I have a feeling I might be preaching to the choir given my audience is overwhelmingly Australian, and we’re talking about Bali here.
Apologies – I couldn’t keep this one to myself. But perhaps for the same reasons why nobody else who visits Bali does either. What a place!
Each year, over a million Australians visit Indonesia’s most popular island. But many seem to make the wrong headlines: obnoxiousness behaviour, one (case of) stubbies too many, disrespectful conduct towards the locals and their customs, and so forth. Stereotypical perpetrators include culturally insensitive backpackers and middle-aged, overweight men in Bintang singlets. For the longest time, the news made Bali out to be the kind of place that’s infested with these people, and so yours truly never intended to visit, and the year-round tropical climate does it no favours. As far as priorities went, Bali literally ranked below Antarctica.
Trust, then, that it took prodding from the folks down at Monkey’s Corner to make it happen. It all had to start somewhere.
Bali doesn’t look very big on a map, but it was a struggle to decide on accommodation – there seemed to be a hotel for every three locals. Seminyak fulfilled the ‘first time to Bali’ starter pack requirements, with a mix of everything: partying, food, shopping, and generally being at the centre of it all. Uluwatu & Nusa Dua to the south cater to the ocean-loving resort crowd, and Ubud’s jungle paradise to the north was sold as the place to get away from it all. Ubud, as it turned out, was our favourite place to stay; more on that later.
Date of trip: 6/Jun/2019 – 11/Jun/2019
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All experiences – food, accommodation and activities in this post were independently paid for.
As usual, this post covers most of the trip’s food and sightseeing/activities over these five days. A few things have been left out, such as markets and generic tourist hotspots dotted around the island. And then there are some bits that will remain a mystery…unless you’ve been following my Instagram Stories vigilantly!
Asterisked items (‘*’) are highlights – a recommendation.
As an aside, I never realised just how many Indonesians followed me on Instagram until this trip happened – so here’s a shout out to everyone (local or otherwise) that gave me tips on how to make the most of my short stay at this beautiful place!
Seminyak (or rather, anything not in Ubud)
First thing’s first: don’t visit Bali when Indonesians are themselves on holiday. With the religious festivities of Lebaran being the happening thing during our visit, it felt like the whole of Indonesia descended upon the island, and as such, any journey took three to four times as long.
Learning this first-hand was not fun. Oh well, the damage has been done – let’s get to it!
Accommodation - The Light Exclusive Villas Seminyak
Our arrival time, plus the overly long cab ride from Denpasar Airport meant that our first night at The Light Exclusive Villas Seminyak consisted purely of sleep: i.e., a write-off. Still, we were sufficiently awake to notice the sheer size of the place, and realising that Bali is full of villas like these at very accessible prices. The bathroom alone is the size of a studio apartment in Sydney! The price? Try $75 per person, per night. I haven’t missed a zero.
Welcome to Indonesia indeed. You can book the villa here (affiliate link!)
Indonesian tapas: that about sums up Cuca Bali. When storied chefs like Raymond Blanc and Joan Roca single out this gorgeous Modern Balinese restaurant, it’s probably not going to be a waste of your time or money. The kicker is when Indonesians themselves that make the recommendation: better get booking. The restaurant is certainly expensive by Indonesian standards, but not by ours. The tasting menu’s value proposition was middling; we worked out that the a la carte menu allowed us to try more, for less.
Cuca has the basics right: great produce, a focus on the fresh & local, and applying – in the right places – Western technique from the chefs’ experiences on a global restaurant stage. The food was delicious and genuine, not gratuitous and inauthentic. Sure, it’s not literally what you’d find in Bali’s many warungs, but that’s obviously not why you’d come here. Elevating the cuisine while paying homage to it? Cuca absolutely does that. But what do I know? Only what I like. And I really like Cuca.
Less than an hour after checking into Livingstone Cafe, the DMs began flooding in: ‘you should have gone to Monsieur Spoon! They have the best croissants in Bali!’
I guess we all make mistakes.
Okay, that’s not fair to Livingstone. You know a place is going to be great when there’s entire 5m+ counter dedicated to croissants, with a separate bar area just for coffee signalling just how seriously the cafe takes its caffeine pastry one-two punch.
While I can’t miss what I haven’t had (I’ll spoon you next time, Monsieur), a viennoiserie break at Livingstone was in no way regrettable. Tease me all you want on visiting a Western-style cafe in Indonesia, but when SWIMBO wants croissants, SWIMBO gets.
Sangsaka is Michelin-acknowledged Merah Putih’s 40-seater bistro-style spinoff. Like Cuca, Sangsaka’s all about putting an upmarket twist on the island’s bounty. The execution, however, isn’t tapas but more share fare. Sangsaka also isn’t afraid to aggressively season, gunning for punchy flavours and intense experiences with dishes that are less fine dining and more, how should I say, Monkey’s Corner with an extra Balinese touch. The results were fantastic.
