“Although I hate to say it, the bomb in some ways did a lot of good for Bali,” says clothing designer and Bali resident Nick Morley, my unofficial guide. “What it did was put a lot of brawling, beer-drinking piss heads off coming here.”
Take the fashionable beachside restaurant/bar Ku De Ta, situated in the popular Seminyak. Here you can laze on a lounger and watch the sunset over the ocean while sipping a chocolate Martini. Down the road at Wasabi – a sleek, state of the art sushi bar-you’ll taste a Japanese meal as good as anywhere– while at Made’s Warung you’ll sample the finest Indonesian meal on God’s earth for just £3. This is precisely the beauty of Seminyak – where the cheap and traditional and the expensively chic are back-to-back.
Kuta, with its Holiday Inn, Hard Rock Café and McDonalds, is just a short hop from Seminyak, but it couldn’t be more different. It’s one of those sad developments that has attracted big bucks and lost its soul, drawing drunken Aussies, forlorn prostitutes and even a gang of transvestites known as the ‘sucky sucky girls.’
Kuta’s only plus is its surf, which, for the novice, is perfect. Having never surfed before, and with the help of the local teacher at the Hard Rock Surf School, I was up on the board after only one day, “hanging two and a half” replete with cut knees, bruised elbows and about half the ocean inside me. Spurred on by such success I decided that my next mission was to learn to scuba at the dive capital of Amed in East Bali. The five-hour taxi journey from Seminyak will set you back the equivalent of £50, but it beats the hell out of the ten-hour mini bus. On the way, stop for lunch at the beautiful coastal town of Candi Dasa and swim in the monumental Tirtagangga Water Palace, constructed by one of Bali's last kings, Anak Agung Anglurah Ketut in 1947 – probably the world’s most extravagant swimming pool.
At Amed we stayed at the Coral View Hotel, which, at $50 for a double private bungalow, was little short of heaven. My proviso was that we could walk out onto the beach in less than a minute - here we could do it in about 15 seconds.
From Amed, snorkelling in Jemeluk provided not only the best array of fish I have ever encountered with mask only, but also – due to my lack of t-shirt – delivered a crackling lobster-red back that any roast suckling pig worth his salt would have been proud of. After suffering the inevitable jibes for at least 48 long hours, I was ready to scuba and settled for Eco Dive, who offered a day of training in the morning and a guaranteed dive in the afternoon for the meagre sum of $75.
“Although I hate to say it, the bomb did a lot of good for Bali. It put a lot of brawling, beer-drinking piss heads off coming here.”
After going through the necessary rigmarole of learning what everything strapped about your person actually does, we hit the shallows for a few practise runs. Cue claustrophobia, breathing difficulties and the sneaking suspicion that carrying loads of heavy stuff on your back isn’t the best method of floating. But, blind panic over, I finally arrived at The Liberty, an abandoned WWII American shipwreck that, at just 50 metres offshore and 50 feet deep, is yet another perfect environment for the petrified neophyte.
The best site on dry land is inarguably the sunrise from the Gunung Agung mountain (considered by the Balinese to be the ‘navel of the world’) - one has simply to drive to Pura Pasar Agung, locate a guide and then climb the perilous mountain for three hours to arrive at the summit by 6am. After roaring up the hill like the Sherpa Tensing twins we were rewarded by a sunrise so glorious it almost made me take up religion.
After my six-hour walk, I felt a slice of Rn’R was needed, so we made our way to the Panchoren Retreat in Ubud, the central Balinese city renowned as a centre for the arts but resembling little more than a shopping centre. But, first appearances aside, numerous exquisite restaurants, performances of traditional Balinese theatre, Gamelan and puppetry reveal themselves.
The Panchoren itself is a stunningly beautiful settlement, comprised of a number of exquisitely designed individual bungalows constructed almost entirely from bamboo. Its Irish owner and designer Linda Garland offers the finest respite money can buy. “Just about everyone who’s anyone that comes to Bali stays there,” says Morley. “ Even though she’s got the helipad to whisk the rich and famous in and out without being seen, I met Bono when he stayed there, Jagger spent his honeymoon there - you name them, they've been.”
When it eventually became time to leave the A-list dream life behind, we returned thoroughly rested and once again returned to South Bali, taking in en route the traditional Kecak Fire Dance, the magisterial floating palace of Tanah Lot, eating freshly caught seafood by candlelight at Jambaran and staying out far too late at the Double Six Beach Club in Seminyak. But nothing impresses more about the island than the Balinese themselves, whose quiet, gentle dignity is a lesson to those who spend just a few days in their company – and the reason why Bali’s reputation can only continue to thrive.