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First time Bali: where to eat, stay and play

Lonely Planet logo Lonely Planet 8/04/2015 Samantha Chalker

Rice fields in Bali bathed in early-morning sunshine, with a backdrop of Gunung Agung volcano. Image by Michele Falzone / The Image Bank / Getty Images © Provided by Lonely Planet Rice fields in Bali bathed in early-morning sunshine, with a backdrop of Gunung Agung volcano. Image by Michele Falzone / The Image Bank / Getty Images Decades of tourism haven’t dampened Bali’s deep-rooted spirituality and natural charms. Volcanoes rise from the sea, monkeys swing in the trees, and there are still dozens of idyllic spots to escape the crowds. And all of this paradoxical magnificence is crammed onto an island less than half the size of greater Tokyo.

But first-time visitors to Bali can be forgiven for being confused about what to expect. Images from holiday brochures and Hollywood films contrast with rumours that Bali is crowded with Australian tourists, dangerous to visit, and tragically over-developed – a criticism that could be levied at any number of global tourist hotspots. Discover it yourself with our guide to finding your own piece of paradise on the Island of the Gods.

1. Kuta, Legian and Seminyak

Tourists enjoy the sunset in Ku de ta cafe on Seminyak beach in Bali. © Dimas Ardian/Getty Images Tourists enjoy the sunset in Ku de ta cafe on Seminyak beach in Bali. Seminyak remains an epitome of sophistication, Kuta still plays the wild child, and Legian falls somewhere in between. But this 12km stretch of south Bali all boasts wonderfully diverse shopping, myriad accommodation options, world-class dining, authentic warungs (food stalls), beach bars, clubs and day spas.

Must-dos include sunset cocktails at Potato Head Beach Club; conga lines and coconut cocktails at Motel Mexicola (motelmexicola.com); haggling and people watching on Kuta Beach; and a day of shopping and eating on Jl Laksmana, also known as Oberoi, Eat Street or Jl Kayu Aya. You will be hard-pressed to find a traveller on the island who hasn’t dipped into this lively precinct.

2. Greater Canggu

Vibrant rice fields in Canggu, one of Bali's most iconic sights. Image by Jason Paris / CC BY 2.0 © Provided by Lonely Planet Vibrant rice fields in Canggu, one of Bali's most iconic sights. Image by Jason Paris / CC BY 2.0 Most maps still class this area as ‘north Kuta’. But locals will insist the expat-heavy enclave of Canggu has well and truly arrived. Greater Canggu, including Umalas, Kerobokan, Echo Beach, Berewa and Pererenan, has lured a carefree and creative crowd. You might find yourself manoeuvring a scooter between lost cows on your way to a perfect macchiato at Crate Café (about a kilometre back from the beach on Batu Bolong) or savouring vegan pad Thai at Green Ginger Noodle House.

Accommodation here is less about upmarket chain hotels and more about boutique and unique, from upscale luxury villas like RedDoor Bali to cheap and cheerful bungalow hideaways like United Colors of Bali. The area’s to-do list has lengthened considerably over the past decade, with a ten-pin bowling alley, tennis courts, a water park, and trampoline centre in the Canggu Club precinct alone. Don’t miss a trip to neighbouring Tabanan’s Pura Tanah Lot temple that sits among crashing waves on an isolated rock. 

3. Bukit Peninsula, Nusa Dua and Jimbaran Bay

Blue sky and crashing surf at Ulu Watu. Image by Samantha Chalker / Lonely Planet © Provided by Lonely Planet Blue sky and crashing surf at Ulu Watu. Image by Samantha Chalker / Lonely Planet The fist of land jutting out from southern Bali encompasses diverse tourist centres offering their own versions of a dreamy day at the beach. The Bukit Peninsula offers up the world-famous waves of Ulu Watu, surf-shack vibes of Bingin, and unfathomably clear waters of Dreamland and Pandang Padang. If you’ve been pawing through holiday brochures, you may recognise one of Ulu’s main attractions, the Rock Bar (ayanaresort.com/rockbarbali) at Ayana Resort, overlooking Jimbaran Bay. This glamorous venue is accessible by an open-air elevator that is rarely without a sizeable sunset queue.

Sweeping south from Bali’s airport, Jimbaran Bay itself is more low-key. Tourists line up for freshly barbecued seafood, but more adventurous travellers should swap seafood warungs for Jimbaran Fish Market.

Over at Nusa Dua, things revert back to elegant and excessive, with top-of-the-line golf courses, umpteen high tea options and five-star resorts aplenty. 

