Kuta might still be the first place a lot travellers think of when booking a holiday to Bali, but if you never get out and see the rest of the island, you’re short-changing yourself.
From temples to waterfalls to shipwreck diving, Bali has so much more to offer than cheap beer and Bintang t-shirts. Here’s some of the highlights:
Driving from Denpasar airport to north bali will take you up through the mountains before you reach the northern coastline. On the way, there’s heaps to see. Make your first stop at Taman Ayun temple in Mengwi. The complex was built around 1634AD during the reign of the first King of Mengwi. For the Balinese, it's a place to worship the Royal ancestors, and the complex features several pagodas of varying heights.
Next on your agenda should be the Jati Luwih rice fields, which are considered among the most scenic in Bali. The rice fields have been protected by securing a place on the Unesco World Heritage List.
If you want to see the temple featured on the 50,000 rupiah note, then stop off at Lake Beratan. The small but photogenic temple sits on a little island just a few metres from the shore. The temple complex is enormous and the grounds are beautiful.
If you want somewhere to stay for the night, I’d definitely recommend the stunning Munduk Moding Plantation. It’s a working coffee plantation, and has an infinity pool which reflects the mountain clouds.
Just a half hour drive and you’ll arrive at the Munduk waterfall, with its 40 metre drop.
The nearby twin lakes are also apparently quite impressive, but every time I’ve been there it’s been raining! Hopefully you’ll have more luck than me, and they’ll look a bit better than this…
Keep heading north out of the mountains, and eventually you’ll hit the beach side fishing village of Lovina. A laid back little town, most of the action is on the water and you can kayak, go on a dolphin charter or test out the waterslides.
Make the break from Kuta and Seminyak, and head a bit further north to the village of Canggu (pron: CHANG-goo). Even though it’s considered one of the hottest new addresses in Bali, Canggu has managed to hold on to its surfi/yogi vibe, and there are still plenty of ricefields among the development.
There are heaps of places to do yoga in Canggu, including Desa Seni village resort, The Practice and the Chillhouse, which all feature international teachers and a huge variety of classes.
Head to the Canggu Club for a fun day out, especially if you have kids. The Club has its own bowling alley, Bounce trampoline centre, waterpark, fitness centre, tennis centre and several pools. Many villas in Canggu have passes to the Club included (which is just as well because it’s pretty expensive).
For a cheaper option, you can visit the Olympic Pool. This is a bit of a hidden gem in Canggu, and a lot of people don’t even know it’s there. But for only a few dollars, you can have access to a full sized Olympic Pool, kids pool and water slides.
Canggu is also foodie heaven, with heaps of organic, vegetarian and healthy food options. Some of my favourites are Peloton supershop (which actually makes vegan food taste good), Milk and Madu, Watercress and Banana Leaf. For something a bit more upmarket, Macan has great Indonesian dishes.
Beach clubs have also started popping up in Canggu, The first was the eclectic La Laguna, which has now been joined by Finns beach club and more recently, the Lawn. All offer uninterrupted views of Canggu’s stunning sunsets.
One of the main highlights of east Bali is the fishing village of Amed. Driving up the coast through Candi Dasa (worth a stop off), the road curves around so that you can actually approach Amed from the north. What’s generally considered to be Amed is in fact 7 different villages, but working out where one ends and the next begins is pretty much impossible. Not that you’ll mind driving through them all.
Don’t expect it to take your breath away at first glance – Amed is more the type of place which creeps up on you. The road hugs the hilly coastline, and the views are more spectacular as you continue driving. There are plenty of places to stop by the roadside and take in the sparkling ocean and beautiful bays with black sand beaches, where hundreds of traditional boats (jukung) sit in an orderly line.
Amed is one of those places which really comes alive once you put on a mask and snorkel and get wet. The water is warm and clear, with visibility around 30 metres, and because relatively few people dive here, the reefs are in pristine condition. There are several dive operators, but we went with the Baliku dive centre, located at the southern end of Amed. The bay in front of the dive centre is home to some of the richest marine life along the coast as well as part of a small Japanese shipwreck, which serves as an artificial reef.
On our dives we saw heaps of microscopic nudibranches; bizarre little molluscs which come in crazy fluorescent colours. We also saw a pigmy seahorse about as big as my finger nail, impressive looking leaf scorpion fish and a majestic sting ray, its bright blue spots visible long after it glided past us.
Most of the dive was fairly shallow, so for those who don’t have a dive license, a snorkel will do just fine. You can either wade in off the beach or hire a traditional sailing boat to go into deeper waters. And for those who want to do more than just look at the marine life, many of the outrigger fishing boats can also be hired for early morning fishing charters.
If getting wet isn’t your thing, Amed is flanked on the western side by stunning greenery and two small mountains, which are ideal for trekking.
But if all that sounds a bit much like hard work, Amed is also the perfect place to take off your watch, unwind and do some lazing around. It’s quiet, clean, unpretentious, and there’s not a street vendor in sight.
The main highlight of the West is the sprawling West Bali National Park. It’s about a 4 ½ drive from Denpasar airport, but it’s well worth the drive. West Bali is untamed wilderness, with plenty of wildlife you won’t see anywhere else on the island, and some fantastic diving at the famous Menjangan Island.
On our visit out west, we spend a night at the gorgeous five star resort the Plataran Menjangan Resort and Spa. Having the privilege of operating in such an amazing wilderness has its challenges, and the resort has a unique involvement in protecting the local eco system. It's the custodian over about 382 hectares of the national park, and has established the SERC (Scientific Education Research Centre) in conjunction with the University of Charleston to study and protect the surrounding environment.
Guests can do a tour of the research centre to find out all about the plan to bring the Bali Starling bird back from the brink of extinction (it has the unfortunate honour of being worth about $5,000 a pair on the black market), as well as the resort's tree planting program and watering holes for the local wildlife (which include poles full of salt which the deer can lick to satisfy their preference for salt water).
There's heaps to keep you entertained at the resort including jungle trekking, mountain bike riding and wildlife spotting. If you'd like to splash out, you can also hire the resort's luxury wooden sailing boat for everything from a family snorkelling trip to a romantic sunset dinner for two. For something slightly smaller and less exotic, you can also take the Plataran's kayaks out for a paddle around the bay. Or for a good look at the world under the ocean, jump off the end of the jetty and go for a snorkel on the surrounding reef. The water is so warm there's no need for a wetsuit, and there's a great variety of marine life.
We also spent two nights in a traditional Lanai cottage at the laid back NusaBay Menjangan. The resort has no road access, and can only be reached via a somewhat ancient looking traditional wooden fishing boat. The scenery on the way over is spectacular, with the volcanoes of Java visible among the clouds, reminding us just how close we were to Indonesia's most populated island (another reminder was that our phones kept jumping an hour ahead to Java time, which caused much confusion!)
On the activities side of things, the NusaBay offers water sports, jungle trekking and mountain biking options, but the true piece de resistance of this resort is its proximity to the famous Menjangan island (deer island). Only a five minute boat ride away, this diving Mecca draws adventurers from all over the world. The visibility in the water around the island is at times like looking through glass. The shallow reef offers a smorgasbord of wonders for snorkellers, while the sharp drop off lures divers down to below 30 metres to search for deeper sea inhabitants like sharks and nudibranchs (adorable luminescent molluscs).
So whether you head north, south, east or west, there is so much diversity to experience in Bali. And none of it is found in Kuta!
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The best time to visit Bali is the dry season - June-September.
Most countries can get a free 30 day visa on arrival.