12 Perfect Days in Bali

Whenever I fly, I love to check out the in-flight magazines. And one of my favorite features is Hemispheres mag’s “Three Perfect Days.” It gives you a 72-hour breakdown of how to spend your time in a city–say, Paris–if you’re a foodie or a shopper or a lay-by-the-beach kinda gal. But three days?! It’s just not long enough. So, in case you ever find yourself in Bali, Indonesia, here are a few suggestions on how to fill 12 memorable days. While I type this, I will daydream that I am still there. Ahhhh …

My Bali friend for the day ...

Our trip to Bali was centered around a few things: yoga (which we did twice a day, almost every day–it was a yoga retreat, after all), surfing (okay, that was for me) and food (the healthiest-eating two weeks of my life). But you don’t have to love any of that to love Bali.

The first advice I will give you is on travel. Bali is far away, no two ways around it. If you can get a direct flight into Hong Kong, Bangkok or Tokyo, that’s ideal. Then you can take a second flight into Bali that will only take 4-6 hours. A lot of airlines offer this option. We flew on miles, so we all had to take a few flights. I was in Houston for work, so I flew from there to Newark to meet Lindsay and James. We then flew from there to Frankfurt (9 hours) to Bangkok (11 hours) to Densepar, Bali (4 hours), with five hours at each stop. Ubud is a one-hour drive from the airport and, no, we did not rent a car. You can, and should, take taxis everywhere and rent scooters for about $3 a day while you’re in town. If you feel daring.

We stayed in Ubud, which is centrally located in the southern area of Bali. The trip was organized by our friends Troy and Tess from Sun Salute Yoga in Dana Point, Calif., so they opted to stay in a more spiritually centered, and geographically centered, area of Bali. And it was wonderful. At first, I thought I would regret not staying at the beach. But I was wrong. Ubud was breathtaking and quickly became one of my favorite cities in the world. And because we weren’t staying at the beach, we took day trips to several beaches. It was fun to see how different each beach is from the next, even if it’s only a few kilometers away.

The Wantalan at Melati where we did yoga each morning and afternoon.

We stayed at Melati Cottages in an area of Ubud called Penestanan, which is located atop a hill and surrounded by rice patties. The area is known as the “arts and crafts” center of Ubud. Melati was built 25 years ago, so every taxi driver in the city knows exactly where to take you–and they will, for about $2 U.S. each way. The rooms are very large, and the views are stunning. I can’t think of a more peaceful way to wake up–at 6 am, which we did every morning to take our first yoga class of the day. The morning sky is beautiful. And the cost: $30 a night for a single room, including breakfast, and $40 for a double. (The single is more than big enough for two, or three, people.)

To cut down on the weight of our already overweight suitcases, we didn’t fly with many toiletries. Instead, we stopped on our first day at the Bintang supermarket (“star” in Balinese; also the name of their ubiquitous local beer) and purchased anything we’d need. To say prices are low in Bali is the understatement of the vacation. I spent $9 U.S. on two weeks worth of toiletries.

That's one way to drink a coconut in Bali ...

If you’re going to do yoga, you must, must, must check out Yoga Barn. The teachers are fantastic and it’s about as great a space for both doing yoga and meeting likeminded people as you will find in Ubud. On Monday night, we went to their Monday Movie night and watched The Beatles Yellow Submarine. We also took a class there on Saturday morning after our retreat officially ended (bye, new friends Tess, Troy, Tammy, Bruce and Jess!) and even partied with the Yoga Barn instructors at this beautiful, secluded home/retreat owned by musician and activist Michael Franti, called Soul Shine. I would definitely think about spending some time there on my next trip. Soul Shine retreat, anyone?!

FOOD: I have done a lot of traveling. But I don’t think I’ve come upon a place that is so food conscious and health conscious than Bali. So much thought and time goes into the preparation of everything. There is no such thing as fast food in Bali. (Okay, unless you find yourself at a KFC or McDonald’s at the beach. And if you do, shame on you!) I ate more tempeh than I had in my life, and didn’t have a stitch of seafood until the end of the trip. This is a vegetarian’s dream vacation spot. Meat lovers, you might have a tough time. But they have safe chicken in most places and a good amount of seafood–shrimp and fish, mostly–to keep you satiated. Our favorites:

Too many cooks in the kitchen?

* Kafe, which is owned by the same folks as the Yoga Barn. We could have eaten here three meals a day, every day. And don’t think we didn’t try. Their fresh juices were reason enough to walk into town, and their rice dishes and tempeh were unmatched. And, free wi-fi, (pronounced wye-fee) of course.

