The Ultimate Guide to Bali

It’s hard to say anywhere is an off-the-beaten-track Bali destination these days, but there are still those areas to escape the mass tourism and overdevelopment that otherwise rules the southern beach resorts of Bali. And our advice would be to travel north, away from Denpasar Airport (airport transfer here), then don’t stop until you reach the cultural capital of Ubud. At least. And while Ubud is far from an off-the-beaten-track Bali destination itself, it is a must-see for any first-time traveller in Bali. And the same goes for the surrounding Gianyar, which is home to most of Bali’s better-known tourist attractions, as well as river valley resorts which would be our main recommendation on where to stay in Bali to escape the crowds. So much so, that we married there, we honeymooned there, and we just returned from our 6-year Anniversary in the river valleys Gianyar.


Where to stay in Bali?

So we have been to Bali a bunch of times before, but we never really ventured further North of Ubud and central Bali other than through day tours. So with 3 weeks of travel in Bali, we set an itinerary to explore the more off-the-beaten-track Bali destinations, with a focus on where to stay in Bali in the North, East, West and outlying islands. And through research of each area (as below) we put together an itinerary sharing the lesser-known destinations and where to stay in Bali outside of the mass tourist trails. And this found a lot of exciting and unexpected experiences that we never had expected on previous visits. However, it is harder to reach these off-the-beaten-track Bali destinations, given transport is generally reluctant to steer off these usual tourist paths. Therefore we found the best way to reach them was by doing day tours (around $35), starting with pick-up at one hotel and drop-off at the next. Because their cars can easily fit luggage, 10-hours of tours are included, and there’s really no need for taxis or transfers at all.


Taxis and Transport in Bali

The problem with many of these off-the-beaten-track Bali destinations is that it can be hard to find affordable transport to travel to and from them. Or you’re at least paying a substantial premium. And while we are familiar with most travel options in Bali, many of the better options are “banned” in the popular tourist destinations. For example, in the southern resorts of Bali, the popular ‘Blue Bird Taxis‘ rarely leave the Southern beach resorts. And the local “taxi mafias” in tourist destinations are quite aggressive towards ridesharing apps such as Go Jek (Indonesian) and Grab (the Southeast Asian company that took over Uber) who have been bullied out of tourist areas. Meaning they are now more centralised to locals in the capital of Denpasar. Then there are the hotels, who hike up prices for convenience, and the hard-sell rip-off taxi touts will guarantee to piss off anyone in a day-or-so. So honest travel can be a problem. And by including transfer on day tours we managed to avoid them altogether.


Ubud (Central Bali)

Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali, will always be our first port of call on any visit, direct from the airport (Ngurah Rai International Airport) in Bali. And it will always be our recommendation when it comes to where to stay in Bali for first-timers and new tourists. Because it firstly escapes the main beach-based tourism in the south, yet it still has the same and convenient tourist services for travel further afield. And despite its snub by regional backpackers these days, there is just so much fascination in local culture and food in Ubud, and it’s just where a proper Balinese experience begins. So the local temples and markets make a good start, and then there is the (now friendly) monkey forest shared in the video below. But the tourist centre of Ubud will always be a bit hectic these days, so we prefer to stay outside in Gianyar Resorts. At the same time, there are some more amiable hotel/resort options around Jalan Bisma (Ubud resorts here). Otherwise, I would be in the surrounding valleys in Gianyar.


Gianyar Valleys (Central Bali)

Gianyar is more of a region (regency) in Bali than a centralised destination, and it is mostly high resorts and retreats that populate along the river valleys (here we were married). But it is the valleys of Gianyar that will forever bring us back to Bali, and it was for our 6-year anniversary staying at the HOSHINOYA Bali on this visit. But I feel Gianyar, with its mix of rich culture and vibrant wildlife, is what inspired the world’s original fascination in the island of Bali. At the same time, it is these resorts that allow you to escape the mass tourism brought by Bali’s renowned popularity. Anyway, the resort is set over the sacred Pakerisan River (one of Bali’s UNESCO world heritage sites), where the passing streams in the area are better known for kayaking and river rapids. But it is infinitely better above them, surrounded by the canopies of the rainforest, and the endless siren of birds, lizards, and jungle beasts. And it’s really just an experience that cannot be shared through imagery. Anyway, as I said, everyone has a reason to experience Bali, but the Gianyar Valleys are simply unforgettable. Our full coverage here.


