Bali has always been on my wander-list – the lush green landscapes and laid back surf vibes, cultural fixes and opportunities for adventures promised the perfect family holiday after a hectic school year. As the tourist saturated areas of Seminyak and Canguu just didn’t appeal, we set to work creating an itinerary that would capture the magic of backpacker exploring together with some five-star indulging, without being completely overambitious with 3 little ones in tow.
WHERE TO STAY
No visit to Bali would be complete without a stay in Ubud, considered to be the island’s ‘cultural heart’, surrounded by tropical forests and terraced rice fields, dotted with temples and shrines and the perfect place to soak up a lot of green (perfect for us desert dwellers looking for the antithesis to a sandy landscape!).
We started with an Airbnb stay at a gorgeous but simple little wood cabin which gave us complete independence and the chance to really explore the area and all of its lovely little cafes, restaurants and nature walks. Located just on the edge of a rice field, we’d throw open the French doors in the morning and the children explore for butterflies and ‘snakes’ (there weren’t any, but they loved to pretend!). The opportunity for long walks with nothing but beautiful views, plenty of imagination and the occasional stop in a tiny little hut for drinks and fresh fruit while watching the rice being harvested was pure magic.
After rice fields came the jungle with a stay at The Four Seasons, located on the outskirts of the tiny village of Sayan, around 10 minutes drive from the centre of Ubud and one of the most beautifully serene hotels in the area, surrounded by gardens and towering palm trees and with the Ayung River tumbling at its doorstep. The family-friendly factor here is brilliantly understated – there’s a kids club for free fun, discovery and entertainment for children aged between 4 and 12 years, set in its own Rice Barn Tree House with a little jungle wonderland garden where the little ones can have a go at all sorts of fun and cultural activities.
An infinity pool over the rushing river below was perfect for a little chill out/splash about time (there isn’t a dedicated kids pool here and if you have very boisterous little ones then you might feel slightly self-conscious about them making heaps of noise) and there are loads of off-site excursions to try – including a guided rafting experience (an absolute must given that that the river is right there and you get dropped off literally at the rocks below the pool!). Our youngest (aged 4) was just too little to join (although the rafting is by no means ‘wild’) but we navigated the waters with our 5 and 7 year olds who absolute loved the scenic journey and spotting wildlife along the way. And if you’d like to indulge in everything from massage to spiritual practices and healing, The Sacred River Spa is just the place.
From Ubud we travelled (by Uber!) to Uluwatu on Bali’s South Western Bukit Peninsula – a surfers paradise with dramatic scenery, towering cliffs, incredible sunsets and views across the Indian Ocean. This area is literally breathtaking and perfect when combined with Ubud’s green landscape. The Anantara Ubud Bali Resort is a modern property with a stunning clifftop position and vast views of the ocean and the surf below – seriously magical for little boys for whom breakfast watching the surfers was just about the coolest thing ever! This hotel is all about the elements – from the sound of crashing waves to the sea breeze which whizzes through the open corridors, natural stone and local materials – it captures all that is enchanting and wild about Uluwatu. And while there’s no kids club there are opportunities aplenty for loads of outdoor fun and adventure – from complimentary activities including pottery on the lawn to sunset yoga for the whole family to absolutely stunning beaches for exploring.
The Anantara has a lift to take you down the cliff to the beach below (which is only accessible at low tide) but a 20 minute walk down winding steps cut into the rocks, past surf huts clinging to the side was so much fun and got us down to a beautiful bit of coast complete with rock pools and shallow bays for splashing about. This part of the beach links with Padang Padang bay where there’s calmer water for swimming, boards to rent if you fancy a go at surfing or paddleboarding plus beach vendors who’ll sell you everything from sarongs to a cold beer. And no visit to Uluwatu would be complete without a sundowner at Single Fin, a quintessential surfers hang out with views over the break, fab food and a huge wooden sun deck – just get there early to grab a spot!
Our stay on mainland Bali complete, it was time for the real adventure to start with a trip to the Northern Gili Islands, three tiny isles fringed by white-sand beaches, dotted with coconut palms and surrounded by crystal clear turquoise waters teeming with fish. While they’re very much a popular tourist destination now (the islands are choc full of boutique style accommodation), it’s still possible to get that ‘time stood still’ feeling, largely because there are no cars allowed on any of the gilis and life is beautifully laid back and simple. We took a public ferry which involved a little haggling over price, a long wait with groups of backpackers, really good chicken satay at the harbor and a rather rough crossing (it isn’t always so choppy – we were unlucky) to Gili Trawangan (the busiest of the Gili islands) before catching a local boat to Gili Meno, the smallest of the three islands and the most un-developed.
A horse and carriage navigated the island’s narrow sandy paths and delivered us to our Airbnb, a charming little house with its own coconut grove, a resident herd of cows who roamed freely among the trees and two goats, one of whom was so tame she would sit with us on the porch and play with the kids. Gili Meno is small enough to walk around in 2 hours – along beautiful beaches and winding paths. Local cafes served up grilled fish and freshly cut fruit throughout the day – and as dusk fell we made sure to be back ‘home’ as Gili Meno’s horses and carriages stop for the day so trying to navigate your way from one side of the island to the other, in the dark, can prove interesting (as we found out!).
Completely heavenly for families, we walked, we snorkeled, we swam with turtles regularly (they appeared almost every time we went looking), dived down to see underwater statues, played on pristine white sand and took horseback rides around the island. This was the ultimate castaway escape without being too basic and isolated with children in tow.
Our 2 weeks of adventuring in Bali, from lush jungles to terraced rice fields, wild surf beaches to paradise islands were simply perfect – and with so many other areas we’d love to explore (including the neighbouring island of Lombok and 13 almost undiscovered Southern Gili Islands), we’ll most definitely be back for more.
Bali is located about 8 degrees south of the equator so you can expect a tropical, warm climate all year round. There are two main seasons – dry and rainy. May – August are generally considered the best time to travel because the weather is beautiful and sunny – we did have the occasional day of rain but that was fine (actually we loved it – having come from the desert!).Bali’s central mountains (volcanoes) include several peaks over 3,000 meters in elevation where temperatures are considerably cooler and there’s much more rainfall than in the coastal areas.
PLACES TO EAT
The food in Bali is tasty and inexpensive – as long as you eat local rather than opting for International cuisine. There are artsy cafes where you’ll find really good coffee and lots of vegan options (there’s a big Australian influence here), gorgeous little ‘Warungs’ (guest houses) and pretty restaurants serving up everything from nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice) to and sate lembat. Even the random little ‘shacks’ we stumbled across on our walks gave us a delicious meal. Bali’s restaurant scene is really good, with some of the most incredible food you’ll find anywhere in the world.
Surf, snorkel, swim, walk, explore, eat and repeat!
Don’t stay in one place. Bali is such a varied island that the best way to really make the most of your holiday is to travel around a little – especially to the neighboring islands too.
Be prepared to barter for any shopping you do at markets or from street vendors – they’re not aggressive and it is expected.
There’s no need to panic about getting around -Uber is available and is a cheap and great way to get from A to B.