This is not a daunting task as all destinations on the island are accessible within just a few hours’ journey from the major tourist areas.
For a quick introduction to the island, visitors can join one of the many guided-tour groups offered by Bali’s professional destination management companies.
Longer tours of two to five days will take in most of the highlights. If pressed for time, however, even a one-day foray into Bali’s hinterlands can put the visitor in touch with the real Bali.
Trips to the north take visitors across the volcanic mountain range to the serene coast of northern Bali; trips to the east cover the classic historic monuments and temples; while trips to the west include iconic temples, Bali’s only national park and centuries-old majestic rice terraces, recently recognised UNESCO as a world heritage site.
Students of history will be interested in the Bali Museum in Denpasar which houses a collection of historic and cultural objects dating back to the Neolithic and Megalithic periods.
Tours are offered to archaeological remains and ancient spiritual sites such as the mysterious 11th century Goa Gajah in Gianyar, the nearby 25-metre-long carvings of Yeh Pulu, the sacred Bronze Age Moon of Pejeng and the 11th century rock-hewn tombs of Gunung Kawi.
FESTIVALS AND PERFORMANCES
Those keen on discovering more of the real Bali can experience some of the religious rites of passage and festivals which guide the Balinese through their life and death cycle.
Simply by meandering down Bali’s inland village roads, visitors are almost guaranteed to encounter a local ceremony of some sort. When this happens the celebrations can be observed from a discrete distance.
Respectful visitors are generally welcome, especially when properly attired in temple scarf and sarong. Dance is central to Balinese life and is probably the most memorable spectacle of any Bali visit. There are at least 1,000 dance troupes on the island and over 200 kinds of dances, each a composite of not just dance but also drama, music, spoken poetry, opera and song. Visitors won’t have any trouble finding live performances or rehearsals.
To most visitors, the natural flora of Bali is fascinating. Many plants that are lovingly cultivated in home gardens in the West — poinsettias, dracaena, coleus and begonias — grow in riotous profusion along Bali’s roadsides.
No less than twelve varieties of coconut palms and thirteen species of bamboo exist on the island. The high-altitude Eka Karya Raya Botanical Gardens, located in Bedugul in the central mountains area, are dedicated to the study of the mountain flora of eastern Indonesia and home to a valuable nursery of medicinal plants.
Strolling around the Garden’s beautifully landscaped, cool and inviting grounds is a joy — more akin to visiting an expansive private country estate than a public garden. The best place to experience the more pristine part of Bali is the famous Bali Barat National Park in West Bali which includes habitats ranging from rainforests to coral-fringed islands that serve as a sanctuary to many of Bali’s 32 species of mammals as well as to the rare Bali Starling.
In Ubud, specialised birdwatching walks along quiet backcountry lanes give ornithology enthusiasts a chance to spot some of the 300 species of birds on the island.
Rafting trips down spectacular river gorges winding through natural tropical forests is a delight to nature-lovers, as well as a thrilling experience.
No trip to Bali is complete without a visit to its high mountain climes, and a perfect introduction to this area is the cool, 1,450-metre-high village of Penelokan, 56 kilometres north of Denpasar, which perches on the rim of a gigantic lake-filled caldera, overlooking the sacred, smoking volcano of Mt Batur , recently named a UNESCO geopark.
A steep three-kilometre winding road descends to the crescent-shaped Lake Batur. Along the southern shores of the lake huddle eight villages inhabited by the Bali Aga, Bali’s original settlers.
The road along the northwest shore weaves through a strange moonlike landscape over rivers of solidified black lava, volcanic ash and rubble.
Local guides lead visitors on a hike to the summit of a smoldering volcano, rising 688 metres above the lake. Although the walk is strenuous, climbers are well rewarded by sweeping panoramic views of the surrounding mountains — Mt Agung to the east and, if the air is clear, beyond to the sea and Mt Rinjani on the neighbouring island of Lombok. If tackling it as a pre-dawn activity, climbers can watch the sun slowly rising, dramatically illuminating the crater lake.
