Finding the balance in beautiful Bali
Not many places could recover from the devastation caused by a double terrorist attack within the space of three years but then Bali is no ordinary island.
When you have pristine sandy beaches, a 3,000-metre active volcano, a population governed by the spiritualism of the Hindu religion, a tropical climate, culinary delights on every street corner and some of the world’s most luxurious holiday resorts then it is easy to see why tourists flocked back to this enchanting Indonesian island and in doing so shrugged off the fear those terrorists aimed to create.
Those attacks of 2002 and 2005 are not forgotten here but with the tourism industry fully recovered Bali is booming – some are even asking if it has gone too far.
In Bali’s unique take on the Hindu religion achieving ‘harmonious balance’ provides the means to gaining prosperity, welfare and, more importantly, happiness so after two months exploring the often chaotic and taxing cities of South East Asia, we headed to the island in search of a little equilibrium.
With so much to offer, Bali draws people from all walks of life and from all corners of the world not just for one visit, but again and again and for those who truly fall prey to the island’s charms – even for life.
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There are the hordes of young hot-blooded Australians who pour into the surfing and clubbing mecca of Kuta, just as the British head to Costa del Sol. What it lacks in grace and culture Kuta makes up for in hedonism and excitement. Then there are the more discerning visitors, who also come to Bali in droves hoping to achieve that elusive ‘harmonious balance’ in their lives. They head to the town of Ubud, the island’s cultural and spiritual heartbeat. And then there are the multitudes, whose pockets are slightly deeper, who head to one of the island’s luxury resorts to relax and recline in style.
Unfortunately we landed in Kuta, which although it has one of the best surfing beaches around, the hordes of drunken revellers and rowdy bars, which make Hampstead’s Tinseltown seem like a library in comparison, were a shock to the system and knocked us off course. If I had come here 10 years ago, with a group of friends then Kuta and its nightlife might have been idyllic, but I like to think I have matured since then. So after just one sleepless night we snubbed the chance to learn to surf and instead headed inland to Ubud.
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Many intrigued visitors have come to this town, stationed on the gentle slopes on the central hills, over the years most famously the American author Elizabeth Gilbert. She thought it would be good to tell the world in her best-selling 2006 novel Eat, Pray, Love, how a trip to Ubud helped her recover from her doomed marriage. She found her spiritual and emotional healing in Bali with the help of a local medicine man and more significantly a Brazilian hunk. Millions, although I have to say I was not one of them, were interested in her story and the book was made into a blockbuster movie with Julia Roberts landing the role of Gilbert. The success of both book and film has given Bali’s tourist industry a well deserved boost and the impact is noticeable everywhere as most resorts and hotels now offer their own Eat Pray Love tours.
On the streets of Ubud you cannot help but notice an unusual high number of well dressed, middle-aged western women possibly making their own pilgrimage in search of love on this idyllic island. Or perhaps, they have just left their husbands in one of the many swanky bars and cafes minus his credit card and sneaked off for a spot of holiday shopping in some of the numerous designer boutiques scattered around town.
Bali’s famed spirituality is on show in Ubud everywhere you look from the dozens of Hindu temples to the petite religious offerings, known as Canang Sari, placed in front of each house and shop on a daily basis. These gifts of gratitude include flowers and a few spoonfuls of rice. Unfortunately, they appear to the untrained eye of a tourist like me to be unwanted leftovers from a takeaway dinner and either kicked instinctively towards the nearest street cleaner or squashed inadvertently under a flip flop. Thankfully no bad seemed to come of my numerous accidental acts of disrespect to the Hindu gods.
Ubud sucks in visitors and often holds them for a lot longer than they expect. Dance and music shows are popular here, as are the numerous courses the town offers from culture and cooking to painting and woodcarving and give tourists a good excuse to extend their stay.