4. Ubud and Central Bali

The holy bathing site of Tirta Empul Temple. Image by Samantha Chalker / Lonely Planet © Provided by Lonely Planet The holy bathing site of Tirta Empul Temple. Image by Samantha Chalker / Lonely Planet A haven for the artistic, spiritual and alternative, Ubud is where Bali’s heartbeat can be heard. Here, vegan cafes, crystal shops, chakra cleansing workshops and canvas artwork stores reign supreme. Other drawcards include the Royal Palace, the cheeky inhabitants of the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, and boho shopping galore.

A swanky trip to Ubud might include a stay at the indulgent Bidadari Retreat and a night of palate-pleasuring at Locavore. A more grass-roots experience could include experimental dance classes at perfectly peculiar Michi Retreat (michiretreat.com), and deep conversations over quinoa at Alchemy.

Central Bali’s tapestry of wonders stretches well beyond Ubud. The valleys flowing off Gunung Batukaru (Mount Batukaru), rice terraces of Munduk, the lakes and botanical gardens of Bedugul, and holy water bathing site of Tirta Empul Temple are just a few places well worth a visit.

5. East Bali and Sanur

Bali's largest volcano, Gunung Agung, makes a striking silhouette. Image by Curtis Foreman / CC BY 2.0 © Provided by Lonely Planet Bali's largest volcano, Gunung Agung, makes a striking silhouette. Image by Curtis Foreman / CC BY 2.0 With arguably the island’s best dive spots right off the shores of Amed and Candidasa, and the island’s highest point, Gunung (Mount) Agung, looming authoritatively above them, east Bali is a place of literal highs and lows.

Make time for the floating palace of Puri Taman Ujung and seek out the quaint fishing village of Amed, home to the jam/tea/kombucha garden of Aiona, great villas (such as Bukit Segara), and restaurants offering every variation of mahi-mahi under the scorching Indonesian sun.

Sanur blends the best of the laid-back fishing village feel of the east and the great dining and lodging on offer in the south. Try your hand at kite surfing or learn the intricacies of Indonesia’s culinary favourites at Bamboo Shoots cooking school (bambooshootsbali.com). Coincide your visit with the International Kite Festival to see Sanur in full swing.

6. North Bali

Don't consider yourself a morning person? A sunrise boat ride in North Bali might change that. Image by Samantha Chalker / Lonely Planet © Provided by Lonely Planet Don't consider yourself a morning person? A sunrise boat ride in North Bali might change that. Image by Samantha Chalker / Lonely Planet In north Bali, days start with dolphin-watching trips from Lovina in traditional outrigger canoes, followed by long afternoons bathing in the mossy air terjun (waterfalls) of Sekumpul, Gitgit and Sambangan. Be prepared for a few stairs, but as a general rule, more stairs equal less crowds.

For a window into Bali’s past, swing by the town of Singaraja, the administrative centre of Bali during Dutch colonial times and, until the boom of the south, the port of arrival for most visitors.

7. West Bali

Families of deer roam across West Bali National Park. Image by Ketut Arnaya skip imagery / Moment Open / Getty Images © Provided by Lonely Planet Families of deer roam across West Bali National Park. Image by Ketut Arnaya skip imagery / Moment Open / Getty Images Many travellers can’t look beyond West Bali as the gateway to good surf, blazing their way to Medewi or Java. All the while, they are skirting the stunning Taman Taman Nasional Bali Barat (West Bali National Park) with its calm, secluded beaches that are home to families of wild deer, and unique regional flavours like ayam betutu, a wood-smoked chicken broth served with rice and spicy spinach.

Off the coast of west Bali, Menjangan Island offers one of Bali’s least crowded dive spots, despite the appeal of its fluorescent marine life and surreal coral cliffs. On the high edge of west and north Bali, the mythical stone fountain baths of Air Panas Banjar nod to the island’s strong spiritual roots.

8. Nusa Lembongan

Cast aside glamorous resorts for the unspoiled charms of Nusa Lembongan. Image by Bart Speelman / CC BY 2.0: Vibrant rice fields in Canggu, one of Bali's most iconic sights. Image by Jason Paris / CC BY 2.0 © Provided by Lonely Planet Vibrant rice fields in Canggu, one of Bali's most iconic sights. Image by Jason Paris / CC BY 2.0 When the madness of the mainland gets too much, Nusa Lembongan is just a 30-minute boat ride across the Badung Strait. Ignoring the presence of a few new resorts and modern cafes, the appeal of Lembongan lies in the authenticity of island life.

While away your days surfing, diving and snorkelling, experimenting with yoga moves on a stand-up paddleboard, kayaking through mangrove forests, or getting a feel for the island’s seaweed farming industry. If that doesn’t keep you occupied, walk the yellow suspension bridge to Nusa Ceningan where you can dine or sleep at the boat shed-style Le Pirate Beach Club.

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