* Clear Cafe – Our favorite dinner spot. Much more relaxed and reserved than Kafe. You want to spend the day hanging out at Kafe. You want to unwind and take a date to Clear. And, according to their menu, their lattes, “will change your life.”

* Lala Lili Warung (You’ll see the word “warung” a lot. It means cafe.) – This was a hidden gem behind our cottages. To get there, you walk a path through the village that winds around the rice patties. Very beautiful, but definitely bring your flashlight after dark! We loved their Sambuchas and their nasi gorang (“gorang” means fried. You’ll see this word a lot, too. They love fried rice.) We loved taking off our shoes and sitting indian style on cushions on the floor.

* Juice Ja Cafe – Wheat grass shots for everyone! They are a must when visiting Juice Ja, which is locate on this fun little cut-through street in the main part of town. We kept calling it the “fancy” part of town, because several of the stores there take credit cards and charge prices more akin to what we’d see in the west. In discounted stores, anyway.

* Pizza Baugs – When we were too tired to leave Melati, we ordered in. And surprisingly, PB lived up to its reputation. We also had pizza at Bali Buddha, a Kafe-like healthy living organic restaurant, and it was a toss up. Although Molly gave the edge to Bali Buddha.

* Three Monkeys – The only non-traditional restaurant we ate at, the food here was terrific. I’d save this for a nice dinner. And have the pumpkin ravioli. It’s all anyone who ate here talked about for days.

* Cafe Luna – Located right on the main strip into town, Cafe Luna is one of the first restaurants you see (when heading to town from Melati). It’s worth the stop. The food is great, as well as the live music during dinner.

Waiting for the sun to rise atop Mt. Batur, with Lindsay, Molly, James and Tammy ...

DRINKS: As much as we talked about all the late-night dancing we would do, we did very little of it. Our early morning wake-up calls and jam-packed days had us so tired that we barely made it out past 10. Still, we found a few fun spots. (But we never made it to Jazz Bar. Next time, we promise!)

* Bali is not a destination for wine drinkers. Instead, have a Bintang. Or a lychee martini. The fruity, foofy drinks are wonderful. As are their coffee-inspired drinks.

* Laughing Buddah was a fun spot to listen to music and have a drink. As was the harder-to-find Bar Luna. Naughty Nuri’s is a great place to congregate with expats. As is Nomad, which is located right on the strip. They make a mean mango martini.

* Round Bar – A new spot in Penestanan made entirely of recycled materials, the guys who work here are so much fun, and it was only steps from the parking lot of our cottages. We even had Lindsay’s birthday party here on the last night of the retreat.

* Definitely check out some late-night fire dancing. We went to the Kecak Fire and Trance Dance, which cost about $8 U.S. and was a really beautiful hour and a half of entertainment. A piece of advice, though: Don’t do as we did and go the night you get into town. It’s much more fun when you’re fully awake and not fearful you might fall in the fire.

*While we were in Ubud, so was the Ubud International Writer’s and Reader’s Festival. We missed the festival, but joined in for the closing-night party at the Don Antonio Blanco Museum, which is located just down the hill from our hotel. If you’re in town, check it out. The grounds are beautiful and Blanco is the most famous artist to ever live in Bali. His work is really beautiful, as is all of the woodworking and art in the country. If only I had my own ship to bring home. I’d have a new dining room table, that’s for sure!

Biking through the rice fields ... Can you guess which one of us fell in? (No! It wasn't me!)

DAY TRIPS: We did a lot of exploring, and these were our favorite adventures.

* Take a cooking class! Okay, this one surprised all of us, especially those of us whose idea of cooking is not using the microwave. But this was a magical experience. Run by a family in Ubud, the Lobong Cooking Class is as much cultural experience as it is cooking class. You learn to make nine dishes, which includes a few sauces and dessert, but more importantly, you learn the thinking behind why they cook the way they do. And how their family units are organized. It was fascinating, and it made all of us think differently about the way we eat and prepare our food. A must, must, must do in Ubud.

* Get a massage! Every day! The spas in town are fantastic, and the best ones are found by doing a bit of exploring. Sometimes, the best spas are hidden down pathways that look like they lead to nowhere. A typical hour massage will cost between $7-9. A high-priced massage at one of the fancier spas will run you $20.

