In the 1980s, Bali was an undeveloped Hindu island in Indonesia, and it was not until the late 1990s that the first wave of travelers reached its land to find a cultural center of healing and wellness. Spirituality and religion are the lifeblood of Bali. We see it in the Balinese’s daily offerings of flowers and sweets and in the religious ceremonies and festivals, which remain commonplace on the island. We see it in modern culture, in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, wherein escaping to Bali allows for reflection, adventure and immersion in a society built on love and harmony. Bali’s reputation of being a haven for introspection, spirituality and healing has not faltered. More so, the small province has developed into a destination that offers more than just a place to rejuvenate. It has become a diverse island with something to offer everyone.
Bali’s peninsula, referred to as the Bukit, is home to the island’s best beaches. Sea lovers and wave chasers travel across the world to experience the Hindu version of Montauk or Hermosa Beach and many stay months or years living out romantic ideas of the castaway lifestyle found here. Trendy beach clubs and cliff top lounges are in abundance, so watching the glowing sun fall into the cerulean colored sea is part of the daily routine. The laid back, no-shoes-required ambiance of Bali draws a specific kind of traveler (read: backpacker), but it also brings out the very best, down-to-earth side in all of us. Watching bobbing heads line the wave break as surfers paddle out for one final ride before last light sets the tone and, for some, releases the tensions of every day life in the same way a meditation class does for others. The seaside location makes the area a hub for fisherman, so the “catch of the day” style menus also contribute to the unique seaside culture found here.
A popular honeymoon destination, Bali has not lost sight of its sleeker, more sophisticated side. Resorts like the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay offer the luxury traveler cabana lounging, infinity pool swimming above the ocean and soulful pursuits like night fire yoga in front of crashing waves and visits to the local fish market, full of 30-plus pound tuna and images of Balinese fisherman rolling cigarettes after a long day at sea. The hotel’s stand-alone villas come complete with outdoor showers, private, ocean-facing pools and ample outdoor space for lounging and enjoying in-room dining. The tea lights at the Sundara lounge create a festive setting for enjoying inventive cocktails and the Four Seasons’ beach club offers private chaise lounges and food and beverage service. For those who want the Balinese peninsula experience without ever leaving the comfort of their resort, the club also offers surfing lessons with world-class outfitter, TropicSurf.
With just an hour-and-a-half drive north, Bali transforms from buzzy beach scene to verdant countryside. The air smells fresher, time slows down and one notices immediately a heightened sense of spirituality. Lush rice paddy fields stretch from village to village and traditional Balinese-style homes built in red brick and grey stone can be found, one after another, each with their own temple next door. Bicycles and quiet motorbikes replace busses and surfboards, dirt roads and local food stalls substitute for beaches and bars and silhouettes of volcanoes in the hazy distance impose themselves on the otherwise flat topography that makes up the mystical region of Ubud. It’s the Bali of film and literature. While it is certainly possible to unplug, reboot and focus a stay entirely on restorative wellness, those who prefer their indulgences or have a broader audience to cater to will be pleased to know that full service resorts like the Four Seasons Sayan expertly accommodate whatever version of Ubud the heart desires.
While the town is complete with chic boutiques and trendy, delicious cafés and restaurants, specializing in everything from Peruvian tapas to haute French cuisine, there is something to be said for unwinding in the dense, jungle-like enclave of the Four Seasons. Nestled in the Ayung valley, the beautifully designed property takes advantage of every opportunity for over-hanging decks, river-front infinity pools, yoga pavilions that meld into watery rice fields and seemingly suspended private dining spaces scattered throughout its verdant landscape. Chakra treatments, countryside hikes through Balinese villages, meditation classes and “life talks” led by the resident wellness guru, a beautiful Burmese nun, are just a few of the elements used to create a transformative atmosphere. In direct opposition to the adults-only, rigidly scheduled retreats that can be found in Ubud, those seeking wellness lite or traveling with little ones in tow will be put at ease by classic Four Seasons touches, like the Western-style dining menu and Pici Pici club where kids get a taste of the Balinese experience. Skillfully balancing both want and need, the resort allows guests to feel a million miles away from the trappings of daily life without sacrifice—a tough feat, indeed.
Return Bali-goers will be surprised to see the somewhat rapid pace of the island’s development since its early days, but at its core, Bali remains unchanged. Commercialization is occurring, but the island’s spirit and resultant effect lives on, providing visitors with the Balinese experience and a five star place to call home, too.