On Bali, forward-thinking hotels help preserve the island’s singular culture.
SUNRISE AND A SUPER-LOW TIDE ON BALI’S SAWANGAN BEACH tell a simultaneous story of past, present, and future. In an age-old scene, locals wade through tide pools, meditatively searching for octopuses to sell at nearby markets. Meanwhile, a 180-degree pivot reveals a coastline of contemporary hotels and the telltale signs of the island’s unabating building boom.
Blessed with endless beaches, fluorescent-green rice fields, ancient Hindu temples, and welcoming residents renowned for their happiness and warmth, Indonesia’s “Island of the Gods” perennially tops many travelers’ wish lists – and for good reason, says Brian Harris, a Colorado-based Virtuoso travel advisor. But as tourism rates rise – Bali now has one of Indonesia’s highest concentrations of hotels and has seen its visitor numbers grow by nearly 24 percent annually, according to a recent Colliers report – there’s increasing concern that this paradise be preserved.
“It’s imperative to recognize that Balinese culture is the main driver of the island’s tourism, and the hotels that have this ethos are the ones that succeed,” says Harris. “The classic Bali dream trip can still be had,” he explains, “but it requires careful planning and knowing which properties offer pathways into local heritage.”
It’s this wisdom that informs my own seven-day visit, starting with a stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Bali in Nusa Dua, an Indian Ocean-facing resort where guests can truly engage in local customs. Along its stretch of Sawangan Beach, for instance, a resident Hindu priest leads early-morning soul-purification rituals meant to cleanse body, mind, and spirit while evoking blessings from the Hindu gods of the sun and sea. Guests can also craft Balinese kites and participate in eco-efforts such as sea turtle releases and shore cleanups.
Beyond the beach, bartenders host cocktail clinics based on arak (Bali’s local spirit); a sarong concierge teaches proper etiquette for how to wear this traditional fabric and heads tours to sarong-making studios; and chefs lead strolls through nearby Kedonganan market that culminate in a cooking class and lunch back at the resort’s Bejana restaurant.
“My culinary style reflects my home cooking, learned since I was a child,” chef Made Karyasa tells me while we meander through stalls bursting with vibrant rambutan and dragon fruit, giant prawns, shredded coconut, bamboo shoots, and an array of Balinese spices we later use to prepare staples such as bumbu genep (a versatile paste used in various Balinese dishes) and tum bebek (spiced minced duck wrapped in banana leaves). “Teaching others is a way for me to pass on this tradition.”
The resort’s cultural concierge offers additional insight into Bali’s identity through Baris dance classes, Indonesian language lessons, and trips to area sites. Following my market tour and lunch, I travel with him to the eleventh-century Uluwatu temple, timed to see a community Kecak performance, in which scores of locals enact an ancient ritual ceremony, dancing and chanting in unison as the setting sun drops into the sea.
“BALI HAS AN ABUNDANCE OF SENSORY RICHES,” says Varya Simpson, a California-based Virtuoso advisor and former Asian studies instructor at UC Berkeley. “In even the smallest corners of every village,” she adds, “you’ll find a visual feast of striking scenery, along with the open faces of the friendly people who define this island.”
I’m reminded of her words later in the week while touring Ubud – Bali’s cultural and spiritual center – via a vintage Volkswagen convertible. From my base at Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve
, I join a local guide and driver who take me along narrow, winding roads that feel more like tunnels carved into surrounding forests profuse with elephant grass, bamboo, and banana trees. As we pilgrimage to a string of the region’s cultural gems, white herons take flight from terraced rice fields, women stroll through village streets balancing tiered baskets filled with fruit and flowers on their heads, and incense wafts from ornate roadside shrines.
By midafternoon, we’ve visited the eleventh-century Pura Kehen, Bangli village’s oldest and most sacred Hindu temple; the largely undiscovered Tukad Cepung waterfall (a trek down steep paths and through knee-deep pools is well worth the effort, as you’re likely to have the place to yourself ); and pedestrian-friendly Penglipuran village to see its traditional homes, gardens, and shops. The journey also provides chances to meet with local artisans, such as I Made Ada, a master woodcarver from Garuda village whose friendly welcome is as trip-worthy as his work.
Expect the same focus on Balinese culture back at the resort. Guests connect with its artists-in-residence, for example, during exhibitions and workshops, prepare flower tower offerings using locally grown blossoms and coconut leaves, and, within Mandapa’s own rice fields, learn to sow the crop while discussing its significance in everyday life. “Rice is at the root of our culture,” my teacher, Winana, tells me, all the while smiling as he details its elaborate planting ceremonies and ubiquity in Balinese meals. “If we have food, we must have rice.” Though a portion of the region’s fields has recently been lost to development, he notes, some 80 percent of local families still grow rice on their land.
Spiritual and holistic therapies, based on ancient Balinese beliefs, also highlight stays here, with programs that include water-blessing rituals with a priestess and energy treatments with an intuitive blind healer. Vedic astrology, chakra balancing, and meditation sessions round out the spa menu, as do active disciplines such as vinyasa, hatha, and kundalini yoga.
On my last evening, I’m inspired to try a yoga class at the spa’s riverside pavilion, taught – to my surprise – by Winana, who turns out to also be a yoga master. It’s my first such class, but after a week on Bali, it’s not too difficult to get into the flow, especially when guided by Winana’s meditations. We’re most likely to be at peace with the future and the past when we do well to focus on the present moment, he reminds his class. “Because happiness,” he emphasizes with his unceasing smile, “is right now.” It’s a valuable souvenir and send-off – and a pleasant reminder that, despite all the changes, so many of Bali’s integral traditions still abide.
When to Go
“One of the best times to visit Bali is during the dry season in June,” says Brian Harris. “It’s less busy than July and August, and has good surfing conditions. Shoulder season in September also offers lower rates and fewer crowds.”
Additional cultural experiences at the flower-filled, 313-room Ritz Carlton, Bali include sunset meditation sessions and lanternmaking classes for kids. Surfing lessons and swan neck showers in the spa’s Hydro-Vital Pool are available for the aquatically inclined, as are “floating breakfasts” in (yes, in) your suite or villa pool. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily, a $100 resort credit, and private airport transfers.
Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve – built in the spirit of a traditional Balinese village – is home to 60 villas and suites, two temples, and culinary options ranging from ricefield barbecues to riverside dining in private bamboo pods. Younger guests can keep active at a kids’ camp focusing on art, culture, and ecology. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 resort credit.
Your travel advisor can work with Virtuoso’s on-site connections to craft customized day trips or longer Bali and Indonesia tours tailored to your tastes. Insider experiences from ICS Travel Group - Indonesia include a visit to the home of Pak Enong Ismail, curator of The Sukarno Centre. Adventures with Asia World Indonesia have guests meeting with anthropologist and longtime Bali resident Dr. Lawrence Blair for high tea and connecting with Balinese locals in their homes, farms, and schools.