The Gateway To Indonesia
Bali still has pockets of untapped beauty as serene and laid-back as they ever were. Today, Ubud is the most famous country village in the tropics, after last year’s Eat Pray Love, starring Julia Roberts, was filmed there. Bali’s reputation as a tropical island paradise has its roots in an expatriate artists’ colony in the hills near Ubud which, 80 years ago, attracted Noël Coward and Charlie Chaplin, among others.
In the 1960s, hippies flocked to the coconut groves of Kuta beach for the amazing surf and endless summer. Since then, Kuta has expanded at an exponential pace, north into gaudy, glittery Seminyak and beyond, where thickets of luxury resorts and private villas have risen in ancient rice fields, as if by a wizard’s spell.
When I arrived in Bali to live, in 1999, the main cross-island road in the south was a washed-out gravel track, impassable after heavy rain; the internet was an exotic commodity, torturously slow when it worked at all; and there were no more than half a dozen restaurants that ventured beyond banana pancakes and croque-monsieur. A few of the big resorts had opened, attracting intrepid millionaires, and Kuta’s coconut groves had long since given way to budget hotels and homestays; yet Bali was still recognizably the sleepy, enchanted isle that time forgot.
But in just 12 years the island has been transformed. Now there are fine restaurants in Ubud and Seminyak, and that cross-island track is a splendid four-lane motorway. But all this progress has come at a cost. Ubud may possess an indestructible charm, with its cultural treasures intact, but tourism is far and away the main business. Seminyak offers gorgeous luxury accommodation with every mod con, and a nightlife ranging from chic to raucous, but it’s quite possible to spend two weeks in Bali and leave without being exposed to its fascinating traditions of village life.
To see Bali as it was, not just 12 years but 12 centuries ago, I drove out to West Bali National Park, which occupies most of the island’s western bulge, across a strait from Java’s eastern tip. Bali’s only national park, it comprises nearly 20,000 hectares of forest, with an additional 50,000 hectares protected from development. The original forest here isn’t tropical rainforest as in the national parks of Java, but coastal savannah, with deciduous trees and thick underbrush. With not a coconut palm or a banana tree in sight, it doesn’t look like the Bali of brochures. You might think you were in rural Alabama or Sweden were it not for the monkeys, iguanas and pythons, and the gentle herds of russet-coloured mouse deer and muntjak which run throughout the park.
The Menjangan Resort occupies a good chunk of the park, but has a minimal impact on its surroundings. A pair of simple, solid-frame lodges face each other across a swimming pool shaded by ancient trees. The rooms are large and comfortable but unfussy, finished in natural woods, bamboo mats and fine Indonesian textiles. There is just one small clearing behind the guestrooms for a huge aviary that is home to 11 of the rarest birds on earth. One of the national park’s primary missions is to promote the conservation of the Bali starling (Leucopsar rothschildi),a gorgeous white bird with black-tipped wings and tail, bright-blue eye patches and a jaunty crest. By 2001, its wild population had dwindled to just six; now it is estimated at more than 60. The park has around 160 avian species, making it a major destination for birdwatchers.
The resort takes its name from Pulau Menjangan (Deer Island), 10km off the north-east coast, which many believe has the best snorkeling in Bali, with its coral gardens like underwater palaces, frequented by an assortment of brilliantly colored fish. The island is uninhabited except for the deer which migrate there every year in a mass swim across the channel from the mainland.
A further hour’s drive along Bali’s north coastal road brought me to Lovina. The path to Lovina beach was well beaten by backpackers a long time ago. While it has the simple charms of any tropical beach, the pebbly strand and flat sea here are tame stuff compared to the mighty surf and white-sand beaches of Kuta and Seminyak.
The attraction of Lovina has always been its hip, relaxed style, and the low prices that come with it. In 1995, an enterprising Dane called Nils Normann looked up from the beach to the thickly forested hills facing the sea, and envisioned an inn in the European style, a country retreat with fine dining and sumptuous gardens. The result is the Damai, which opened with just eight bungalows, to which Normann has since added six handsome, roomy pool villas.
Indonesia is the fourth-largest nation in the world with more than 267 million people. The country is comprised of more than 17,500 islands, including Bali, Borneo, Java, Lombok, Sumatra and Sulawesi. Learn more about Indonesia.