Aussies reading this will be right at home at Sisterfields. Almost literally: it was too easy for me to believe I was back in Sydney on a particularly hot & stuff day with perhaps just a few more Indonesians than I’d see in Surry Hills. Yeah, here’s a cafe by Australians, for Australians.
To egregiously reduce things down to one comment: if Sisterfields Cafe were in Sydney – or even Melbourne – it would do well. It’s attractive enough without pandering to the ‘Instagram’ aesthetic; the food sufficiently differentiates itself from the ‘Bill Granger trio’ (avo on toast, hotcakes, fritters) spamming every cafe menu down under – though it does offer them; and oh my golly, thank you air conditioning – it matters here.
I’ll admit, as good as it was, it’s really the kind of place for expats or those missing the quintessential Australian breakfast, not for Bali first-timers with an adventurous palate. There’s just too much other local stuff worthy of your attention.
Tanah Lot Temple*
‘Sunset at Tanah Lot, sunrise at Ulun Danu Beratan’ – said one of our taxi drivers, a mantra to remember. Naturally, we only learned this after we visited Tanah Lot Temple…for sunrise. Whoops. Call it a case of bad research, but as a tactic to avoid the crowds? A resounding success.
Pura Tanah Lot (pura = temple) is Bali’s most significant. Perched on a rocky outcrop with a sweeping view straight out into the ocean, it’s an iconic sight, one that defines Bali in the way the Eiffel Tower defines Paris.
Tanah Lot is one of Bali’s ‘seven sea temples’ (pura segara), and it is said that no two of these temples are out of visual range – starting at Batu Bolong Temple (just a few hundred metres north of Tanah Lot) and ending at Uluwatu Temple in the south. Needless to say, its spiritual importance is equally significant.
I’ll do the right thing next time and arrive for sunset: even if it means getting elbowed by a fellow tourist or two.
Speaking of must-see temples and foreshadowing, here’s Pura Luhur Uluwatu – the temple at the other end of the spectrum. If I could visit only one temple in Bali of those I’ve seen, this would be it. One of Bali’s directional temples (kayangan jagat) and the only one that is both this, as well as a sea temple, Uluwatu Temple is one of the holiest temples on the island on an island full of them. It’s hard even for an atheist like me to not feel at least a fleeting moment of spirituality…that didn’t take long to be dashed by the maddening two-hour (a trip that normally takes 45min in Lebaran’s absence) cab ride back to our Seminyak villa. In case it hasn’t been made clear: stay away from Bali during any holiday period – ours or theirs.
Nasi Campur is one of Bali’s most commonly-eaten dishes. Boiled rice is served up with a range of assorted sides – meat, veg, eggs, peanuts (common) fried shrimp & sambal. It’s one of the cheapest snack-meals you can get in Bali, and are found at more warungs (or more accurately, wartegs – a Warung of Javanese origin) than a misspelled ice latte at a Starbucks in America.
So you can’t really miss one. Ours was at well-regarded Men Weti, and at RP30k (which is a bottom-of-the-couch amount of $3AUD), was pound-for-pound the best-value, best-tasting dish we got. This is Indonesia on a plate. Was tempted to order another one just to have it again – just that good.
4/5: the proportion of this trip’s satisfaction directly attributable to Ubud. There must be something in the air of Bali’s lush, jungle north – the cooler temperatures, the quiet buzz of nature (not of mosquitoes – I wasn’t bitten once in three days and I did not use insect repellant), enough greenery to almost convince you that climate change isn’t real, and the easygoing pace that truly typifies relaxation that’s seldom enjoyed on a frantic gotta-see-everything holiday.
Or maybe it’s just because our resort was so close to perfection.
Accommodation - Alila Ubud*
Like every other part of Bali, Ubud is not short of luxury stays that don’t require a remortgage of the house – assuming you’re not lounging at a global brand name. The sustainably-designed Alila Ubud was an incredible example of this. The price, for starters, was already pretty bonkers (around $250 per room per night), but the deal was sweetened by the fact that we got upgraded twice to the Terrace Tree Villa (that once again puts most apartments to shame). Okay, dreams can come true I guess.
The food (dinner)
The food (breakfast)
You can book Alila Ubud here (affiliate link)
Babi Guling Ibu Oka
Bali’s Hindu majority means that babi guling – roast pork – gets to take its place as one of the island’s most recognisable dishes. The pork, obviously succulent, is commonly served with lawar (a diced vegetable, coconut, meat & spice medley) and steamed rice, and delicious for all the usual reasons why Southeast Asian food is delicious.
