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Paradise found
By Patsy Yang

Whether you are looking for a spiritual retreat, pampering beyond belief or to battle gnarly waves, Bali has something for just about everyone. The Indonesian island known for its natural beauty also has a libidinous night life and a surprisingly good mix of cuisine.

Say Bali and most people think paradise despite its touristy nature and increasingly terrible traffic.

Beaches and seas, rice terraces, volcanoes, Hindu temples on virtually every street corner, traditional performances, world-class arts and crafts, laid-back locals, a variety of accommodation and a growing mix of restaurants and boutiques, Bali seems to have everything a vacationer could want.

For the less spiritually inclined, the Indonesian island has great surfing, five-star resort facilities, a rollicking nightlife and posh crowds to mingle with along its southern tourist belt.

For people seeking tranquility and nature, there are parts of Bali that still feel like another world, away from the traffic and turmoil of Kuta. And don't let the film "Eat, Pray, Love" put you off searching for yoga classes on the island. Bali oozes a variety of yoga styles as the number of visitors seeking spiritual enlightenment has risen.

In recent years, the island has evolved into a fantasy land for people from around the world. Many Australians come here to surf and party; wealthy Europeans build dream homes; while spiritual practitioners find it a great place for meditation. Once known as a laid-back surfer and hippie hangout, Bali is now one of the world's most popular holiday destinations with much to offer.

Bali is a melting pot where conservatives meet the free-spirited, where believers in divine power meet godless groups, and the east meets the west. The traffic may be terrible but this haven's heart still beats strong and loud.

Religion and culture

The Balinese have strong spiritual roots despite the large influx of tourists over the years. Everywhere you go, you'll find little banana-leaf offerings of rice and incense, left apparently at random for gods and ancestors.

While the majority of Indonesian people are Muslim, about 93 percent of Bali's population adheres to Balinese Hinduism, which is similar to Hinduism.

Each village has at least three main temples and almost every house, resort and hotel has its own shrine. Offerings are given to appease the spirits and bring prosperity and good health to the family.

Every morning small offering trays are placed on shrines, in the temples, outside houses and shops. They are a constant reminder of a parallel world.

They nurture the soul, propitiate the gods and feed the birds.

No wonder Bali is called "island of the gods."

Culturally, Balinese project the beauty around them into magnificent works of art, as seen in their architecture, paintings, sculptures and dramatic dance performances.

Spa experiences

A vacation in a tropical island without a spa experience is incomplete for many. This is especially true in Bali. Whether it's a wind-down for the mind, body and spirit or simply a quick-fix after clubbing, travelers spend hours being pampered. The healing arts are passed down from generation to generation in Bali and massage is a way of life here. Each high-end hotel and resort has spa facilities and the Balinese treatment using local herbs and essential oils are recommended.

Mandara Spa: Mandara Spa was founded upon the peaceful Balinese ritual in 1995 and there are now more than 70 Mandara Spas around the world, each maintaining its reverence for Balinese traditions. It has a dedicated training center and operates four spas in Bali. Mandara Spa inside Nikko Bali Resort & Spa has eight open-air villas with outdoor showers and lush tropical foliage. The massage may also be enjoyed at the Beachside Bale. The signature Mandara Massage (US$95/50 minutes) is highly recommended. It is a unique blend of five different massage styles that employs two therapists working in harmony.

Anantara Spa: Anantara Spa offers some of the best tropical treatments using local ingredients from the Javanese Lulur Body Scrub and Bali Boreh Body Mask to the Aloe After-Sun Soother. Of course, a Balinese massage is the most authentic in Bali with the massage style influenced by ageless tradition. Therapists use an Indonesian floral oil together with palm pressure and stretching techniques to relive muscular tension and improve blood flow.

How to get there:

Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines have flights to Bali. Cathay stops in Hong Kong while Singapore Airlines stops in Singapore. It is about a seven-hour flight from Shanghai. Budget airline AirAsia also has flights from Hangzhou to Denpasar, Bali, which stop in Kular Lumpur.

Where to stay:

Most of the luxurious resorts are within the southern belt of the island, including Uluwatu, Nusa Dua and Seminyak. Everything from family vacations to romantic getaways can be planned. Here is a quick look at some solid accommodation options.

Family holidays or people who prefer big chain hotels

About a 40-minute drive from Denpasar Airport, Nusa Dua is known as an enclave of large international five-star resorts in southeastern Bali. Among the many big names, the 389-room Nikko Bali Resort and Spa combines an exceptional location with unrivaled ocean views and scenic landscape. Situated at the very southern tip of the southeast coast, the resort delivers seclusion, a palm-fringed reef-protected beach which is hard to find in other parts of southern Bali. You will be hugely disappointed by Kuta and Seminyak beaches after experiencing what Nikko offers. Young guests are well-attended to with facilities including a separate children's lagoon and pool, and a jungle camp that will keep them occupied for long hours, giving parents a chance to enjoy their own time. (Rate: US$290 to US$3,000 depending on room types)

Romantic hideaways and the most luxurious stays

Uluwatu features some of the most dramatic settings of beaches and towering cliffs on the island. Its white sand beaches are often considered the best in Bali.

