Traveller's Guide: Bali

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Beautiful beaches, exquisite temples, great food, tropical scenery and mighty volcanoes – this Indonesian island has it all, says Iain Stewart

Worth the long journey?

The beautiful Indonesian island of Bali appeals to a full spectrum of visitors: karma-seekers attracted to the island's spiritual side; budget-challenged backpackers; hikers and bikers; Aussie and European families; and hardcore surfers. Tourism is the engine room of the economy, much of it centred on Kuta beach in the south, close to the airport. (This area is plagued by heavy traffic, tacky bars and incessant hassle from street vendors peddling everything from trinkets to massages.)

The island packs a lot into its modest footprint on the globe, offering nature on a very grand scale indeed. Only 80 miles across, it's incredibly fecund, and impossibly green away from the heavily developed southern strip. Bali's central volcanoes (Agung is more than 10,000 feet high) attract heavy rainfall, and the soundtrack to life in rural parts is a gurgling stream rushing past a rice field – along with the call of the cockerel and buzz of a moped.

Even though Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country, nine out of 10 Balinese are Hindu. It's an intensely spiritual island whose endemic religion dictates daily life from early dawn – offerings are presented to spirits, incense is burned, and prayers recited on every street corner.

An excellent place to get a feel for Balinese culture in the otherwise deadly-dull capital, Denpasar, is at the Negeri Propinsi Bali museum. It has strong ethnographic content and superb antique textiles, and its compound contains fine examples of Balinese temple pavilions; it opens 8am-4pm Sunday-Thursday, 8am-12.30pm on Friday; admission is 5000Rp (35p).

Is Bali artistic?

Yes. The island's artistic tradition is profound. Hundreds of painters and sculptors are based around Ubud in central Bali, contemporary artists gravitate to Seminyak and cottage industries are everywhere, with villages dedicated to every kind of art form, and roadsides lined with wood carvings and batik paintings.

This artistic mindset permeates the whole island: aesthetically, many rural Balinese houses resemble temples, featuring walls topped with carvings of gods and exquisite gardens. Balinese style influences hotel, restaurant and spa design throughout the island. Many hotels, such as the Waka di Ume (00 62 361 484085; wakadiume.com; from £154 per night double) in Ubud, have gorgeous outdoor bathrooms with pebble floors that mirror traditional public bathing places in the countryside.

There are five other Waka hotels, all Balinese-owned and run, with graceful buildings constructed from local timber and roofs from alang alang thatch. All occupy gorgeous locations set in rural or beachside settings (including one lodge inside the Bali Barat National Park). Frankly, nowhere on earth does tropical chic better than Bali.

The back story?

Though Bali is isolated in faith terms today, Hinduism was the region's principal religion until the 15th century, when Muslim states in neighbouring Java began expanding. As a result, Hindus left East Java en masse for Bali, led by highly literate priests. Since then Bali has evolved its own ritualistic, all-encompassing form of Hinduism, which is very different from the religion practised in India or Nepal: for example, meat is widely eaten.

For authentic Balinese cooking, you can't beat the food market in Ubud, home to dozens of stalls churning out delicate, delicious little morsels such as sate lilit (minced chicken with shallots and lemongrass) grilled over charcoal. And while you're in town, drop by and taste suckling pig at Warung Ibu Oka on Jalan Suweta: if the island has a trademark dish, this is it. For any kind of religious ceremony, locals don traditional dress, made with elaborately patterned batik fabric; both sexes wear sarongs and sashes, and men put on colourful headbands. There are temples everywhere in Bali, even among the bars of Kuta, and at festivals the streets are full of colour and costume. The whole island seems to be moving from one religious event to another.

For the Balinese, positive and malevolent forces are everywhere. All kinds of purification rituals are performed to maintain harmony. After the 2002 bombings on Kuta beach, in which 202 people died, the whole island had to be spiritually cleansed: huge ceremonies were held at the sites of the attacks, and across Bali.

Heart and soul?

