Like so many people on this earth, Bali was at the forefront of my mind when I thought about the term ‘exotic getaway’. Living in Asia, it became a staple of weekend getwaways. With lots of flights, low-cost accomodation, and one of the most serene and beautiful places to visit, Bali still tops my most favorite places in the world.
That being said, many warned us before our first visit that I would be disappointed. “The tourist have ruined it” they cried and were quick to warn us about heavy traffic and a local culture far removed from the tourist eye. And while there may lots of truth to the evolution of the small state of Bali, there is no doubt that there are many places that have retained their incredible warmth of hospitality and endlessessly quiet rice fields.
Over our trips here, we have stayed in local and more commercial places. Here’s my perspective:
Local places will, indeed, get you much closer to that ‘real Bali’ you are probably looking for. The hotel staff are kind, warm, will play (and even babysit!) your kids. They are often along quiet side roads with rice field views as far as the eye can see. But, in our experience, it also meant a lower standard of cleanliness and amenities. Of course, there are the luxury local places which are amazing but far beyond our budget. After intense research, I’ll share with you the places we chose and the pros and cons of each.
Bumi Ubud was our first introduction to the Indonesian Island, and it could not have gone better. This is a small locally run villa hotel perched at the edge of local rice fields. As many tripadvisor reviews mentioned, the place was quiet empty which meant a level of peace and serenity I have never quite experienced. While the hotel isn’t quite new, they have a seemingly newish beautiful and well-kept infinity pool overlooking the fields-a spot I still reminisce about often. The family who runs the hotel is especially kind, even if they don’t speak much English, and babysat our kids-for free-multiple times!! They have a car that shuttles you back and forth between the city-the downside to being a drive away from downtown.
Yes, our backyard for the week!
The rooms, while romantic and Indonesian in every way were quite buggy. Once they sprayed it got better, though we learned that the more commercial Villas have much cleaner, and therefore more usable, outdoor spaces around the villas.
Overall, our entire family loved this hotel, the authenticity and connection with the culture, the local side streets and stalls, and long lounges by the pool watching the rice farmers and interacting and playing with the local kids.
On a following trip we opted for a very commercial hotel called Loku Ubud as our needs were a bit different for this trip. One of the reasons we chose this hotel was because it had a mix of hotel rooms and villas (for a lower cost stay) and because it had a large grounds. We maximized our dollars by staying in a hotel room the night we arrived and then moving to a villa the next couple nights. This Villa experience, while definitely less ‘authentic Bali’ was beautiful, clean and we experienced top rated service. What we missed was the close proximity to the rice fields and locals which required a 5-10 minute walk outside the hotel. Again, because we spent more time in hotel, we were ok but if you’re looking for that Bali experience, I would focus on finding a villa or guesthouse located right by the rice fields.
The final hotel we stayed at was the Sheraton in Kuta. We had only done Bali beach on past trips for a few hours and decided on this particular trip to take a couple days and enjoy the surf. We chose this hotel because it was new and very well priced for the comforts. Here’s the thing: I didn’t particularly care for Kuta. The beach was sunset, waves were great and sunset was amazing, but I suppose this is the city people refer to when they say ‘Bali is ruined’. The city is a grimy tourist beach town. We got the kids surf lessons, which was incredibly fun, and I would say it makes sense to spend a day here. But a day was enough. The Sheraton was also a 10-15 minute walk from the beach through alleyways which was ok but impacted the ‘chill at the beach’ that happens when you’re with three kids and your bathroom and shower are that far away. Overall the hotel was good for the price but next time I would opt to be on a beach. Lesson learned. By the way- we thought about the Westin in Nusa Dua which I heard amazing reviews about and if we want a resort there, we would probably chose that.
Important things to know before visiting Bali:
They range in quality and accessibility. Some of better for surfing, some are better for playing, and look specifically for calmer beaches if you’re with kids. The locals often hawk services like sufing lessons, which we finally gave into. My 5 year old enjoyed it so much and actually rode quite a few waves-we wish we had time for more.
We found the beach areas (kuta, etc..), excluding exclusive hotel beaches, to be the sort of wild, a bit grimy experience. But, if you’re looking to party, drink, surf, they can be really fun!
They are all over-almost. While the main sights attractions can be very crowded, there are lots of places that are more private. To find these places, you can ask your local driver or do what we did-simply drive around and stop at the places you love. You’re certain to find magical places along quiet roads…..
We have gone ‘in season’ and ‘out of season’ and these were two difference experiences. During high season, downtown was, in one word, horrid. We avoided downtown at all costs, During the low seasons, we quite enjoyed downtown Ubud. It does, without question, cater to tourists, with endless yoga shops and such but it was fun. There were some really beautiful sites to see, such as the old palace and other temples, and we enjoyed some amazing ice cream and vegan food.
Weather: The weather is amazing in Bali almost all year around. The best time to go is during ‘low season’ or non-vacation times of year. We once went at the beginning of April which was our best trip while our trip in June was a little too touristy crowded.
Transportation: It’s best to hire a driver by the day. You can negotiate a pretty good rate for the low season and it usually costs more if it includes a trip that cuts across the island. From the airport to Ubud, we used ubudtaxi that we arranged through email. They were courteous and on time each visit.
