For a different Bali experience, see my earlier story on Ubud.
I am a Bali beach girl, and have been at least once a year for over 20 years. I first started going to Bali when Kuta was nothing but a dark, tiny street, maybe 200m long, a few hotels, and some kiosks. How it’s changed!
The beach culture had been born out of the hippy culture and the surf scene through the years. (although it’s not the best surf spot around the island, Kuta Beach has surf directly accessible from the beach)
The Sari Club (which was the target of the first Bali Bombings and was never rebuilt) was our hangout of choice to pick up, er, I mean, meet, hot boys. The only other club in those days was Peanuts. Those were major party holidays : x
Over the years, both Kuta and I have changed, but my connection to Bali has never waned. Even though the Spring Break type holidays are no more, I head to Bali at least once a year.
We’ve grown up together, Kuta and I.
Unlike me, beach Bali has grown increasingly sophisticated over the years. As my disposable income increased, new venues opened to take my money off me. So while I started 20 years ago in a little tiny back street hotel room, I’m now able to pick from a huge range of options. From villas, to family hotels, to cool hotels, to private, intimate spa hotels (yay!) Even a choice of beaches. Where I once used to stay in Kuta, my choice these days is either on the beach in Seminyak, or Jimbaran. It’s an easy cab ride to restaurants and shopping from either. (see hotel suggestions)
Southern Bali is good for surf, and not for diving/snorkelling. (Head up to Candidasa/Amed on the North coast for that)
So if you’ve never been, let me simplify for you…here are my personal choices for Bali.
Where beach Bali began its life with Kuta as a little surfie-hippy village in South West Bali all those years ago, Kuta is now lots of buildings, narrow roads, shops, and large hotels. It extended up the beach to Legian, and beyond Legian to Seminyak and now development continues, to Batubelig.
All this is because of the great long strip of sandy beach that runs almost (but not quite) continuously from Jimbaran up to Tanah Lot, mostly with accessible surf breaks.
Kuta itself as a town doesn’t have a lot going for it aesthetically. Unchecked organic growth, rough and tumble, higgledy-piggledy and no urban planning. One long road (Jalan Raya Kuta runs into Jalan Raya Legian in the North), the main thoroughfare, about half a km in from the beach, with shops, bars, restaurants jostling for attention. At busy times of the year, this road gets clogged, so you can be sitting in traffic for ages, or inhaling fumes.
On the public beach you risk being hassled “madame, you wan massage? I plait you hair?”, and parts of the beach are also topless.
Where’s the famous Bali aesthetic, you ask? In hotels, resorts, villas – private compounds, and not the public areas.
Kuta started here, with “Bemo Corner” where you used to haggle for transport (bemos). These days metred cabs are everywhere so you shouldn’t get ripped off anymore.
Some of the ‘original’ Kuta is still here (the road!!), like the original Made’s Warung.
Made’s is an institution. The picture doesn’t give you a sense of the fabulous ambience of the place, Bali meets hippy-boho, with a huge eclectic menu that’s really good value for money. From great breakfasts, to salads, to local food, to steaks. (more in the Seminyak section)
There are tons of shops, selling surf gear, and franchise outlets (Bread Talk, Giordano), souvenirs, bags, mobiles, spa products and some shops selling designer fakes.
The ‘posher’ end of Kuta is actually Legian/Seminyak.
The more sophisticated end of the beach is now “North Kuta”. The Legian-Seminyak area has the nicest restaurants, bars, accommodation, and a beach that’s quieter.
It’s a bit Sydney-meets-Bali, so you get some really nice, groovy places to hang out it. There are great bars and restaurants on the beach.
There are excellent homeware shops, and higher-end retail.
Canggu, further north of Legian, and on the beach, was a quiet fishing village, now with a clutch of privately-owned holiday villas. The ocean here is much rougher, and the beach black with volcanic sand. Tanah Lot Temple is close by. (30 mins to Seminyak)
Is a lovely long crescent of a bay, with the “Bukit” and the Four Seasons on one end, the InterContinental right on the beachfront, and about 5 kilometres at the other end is the fishing village proper of Jimbaran, with the airport runway jutting out into the sea. (Off the runway is another great surfing spot, you’ll often see boats dropping surfers there).
The beach is quiet, clean, unspoilt, the ocean not too rough, but with enough waves for a perfect boogie boarding destination.
Seafood restaurants also at one end of the beach.
