Yeah, I know, everyone in Hong Kong is already on their sixth visit to Bali, but I went for the first time over Chinese New Year and felt compelled to write a guide for first-timers. Haven’t been yet? GO!
Lay of the Land
It’s your first visit to Bali, so you’ll probably want to hit up all the talked-about areas, such as Ubud, Seminyak and Uluwatu. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t sneak a day trip to the Gili Islands in there—you definitely should—but a little time in each of these three ‘hoods will reward you with a pretty well-rounded trip.
Ubud is quintessential Bali: glittering rice terraces, majestic temples every two feet, jungle loveliness, a monkey park and yogi wellness retreats everywhere in between. I’d suggest a private three-hour biking tour with Bali Bintang (IDR400,000 ($264), www.balibintangtour.com) to see the local life and rice paddies up close.
In Seminyak, you’ll find a posh take on island life, with upscale beach-fashion boutiques, organic restos and stylish beach clubs. Sound like your kinda scene? Beautiful people and delicious Wagyu burgers abound at Potato Head Beach Club (www.ptthead.com, spend IDR250,000 ($165) per person for a day bed).
Uluwatu is a farther-flung gem, which trades Seminyak’s grinding traffic for striking cliff-side retreats, surfing camps, ornate temples and dozens of beaches. If you have a week, I’d suggest three days in Ubud, two in Seminyak and the rest in Uluwatu, with daytime excursions.
Then there’s Jimbaran Bay, great for a sunset seafood dinner (read on) but it’s lacking in charm and is quite crowded. Nusa Dua is a resort complex in the Bukit Peninsula. The facilities do offer some of the most swimmable beaches, but the sterile surrounds are void of character. And then there’s Kuta. Unless you dig dirty sand and dirtier bars… move right along.
There are basically two ways to see the sights unless you are comfortable driving yourself: taxis and private drivers. Taxis are everywhere—you can’t go two feet without being offered a ride—but it’s typical for cabbies to quote a flat rate that’s about three times the metered price, which starts at IDR6,000 ($4).
Since Bali is much more sprawling than you might imagine, hiring a driver is really popular. This costs about IDR600,000 ($396) a day. We’ve had great luck with drivers Wayan Warga ((+62) 81-2365-0694) and Ketut Seraya ((+62) 81-2467-3539), but a general tip: be clear about your itinerary or else you may be in for some commissioned pit stops.
Eating in Bali can easily be left up to chance. Almost every meal you have will be a great one, but these five places totally blew me away.
Breakfast: If you’re in search of a healthy breakfast complete with fresh smoothies and strong coffee, then make a visit to Drop The Coffee Spot in Seminyak (888x Jalan Petitenget, (+62) 812-3678-6859).
Lunch: The talked-about Warung Ibu Oka (Jalan Suweta, Ubud, (+62) 3-6197-6345) has several locations around Bali, but we stopped into the village sprawl of the Ubud branch. Get there before 1pm to dig into the famous suckling pig, all while sitting on mats in charming open-air huts. The food and ambience is hard to beat.
Make your way to Dirty Duck Diner (Jalan Hanoman, Padang Tegal, Ubud, (+62) 361-975-489,bebekbengil.com), a two-decades-old eatery that makes its way onto most foodie shortlists, and you’ll be wowed all over again. With views over a lush rice paddy field and some amazing fried duck, this is a great option for a big lunch or dinner.
Dinner: If you like ribs, you cannot miss the juicy, grilled slabs of meat that are served up atNaughty Nuri’s (41 Jalan Batubelig, Kuta, (+62) 36-1847-6722, www.naughtynurisbali.com). This playful spot is covered in Miss Piggy memorabilia and has a couple of branches across Bali.
For an evening outdoors, head to Menega Cafe (Jalan Four Seasons, Muaya Beach, Jimbaran, (+62) 3617-0588, www.menega.com) at dusk, where you can tear into freshly caught red snapper, giant prawns and squid—all grilled to perfection and served alongside a generous sunset.
So… About those Beaches
While daydreaming about my trip to Bali, I pictured sweeping white-sand beaches, gently crashing waves and big-ass cocktails on repeat. While the big-ass cocktails weren’t a problem, the first few Bali beaches I saw were totally underwhelming—picture trashed sand, strong currents and rocky surf. It wasn’t till we explored the Bukit Peninsula that we came across screensaver-worthy surf.
If you can handle photo-snapping passersby, Padang Padang—aka the “Eat Pray Love” beach—is fantastic. You walk between towering boulders until you step out into the sunshine. Another promising spot is Pantai Pandawa, which costs IDR5,000 ($3) to enter as there are five famous statues lining the cliffside. If you like to surf, then make your way to Balangan Beach. It’s a hidden gem near the bigger, more touristy Dreamland Beach, that’s home to lots of local cafés, hammocks and lounge chairs.
Prefer a little more indulgence with your seaside escapades? Head straight to Finn’s Beach Clubat Semara Uluwatu Resort (Jalan Pantai Selatan Gau, Uluwatu, (+62) 36-1848-2111,www.finnsbeachclub.com). Spend IDR250,000 ($165) at the restaurant, and you can hang around the stunning cliffside infinity pool or take a funicular down to the beach bar and sundeck.
Where to Stay
There are dozens of incredible resorts in Bali, but they come with hefty price tags. Budget travelers can find some excellent options on Airbnb (www.airbnb.com). I found a great three-bedroom Airbnb villa in Seminyak that was about $250 per person, per night (for a group of five), and included daily cleaning, airport pickup, basic groceries and an outdoor pool.
If you stay in the Uluwatu area, I’d suggest the Anantara Bali Uluwatu Resort & Spa (from $2,443. Jalan Uluwatu, (+62) 361-895-7555), which is set atop “Impossible Beach,” a favorite among surfers. Reasonably priced compared to its neighbors, the resort has a beautiful design that mimics the rice paddies, and comes complete with sea-view villas, outdoor bathtubs, an infinity pool overlooking the Bali Sea, a tranquil spa and an awesome Indonesian restaurant with an enviable view.
This article originally appeared in HK Magazine, in print and online.