The collective wisdom of Instagram led me to sample this Bali icon at Ibu Oka, a warung that has become so popular that there are three branches in just Ubud. Say no more.
Bebek Tepi Sawah*
Apply everything I just said about pork to duck, and you get bebek. Bebek Tepi Sawah, to be specific: social media’s collective wisdom produced several contenders for duck in Ubud, but I could only pick one: given that it’s done so well the owners now drive Ferraris – I thought I would be in good hands.
I was. The menu is overly complicated for a place that’s famed for one thing, so quickly sorting through the raff and honing in on ‘duck’ yielded the dishes we were looking for: bebek goreng (deep-fried duck) & bebek betutu (smoked roasted duck).
Full disclaimer: some followers on social media have shared negative experiences here, where the duck has been too dry. While that was not my experience, it’s in the realm of possibility (I mean hey, look at what happened to me at Ibu Oka). Want another recommendation provided by the masses? Try Bebek Bengil.
To visit an attraction specifically designed to extract maximum coin from those with maximum vanity…oh, how far I’ve fallen. Meh, you do what makes you happy, and if taking some Tarzan-esque pictures over the picturesque Ubud jungle while paying $50AUD for the privilege is what it takes, then so be it.
Could an attraction like the Bali Swing exist without the likes of Instagram? It’s an interesting question to ponder – though perhaps not while experiencing the surprising surge of adrenalin as the staff at Bali Swing push you harder and harder out into the chasm. Yes, I’ll say it: it was surprisingly fun.
If you’ve stumped up the moolah to come here (the OG may be expensive, but there are now many cheaper copycats), you’d better come early. Opening time (8am) is recommended, and lining up 15min beforehand is a wise idea: we got there at around 7:45am and were perhaps 10th in line. Arrive during peak hour and prepare to spend half your day here – vanity sells, and Instagrammers will spend all day to get the perfect shot. For the record, we were done in less than five minutes for multiple swings (sans waiting).
You really can’t judge a swing by its pictures it seems. If you can make opening hours, have a go.
You can book the Bali Swing here (affiliate link) which is the cheapest I’ve found it. I’m still not sure how Klook makes money because they’re once again cheaper than even the fare charged by the actual Bali Swing website itself (Klook = $43AUD; Bali Swing Site = 35USD = $51AUD at time of writing). Hooray…exchange rates?
Be sure to select the ‘Bali Swing Active Package’, NOT the ‘entrance package’, which doesn’t include swinging . I guess some people pay $14AUD to watch…others swing?
Goa Gajah or ‘Elephant Cave’ is a temple complex originally built in the 9th century. If you’ve already got three or four temples on your itinerary, you can give this one a miss. It’s a nice place, but most of Bali is nicer. At this point in the trip, I couldn’t help but feel an afternoon chilling in our villa at Alila Ubud would have been a better use of our stinking hot afternoon.
At Hujan Locale, Will Meyrick lives and breathes the ‘found and foraged’ philosophy. The restaurant can be thought of as another high-end bistro, but Hujan Locale’s selling point is that its dishes are a collection of recipes Will and his team have collected from Indonesian locals throughout the years, dressed up with modern technique and served in the one plush dining room. The result is one of Ubud’s higher-end offerings that stops short of fine dining, and was recommended to me more than almost any other restaurant in Bali.
It was a good experience, but the technique and ‘collection of experiences’ selling point overrode that which was most important: flavour. Sometimes dishes didn’t come together properly in taste, other times they were good, but you can’t help but feel the dreaded ‘I feel like I’ve had better elsewhere’.
Locavore is Michelin and World’s 50 Best fodder, but that in no way biased my assessment – ‘he picks a fine dining restaurant as his favourite in Bali? Typical’. Sure, whatever. Locavore was bloody delicious, my favourite restaurant in Bali and one of my top meals of 2019. And it all came in at a price that would easily be 3x more in Sydney. Ray Adriansyah and Eelke Plasmeijer are on the money when it comes to that rarest of the rare: Asian cuisine elevated to the highest levels, with a little bit of cheeky Euro-fusion thrown in for good measure. They understand flavours, what makes a diner’s palate tick, and how to impress at just the right moments with the right level of theater. There was maybe only one dish in our entire degustation that I would markedly change, everything else was just dandy. That’s a hard scorecard to top. Freaking fantastic.
You’ll no doubt remember all the gorengs and gulings and sambals you’ll eat in Bali, and they will all be delicious. But you will remember Locavore because its experience will be branded into your culinary soul. An unadulterated gourmand’s experience right in the heart of Balinese jungle.
Mt Batur Hike*
Deciding to climb a mountain is already tough going. Waking up at 2am to do so would make one wonder if the heat had finally taken its toll.