(15-20 mins to Seminyak)
Continuing south past Jimbaran, you go past the Four Seasons, past the new villa area ‘the Bukit’, past the Ritz-Carlton, to Uluwatu. Perched on high cliffs overlooking a tempestuous sea, it’s a surfer’s paradise. Various surf breaks are known as world class spots, and a bit of a mecca for visiting surfers.
It’s also home to the famous Uluwatu Temple. Clinging to the edge of high cliffs, it’s a gorgeous sight at sunset.
The beaches are largely inaccessible except at certain points. (see Mai’s comment on Dreamland Beach below)
Super-luxury accommodation has sprung up here, in the form of the Bulgari Resort. Some lovely private villas too (more on those later). It can take 20 – 30 minutes to get to Kuta, and you’ll need transport.
“I liked all the beaches in Bali – at least the three that I got to visit in my short stay there – but by far my fave was Dreamland beach. I think it’s because it was so different from Jimbaran and the others. The ocean there was rough and tumble and unashamedly fierce. Relentlessly ferocious.
Mind you, I got there in the middle of a scorcher of an afternoon, right before the no surfing flag was up. When I got into the cold water, it was stark and soothing, all at the same time. Dreamland beach for me was a place that made no excuses for what it was, the crashing waves reached out to me as if to say “are you brave enough for me?” And it made me yearn for courage. It made me gape with awe.” – Mai
|There’s a huge range of food in the Kuta-Seminyak area. From little warungs (cafes/stalls) to great dining experiences. From bakmi goreng (friend noodles), nasi goreng, Bali satay, to fresh pasta, pizzas, sushi. I haven’t yet seen a kebab place but maybe I just haven’t been looking. Starbucks is here, and … Krispy Kreme, to my niece Samantha’s delight.
There are some lovely restaurants in Bali that integrate the Bali aesthetic into a memorable dining experience.
Made’s has been around since 1969. Starting with a little outlet in Kuta, with an eclectic and wide-ranging menu that meets most needs, at a good price point, with a welcoming ambience, Made’s is a staple for me. All sorts of celebs have been through here.
She has opened a new outlet in Seminyak, much bigger, with a great courtyard to sit in. It’s always packed in season, so unless you’re going early/late, best to book. It’s relaxed and laid back, no need to dress up.
The menu is huge and sprawling…from prawn avocado to satay to bakmi goreng to pasta to pancakes.
Tried, tested and loved: the Spicy Fish soup (kind of laksa-ish but nowhere near as rich, with white fish), the crab soup (yum) the Nasi Campur (fantastic. Rice with various dishes, spicy), nasi goreng special (with satay), gado gado (you can also do half gado half nasi campur) my favourite mixed-up salad (exactly that, with all sorts of things), prawn avocado (fresh, ripe avocado), carbonara and the banana pancakes (thin, crepe like, with slices of banana and a syrup) to name a few.
Yes, I’ve been here A LOT!
I love this place. A simple structure on a great beachfront location. Italian, with leanings towards Aussie-Asian fusion. Pretty good. But for me it’s not so much about the food, but just a great place to be. It’s pretty mellow, with a great view, not overly pretentious. I could hang here all day.
It’s right next to Pura (temple) Pettitenget
Part of it is dedicated to a ‘fine dining’ restaurant, part to a really nice beach front bar, and the other the loungers facing the beach. You can hang there all day, all night, drinking, sunning, chilling, eating.
At night they light the crashing waves with spotlights, so you can sit in the loungers with your drink and drink it and the view, the ambience and music in. (great lounge music) If you’re with your significant other, it’s a lovely snuggle spot.
At certain times of the year they hoist a big screen and have outdoor movie festivals.
I like it but it’s a bit too chi-chi and beautiful people for me.
Free podcasts of Ku de Ta radio is available on iTunes.
It’s just so darned pretty. If you’re with your beloved, it’s a gorgeously romantic dinner spot. Bali thatched roofs, long, dramatic drapes, candlelight.
It’s also at Pettitenget.
Off the main drag in Legian, a cute building houses Ketupat, which serves Indonesian food. It’s pretty good.
Hard Rock Café
I know. But if you have kids with you and they’re being difficult about food, this is a great option. It’s right off Kuta Beach, and you know what you’re getting.
There is a clutch of restaurants by the fishing village, right on the beach. I thought it was OK, I’ve had better seafood experiences.
