The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Bali: Diane Embree of Michael’s Travel Centre/Bali Barong Tours.
Diane has been visiting Bali annually for the past 28 years and knows every rice paddy, temple, and hotel. Her moderately priced to high-end itineraries typically combine beach time with sightseeing and, if you like, can also include Bali’s best hiking, snorkeling, river rafting, or other adventure activities. Diane’s greatest pleasure, though, comes from arranging for travelers to meet with locals—medicine men, artisans, rice farmers—and to participate in traditional Balinese ceremonies that most visitors can’t access on their own. Diane can help with other parts of Indonesia too—in case you’re looking to see orangutans on Borneo, visit the Toraja ethnic group in Sulawesi, explore ancient relics at Lake Toba in Sumatra, or make a side trip to Borobudur on Java—as well as stopovers in Asian gateway cities en route to and from Bali. Diane was also included in Perrin’s People, Wendy’s award-winning list of top travel specialists, which was published annually in Condé Nast Traveler magazine from 2000 to 2013.
Where to Stay and Eat
Hotels worth the splurge
Beach resorts: Aside from being a gorgeous property, Amankila has perfected the art of fine service—staff are genuine and attentive but never hovering. The resort also has easy beach access, which can’t be said for many of Bali’s other luxury clifftop beach hotels. And even though the Oberoi is one of the older properties on the island, I still think it’s one of the prettiest, and the service is top-notch. The Oberoi is close to the best restaurants, shops, and nightlife of Seminyak, though its lovely gardens and tranquil ambience make it feel as if you’re away from the crowds. It also happens to be on the best section of Seminyak Beach.
Inland resorts: If you were to press me to come up with my favorite hotel in Bali, Como Shambhala Estate would be at the top of my list. It’s tranquil, luxurious without being ostentatious, and it feels much more remote than its actual location. The views are lush and breathtaking, and for those who are so inclined, the hotel has a variety of wellness programs. (Be sure to take the short hike to the Kedara Water Garden and have a massage at the pavilion there.) All of the accommodations are in separate buildings, so you never share a wall with other guests; the Garden Rooms are a bit small, but the Terrace Suites are a great value.
Uma by Como Ubud is in a fabulous setting— think tropical gardens and lush views, and the new Italian restaurant and lounge, Cucina, is already popular. I recommend the Uma Pool Villas, or to keep the cost down, stay in one of the Water Garden rooms. Uma by Como Ubud is a five-minute shuttle ride from the center of Ubud. I also love the pool villas at Komaneka by Bisma, which is the most deluxe property that’s within a short walk to the center of Ubud. The villas are luxurious and have spectacular views.
The newly opened Mandapa, a Ritz Carlton Reserve, is a spectacular property that terraces down the hillside to the Ayung River and centers around its own small working rice paddy. Great care has been taken in furnishing the suites and villas with original artwork and furnishings from top-notch local artisans. The Reserve Suites are the least expensive, but plenty large and beautiful.
In many cases, I can offer preferred rates or amenities at the resorts mentioned here. And, though these properties can be pricey, I can easily suggest a number of properties (including some with private pools) that cost less and are quite lovely.
Restaurants the locals love
If you don’t mind a 20-minute walk from Ubud’s main drag along a dirt path, Sari Organik Bodag Maliah is set right in the middle of a rice field, has very reasonable prices, and offers a large mainly veggie menu, incorporating much of the produce and other foodstuff grown or made on the restaurant’s own organic farm. (They even make their own teas and tofu.) Go for a late lunch—it can get pretty busy earlier in the day—and spend a leisurely afternoon with a book, the view, and one of the fantastic pizzas.
A romantic little place in the middle of Ubud, Miro’s Garden Restaurant isn’t at all trendy, but it has good food (Indonesian and otherwise) and a quiet garden setting.
Some locals eat nasi goreng three times a day; it’s the Indonesian version of fried rice, seasoned with chiles, shrimp paste, and palm sugar, usually with a fried egg on top. You can get an authentic version at Bumbu—or better yet, learn how to make it yourself at Puri Lumbung, a small hotel in the Munduk countryside that hosts wonderful cooking classes.
What to Do and See
Attending a performance of the trance-like kecak dance at ARMA (Agung Rai Museum of Art), on the outskirts of Ubud. The lead role is danced by Bali’s premier dancer, I Ketut Rina. It’s performed in the evening twice a month—at the full and new moons. Go early so you can browse the museum’s collections, amassed by a street peddler turned art dealer who buys Balinese pieces from foreigners so he can repatriate them to Indonesia.
If you’re looking for peace and quiet, don’t base yourself in Seminyak—especially during July and August and Christmas/New Year’s. This is the most in-demand area of Bali, and its narrow streets are packed with shops, restaurants, and bars, which means gridlock on the streets and along with the crowded sidewalks. In the busiest periods, you might even see trash wash up on the beach—not exactly anyone’s idea of paradise.