Central Bali Tours

Ubud and Gianyar are also central to the main tours and tourist attractions in Bali, therefore it is where to stay in Bali if planning to explore the main attractions of the island. And we have covered most of these attractions before in the past, but, given we will be travelling to more off-the-beaten-track Bali destinations, it just makes sense to bundle pick-up and drop-off in with these tours. So we do this through Bali Private Car Charter with Klook (10-hour tours for around $35) with drop-off in the off-the-beaten-path destinations that other tour companies tend to avoid. So our first tour/transfer was literally between two Gianyar resorts, starting early (around 06:00ish) to make the most of the day, but also to avoid the crowds. And below are the tourist attractions in central Bali that we covered (also 0-3:41 in the video below):

1. Tegenungan Waterfall, 2. Goa Gajah: Elephant Cave, 3. Uma Pakel: Kopi Luwak and Giant Swing, 4. Tegalalang Rice Terrace, 5. Pura Tirta Empul.


Central/East Bali Tour

The second tour/transfer again covered central tourist attractions, but we also added in Besakih Temple and the Mount Agung area, before our drop-off in Amed in East Bali. So this tour includes an outside area (Karangasem), and there’s an additional cost of 25000RP ($18) for each outside area on a tour, but the total cost of the tour and transfer is no different to the prices offered locally for transfer to Amed alone. So you’re more or less getting a full day’s worth of tours and attractions for free. Anyway, I have included the central/west Bali tour itinerary below, before our drop-off in Amed which is our recommendation on where to stay in Bali East. And here is what we covered (3:41-5:48 in the video below):

1. Ulun Danu Beratan, 2. Pura Ulun Danu Batur, 3. Mount Batur View Point, 4. Besakih Temple, 5. Amed


Amed (East Bali)

Amed is a Black Sand Beach on the east coast of Bali, set beneath the backdrop of Mount Agung, and it’s probably best known for its scuba and snorkelling along the eastern coastline. And while we did bring our snorkels etc. we never did go into the sea. Otherwise I was completely charmed by the local life and fishing scenes along Amed beach, and each morning I would stroll along the coast at sunrise to see the local fishermen throwing their nets, and the back-and-forth of traditional fishing boats (jukung). It was really just fascinating. And we found similar local scenes at sunset on Amed Beach when the fishing boats would return to the shore with their catches from the day (it’s all in the video below). So, while we expected Amed to be a busy tourist beach, instead we found a more off-the-beaten-track Bali destination, lesser developed, and with plenty of local intrigue and charm. Anyway, we will definitely recommend Amed on where to stay in East Bali, and here’s a list of hotels along Amed Beach.


Tours in North Bali

Our next destination would be Lovina in North Bali, which can be tricky to reach independently, so again we relied on the Bali Private Car Charter through Klook (10-hour tours for around $35). But we were now travelling between two off-the-beaten-track Bali destination, meaning tours will include two outside areas ($18 x 2). And so we were paying around $70 for this day tour, but this does bundle in pick-up from Amed, our drop-off in Lovina, as well as the 10-hour tour along taking in the coastal and inland tourist attractions of North Bali. So it’s still worth it. However, it is worth checking local prices as well, and we later found some cheap travel options from Lovina by just searching through Facebook. Anyway, here are the tourist attractions that we added to the tour in North Bali, including some rather beautiful coastlines, mountains, and lakes.

North Bali Attractions: Gates to Heaven (Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang), Tirta Gangga Water Palace, Twin Lakes (Buyan Lake and Tambingan Lake), Ulun Danu Tamblingan Temple.


Lovina (North Bali)

It was a coin toss when deciding where to stay in North Bali, between Lovina and Singaraja, but we plumped for Lovina due to the dolphin tours. Which is easily one of the highlights of our times in Bali, where dolphin sightseeing tours start at around sunrise every morning (around 06:00 AM) with boats leaving from the shores of Lovina Beach. The tours are easily organised as well through hotels and are cheap (we paid 100,000 Rupiah for 2). The tour itself lasts for around 2-3 hours where it follows the coastline of Lovina where these dolphins are known to flap about all the time. And our tour was surprisingly successful, where we spotted at least 10 times these pods of dolphins, with some coming right up alongside our boat. One dolphin even twirled in the air for us (but it’s obviously hard to catch on camera). Anyway, the tour ends on Lovina Beach again, which, in itself, is a fairly local beach with fishing on the wooden pier, beachside temples, and lively local life along the beachside promenade. And we would definitely recommend Lovina Beach as where to stay in North Bali. Here’s a quick list of hotels along Lovina Beach.


