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Wednesday 6 February 2013

3BM Bali 101

It's T-3 days until the Chinese New Year long weekend. The whole of Hong Kong's expat community is madly packing suitcases and dashing from busy days in the office trying to clear our desks to pre-holiday grooming appointments. On Friday (or Thursday if you're HK Mouse...) the mass exodus will commence and we'll all swarm to the airport pasty and grumbly to jet off for a bit of winter sun and a general pep-up.

The Mice are off to Sri Lanka for a couple of blissful weeks of beach time and sister catch up - we're too overexcited for words! 

We'll be sure to give you the full Sri Lanka lowdown as soon as we're back, but in the meantime I've been thinking back to Chinese New Year adventures gone past and it seemed like a pretty good time to be posting the 3BM guide to one of my favourite Asian beach holiday destinations, Bali. 

For anyone Bali-bound in the next couple of days, here's my Bali in a nutshell...

General Top Tips

  • Visa - Brits, Americans, Australians and Europeans will all need to get a tourist visa (check out this list for a full overview of who needs a visa). You can get your visa on arrival at the airport but you need to have at least six months on your passport, two free pages in your passport and your visa fee in US Dollars (US$25). Don't make the mistake of thinking you'll get your US Dollars when you arrive at the airport, the queues are always awful. Better still your hotel may be able to arrange to have someone to meet you at immigration and whizz you past the sprawling queues, well worth it after a long journey... 
  • Booze - alcohol is fairly expensive in Bali so you may want to pick up a couple of duty free bottle of your poison of choice on your way (especially if you're staying in a villa). The alcohol import limit is one litre per adult and they're fairly strict about enforcing this. Don't get your holiday off on the wrong foot by trying to get clear plastic bags full of clinking bottles past the customs' boys.
  • Kuta - Pretty much the Asian Magaluf. Home to strips of neon emblazoned bars, water parks and Ronald McDonald on a surfboard. Hotel prices may be attractively low, there is a reason for this...

For a holiday that doesn't involve too much travelling but gives you a taste of the beachy side of Bali as well as a little culture, I'd recommend combining a few days in Ubud with a few in Seminyak. Both are on the well-worn tourist trail but are easy to navigate with lots of luxe accommodation and plenty of amazing places to eat, shop and laze. My mini-guides to sleeping, eating and playing in each...

Located in central Bali just a couple of hours from the airport (possibly an hour on a good day when the traffic's not too horrendous), Ubud sits amoungst lush rainforest and emerald green paddy fields. If you're looking for a bit of culture and a complete break from KFC and Starbucks, Ubud is the spot for you. The town is packed with little boutiques selling arts and crafts and there's a good selection of yoga studios for anyone wanting to Om and downward dog.

A bit of a splurge but worth every penny, The Ubud Hanging Gardens are set just outside of the centre of Ubud, slap bang in the middle of the rainforest. The hotel is made up of a handful of individual villas scattered over a steep hillside overlooking the Ayung river and an ancient temple on the opposite side of the valley. A James Bond-esque funicular cable car ferries guests up and down the hillside to their accommodation, villas are uber-luxe with private heated pools and outdoor baths and service is incredible. 

Top tip: order your breakfast to be served on your private terrace and nibble on freshly baked croissants and pineapple jam while watching the monkeys play in the trees above you.  

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Eating & Drinking
Naughty Nuris - for killer martinis and mouthwatering ribs, join the throng of expats sat at wooden benches around the open barbeque pit at Naughty Nuris. Laidback, lots of fun and guaranteed sore heads all round the next morning.

Mozaic - a fine dining restaurant to rival the haute cuisine hot spots in major world cities, Ubud's Mozaic is a complete culinary gem. Don your smart casual, take your place at your candlelit table set in the pretty patio garden and prepare to be wowed by a series of small but perfectly formed courses. Impeccable service, a stunning setting and food that you'll be daydreaming of for months after.

Bebek Bengil - literally 'The Dirty Duck Diner', this is the spot to hit up for Balinese speciality, smoked duck. The restaurant's set in the heart of Ubud in a garden with tables laid out in a series of bamboo huts on stilts. You'll need to order your bird 24 hours in advance if you want to try the smoked signature dish but if you're more of a last minute Lulu, fear not, there are plenty of other duck-based dishes to feast on that can be ordered a la carte. 

Day Tripping
At least a day wandering around Ubud town centre is mandatory. Temples, markets and art galleries abound. Refuel at one of the sweet little organic cafes or grab a Bintang at a bar overlooking the rice paddies.