Ubud, Bali's spiritual centre, is still an overgrown village. It effortlessly combines the rustic and the spiritual (along with plenty of commerce, another Balinese talent). The whole place has the appearance of a temple, and many homes are still traditional compounds of brick walls topped with Hindu statues.

In some ways Ubud is a victim of its own success: the sheer number of cappuccino bars, spas and boutiques is startling, and traffic congestion is a problem. It's a sprawling place today, but somehow a uniquely Balinese identity endures, with shimmering rice fields behind every restaurant and hotel.

Ubud is undoubtedly Bali's foremost artistic centre; it's loaded with terrific museums and art galleries, such as the Neka (00 62 361 975074; museumneka.com), which features an important collection of Balinese artistic styles. Any day of the year you can catch a dance performance. One of the best places to go for these is the Ubud Palace (still the home of Balinese royalty), which has a highly atmospheric setting surrounded by a temple and gardens. The dances take place almost every evening at 7.30pm and cost from 80,000Rp (£5.60).

Balinese dance shows are stupendous – a blur of grace, agility and costume – and are inextricably linked to the island's spiritual heritage (most performances are versions of the Hindu epics Mahabharata or Ramayana).

Down south, the cliff-top temple Pura Luhur Uluwatu is a magnificent natural amphitheatre for the spell-binding Kecak dance, performed each sunset by dozens (sometimes hundreds) of bare-chested men above the crashing ocean.

Bali's most sacred temple is Pura Luhur Batukau, a spiritual site since the 11th century. It enjoys a gorgeous location on the lower slopes of Batukau mountain, where it is surrounded by misty forests. It also has beautiful garden courtyards and a seven-tiered pagoda. Strict rules are applied to admission: no menstruating or pregnant women, nor "mad ladies/gentleman".

Hip and happening?

Seminyak, eight kilometres north-west of Kuta, is one of Asia's most fashionable enclaves, home to numerous Indonesian designers and creative types, a glut of moneyed and slacking Westerners and the nation's most vibrant gay scene. It's not an easy place to negotiate, and many of the exclusive, hip hotels, lounge bars, galleries and spas are at the end of narrow semi-rural lanes that seem to lead nowhere. Ku De Ta (00 62 361 736969; kudeta.net) is Seminyak's most renowned hang-out. At night this beachfront lounge-restaurant is an ethereal scene with spotlights picking out the spray of the Indian Ocean rollers, the sea mist suspended in the ink-black tropical sky.

Off the beaten track?

It's quite feasible to visit some terrific volcanic scenery on a day trip from one of the southern resorts. Climbing the likes of Agung is a serious undertaking that takes planning, but, for a V

C quick hit, the hike up the mini-cone of Batur is not too strenuous. It's a couple of hours from the village of Toya Bungkah to the top, from where you can gaze into the smouldering guts of Batur; a local woman is sure to appear with an egg (which you can cook in no time close to a steam vent).

Near-deserted beaches are not impossible to find, but you won't find them close to the main strip in southern Bali. Head east where Pasir Putih (near Candidasa) is a gorgeous untouched crescent of white sand. Close by, Jemeluk has dark, grey sand and decent snorkelling, but no crowds.

Or for that desert-island experience, take a fast boat to the fabled Gili islands around 25 miles east of Bali. Tiny Gili Meno, with 400 residents, no dogs or motorised transport (everyone gets around by bike or horse and cart) is a vision of paradise, with chalk-white sands backed by coconut palms, and sea that's a near surreal shade of turquoise. Stay at Shack 58 (00 62 813 5357 7045; shack58.com), a simple, yet wonderfully elegant beachside address. A double room costs £64, including breakfast.

I'm hungry

Balinese food is hot and sweet, and uses a wonderful array of spices. The Balinese favour a meal of little snack-sized bites of myriad flavours and textures. Flavours are complex and spices are many: coriander, cardamom, chillies, garlic, ginger and cloves, mixed with palm sugar, shrimp paste, lemon basil and shavings of dried coconut.