Where to Stay in West Bali?

West Bali would easily be the least visited and most off-the-beaten-track Bali destination when it comes to tourist, but most local drivers avoid it due to the freight traffic from the arrival ports from Java along the lower road. But the northern road, passing Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, and the hills, and the lakes, is by far the most scenic anyway. But we already covered these tourist attractions on our previous day tour from Amed, so hotel transfer was all we really needed from Lovina to West Bali. And, through a quick search on Facebook, we found Lovina Taxi who charged literally a 3rd of the quote from our hotel (300- instead of 900-). Anyway, tourism is a bit scattered in the region, so where to stay in West Bali will depend on interests. Otherwise, The Menjangan Resort is the big name when exploring West Bali National Park, although we chose a mix with Menjangan Dynasty Glamping Resort, for its far-flung beach life, and Sumberkima Hill Resort, for views from above. Otherwise, Pemuteran Beach seems to be one of the more popular areas on where to stay in West Bali (hotel list here).


Best Beaches of South Bali?

The south of Bali is massively developed and has been for a long time. At the same time, some areas are quieter than others, and there will be various advantages to each area. And where to stay in Bali south depends on what you’re there for. So Kuta and Seminyak would for nightlife, and they are by far the most built up in the South. For polished beach resorts, it would have to be Nusa Dua and Uluwatu. The black sand alternative at Canggu. Then my personal preference in where to stay in south Bali would be Sanur with a mix of local culture along with beach life. And, while the south is somewhat overdeveloped these days, there will always be the private resorts to escape the crowds. And on our last visit, for example, it was the private pool villas of Kayumanis Sanur which just felt a million miles from the infamous brash and busy tourism in south Bali. Our full review here.


Nusa Lembongan (Southeast Island)

Sanur is also the jumping off point for travel to the Southeast Islands of Bali which include both Nusa Lembongan (small) and Nusa Penida (massive). And we may have cut our stay a bit short with just one night on Nusa Lembongan, but it worked to our advantage when staying at the Mahagiri Resort as they include complimentary travel to-and-from Nusa Lembongan from Sanur (they kind of expect longer stays). So our 1-night stay included the boat to Lembongan from Sanur as well as pick up from the pier. And, for the return journey, they instead shuttled us to the port to travel to Nusa Penida at the Yellow Bridge. So we didn’t explore much on Nusa Lembongan, and while it is no doubt a beautiful beach resort island, there’s not much going on culture-wise. And Nusa Penida is infinitely the more scenic of the islands when it comes to coastlines. But it was a great stay otherwise, kicking back with cocktails, and the serenity of a stretching empty beach. Before the bumpy ride through Nusa Penida.


Nusa Penida (Southeast Island)

Nusa Penida is a short boat journey from Nusa Lembongan, where most hotels are found on the near coast around arrivals. Although we chose to stay out slightly around Crystal Bay Beach because the beach is just beautiful (list of Nusa Penida hotels). So Nusa Penida is a rather massive island, and tours are really quite expensive, where we paid 800,000 Rp (around $55) for a 6-hour tour of the island. But you will understand once on the road, as the interiors of the island are still off-the-beaten-track in parts, where our driver scraped another car, and we saw 2 motorbike crashes by tourists. In the space of one day. But I will forever recommend the tour by road/car, because the beaches and coastlines are truly beautiful, and by starting early (06:00 AM) the main tourist attractions are still relatively void of tourists and daytrippers. Who typically arrive nearer midday by boat. So the video below shares all the pretty scenery from Nusa Penida (as well as the journey from Sanur to Nusa Lembongan, to Nusa Penida, and back to Sanur again). Recommended tourist attractions on the Nusa Penida Tour include:

Crystal Beach, Broken Beach, Angel Billabong, T-Rex Bay (Kelingking Beach), Rumah Pohon Tree House, Diamond Beach, and Atuh Beach.

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