Bedugul: Bali’s Market Garden
The lakeside resort of Bedugul in the central highlands is just an hour’s drive north of Denpasar on the main road to Singaraja. The area, surrounded by scenic, terraced vegetable gardens, has unsurpassed views, cool temperatures and wonderful markets selling fresh vegetables, delicious exotic fruits and handicrafts.
Bedugul has been a popular weekend retreat since Dutch times offering, at over 1,200 metres above sea level, a welcome change from the tropical humidity of the south. Placid Lake Bratan fills the ancient crater of the long inactive Mt Catur that towers above it. Layers of mist, reflections of the mountain and the peaceful Ulun Danu Temple lying in the lake’s shallow waters evoke a deep sense of mystery.
Walking tracks along the beautifully cultivated lakeshore lead up steep, jungle-covered hills to the summit of Mt Catur, revealing stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
THE HISTORIC NORTH
Two main roads cross the central mountain range en route to North Bali — a region of rustic farming villages, high waterfalls, steaming hot springs, glistening black-sand beaches, unspoiled marine and forest reserves, traditional craftsmen and temples uniquely decorated with baroque figures carved from volcanic rock. The region covers the area from the northern foothills of Bali’s central mountains to a narrow coastal strip fringed by the calm, warm waters of the Bali Strait, and stretches the width of Bali.
Because of its relative isolation from the south, North Bali has developed a distinct culture, architecture, music and art. The regency’s capital, Singaraja, has a cosmopolitan air, and is home to many ethnic and religious minorities living together in harmony. A number of imposing European-style residences still stand, reminders of Singaraja’s former grandeur as the Dutch colonial administrative centre of Bali and the islands to the east.
Examples of the north’s flamboyant temple architecture can be found in the villages located east of Singaraja, differing considerably from the stiff classical lines carved from grey sandstone in the temples of southern Bali. The soft pink paras stone quarried in this region allows northern sculptors more exuberant adornment and artistic licence.
Shady, hassle-free coastal resorts east of Singaraja offer idyllic beaches and enclosed natural swimming pools of clear, fresh water welling up from underground springs. A sealed road, lined with old gnarled trees, follows the coast eastward past sandy coves sheltering jukung, the traditional fishing boats. A short hike inland from Tejakula, 32 kilometres east of Singaraja, is the village of Les — location of the highest waterfall on Bali.
With uninterrupted views of Mt Agung along its route, the road meanders around Bali’s dramatic northeast corner and then heads south to Amlapura, capital of the eastern regency of Karangasem and once the seat of the one of the richest kingdoms of Bali.
This is one of the few easily accessible areas on the island where rural life has been largely unaffected by tourism.
Lovina: Northern Beach Retreat
The north is perhaps best known for the area of Lovina, a string of villages along a palm-fringed shore starting about six kilometres west of Singaraja.
Here it is possible to dive and swim in crystal clear water off the unbroken stretch of black-sand beaches, while breathtaking sunsets can be seen each evening from the verandahs of the beachside cafés and restaurants.
The docile sea and shallow lagoons make this coast ideal for families. Beginners and young snorkellers can safely explore the unique marine communities of plants and animals in the inter-tidal zone.
Pre-dawn dolphin-watching from a motorized outrigger is another popular activity. Patience is rewarded when, for a few miraculous moments, the boat may be surrounded by leaping, flipping, spouting dolphins.
Inland there are outstanding walks into the high country to waterfalls and rolling vineyards. Hot sulphur pools surrounded by jungle and luxurious gardens are perfect for relaxing tired muscles after a strenuous hike. This area is home to Brahma Vihara Asrama, the only Buddhist monastery on Bali. The monastery houses Sukothai-style gold leaf Buddha images, a brightly painted stupa and exuberant woodcarvings in a dazzling combination of Balinese Hindu and Buddhist architectural elements.
Bali’s Wine District
Vineyards stretch eastward from Singaraja for many kilometres along the fertile northern coastal plain. Akin to the pergolas system popular in Spain and Sicily, overhead trellises are held aloft by small trees joined at the top by wooden frames and wire mesh. Bali’s wines, made from local grapes and also grapes imported from Australia, are earning growing respect from wine buffs on the island and also abroad.