But this island, where visitors in some guise or another have been coming for thousands of years, offers much more than Kuta and Ubud. Peaceful fishing villages, most of which come with beaches, are dotted around a coastline, which can be driven in its entirety in just one day. We passed through Padangbai, a small beach town which acts as the main port ferrying sun seeking tourists to a trio of irresistible traffic-free islands, known as the Gilis to bathe in their turquoise waters or stretch out on the white sands that ring each island.
The chance to dive with sharks, sting rays and mantas is what brings many of them here and the snorkeling opportunities are almost unrivalled. An untimely and painful tropical ear infection ruled me out of the chance of a guided dive but I was still able to don the face mask and breathing tube and enjoy a dip with various characters from Finding Nemo, Pixar’s acclaimed animated film centering on the life of a clown fish on a coral reef.
Speed boats offer tourists a quick option to get to the Gilis from Padangbai but we took the slower route by hopping on the public ferry to the neighbouring island of Lombok and heading north along the coast with a three-day stopover at the town of Sengiggi and its deserted beaches.
Lombok was just about to take off before the global recession kicked-in so the postponement of plans to build numerous five-star hotel resorts means it still offers an island getaway slightly less tainted by the hand of tourism.
Back in Bali, still trying to find our balance, we headed to one of the island’s celebrated luxury resorts many of which line the coast on the southern Bukit peninsular. If you are on a no-expense spared luxury break in Bali then much will depend on the quality of the resort you opt for and we were placed in the hands of the staff at the award winning Ayana Resort and Spa, ideally located just south of the international airport and close to the famous seafood Warung (restaurants) which line the beach at Jimbaran.
Ayana, named after ‘a place of refuge for the Gods’, is no ordinary complex. It is perched on limestone cliffs above Jimbaran Bay and offers majestic views across the Indian Ocean from the comfort of your own deluxe villa or hotel room.
Some say decades of tourism has spoiled Bali beyond repair, but it is hard to agree with that notion when you look at how Ayana has built and operates its superb resort among its 77 hectares of land.
Not only do the 78 villas, set in their own traditional walled courtyard garden, offer panoramic views and spacious deluxe rooms, they each come with their own plunge pool and a 24-hour on-call butler who will ferry you effortlessly around the resort’s bars and restaurants, in his buggy.
Both Bali and the Ayana resort have so much to offer but you will feel guilty for even setting foot outside the surrounds of your villa, such is the comfort and tranquility they provide. Apart from the Ocean Beach pool, the one place you must venture to is the somewhat misleadingly named Rock Bar. No, this is no hangout for long haired rockers to come and thrash their air guitars, but a cool open top cocktail bar dramatically perched on a rocky outcrop just 46 feet above the Indian Ocean offering the best seats in Bali to watch the sun go down.
If there are any romantics out there desperately searching for a memorable place to get down on one knee and pop the question then look no further than the Rock Bar. And if she gave the correct answer and you are in a hurry to tie the knot before she changes her mind then Ayana can take care of that too.
As well as the Rock Bar, Ayana boasts an impressive selection of 13 other restaurants and bars. With a healthy appetite for Japanese cuisine we headed to the excellent Honzen restaurant where we enjoyed a sumptuous meal in our own private booth. Those who have a palate for seafood can head down to Kisik, situated just a pebbles throw from the ocean. And for couples wanting to up the ante in romance then ‘Dinner on the Pier’ – just the two of you alone on a private jetty, surrounded by dozens of candles and the accompaniment of your own Gamelan music ensemble will definitely suffice.
The resort is also home to the Thermes Marins Bali Spa which offers anything from a traditional Balinese massage to a hydrotherapy session at the world’s largest Aquatonic Seawater Therapy Pool, where mind and body can be relaxed and rehabilitated by water jets at the pool’s 12 hydromassage stations.
Medicine men, natural healers and gifts to the gods are all very well and good but if you are in Bali to find that elusive ‘harmonious balance’ and you leave the grounds of Ayana resort without finding it then I would just throw in the towel.
o For prices and more details on the Ayana Resort and Spa Bali, visit www.ayanaresort.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.