Mystical, magical, exotic: Such were the enticements that drew the first Western tourists to Bali in the 1920s and ’30s, lured by images of bare-breasted maidens and the Edenic, temple-dotted landscape. In the ’60s, it was the surfers’ turn to discover the waves of the south coast, and before long, the beachside village Kuta had become, along with Kabul and Kathmandu, one of the legendary “three Ks” along the hippie trail. Since then, tourism in Bali has increased exponentially; by the time I moved to the island in the mid-’90s, Kuta’s giddy sprawl had grown to encompass the neighboring villages of Legian and Seminyak, and the island’s roster of luxury hotels—two Four Seasons, three Amanresorts and a pair of Hyatts—was unmatched.
Though there have been setbacks—the terrorist bombings of 2002 and 2005 all but devastated the local tourist trade—Bali’s allures are nothing if not resilient. Last year saw a record-breaking 2.5 million overseas arrivals, almost double that of a decade ago. Bonita Kramer, an Indonesian entrepreneur who owns two popular restaurants on Jalan Petitenget, on northern Seminyak, recalls, “When we opened the café Warung Bonita here seven years ago, we were surrounded by rice fields and cow pastures. Now the street is packed with new hotels, restaurants, spas and fancy shops.” Admittedly, all this progress has strained the local infrastructure, particularly in the touristy south, where traffic and overdevelopment threaten to sap Bali’s traditional allure. But for those looking to escape the madding crowds, holing up in one of the island’s sybaritic resorts has never been more appealing.
The Bukit Peninsula, a limestone tableland that hangs like a pendulum off Bali’s southern end, harbors the island’s largest concentration of luxury hotels. Many of these, including the lavish St. Regis Bali
(rooms, from $535; Kawasan Pariwisata, Nusa Dua; 62-361/847-8111; starwoodhotels.com), occupy prime seaside locations in Nusa Dua, a manicured resort enclave that encompasses the peninsula’s most accessible beaches. But with waterfront real estate in short supply, hotel developers of late have turned their attention to the south’s sea cliffs and promontories, building breezy aeries that trade on spectacular Indian Ocean views.
One of the most hyped debuts in recent years was that of the Bulgari Resort Bali (rooms, from $800; Jalan Goa Lempeh, Uluwatu; 62-361/847-1000; bulgarihotels.com), the Italian jeweler’s second foray (after Milan) into luxe lodgings that opened in 2006. Perched on a bluff 492 feet above a sliver of white sand, which guests can access via a glass-enclosed funicular, it comes with 59 wood-and-stone villas crafted by Milanese designer Antonio Citterio, whose somber palette is offset by Indonesian artifacts and shimmering songket brocades.
For equally breathtaking views, there’s the new Banyan Tree Ungasan (rooms, from $560; Jalan Melasti, Ungasan; 62-361/300-7000; banyantree.com), just down the coast. The property’s 73 villas, each with bedrooms that open onto a big infinity pool, spill down a hillside that ends at a sheer precipice; villa 218, right on the cliff’s edge, is nonpareil in terms of prospect and privacy.
Trumping its neighbors, however, is Alila Villas Uluwatu (rooms, from $715; Jalan Belimbing Sari, Pecatu; 62-361/848-2166; alilahotels.com), which set a bold new standard for postmodern tropical architecture when it opened in 2009. For those who count their carbon credits, it’s also a model of sustainability, designed and built using locally sourced materials that include recycled railroad ties and creamy white stone. Sixty-one sleek villas feature flat roofs topped with volcanic stone (a natural insulator) and walls that slide open to reveal a private pool and cabana. The sea glitters in the distance. A cantilevered pavilion that juts out over the cliff is among the most dramatic perches on the island, while Warung, Alila’s breezy Indonesian restaurant, provides a fine introduction to local specialties, like a chicken dish called ayam betutu and seafood skewers called sate lilit. The resort also offers a menu of bespoke cultural activities, dubbed Journeys, that range from gastronomy classes to guided tours of the Bukit’s most venerated temples, including the 1,000-year-old Pura Luhur Uluwatu.
No place better encapsulates the island’s boom times than Seminyak, a seaside enclave just northwest of the Bukit where paddy fields and palm groves have given way to a stretch of boutiques, galleries, bars and restaurants. This is Bali at its most stylish and cosmopolitan, with crowds to match. The center of gravity these days is along Jalan Petitenget, just up from the ever-popular Ku dé Ta beach club. Here, the newest kid on the coast is the W Retreat & Spa Bali (rooms, from $300; Jalan Petitenget; 62-361/473-8106; starwoodhotels.com), whose hip ethos seems ideally suited to its locale. It may not match the settled-in grandeur of The Legian, down the beach, but it does have a playful, cheeky-chic appeal that you won’t find elsewhere on the island—think illuminated resin lobby bar and a spa equipped with a 24-hour detox lounge. The pool villas out back are big and plush, though for sea views you’ll want to book a stay in the main building, where the best rooms have skylights. And while the young staff works a little too hard at being cool, there’s nothing to detract from a meal at the beachside restaurant Starfish Bloo, where California chef Jack Yoss turns out mod Asian dishes like ginger-cured duck confit and miso-glazed black cod.
With few exceptions, Bali’s best restaurants are also in Seminyak. Metis (6 Jalan Petitenget; 62-361/737-888; metisbali.com), a courtyard-style restaurant, is as glamorous as they come, with antiques and jewelry boutiques out front and a cocktail terrace overlooking spotlit lotus ponds. The French-Mediterranean menu, executed by classically trained French chef Nicolas “Doudou” Tourneville (an entire page is dedicated to foie gras), has been recently updated to include a standout morel-crusted veal tenderloin and Tasmanian salmon confit with mascarpone risoni. Tourneville’s famed crispy pork belly is still here, but it’s now cooked an extra four hours and accompanied by Chardonnay-poached Granny Smith apples. If you have room for dessert, opt for the chocolate-and-pistachio parfait.