What we did:
One of the most interesting, off the beaten path things we did was visit a puppet museum. I had seen it on a website and it took a lot of persistence for the driver to find it (seems most local didn’t know about it) but when we did, we were very happy we made the effort. And surprised to find ourselves the only ones there. The museum is on a beautiful grounds with a few houses of cultural puppets from all over the regioun- fascinating for us and thrilling for the kids. A must see! Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets
We are huge coffee drinkers so of course we had to have our fair share of Luwak coffee-or ‘cat poop’ coffee as the kids love to say. For this tasting we opted for a child-friendly local so we can actually enjoy our coffee (entertained kids-happy parents.) We chose to go the touristy Bali Pulina Agro tasting spot. They give you (free!!) samples and charge a small fee for the Luwak coffee-worth it if just to say you drank the ‘poop coffee’. We loved this place so much we visited multiple times. The kids still talk about feeding the cats and you drink your samples overlooking incredibly beautiful rice fields. There are musical instruments for the kids to enjoy and a look at how the beans are fed, pooped, roasted and served. This place is definitely a favorite! And don’t forget to visit the shop to buy some to take home with you!
The Monkey park:
For those visiting from the West, visit the Monkey park-but be warned. These are not cute cuddly monkeys. These are vicious human attacking monkeys who seem thoroughly pissed off that they are featured as a tourist attraction. My then 18 month old was sitting in the stroller as we walked by the forest-not even inside- as a monkey jumped on time of him and grabbed the closed bag of chips in his hand. That sufficiently frightened all of from monkeys for a long time. Many I know have stories of bites and scratches from these creatures. So while there’s something exciting and cool to this street/forest, approach with caution-especially if children are present. Rabies shots have been had by quite a few and the last thing you want is to get stuck in a Bali emergency room. I know it’s a cynical perspective, but I think monkeys may just want to live in peace…
We visiting this area during tourist season so we weren’t prepared for the traffic. It wasn’t too bad for us, but definitely check before you head out there. We all enjoyed the drive up to the lake as we took in the beautify around us and made a couple stops to local stalls. The rolling hills and views are an activity on their own. Once we got to the lake, we enjoyed a picnic we had brought, walked around the temple areas and took the picture perfect family shots. There’s also a playground on the site which the kids were thrilled to find. Because of the higher elevation rain is more common and as we were wrapping up our visit, rain started to fall. I suggest you check weather before you go as the whole area is outside and it can get very very dark and gloomy when the rain rolls in.
Downtown Ubud: We really enjoyed-in spite of the tourist vibe- though not so much during the high season. When it wasn’t so crowded, we had a great time walking around and eating loads of ice cream. There are a couple of palaces and temples downtown which we had fun exploring. At night they offer shows at the palace-you can pick up a ticket at the corner though you will get harassed enough times to know just where to find the ticket sellers when you are ready. We also enjoyed the local cafes and massages. Like many countries, you simply need to walk up and down the street to find the shops that mean your needs. Don’t be shy to ask to see the massage room if you’re paying on the street to ensure that it’s safe and clean.
When we visited during the high season, we skipped the downtown all together as the traffic and hoards were too overwhelming.
Tegalalang rice fields: It took us a couple visits to decide to visit these rice fields. I would say that it’s not a ‘must do’ but if you have time, it’s nice to talk around if it’s not too crowded. We have seen a couple similar fields in our trips off the beaten path, but it’s still beautiful if you have time.
Temples: We visited TONS of temples. To keep the kids entertained we kept bribing with ice cream, would dress them in saris, and allow them to ‘run around’ after much sitting in the car. We also tried to mix it up and not visit so many temples all in at once. There were so many temples that our driver to us to I can hardly remember all the names. I’ll write about the ones we did visit but any you explore will be great.
Goa gajah/Tampaksiring (elephant cave):
We enjoyed visiting this temple. It’s quintessential Bali with a great history and the kids loved all the designs.
Tanah Lot: it’s worth it. It’s very touristy but the place is genuinely glorious and romantic to visit. It’s also an opportunity to stroll along the cliffs at the beach and pick up some local fare along the walk. The local roast up an interesting creation of spiced root vegetables that are definitely worth a try.
(Fun tourist activities…)
BatCave temple: This temple also had monkeys (so watch out) and a very interesting temple inside a cave up many may steps. The kids -while tired out-enjoyed seeing inside the cave.
Tirta Empul/Holywater temple: We really enjoyed this temple as it gave us a glimps into Hindu custom and life.
Taman Ayun Temple: This was one of our favorites. There were huge grounds, it was quite empty both times we visited, and we got incredible family photos. There is lots of exploring to do with the kids such as little lake side gazebos to picknick in.
Some other temples we enjoyed include:
Saraswati Temple, Puri Saren Agung, Pura Dalem Agung, Pura Besakih.
Mountain Village of Kitamani:
We enjoyed this visit and seeing the volcano and its aftermath. We didn’t take a hike up the volcano but if you’re without children, we might encourage more exploration of this area. We enjoyed lunch and a short walk.
Bali… There is so much to love and to be irked by in this amazing place. The local are some of the finest and kindest people and we always enjoyed the time we engaged with them. We love Bali and look forward to our next visit! (probably up north in a local guest house!)