There are a few Ryoshi’s in the Kuta-Seminyak area. The food is pretty genuinely Japanese, fresh, and not crazy expensive. I like.
Jln. Legian 153, Fourteen Roses Hotel, Kuta.
Jalan Raya Seminyak 17 (prefer this one)
Where To Stay
There is a plethora of accommodation available. From losmen at $20 a night (guest houses) to super-swanky resorts at $1500 a night, and everything in between. There are also many private villas available.
First decide where you want to be, and then narrow your hotel choices. Here are some of my favourites.
I love being on the beach in Seminyak. It’s a wonderful, long beachfront. It’s great for accessing the other beachfront restaurants for lunch or breakfast (La Lucciola or Ku De Ta are walkable from the beach).
|I particularly love the activity on the beach. There’s an endless parade of people walking up and down, it’s like a Balinese passeggiata. I love my long barefoot walks on the beach in the evening, going past people walking their dogs, kids playing, horses being ridden. And being on the West coast, it’s usually accompanied by a pretty sunset.|
The best located is The Oberoi. The old lady was the original ‘garden’ hotel in Bali, where the Bali aesthetic first came to life. Low rise villa buildings dotted around gorgeous grounds, right on the beach. Where newer hotels have narrower beachfront but go inland a long way, The Oberoi sprawls along a lovely beachfront. It’s a stunning location.
It’s older, so it’s gently worn, but kept up well, with great staff and service.
It’s quietly self-confident, not terribly flash, and still beautiful.
The Legian Hotel
Just down the beach from The Oberoi and Ku De Ta is the flashier The Legian. It’s seriously stylish. It’s right on the beach and isn’t as expansive as The Oberoi. As with newer properties, it doesn’t sprawl along the seafront. But it’s really pretty.
There are huge daybeds on your balcony to take in the lovely view.
It‘s certainly not a dress-down place, but it‘s not ostentatious. Quietly stylish.
This is a villa-hotel complex a stone’s throw from La Lucciola. There are 1 to 3 bedroom villas, with your own pool. Although you are not on the beach, you have a peaceful, quiet pool to hang out in.
Every morning staff come and cook you breakfast to start your day. Nice.
If you want the beach, there are loungers for hire along the beach, or head to Ku de Ta to hang there.
It‘s a cheaper option if you‘re a family, the kitchenette means you can whip up lunch easily. (supermarkets abound this end of town) The standalone spa, Bodyworks, is close by.
I first stayed here in its soft opening in 1992 and go back often. It has the most gorgeous grounds, a huge beachfront, on Jimbaran Bay. It’s a lovely quiet beach, and the waves are not crazy violent, perfect for boogie boarding. We love it in the water here!
The hotel has now opened a surf school run by Rip Curl to teach surfing, boogie boarding and stand-up paddle boarding.
As a huge hotel (600 rooms) it has a lot of facilities. 8 pools, tons of restaurants, kidsclubs, gym, spa and sometimes, a lot of other people. The best option is to stay in the Club Wing. You pay more, but you get all meals free in the Club Lounge (open 24 hrs), and a quieter end of the beach and a pool just for use of the Club guests. It’s a nicer experience.
A great option for a family holiday.
Over the years little restaurants and shops have sprung up in the area, so you can be quite self-sufficient here.
This is a lovely resort. The villas are actually perched on the cliff, so you get a great view across the bay (and to the airport in the distance). Each room is a villa, with a little plunge pool, and a nice bale (on the left in the picture above).
If you want more privacy, opt for the oceanfront villas. You pay a little more but you have no one in front of you except the ocean.
My one gripe is that the private pools are small in comparison to everything else that’s available. But the service and the view make up for it
The resort is really pretty, the public areas are graciously done, lovely views, and the beach is accessible from one end of the resort.
I haven’t seen inside the Estates, but those are large residences (estates in themselves) as part of the hotel.
Bali has a lot of beautiful privately-owned villas that are available for rent when not in use by the owners. Most cluster around the Seminyak-Canggu area, more now at The Bukit, and come with resident staff. You can browse at www.elitehavens.com and www.balinicerate.com among many other sites.
I’ve booked this so many times but never actually made it. I am determined to stay here one day. This is a privately owned villa right by The Legian, available for rent.
It’s your own entire compound, with staff, a chef, and a big pool.
I haven’t stayed here but oh how I want to! It’s a gorgeous 5 bedroom cliff-top private villa, with spectacular views, spectacular finishes and lovely interiors. Don’t you just want to sit in that lounger and take in that view. Privacy and utter luxury. Deep breaths, serenity, GORGEOUSNESS!
