Most first timers are surprised to learn how small Bali is. From east to west the island is only 153 km wide and north to south its 112km. It rises dramatically from its warm palm fringed beaches to chilly central highlands that include several peaks over 3,000m high. Ancient terraced rice fields occupy the fertile slopes to the south; coffee, rice and cattle dominate the north. The higher elevations boast pristine montane forests, wetland rainforests and pretty mountain lakes although the barren lava fields around Mount Agung serve as a reminder that Bali sits on an active volcanic belt.
The vast majority of tourist facilities are concentrated in the south, fanning out around Bali’s famous Kuta. Once upon a time the beach was the main attraction but these days it’s the designer brand shops, restaurants and thumping nightlife that take centre stage. Kuta’s chaotic energy leaches north into Legian then blends with a kind of older sister snootiness at Seminyak. Within hollering distance on the east coast, Sanur with its village like atmosphere and lovely beaches watched over by Mt Agung is a favourite with retirees and families.
South of Kuta, gorgeous Jimbaran Bay straddles the narrow strip of land connecting the Bukit Peninsular with the mainland. Uluwatu on the west side is a long-time favourite with the surfing crowd though it’s no longer their exclusive domain. The “Hill” as it is affectionately known is scattered with local inns, villas and boutique hotels. It’s most famous residence is the ancient Pura Luhur Uluwatu temple which sits atop the high cliffs on the islands southern tip guarding the island whilst surfers ride the rolling swells beneath. The gated five star resort enclave of Nusa Dua occupies the eastern side of the peninsular. It’s here that you’ll find the big name resorts like the Sofitel, Ritz-Carlton, Grand Hyatt and Club Med.
The epicentre of Bali’s artistic and cultural heart is Ubud, nestled amid rice fields and rugged rainforest in the islands south central interior. It’s quiet, gorgeous and relaxing, especially if you indulge yourself at one of the many yoga, meditation, spa or zen retreats hidden in the jungle clad hills around the village. Conversely, it’s also the heart of many adventure based activities like trekking, white water rafting and canyoning.
Few visitors ever venture to other parts of the island and those that do will tell you that suits them just fine. Heading north from Sanur along the east coast, is the busy little passenger port of Padang Bai where fast and slow boats to and from Lombok operate. Further north lies the small struggling tourist enclave of Candi Dasa and Amed, a lovely coastal village. The quiet and very scenic north coast provides a hint of what the southern Bali was like in the early days. Lovina is the only real tourist hub but there are small mid-range and luxury tourist resorts scattered along the coast. Gilimanuk, the jumping off point for east Java sits on the northwest tip. Surprisingly, given the long stretches of deserted volcanic sand beaches, rolling surf and lovely terraced rice fields, there’s only a handful of surf camps and small beachside bungalows along the northwest coast.
Despite its small size, it takes a long time to go anywhere in Bali, particularly down south where congested roads are the norm at any time of day. It improves only marginally as you head inland towards Ubud and the popular Mount Batur region. Traffic is lighter around the top half of the island but with narrow, often winding roads slow travel is a fact of life. One Bali driver once told me he’d never had his vehicle over 30km/h. With so much to look at, I’ve never felt cause for complaint but the message is simply to allow plenty of time to get around.