Those people haven’t seen the views off the summit of Mount Batur. Magic is worth the price of admission. Bring lots of caffeine, a hoodie (you’ll thank me later as others freeze to death at the summit), and a damn good camera – but don’t forget to enjoy the view.
You can do the hike by yourself, or book a guided tour at Klook which includes a breakfast at the peak (affiliate link). This tour also included a visit to a Kopi Luwak plantation (you’ve heard of cat poo coffee, right?), which allowed me to try the brew for the first time!
Room 4 Dessert*
A visit to Will Goldfarb’s dessert theatre was well-timed, as the Room 4 Dessert crew had just come off a four-month renovation that saw the space expand five times, but seating reduced by half. Bigger is better, if the seats are fewer, it seems.
Goldfarb’s machinations and manipulations of Balinese ingredients into world-class needs no introduction (I’m just going to irresponsibly assume that 100% of my readership has watched Chef’s Table). It’s one of the better episodes of the already excellent series, and Goldfarb’s peculiar story alone would convince foodies to make the three-part pilgrimage. I say three parts, for that’s how a ‘meal’ – nay, experience – at Locavore works. An initial sitting of 7 courses at the bar – mere bites – kickstart diners’ appetites. Consider this the ‘entree degustation’. The ‘mains’ are served inside the building, swapping the lush Ubud jungle for a dark, velvety environment that could be confused for a French manor. The most substantial desserts are served here.
Room 4 Dessert Zone 1 – snacks at the bar
Room 4 Dessert Zone 2 – ‘mains’ inside the restaurant
Room 4 Dessert Zone 3 – ‘petit fours’ out on the porch
And now my memory really began to fail me – I blame it on the diabetic levels of sugar ingested by this time!
The final course(s) is served outside the very back of the building after sunset – multiple rounds of petit fours as it were. As if we weren’t already full enough – you’d think they were fattening us up with sugar for the slaughter!
Because I’m just a simple man with no actual cooking experience opining on food, I can’t even name 3/4 of the desserts we ate or their constituents. But that doesn’t matter: the experience was 4/4 (yeah this fraction analogy was awkward and unnecessary). It was an equal-first with Locavore, albeit translated over to desserts. It’s truly stunning to see such venturesome talent producing inventive desserts that compare to the world’s best. Being experimental, I didn’t expect I’d like everything and that was certainly true. But when Goldfarb’s magic worked, it was wholly enrapturing, with delight visible on everyone’s face – probably from the moon. I’m confident that there’s nothing like this in the world. Sweet tooths absolutely cannot miss out. A crazy, crazy lifespan-shortening meal that’s worth the lost time.
Any Bali local will tell you how proud they are of their coffee, and while I don’t think Australian coffee’s going anywhere any time soon, Balinese java certainly does have a reputation that goes beyond what’s excreted out of a civet cat. Ubud is full of cafes, and while I only had time to visit one, most locals pointed to Seniman Coffee as the ‘if you could only visit one…’
Tegalalang Rice Terrace*
Pro-tip: rice terraces in Bali are not at their best in June. Harvesting is already well underway, so the rolling green fields you see on Instagram will be a harsh lesson in expectations vs reality. Nonetheless, we still had to see one for uh…reasons. Tegalalang is one of the more famous & accessible ones, but beware: locals will badger you for ‘upkeep donations’ multiple times as you make your way into the fields, so be prepared with change on hand, or fight the hard fight. Good luck.
Ulun Danu Beratan Temple*
Our last temple visit of the trip is one of the furthest, and also one of the prettiest, and one of the most important. It was built over 400 years ago, with its primary purpose as a place of worship of the river goddess Dewi Danu. Its location at Lake Beratan is no coincidence – the lake is a hugely important source of irrigation for much of Bali, which helps to explain the sheer size of the meru tower in the main complex.
As an aside, I just love how, at 1200m above sea level, this is one of the few places in Bali that’s naturally cool all year round. Woohoo!
Five Days Is Not Enough.
Bali was, in so many ways, the very definition of an unexpected – but pleasant – surprise. The gregariousness of its locals is infectious – and it almost never came across as disingenuous. The food is imperfect, but gems are defined by the rough. The climate, while understandably
disgusting tropical, is perhaps even pleasant, if in foresty Ubud. I now see why so many fellow Australians rate it so highly – all of the above, plus Bali’s ease of access (relative to say, Europe) and cost (relative to again say, Europe) makes it an irresistible destination. Consider me a convert.
Five days is not enough.
I appreciate that, as a first-time visitor to Indonesia who’s never looked into the culture that I may have made unintentional errors in the content. Please feel more than free to sound off in the comments to set the record straight!