Bali is in Southeast Asia, but sometimes this Indonesian island feels like another world. You can take a bus straight from the airport to your ultra-modern resort in Kuta and then cross vast expanses of rice fields to visit the art galleries at Ubud or the dizzying clifftop heights of Pura Luhur Uluwatu.
In a Muslim-majority country, Bali is culturally Hindu, with traditions and festivities celebrated nowhere else in the region. The culture is best appreciated through the arts and food that the locals lovingly share with their visitors, but this culture sits in an uneasy truce with encroaching modernity in the form of resorts, golf courses, and malls sprouting up all over.
Bali defies explanation, its contrasts competing with one another for the visitor's attention. Bali is the only surviving fragment of a once-mighty Hindu empire, but the tourist trade threatens to absorb the same rich culture it celebrates. Bali's beaches and other natural wonders are in fierce competition with the constant development going on throughout the island.
What to Do in Bali
Bali has long been known for its beaches and culture, but the growing tourist infrastructure means that new opportunities for fun and entertainment are opening wide.
Bali's beaches are still its main draw. Arguably the best beach is in Nusa Dua, with its vast expanses of soft sandy shore. The various conditions for surfing in Bali also attract surfers from all over the world.
Balinese music and dance play a prominent role in local society (the Pura Luhur Uluwatu's Kecak and Fire Dance show is a good sample), and tourists are encouraged to see the Balinese worship at the many temples scattered around the island. But that just scratches the surface there is much more to see and do.
Discovering Bali's attractions can be a disorienting experience for the first time visitor. One minute you can be amid the din of Kuta and Denpasar, then next you could be meeting dolphins on Lovina Beach. Art galleries in Ubud can give way to techno music in Seminyak.
South Bali is where most of the island's action takes place, where the tourist infrastructure is the most developed. You will find Kuta's white sand beaches and raucous nightlife, Denpasar's urban attractions, and Nusa Dua's ordered serenity, among others.
This area is famous for being the cradle of Balinese art. The island's artisans, based primarily in the town of Ubud, produce both traditional and modern artwork for a growing international market.
East Bali is dominated by Gunung Agung (“Holy Mountain”), a central focus of Bali's religion and culture. The Pura Besakih Temple is located on its foothills. Along the sea, the dark volcanic sands offer excellent diving, sunbathing, and snorkeling opportunities.
North of this region, Kintamani villages surround Mount Batur and its caldera lake. Here you will want to sample the fresh food, hiking, and the impressive view.
The north is centered around the old Dutch capital of Singaraja. North Bali offers a good look at Bali's picturesque history. This area is far less crowded than Bali's south end and provides some enchanting diversions of its own. You can swim out to meet dolphins on Lovina Beach, or enjoy the colonial architecture in Singaraja.
The westernmost part of Bali is the first part of the island seen by ferry passengers getting off at Gilimanluk; apart from that, there's nothing much for the tourist to see here. Some attractions off the beaten path do exist - the tomb of the doomed lover Jayaprana can be found here, as well as the wildlife of Bali Barat National Park.
Flights to Bali
If you're like most visitors to Bali, you'll see it first from an airplane touching down at Ngurah Rai International Airport (DPS). Ngurah Rai is reachable from almost every major hub in the region, Australia included.
From the United States
Long-haul flights from the United States mainland to Bali are available, departing from Los Angeles (LAX), San Francisco (SFO), and New York (JFK or LGA).
From Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, Garuda Indonesia, Japan Airlines, Korean Air Lines, Malaysia Airlines, and Singapore Airlines fly from Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) to Ngurah Rai.
Garuda Indonesia, Malaysia Airlines, and Singapore Airlines fly from Singapore's Changi International Airport (SIN) to Ngurah Rai.
Outgoing international visitors are subject to an airport tax of IDR150,000 ($10.60), payable only in the local currency. For visitors leaving on domestic flights, the domestic departure tax costs IDR30,000 ($2.12).
Many resorts offer free transfers from Ngurah Rai, but on the slim chance that you can't get one (or don't want one), you can easily ride a taxi from the airport to your hotel or elsewhere on the island. Metered taxis can be found in the southern end of Bali, especially around the tourist areas of Kuta, Tuban, and Denpasar.
If you want to go further afield, you can rent a car (with or without driver) or a motorbike, but if you choose to drive yourself, consider that Bali is an incredibly challenging place to drive.
Hotels and Resorts
Bali offers an incredible range of accommodation options–from dirt-cheap hostels to $1,000 villas. In general, budget travelers tend to stay in or around Kuta, good mid-range and family options can be found in Tuban, and the most expensive beach resorts are mostly in Nusa Dua.