random, unplanned things can happen. I was involved in a horrendous car crash in South Africa in 2014.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.