Published on MSN Travel.
At the end of a long flight and a drive through the winding Balinese countryside our car slowed and pulled into a narrow lane. We had arrived at Villa Sungai, our home in the tiny village of Cepaka – north of Denpasar – for the next three nights. I was hot and exhausted after 19 hours of flying and – desperate to rid my bones of jetlag – I dived into our private lap pool – a glorious stretch of sparkling cool water overlooking the valley below.
The luxuriousness and wow factor of Villa Sungai is immense. It’s the kind of place that makes you think ‘ah, so this is how the other half live!’ I walked around with a serene smile, completely charmed with how utterly peaceful it was.
Unlike a hotel, Villa Sungai offers just two villas to rent on a totally exclusive basis. It is extremely private as it is nestled in a quiet valley; your only neighbours are the occasional frog and the sparrows who skim the pool to cool their feet.
We stayed in the larger villa – ‘Villa Sungai’ – which had 3 king bedrooms, 4 bathrooms (both indoor and outdoor and stocked with Acqua di Parma toiletries), a lap-size infinity pool overlooking the river, dining areas (both indoor and outdoor) and a mini spa. The décor is stunning. Think whitewashed furniture, cool marble floors, huge billowing white curtains and luxurious loungers, peppered with delicately scented bunches of tuberose.
We spent the next few days being fed like royalty by the chef and his team, who created wonderful menus inspired by what was available on the day – at the same time mixing elegant and delicious Balinese and western flavours. The warm welcome and level of hospitality from everyone at Villa Sungai was truly wonderful – the manager Made even took us for a tour around his house (which is just up the road) and the traditional and quaint Cepaka village.
Seminyak and Kuta are only a short drive away so we ventured there one evening. Kuta was a loud, cheap and characterless kind of place. Seminyak was mildly better with a few nice beach bars and smart restaurants but neither of them gave me anything I hadn’t seen before.
Gathering the energy to leave Villa Sungai seemed like a huge task after days of eating, sunbathing, chatting to the locals and basking in the serenity of the place, but move on we did.
The drive north-east to the cultural mecca and star of the book ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ – Ubud, took a few hours.
The journey there was full of contrasts; we passed through the bustling centre of Denpasar, through loud traffic jams and finally on to lush countryside where the little roads are slow going but saved by their glorious surroundings. Miles and miles of jade green rice fields stretched out on to the horizon. Driving deeper into the country, past little villages with fresh fruits and huge bags of rice for sale, we saw schoolchildren in immaculately pressed uniforms emerging from their studies and on to their rusty bicycles to make their journey home.
In stark contrast with the delicate and elegant yellow, orange and white frangipani trees that border the roads, the Balinese drive aggressively in their scooters and cars, swerving to and fro without any particular rules but all in tune with each other via a series of beeps for warning, saying hello and telling each other off. Somehow it works!
Being a Hindu province, Bali’s commitment to religion is incredibly strong. Ornate temples with bright yellow decorations are everywhere. People give offerings such as incense, rice and flowers three times a day at shrines, as well as regular daily prayers. On average, a Balinese person spends 40% of their income on their religion and every aspect of their life seems to revolve around it.
Mini shrines are also dotted along the roads and the faint smell of incense reminds you of their presence. Driving along one of the island’s few motorways I gazed out over the flat landscape and on to the majestic mountains – it was awe-inspiring.
After an intense mountain drive and several hairpin bends, we arrived at the Ubud Hanging Gardens, an iconic hotel built into the mountainous rainforest and rice terraces above the centre of town.
The reception is at the top of the hill so to get to our room we entered a cable car which takes you downhill through the mountain.
Our Balinese style villa had the most extraordinary view out into the valley, which went on for miles. Sitting in the infinity pool, sipping a glass of wine, we watched monkeys jumping in the trees and the mist clear from the valley below.
Venturing into Ubud took about half an hour. The town is dusty and busy with a bizarre mixture of boutique shops, organic shops and discount designer stores. There is a real expat community and it really is just like the film ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. Ubud has a fun restaurant scene with the best places hidden away on back streets. We went with a cheap, traditional option and had some yummy nasi goreng. There are plenty of top-notch, more expensive options though if you feel like splashing the cash.
A five-hour drive north-west bought us to the wildly different west Bali. With a landscape more like the African bush, west Bali national park is home to a host of weird and wonderful animals including the Balinese deer – a tiny Bambi-like creature which canters around the forest and is very hard to spot.
The nearby Bali sea is famous for its fantastic snorkelling and rich marine life. Indeed, where we were staying in the park on the tip of north-west Bali was said to be the best place on the island for diving.
The Menjangan resort is accessed via a private gravel track through a forest past the lodge’s stables. We checked in at the Bali Tower Restaurant, a magnificent structure made from five huge logs, each 33 metres long and 80cm in diameter, to create a series of viewing platforms either out to the sea or across the park. It is one of the most extraordinary structures I’ve ever seen.
We were staying in the Monsoon Lodge, a series of modern and comfortable rooms around a lagoon style pool. After an early night, we awoke the next morning for breakfast at the Bali Tower, overlooking the amazing forest which reached out to the horizon. Later on we chartered a sail boat to take us to the best snorkelling spots and enjoyed a spicy fish curry for lunch.
It’s impossible to get tired of the panoramic views you have of Bali, Java and the surrounding seas at the Menjangan resort. Every evening we enjoyed a drink (or two) on the top platform of the Bali Tower, watching the sunset and looking out across the sea to Java with its huge volcano.
Another day I took one of the pretty Australian horses for a ride around the surrounding countryside. From thick forest I would suddenly come to a clearing overlooking a deserted beach with golden sand and crystal clear waters. This was the Bali I was looking for.
Our next stop was the Gili islands, in Lombok.
After a nauseating drive along the north coast to the east of the island, we took the ferry over the Lombok strait to Gili Trawangan, the biggest of the three Gili islands. The trip isn’t for the faint of heart; the boat moves savagely across the waves, banging and crashing for an hour and a half. It’s enough to make even the hardiest sailor feel thoroughly ill.
We got off the boat as quickly as we could, heaving our suitcases across the sand and over into the shade to sit for a while and feel human again. Looking around and the island is just stunning – floury white sand beaches, turquoise seas, and pretty beach-shack houses dotted along the shore.
Gili Trawangan has one road that goes around the edge of the island – one half of it almost deserted, the other full of chic restaurants, bars and bustling food markets. There are no cars, just pony taxis that move tourists, supplies and locals around the one road in miniature yellow wagons decorated with bright motifs and pom poms. It really is quite surreal.
We sunbathed, walked around the island – which took about two hours – and then went to one of the famous beach parties, until returning to Bali the next morning for our final stop.
Compared with the Gili islands, the beaches of Bali had been disappointing. Until that is, I went to Jimbaran – a small bay half an hour from Denpasar airport and our last stop on the trip.
We chose the Jimbaran Puri Bali, a resort on the coast with a stunning pool and a selection of luxury rooms. We had one of the gorgeous one-bedroom deluxe pool villas, which was more like its own mini resort, complete with front gate, gardens, plunge pool, a house for the living area and a further house for the bedroom with an amazing black marble bathroom.
Our last night was spent dining on the beach, eating freshly caught fish and watching the sunset while people decorated the beach with candles. It was blissful.
Bali is a charming place. Yes, it’s an established tourist hot spot but if you avoid areas like Kuta and instead go to places like the splendid west of Bali, there is still an amazing array of culture and sights to see. Go.