Just Back From

Heaven at the End of the World: Bali

by Maria Russo

A black sand beach in Bali. All photos by Maria Russo.

There's more to Bali than the beaches, as Maria Russo of The Culture-ist (one of Fathom's 24 Best Travel Blogs and Websites) learns on a trip through the blissful countryside.

So, what brought you to Bali? Visiting Bali has been a fantasy of mine for years. I envisioned staying among ripples of verdant rice fields, watching farmers tend to their fields, and listening to the coo of turtledoves resonate from swaying frangipani trees overhead. And that is exactly what I did.

Was it your first time? Yes, and it was so good that the climax left me speechless.

What whast the best tip you got before you left? We received many good tips from friends: Stay away from Kuta; walk or bike among the rice fields and experience the organic cuisine of Ubud; visit the Subak Rice Museum in Tabanan. But none were as wonderful as a suggestion made by a fellow traveler to stay at Alila Villas Uluwatu and Alila Villas Soori. These properties were located in remote areas of Bali in the most stunning settings, and we stayed at Alila hotels everywhere we went. By day, we explored local villages, deserted beaches, and endless rice terraces. By night, we dined and slept in the lap of luxury.


A cabana at Alila Villas Uluwatu.


The pool at Alila Villas Uluwatu.

How did you get there? From JFK, we flew to London and then on to Singapore where we stayed overnight. The next evening, we took a three-hour flight to Denpasar, Bali. The hotel provided a transfer from the airport to Manggis.

What did you do? We toured five different areas of Bali. Our trip began by the sea in Manggis, on the eastern side of the island, where we stayed at Alila Manggis, a gorgeous property that is more of a sanctuary than a resort. We chose to go on one of Alila's customizable journeys, which took us to a local market, the property's own organic garden, and a cooking class set among rice fields, where we feasted on the traditional cuisine we had prepared.

Next, we headed north to Sidemen Valley for an intimate, one-night stay at Villa Idanna Pucci in the lush forested hills leading up to Mt. Agung. The area is currently being considered for inclusion among UNESCO's World Heritage List. This was one of the highlights of our trip: This area is virtually untouched, making it a peaceful, utterly spectacular destination.

After saying au revoir to the wonderful staff and resident chickens at the villa, we headed southwest towards Ubud where we kicked back and soaked in the sun at Alila Ubud. This area of Bali is perfect for rejuvenation. The food, landscapes, and people create a positive energy that almost forces you to cleanse your mind and body. Although Ubud can get quite busy, once you head into any one of its chic cafes, you'll forget the bustle and embrace the laid-back vibe. A jungle trek and bike rides through local rice fields are also a must here.




Scenes around Ubud.

Continuing south towards Uluwatu, we could have never prepared ourselves for the world-class luxury we were about to experience. When we arrived at Alila Villas Uluwatu, I was struck by the hotel's stunning, minimalist design, which evokes natural elements like water, stone, and bamboo. Bridges suspended over reflecting pools, constructed and adorned using local materials and succulents, connected every area of the property. The resort was built with the idea of creating inhabited gardens that blend seamlessly with the surrounding natural environment.

We really did not want to leave our private villa for even a second, but we pried ourselves away to explore the local community and venture out on a vigorous hike down a cliff that led to miles of undisturbed beach. The strenuous trek was worth the effort once we settled in a small cove to feast on a lunch of nasi jinggo while looking out to a seascape of majestic waves, green-speckled cliffs, and endless blue sky.

We ended our trip in Tabanan at Alila Villas Soori. The resort is situated on a black sand beach that shimmers in the sunlight. You can't swim in the sea due to the strong rip currents, but you can ride a horse at sunrise and sunset along this very local, very gorgeous beach. Since sitting still is an issue of ours, we opted for another journey experience that took us on a tour (it was just us and a local guide) of the Subak Rice Museum. This was an insightful look into the history of rice, followed by a messy, but totally worth it, hands-on rice planting experience in a neighboring village. We finished the tour with a walk though a traditional Balinese family compound and lunch at a community-run café.


Overlooking the sea at Alila Villas Uluwatu.

This was especially great: Looking out to a sea of green rice terraces, spice gardens, and farms from the pool at Villa Idanna Pucci and the stunning ocean view from our cliff side villa in Uluwatu.

But this wasn't: Spending so little time in each region.

Let's talk about stuff.
1. Glad you packed: Plenty of sportswear for hiking and trekking.

2. Wish you'd packed: Long-sleeved dresses and a silk scarf. In the evenings it became quite chilly, especially at the higher altitudes. Many nights I shivered in my cotton dress and short-sleeved tunics.

3. Didn't need: My typical selection of organic teas from home. You can get your hands on some pretty fantastic whole leaf teas in Bali.

4. Brought back: Balinese coffee, handcrafted volcanic soap, a handmade scroll etched with a beautiful map of Bali, and a rosewater clay mask and facial scrub.

Speed round of favorites:
1. Meals: An Indian lentil dish at Kafe and Bali raja tataki (cocoa cayenne seared tuna, daikon, and beets in mangosteen sauce) at Clear Café in Ubud.

2. Villages to explore: It's a tie between Sidemen, Tegalalang, Manggis, and Tabanan.

Bali Pulina

A view from Bali Pulina.

3. Thing you did: We trekked through a forest on the outskirts of Ubud, then climbed up a steep hill leading to Bali Pulina, a spice and coffee farm overlooking the forest and rice terraces where you can sample a cup of kopi luwak, the coffee made from beans excreted by Asian Palm civets.

4. Cafe/casual hangout: Kafe and Three Monkeys in Ubud.

What's the local speciality Babi guling, or suckling pig, is one of Bali's most famed dishes. The pig is infused with a spicy concoction of turmeric, coriander seeds, lemongrass, black pepper, and garlic, and traditionally spit-roasted.

Were you there for the right amount of time? A trip such as this requires three to fours weeks, so I would say we squeezed things a bit too tight.

One place you didn't get to visit but wanted to: The reefs and raw wilderness of West Bali National Park in the northern region of the island.

Rice Farmers

What's the #1 top you'd give a friend who wanted to go? See the bucolic side of Bali. Steer clear of Seminyak and visit Sidemen. Skip the inundated coast and explore the undisturbed beaches in Uluwatu and Kerambitan in the Tabanan region. Don't be afraid to be somewhat removed from the popular spots. Your trip will be much more rewarding if you venture to places that still hold the essence of what this island once was before the influx of tourism.

Any surprises? Before our trip, I thought of Bali more as a beach destination than one that can be spent exploring the bucolic countryside. It was a pleasant surprise indeed.

You can't stop thinking about: The simple lifestyle in many of the villages, which seems to have perished from so many other parts of the world.

What was your favorite moment? Sitting beside an adorable toothless grandmother as she showed me how to weave a religious offering from palms at the family compound we visited in Tabanan.

Would you go back? I'd like to pick up and go back tomorrow.


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