Finish a day's wandering with a traditional Balinese dance show. Tourist central but lots of fun.

For a full day of adventuring around the area, set your alarm clock for ridiculous o'clock and start your day by watching the sunrise over Mt Batur. If you're feeling spritely, you can trek up the volcano to get views of the sun coming up over neighbouring Lombok. If the early morning wake-up was energertic enough, get your driver to drop you somewhere with a good view of the volcano and don't forget your camera.

Next stop Batur lake to watch the villagers fishing and starting their days in the surrounding fields.

At this point you can stop off at the hot springs for a quick dip before heading off for a fortifying bowl of nasi goreng overlooking the rice terraces at Tegallalang. The afternoon can be spent temple hopping your way back to your hotel for a well-deserved gin & tonic.

If Kuta's the Magaluf of Asia, then Seminyak's the St Tropez. Flashy villas aplenty and a plethora of beach clubs, this is where the beautiful people come to lounge on the beach by day and party all night.

Eye-wateringly expensive accommodation is the norm in Seminyak. Splashed out on the Hanging Gardens in Ubud and fancy scaling it back a bit in Seminyak (hey, you'll be partying most of the time you're there, why shell out for a bed you'll barely sleep in...)? The Amala to the rescue. This little boutique hotel is much cheaper than the majority of hotels in the area but doesn't compromise on style or service. We stayed in a spa villa - a spacious room with a four poster bed which overlooks its own little courtyard which comes complete with a couple of sunloungers, a jacuzzi plunge pool and a whizzy steam shower and outdoor bath. Pool villas are also available but with the beach just a hop skip and a jump away, we barely spent any time at the hotel in the day anyway. Service is attentive without being overbearing - this is your perfect base for a few days of beach baking and cocktailing. 

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Eating & Drinking
Sea Circus - My top spot for a laidback dinner and delicious cocktails, this bright, modern, diner-esque spot serves up European tapas dishes with a South American flavour. Think bacon wrapped prawns, tuna carpaccio and tacos. Cocktails come served in milk bottle with stripy straws and the espresso martinis are legendary. 

Naughty Nuris - If you missed out in Ubud or are in search of further naughtiness, head to the Batubelig branch of Naughty Nuris. Not quite such a buzzy atmosphere as up in Ubud but the drinks are still strong and the food's still finger-lickingly awesome.

Potato Head - From the outside this beach club/restauarnt/bar looks like a Balinese coliseum made from wooden shutters. Head inside and a big turquoise pool dominates with parasol shaded double sunbeds fanning around it and a loungey bar space with mismatched furniture and an abundance of barmen shaking up strong drinks. Chill out here posing poolside by day, and as the sun sets, pull out your sequins and stilettos and pose while dancing and downing a few of those strong drinks until the sun comes up again. 

Cafe Bali - A lovely little lunch spot perfect for a post-shopping pick-me-up or a hangover curing pig-out. A white-washed, high-ceilinged dining space opens out onto a large breezy verandah. Decor is boho meets French colonial style, the food is a mish mash of Balinese and international staples. Comfort food in a relaxed setting right in the heart of Seminyak.  

La Lucciola - Beachside brunch spot extraordinaire! Come hungry and roll back out onto the beach for a post-feast snooze. Exotic icy granitas and arguably the best coffee on the island accompany huge plates of eggs, pancakes and lip-smackingly amazing coconut toast. 

Day Tripping
Fancy a day's exploring? Escape Seminyak's slightly grey and uninspiring beaches and head down to the South of the island for white sands and great surf. Hire a driver and start early to avoid the maddening traffic. Start your beach crawl at Dreamland - a stretch of powdery white sand with sunloungers for hire and entertainment provided by a cast of surfers.

Move on to Bingin to watch even better displays of surfing prowess while drinking an icy Bintang in a backbacker beachside bar.

Next up an afternoon's lazing at Padang Padang (top tip: wander along the beach past the rocks to find virtually empty stretches of sand between the rocky outcrops).

Head on down to the very bottom of the Bukit Peninsular where Uluwatu Temple precariously perches on a cliff-edge. Keep your eyes peeled for the monkeys who live with their penchant for caps, cameras and sunglasses...

If you're down that way and fancy something a little more upscale than a Bintang at sundown, The Rock Bar at the Ayana Resort is pretty hard to beat for picture postcard perfect views. Do be prepared though for snaking queues and drinks prices to make your wallet groan.

Wherever you're off to this Chinese New Year, wishing you very happy and safe travels as well as a wonderful start to the year of the snake!

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