Bali: Surprisingly Affordable and Total Bliss

This Indonesian island has culture and luxury at a surprising price.

Bali water temple

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, located in Lake Bratan, is one of Bali's most iconic water temples.

Many people think of the tropical island of Bali — home of waterside temples, lush rice paddies, and gorgeous villas — as a budget-breaking, bucket list destination. 

On the contrary, airfare doesn't cost much more than a trip to Europe from most spots. If you live on the West Coast, it can cost much less to use airlines that fly via Taipei or Singapore, like EVA Air or Singapore Airlines. Bali's countless luxury hotels won't even set you back as much as similar accommodations in the States would. Hiring a driver who will wait for you at various stops is cheap ($45–50 a day), and inexpensive tours abound, due to low labor costs.

Mount Batur

Considered one of Bali's sacred mountains, Mount Batur is an active volcano and a popular hiking location.

Get your bearings
Ubud, Bali's cultural heart and a town of 30,000 people, is a splendid place to stay due to its central location, about an hour drive north of Denpasar Airport. It offers easy access to North Coast volcanoes and South Coast sandy beaches and temples. The town, immortalized by Eat Pray Love, is very walkable and crammed with shops, restaurants, galleries, hotels, tour companies, and arts events. Every night, you have your choice of mesmerizing dance performances at various temples: Shall it be Legong dance — performed by graceful women clad in ornate brocade and headdresses — Barong lion dance, or Kecak fire dancing?

Bali hotels cater to every taste. Bisma Eight, a new boutique hotel that's a 10-minute walk from the center of Ubud, has 38 unusually spacious suites. Each 500-square-foot Forest Suite has a terrace facing the jungle. The Bisma has a contemporary-style look but retains subtle Balinese touches, like carved wood screens that close off the bathroom, Balinese-style sofa pillows, and a statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesh in the lobby. Free classes at the hotel include Balinese cooking on a lovely rooftop terrace; "mocktail"-making with fruit juices, herbs, and spices; and Balinese dance.

In contrast, Spa Village Resort Tembok, Bali is a wellness-focused luxury resort on a black-sand beach on Bali's quiet North Coast. Guest rooms have no TV or Internet to help promote inner peace (die-hards can visit a TV room or the front desk to get their fix). Nightly Balinese dance performances enliven the space, while classes, including drawing on palm leaves, star-gazing while floating in the pool, and making herbal tonics, are available. 

For yoga fans and traditionalists, Desa Seni is a resort and accredited yoga retreat center featuring 13 carved wooden houses transported from islands all over Indonesia. These gorgeous abodes are adorned with folk art and antiques. A carved-wood spa and thatched-roof yoga and restaurant pavilions are at this resort on Bali's South Coast, a 10-minute drive from Seminyak — a town dubbed "Bali's Rodeo Drive" for its upscale shopping and dining.

Infinity pool at Spa Village Resort Tembok

Enjoy infinity views of the sea and Balinese sky from the pool at Spa Village Resort Tembok, Bali.

Get out and explore
Bali may well be the most photogenic place you've ever seen. The terraced rice paddies are a startling emerald green — you can walk them or simply admire them from a café on the street in Tegallalang, a 15-minute drive from Ubud. 

Experience the island's culture at Pura Luhur Uluwatu, a black coral stone temple dramatically located on a cliff 200 feet above the beach in Bali's extreme south. It's a terrific spot to watch a trance-like Kecak fire dance at sunset, performed nightly. Temple Pura Tanah Lot, on Bali's southwest coast, is reached by wading through the sea to the islets it's built on, while Pura Ulun Danu Bratan is set on a lake in the central mountains.

Bali may also top the list as the most creative spot you've ever seen. Museum Puri Lukisan in Ubud is an excellent introduction to the art of Bali, thanks to buildings devoted to different art styles, from naturalistic village life and nature depictions to god-filled Hindu epics. And it's no wonder Frommer's dubbed Bali, commonly known as the Island of the Gods, the "island of the goods": the display of carvings, puppets, batik or brocaded textiles, art, masks, furnishings, and gift items is simply staggering. Entire villages are devoted to making one craft, with specialties including wood carvings, stone carvings, and gold and silver jewelry. You're sure to find the perfect keepsake to stare at on your desk when you're thinking of your next affordable luxury vacation.

Sharon McDonnell is a travel, food, and history writer in San Francisco.

Images by Thinkstock and courtesy Spa Village Resort Tembok, Bali

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