Even the dreaded concept of fusion cooking seems to work here. Chandi (00 62 361 731060; chandibali.com) in Seminyak is the domain of chef Agung (ex-Nobu New York), who is constantly adding twists to classic Indonesian dishes such as beef rendang (45,000Rp, £3.20) Over at nearby Sarong (00 62 361 737809; sarongbali.com) they throw together inspired dishes such as little parcels of tuna sashimi with betel leaf, lemongrass, shallots and lemon basil (25,000Rp, £1.75 each), while the salt and pepper crispy Balinese pork is sublime (88,000Rp, £6.20). Of course Bali is a very international island, so if you'd rather not start the day with nasi goreng (fried rice), you won't have to search hard for croissants, fresh fruit and muesli, or even a Full Monty-style fry-up. A great meal can cost just a couple of pounds, though beware that the Indonesian government recently ramped up alcohol taxes so you'll pay more for wine or spirits than you would at home.

Iain Stewart is the author of Lonely Planet's Bali and Lombok guide

Warm waters, super surfers

Surf culture is everywhere in Bali and the waves are world-class. Surf folklore insists an American,

Bob Koke, kicked things off in 1936 when he pitched up with a long board on Kuta Beach. Today Bali borders on surf overkill at times with surf-themed bars, surf stores, surf safari expeditions and hundreds of stores selling (knock-off and genuine) surf gear. Until recently most Balinese would avoid the ocean: it was considered the domain of bad spirits. But times have changed and now locals win surf competitions all over the world.

Tempted? Well the water is reliably and enticingly warm. You'll find powerful beach breaks at Legian and Dreamland and reef breaks galore off the Bukit Peninsula, where the tubes of Uluwatu are probably the ultimate ride. Touristy Kuta remains an excellent place to learn to surf, drop by Pro Surf (00 62 361 744 1466; prosurfschool.com) for lessons (from £26.50).

Bali also offers terrific scuba diving; Indonesian coral reefs are some of the most diverse in the world. Top sites include Menjangan Island, where you're virtually guaranteed to see reef sharks, and Nusa Penida's Manta Point where divers encounter dozens of schooling manta rays. Giant sunfish (or mola mola) are also seen here between late July and November. British-run World Diving (00 62 812 39 0 0686; world-diving.com) offers dives on Nusa Penida (£49 for two dives).

Travel essentials: Bali

Getting there

* In the absence of direct flights to Bali's airport in Denpasar from the UK, the quickest routes take around 17 hours and cost from £750 return. Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; singaporeair.com) has excellent connections, and KLM (0871 231 0000; klm.com) has good deals. But you will almost always save cash by flying via the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, and then getting an internal flight, for example on Air Asia (airasia.com). Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) and KLM often have London-Jakarta return flights for under £500.

Getting Around

* An international permit, available from Post Offices, is needed to drive in Bali. Police often stop foreign drivers and fine those caught without a permit.

* Car hire is inexpensive: from as little as 150,000Rp (£10.50) a day for an ageing Suzuki Jimny; perhaps 280,000Rp (£20) for a new-ish Toyota Kijang. Mopeds cost about 50,000Rp (£3.50) per day. Beware that roads are narrow, traffic is heavy (particularly in the south) and accident rates are high.

* If you'd rather let someone else negotiate the roads, hiring a car with a driver costs from 350,000Rp (£25) per day, excluding fuel. Or consider Perama (00 62 361 751551; peramatour.com): shuttle buses which connect all the main places. Don't use any taxis other than the reliable Bluebird Taxis (00 62 361 701111), which all have meters. A short trip costs around 20,000Rp (£1.40).

Dangers

* The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (fco.gov.uk) warns of a risk of terrorist attack, particularly at festive times: "You should be particularly vigilant during holiday periods such as Easter and Christmas, which can be a time of heightened tensions in Indonesia." It also warns of the threat of volcano eruptions and earthquakes. Rabies is an issue too (stray dogs should not be approached).

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