Banyan Tree Cycling Tours – For $55, you are picked up at your hotel at 7:30 a.m., and driven to the mountains, where you start your day with breakfast. Then you pick up your bikes and ride for about three hours through rice fields, jungles and rural villages and learn about Balinese culture and spirituality. Then you have lunch. Extreme mountain bike tours are offered, and those are for experienced single-track riders. But this ride is mellow. You’ll break a sweat now and again, but it’s more about the tour than the workout.

* Volunteer! We spent one afternoon doing “karma yoga” – or, giving back. We spent the afternoon at a school for mentally handicapped children called Sagittarius. We covered books for the library and purchased art made by some of the older children. It was one of my favorite stops in Ubud.

* Visit the monkey forest (located on Monkey Forest Road, of course) in Ubud. For $2, which is donated to the sanctuary, you can feed the monkeys, let them climb on you, chase you, bite you … whatever you desire.

Get that monkey off my back!

* Ride an elephant at the Elephant Safari Park. Not being a huge fan of animals living in captivity, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this place. But it’s a part of the World Zoo Association and the elephants living here were rescued from neighboring islands like Sumatra, where elephants are routinely hunted and poached for their tusks. The elephant Molly and I rode, Nasi, has been at the park with her handler for 10 years, and they came from Sumatra together. There, he said, she was in great danger.  True or not, it made me feel better about the situation. And it was fascinating to see these creatures up close. The elephant Lindsay and James rode was a male who weighed three tons!

* Hike a volcano in the middle of the night. There are two ways to do this, and about a zillion companies that will take you. (Here’s one.) Bali has two active volcanoes, Mt. Batur (1717 meters high) and Mt. Agung (3142 meters). We chose Batur because, while it requires a 2 a.m. pickup and a two-hour hike each way, it is relatively mellow. And still allows you to watch the sun rise from atop a mountain in Bali, which overlooks the beautiful Lake Batur. Agung is more of a commitment. It’s about a six-hour hike each way, which means a 2 a.m. pickup and 12-13 hours of hiking. It’s a full day commitment and not something to tag onto the end of a two-week vacation. Next time, maybe.

BEACHES: I love to surf. I also learned that I love to snorkel. Bali is a wonderful place to SCUBA, as well, but we weren’t that adventurous. Besides, Lindsay was the only person on our trip with a certification. But regardless of what you like to do in the water, all the beaches were great for relaxing in the sand. (We never made it to the southernmost tip of Bali, where the most famous surf breaks are located. Next time!)

* Seminyak – Located on the west coast, Seminyak is a bustling beach town perfect for surfing, eating or looking for night life. This is what I thought the Bali beach scene would be most like. Just to the south, Katur is even more bustling and a popular location with visitors. The sand on the west coast is black sand — and it is hot! The surfing was fun, and there were breaks for everyone–all with sandy bottoms–and plenty of folks willing to rent surfboards on the beach.

* Candidessa (pronounced Chandy-dessa) – This was the most remote, beautiful, Blue Lagoon-type beach we visited in Bali. We spent the day at a secluded little beach here called White Sands Beach. It was the closest to white sand we saw in Bali. Definitely our most indulgent day. We had hour massages on the beach (for $6), drank Bintang and Lindsay and I snorkeled. You only had to swim out about 20 yards to be swimming overtop a beautiful, colorful reef. It was shocking how close to shore the reef was. I could have stayed in there all day. (The water temp everywhere was about 82.)

The complaint box at the Densepar airport. My complaint: That we couldn't stay forever!

* Canggu (Chan-gu) – Our second surf day, I had the most fun in Canggu. But there wasn’t much going on for those who didn’t want to play in the ocean. The bottom was reef, but the break was deep enough that I was never in fear of hitting bottom. I surfed with a local guide, which was amazing. He knew every wave to take and where I should be positioned. It was wonderful. This town has surf breaks for everyone, but less to do than the other towns outside of the water. That said, we followed up our day with a lovely beachside lunch and, of course, a Bintang.

* Sanur – This was our last beach day of the trip. And if we weren’t completely tuckered out, we would have taken part in more of the activities Sanur had to offer: kayaking and surfing – although you had to paddle out about 200 yards to the break – paragliding and snorkeling. We walked the entire two-mile stretch of boardwalk to check out the restaurants and markets and look for the perfect spot to spend the day. If we had more time, I think we all agree we would have spent another day in Sanur.

And we all definitely agree we made a poor decision in not opening a juice stand on the beach and staying for another year or two.

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