WESTERN BALI: BALI’S WILD SIDE
The habitats of the Bali Barat National Park, located at the western end of the island, include highland forests and magnificent coral-fringed islands. This is the untamed side of Bali, and the Park’s primordial beauty is the perfect complement to Bali’s sun-and-sea, rice-terrace and temple tourism.
In the waters off the northwest horn of Bali are the marine reserves that have earned this region its reputation as a recreational paradise. One of the island’s premier dive sites is Menjangan Island with its sensational drop offs and coral reefs teeming with thousands of brightly coloured fish.
With massive Mt Agung dominating the landscape, coupled with stunningly beautiful rice terraces, the scenery of Bali’s eastern regency of Karangasem is among the most spectacular on the island. Far removed from the bustle of the south, this is an area where a number of archaic dance and musical forms are still regularly performed and where the high Balinese language is still in common use.
The Mother Temple and Mt Agung
Besakih, Bali’s oldest, largest and most impressive temple complex sits on the slopes of Mt Agung. Besakih is the essence of the island’s estimated 20,000 religious shrines and a symbol of religious unity — the supreme “mother temple” of Bali, with as many as 70 ceremonies held each year in the complex. Looming up behind the temple complex, Mt Agung is considered by the Balinese to be the “navel of the world,” — the geographical and mystical centre of the universe.
So sacred is this 3,000-metre high volcano that the Balinese always sleep with their heads towards the mountain. Mt Agung is an active volcano, and its last major eruption in 1963-1964 claimed at least 1,500 lives. Many believe this event heralded the end of the Sukarno regime.
Water Gardens, Weaving Villages and Seaports
In the vicinity of Amlapura are the fabled open-air water palace of Tirtagangga, the retreat of a former rajah, with fountains, bizarre statues, pleasantly cool weather, quiet star-filled nights and the constant sound of splashing water. It is a sublime experience to swim in the flower-strewn, spine-tingling reservoirs fed by cold, freshwater mountain streams.
East of Klungkung, undulating irrigated rice fields give way to the sun’s blazing heat on an arid stretch of road which passes fishing villages, beachside salt-processing works, the old harbour of Kusamba and the holy bat cave of Goa Lawah. Deep inside the cave, it is said, lives a mythical serpent, the caretaker of the earth’s equilibrium.
The small, charmingly scruffy port of Padangbai is known for its plentiful restaurants serving freshly-caught seafood, as well as being the ferry transit point for the neighbouring island of Lombok. The surrounding area offers varied hikes, beaches for sunbathing, hidden coves and excellent dive spots just 15 minutes offshore with transport by traditional jukung.
Only a few kilometres inland from the tourist beach resort of Candidasa is the walled village of Tenganan. Inhabited by the Bali Aga, Tenganan is a stronghold of unique indigenous traditions and customs that have been jealously guarded for centuries and is the only locale in all of Indonesia where double-ikat woven textiles (kamben gringsing) are still produced. Strong, insect- and heat-resistant ata baskets, as well as lontar palm-leaf books depicting scenes from the Hindu epics can be purchased in the village at very reasonable prices.
For those interested in weaving, the village of Sideman in the southeast is renowned for its endek (Balinese ikat) weaving and silk songket fabrics interwoven with designs of gold and silver thread.
Marine life enthusiasts will find the snorkelling and diving off the coast around Candidasa, as well as in the vicinity of Amed and Tulamben, north of Amlapura, outstanding.
Nusa Lembongan - Bali’s Offshore Playground
Bali’s premier offshore recreational destination is Nusa Lembongan — an arid island inhabited by amiable seaweed farmers, 25 kilometres off Bali’s eastern coast.
Ringed by palms and sugary sand beaches, Lembongan offers excellent beachcombing, sunbathing, diving and snorkelling in its pristine shallow bays, channels and coral reefs.
A wide variety of safe, well-organized cruises from Bali to Lembongan are available on vessels ranging from high-speed ocean crafts to stately sailing ships.