Two other hot spots are similarly helmed by expats. Portugal-born chef Will Meyrick turns out cool renditions of South and Southeast Asian dishes at his restaurant Sarong (19 Jalan Petitenget; 62-361/737-809; sarongbali.com), a high-ceilinged dining pavilion appointed with gauzy curtains, comfy sofas and chandeliers. At Biku (888 Jalan Petitenget; 62-361/857-088; bikubali.com), Australian-born Balinese princess Jero Asri Kerthyasa (formerly Jane Gillespie of Sydney) presides over a casual, congenial neighborhood space, which includes a small bookstore. Besides browsing, Biku offers everything from homemade meat pies and curries to Indonesian staples like nasi campur and spicy beef rendang, all of it good. Afternoon tea here is also popular, with a separate menu listing more than 30 infusions to accompany an array of finger sandwiches and cakes.
Situated in Bali’s lush central foothills, Ubud draws visitors for its artistic vibe and upcountry scenery. Don’t blame the Eat, Pray, Love set for the relentless traffic along the town’s main drag—tourism was big business here long before Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir–turned–movie ramped up global interest in the place. Yet the throngs are easily avoided at Komaneka at Bisma (rooms, from $450; Jalan Bisma; 62-361/971-933; komaneka.com), the latest of three resorts run by the family of Suteja Neka, who founded Ubud’s Neka Art Museum. At the end of an unprepossessing—and in places, unpaved—side street, the property’s central location belies its bucolic setting: Carved into a hillside, its 44 villas and suites overlook rice paddies and a river valley thick with bamboo and palm groves. The sparely decorated villas—the one-bedrooms have 40-foot pools and spacious sundecks—come with ever-smiling butlers and are well worth the splurge, while public spaces feature gallery-worthy canvases and installations from the owners’ private art collection. There is also an intimate riverside spa that blends its own scrubs, and an open-air restaurant serving fusion fare like char-grilled chicken with mango, cashews and a chile-tamarind sauce.
A world away from the well-trodden south, Bali Barat National Park, a 73-square-mile preserve of mixed forest and coastal waters in the northwest reaches, is the island’s last frontier. Understandably, only a handful of tourists brave the four-hour drive to get here, but those who do are amply rewarded.
Among a smattering of resorts in the park is The Menjangan (rooms, from $150; 62-362/94-700; themenjangan.com), which opened as a jungle camp a decade ago. Now under new management, it is poised to emerge as the area’s most compelling retreat. Only a fraction of the 380-hectare concession it occupies has been developed, making sightings of wildlife—rusa and muntjac deer, macaques, dozens of bird species—a regular occurrence. The older guest rooms, arranged around a pool, have been rejuvenated, but the accommodations of choice are the seven brand-new beach cottages set under peaked roofs and anchored by massive platform beds. Inviting as it looks, the beach outside your door is rendered unswimmable by a coral shelf, though you don’t have to walk far to a jetty that gives swimmers and snorkelers instant access to waters alive with reef fish. Other activities include diving, mangrove kayaking, bird-watching and horseback riding (there’s an on-site stable). Another draw is the food. The main restaurant, Bali Tower, perched high in a tree house–like space that also serves as the reception area, focuses on Mediterranean flavors—try the Parma ham–wrapped barramundi with artichoke cassoulet. By day, the views from here stretch clear across to neighboring Java, making it the perfect roost from which to contemplate this untamed slice of paradise.
Contemporary Boutiques in Bali, Indonesia
Bali is rightfully known for its traditional painted wooden masks and delicately woven bamboo baskets. An obsession with quality has found its way into a range of decidedly contemporary boutiques. Jean-François Fichot (7 Jalan Raya Pengosekan; jf-f.com), the eponymous Ubud showroom of one of the island’s most established expat jewelers, is stocked with objets handcrafted by Balinese artisans, past and present. A Song-dynasty censure inlaid with sterling silver abuts a shelf of pendants carved from Afghan carnelian gems.
Next door, the Nusantara Gallery specializes in tribal art from across the Indonesian archipelago. On the western edge of town, the Gaya Ceramic and Design (Jalan Raya Sayan; gayafusion.com) carries a collection of beautiful raku ware and smoke-fired pottery, and offers two-day (and even two-week) ceramics workshops.
In Seminyak, Simplekonsepstore (40 Jalan Lesmana; sksbali.com) stocks breezy frocks, tops and accessories by Indonesian designers like Stella Rissa; the second floor is dedicated to modern furnishings and home items. At the chic Wrkshp 13 (198 Jalan Petitenget; johnnyramli.com), Sumatra-born designer Johnny Ramli sells his python clutches and handmade brass rings. Nearby at Namu (234 Jalan Petitenget; namustore.com), Prada consultant Paola Zancanaro injects Italian flair into tropical looks—check out her stingray clutches and crisp cotton caftans.
But to see how Balinese craftsmanship can be yoked to the future while preserving traditions, head to the John Hardy factory (Banjar Baturning; johnhardy.com) just outside Ubud, a vast group of thatched-roof huts in which some 600 artisans craft Hardy’s signature Indonesian-inspired jewelry, like intricately detailed silver bamboo cuffs. Visitors can tour the workshops and join the artisans for a lunch harvested from the on-property organic farm.