Back to earth… US$3,250 a night…
Like the rest of Bali, shopping has gotten increasingly sophisticated over the years. From little roadside stalls to yes, malls. From endless ‘souvenirs’ to fantastic homewares. It’s all there.
If you are venturing into one of the stalls to get a sarong, a Bintang Bir t-shirt, a carved mini-surfboard keyring, be prepared to haggle. And hold your ground. Start at 50% and go up slowly.
If you’re on one of the public areas of the beach, ignore the people trying to sell you things. A fatal mistake is making eye contact or talking to someone because you feel bad. You’ll be surrounded!
So, what’s to buy? There’s endless Balinese tat. Hand carved anythings. Hanging anythings. Shell anythings. You can take your chances and venture into one of the shops along the main drag and get ready to haggle. An easier alternative is to head to the department store, Matahari (Kuta Square), and just buy it hassle-free.
Surf gear here is also cheaper than in Sing. All the big brands are here, Roxy, Mooks, Quiksilver, Rip Curl, Stussy. The best spot to find all of these together is at Kuta Square. (South Kuta, towards Hard Rock) One of my favourite shops is Surfer Girl, which has all sorts of surf brands for chicks, as well as its own label. There’s a shop at Kuta Square but there’s a much bigger one on Jalan Raya Kuta.
Up the Seminyak end is my favourite shopping hunting ground. Great homewares, from lamps to furniture to cushions to accessories. I’ve been known to check-in stools and lampshades, and once, a huge painting. You can do it easier and ship stuff home. Some of the furniture is so lovely I’d do it!
Head for Made’s Warung in Seminyak, and have a wander northwards along the main drag (although the little side street, Jalan Kunti, also has some interesting shops). It’s not the loveliest of walks, beware the potholes and DON’T step on the offerings, but worth it. Unfortunately the shops are not all next to each other, so you’ll have to schlepp and have a nose around.
My favourite silver jewellery shop is also up here. Lotus Silver is right across from Made’s. The designer, a Japanese lady, makes some really interesting pieces, different from the run of the mill stuff you usually find. She has another outlet down Kuta way too.
Of course you have to spa in Bali. Balinese massage is pressure point, and there are some great ones and some really not worth the time. Most hotels have an in-house spa but some are not toptastic. You don’t have to be a hotel guest to use a hotel’s spa.
A great spa experience is the Hyatt Hotel in Sanur (30 mins from Kuta). The spa grounds are gorgeous, and the massages fantastic.
The best 4 hands massage ever is at The Legian hotel.
A great standalone spa is Bodyworks, in Seminyak. They are in their own little building, and offer everything. A great way to spend an afternoon is to lunch at La Lucciola, chill for a while, then walk over to Bodyworks and have the Mandi Lulur and a massage.
Bali is Hindu, and religion is at the core of Balinese culture. It is hugely important, and every full moon, villagers dress up for a festival at the temple. (try Pura Pettitenget, and Jimbaran to catch a glimpse of the villagers and ceremonies)
Everywhere you go in Bali you’ll see offerings left on the sidewalks. Don’t step on them please!
Rituals are observed, and temples are central to a community. There are some iconic temples in Southern Bali, and you should drop in. Best if you could time it with a festival, because the colours are dazzling then. The women are sumptuously dressed and carry beautiful fruit offerings on their heads, incense in the air, gamelan music in the background. Quite intoxicating.
This is Uluwatu Temple, right on the edge of the cliff. It’s a pretty spot, not so nice if you happen to be there with coachloads of tourists, but let’s hope not.
Don’t feed the monkeys, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
You need to be ‘decently dressed’ – no bare arms and no bare legs – out of respect to the temple.
Tanah Lot is the temple that is only accessible at low tide. It’s so pretty. At high tide in an angry sea it’s pretty spectacular as well. They say a snake lives in one of the caves and it’s huge. I didn’t check.
If you want a glimpse of Balinese dancers, your best bet is Puri Saren in Ubud. See my previous story on Ubud.
There are pubs and clubs galore as this is a PAR-TAY town, and I could go on, but I have to end this article at some point!
If you have any questions about Bali that I haven’t answered here, just drop me an email. firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll try my best to answer it.
To see my mini-guide on Ubud, click here
To see my mini-guide on Phuket, click here