Visit Puri Naga, a private home with a museum-quality assortment of treasures from throughout Indonesia, including the world’s largest collection of works by renowned Javanese painter Wahyoe Wijaya. If she’s available, owner Nadya—an American clothing designer who has lived in Bali for over 30 years—will show you around this magical place, an artist’s compound that is also home to the master painters, beaders, and tailors who create by hand Nadya’s works of wearable art. During your visit, I can even arrange for a private lesson in Balinese painting with a master, or a one-on-one session to design your own jacket.
For honeymooners or couples interested in renewing their commitment to one another, I can set up a Mejaya-jaya ceremony, traditionally one element in a Balinese wedding, at a small rural temple. You dress in Balinese clothes (a requirement for entering the inner areas of a Balinese temple), and a Hindu priest offers his or her blessing to you and your significant other, in which he casts out the old negative energy and invites new positive energy into your life together. Though many hotels offer Balinese “weddings,” this ceremony is a true Balinese ritual, rather than a ceremony designed for tourists. And both opposite-sex and same-sex couples, married or unmarried, can participate in the Mejaya-jaya ceremony.
Best places to take the kids
The Elephant Safari Park, where you can ride the elephants or simply observe them close-up and watch them at work (some of them paint, and their “artwork” is sold in the gift shop). Go any day but Sunday, when it’s usually packed with Balinese families taking advantage of their day off.
The Bali Bird Park, a great destination for adults and children alike. The grounds are green and tropical, and the park boasts approximately 1,000 exotic birds from a variety of Indonesian islands, plus South America and South Africa. Children especially enjoy watching the birds being fed (feeding times are posted). Next door is the Bali Reptile Park, where you can see Komodo dragons without going all the way to Komodo.
A traditional Balinese massage, based on ancient techniques, involves lots of long, gentle strokes, palm pressure, stretching, and acupressure. Day spas are inexpensive but inconsistent, as the good therapists inevitably get hired away by hotels. You’re usually much better off splurging for the treatment at your hotel spa (even the most modest hotels on the island have one).
June has the most reliably pleasant weather (daytime temps in the 80s and gentle breezes to keep the sun from feeling too hot) and decent prices (high-season hotel rates don’t kick in until July).
April, May, mid-September, and the rainy-season months of October, November, and early December are other good options: They’re much quieter, and when it does rain, showers are usually limited to a few hours in the afternoon and overnight.
Weatherwise, mid-December through March. Crowdwise, July and August.
Expecting idyllic white-sand beaches. Bali’s beaches are mostly too rough for swimming (but good for surfing), and the quieter ones have little or no sand. I listen carefully to what every client is looking for in a beach—and tell them if they’re better off in the Caribbean.
Sightseeing from a beach resort. Most of Bali’s cultural attractions are a long haul from the coast; visiting them could add as much as two hours’ driving to your day—in some heavily trafficked resort areas, it can take a half-hour just to drive one block! The solution? Stay in the interior of the island during the time you’ll be touring. Once you’re at the beach, stay put.
Only considering familiar name-brand hotels instead of the lesser-known properties, which don’t have big marketing budgets but often deliver top-notch service and amenities at a lower price.
Attend a temple ceremony to photograph the locals as they walk in processions and present their offerings—ask at your hotel about any that might be happening nearby. (Keep in mind that if you ask one of the locals to take their photo, don’t offer a tip—it’s considered an insult.) Or for a quintessential Balinese landscape photo, head to the rice terraces in the Munduk countryside and near Sidemen Village in eastern Bali in the early morning or late afternoon.
Several small villages are known for specific crafts—Mas, for example, has woodcarvings; Celuk is the place for jewelry and Tohpati for batiks. But they’ve gotten extremely touristy over the years, so I tend to steer clear of them. Of all the many shops in the Ubud area, I’ve always had the best luck at Kunang, a modest little place in the Campuhan area that sells midpriced jewelry, woodcarvings, and sometimes fabrics. The inventory changes often, but the quality is consistently good, unlike so many other shops on Bali. For clients interested in buying art, we can arrange for a guide to take them around to the island’s best art galleries.
One thing to keep in mind before you spring for big purchases—large artwork, furniture, stone carvings—is that while the shop workers will typically quote you a shipping fee upfront, that fee only covers the cost of getting your shipment to the nearest port in the United States. You might have to fork over several hundred dollars more to get it sent from the port to your house.
Service is included at almost every restaurant and hotel in Indonesia. However, even the locals throw down whatever loose change they have when they dine out—anywhere from 500 to 5,000 rupiahs (from 4 to 40 cents), though I usually tip a little more.
You’ll need to pay a departure tax in rupiahs, in exact change, when you get to the airport. The international departure tax is currently 150,000 rupiahs (approximately $13); the domestic tax ranges from 20,000 to 40,000 rupiahs, depending on the airport.