Alila Villas Uluwatu proves that designer luxury can reach new heights. The resort is poised on an elevated plateau that meets with limestone cliffs sweeping down to the ocean. Each villa features a private cabana looking out toward the Indian Ocean. The resort has just been awarded "Most Popular Overseas Hotel" in the seventh annual China Tourism 2012 Gold List Awards. A one-bedroom pool villa starts at US$603.

Hip lifestyle and nightlife

Seminyak, a 20-minute drive from the airport, is considered the island's chic quarter with many of the best restaurants and trendiest accommodation. Anantara Seminyak Resort & Spa is in the middle of the island's most upscale enclaves, with easy access to the most elegant restaurants, bars and the best shops. The beach resort has a poolside lounge to toast the world-famous Seminyak sunsets. During the low season it starts from US$420/suite/night while in the high season it starts from US$520/suite/night.

What to do in Bali

Bali is filled with beautiful beaches but most are suffering from overexposure. However, surfing and water activities are still among the top reasons many choose to visit the island. Seminyak is a beloved surfing spot for intermediate surfers and Uluwatu beaches are challenging even for die-hard surfers. However, beyond surfing, diving, snorkeling, river rafting, and elephant safaris, Bali has some unique programs and hidden secrets to offer to those who love traveling in style and embracing local culture.

Perfume making

Hailing from Martinique, a French island in the Caribbean, Nora Gasparini, the founder of L'Atelier Parfums et Creations, made Bali her home three years ago. Bali's cempaka incense, flowers, smells and the enchanting surroundings led her to the idea of opening the first perfume-making workshop on the island. She or her well-trained Balinese perfumer will sit at a work station with you surrounded by tiny brown bottles lined up on curved, tiered shelves. You will be required to fill in a questionnaire to identify personality traits. During the process, she will suggest a local Balinese essence that will make your custom-made perfume exotic and one-of-a-kind. Once your perfume is finished, you get a 30ml bottle to take home. (Address: inside Ayana Resort and Spa. Rate: 90-minute workshop US$80; three-hour workshop US$125)

Escape Nomade

Escape Nomade, or Living Without Walls, is unknown to most travelers and even Bali locals. It's a great "hideaway" experience one can hardly imagine on the outskirts of Ubud. It encompasses a spiritual foot washing, body massage and a high tea picnic in a luxurious tent. Attentive Balinese staff will escort you through the concept creator Anneke van Waesberghe's tented house and a few steps down to the bank of the sacred Ayung River. Here you will receive the Balinese foot washing ritual on the bank of the river. It's followed by a full body massage in a tented pavilion. A high tea picnic awaits to conclude the experience. While enjoying the tea and desserts, a Balinese Pendet Dance is performed. Van Waesberghe can personalize the experience to meet different needs. The rate starts from US$150 per person. (Contact Anneke esp2000@indo.net.id)

Camel Safari Ride on the Beach

Nikko Bali Resort & Spa is probably the only resort in Bali providing camel rides on the white sands of Sawangan Beach. Imagine sitting high atop one of their gentle "ships of the desert" as they stroll along a pristine stretch of beautiful beach with your loved one. It is an experience that will long be remembered. A one-hour camel safari ride costs US$35/adult or US$20/child.

Journey of Enlightenment

Alila Villas Uluwatu offers a one-day "journey of enlightenment" that gives privileged access to five of the holiest and lesser-visited temples along Bali's south coast. Guests can join temple priests in prayer and learn more about the incredible voyage of discovery that Dang Hyang Niratha undertook as well as gain insightful background on the largely undocumented history of the Bukit.

Balinese dance performances

Pura Luhur Uluwatu (Uluwatu Temple) is a 20-minute drive from Alila Villas Uluwatu. It is Bali's most spectacular temple, located high on a cliff top at the edge of a plateau about 76 meters above the waves of the Indian Ocean. There are many Kecak dance shows in Bali but the one at Uluwatu Temple is extraordinary in combination with the breathtaking scenery and sunset, which happens everyday at around 6pm.

Where to eat and drink

Seminyak, Kuta's upscale neighbor, has become Bali's see-and-be-seen center of gastronomy and night life. It's worth a trip for the great food and a variety of choices.

Metis: The best of the best in the island's fine-dining scene. Overlooking rice fields in Kerobokan, it has a sophisticated setting, impeccable service and outstanding French-Mediterranean cuisine. Average cost is US$80 per person.

Naughty Nuri's Warung: The simple roadside barbecue restaurant is legendary in Ubud and famed for its barbecued pork ribs and killer martinis. The modest restaurant has done incredibly well to stand out from the thousands of roadside warungs and is extremely popular in the artist town of Ubud. About US$10 per person for a decent meal.

Potato Head Beach Club: Bali's latest, hippest beach bar is favored by trendy crowds. It's "the" place to be seen partying and drinking all day long. Its tower high facade is set off with an impressive emerald lawn and an infinity pool facing the ocean.

SOS Supper Club: The rooftop bar at Anantara Resort & Spa offers one of the best views of the Seminyak sunset slowly slipping behind the horizon. This is where to be during happy hour.

Where to shop

The decent boutiques on Jalan Laksmana-Oberoi, Seminyak and Monkey Forest in Ubud are pricey, but most of the street stalls sell tourist junk. Shopping is not easy in Bali, as the island has become so popular and touristy in recent years. However, fashion lovers may be inspired by the relaxed Bali style.

Biasa: One of the best Bali fashion brands, Biasa offers style that could be summed up as resort-chic, which is marked by a fluid and comfortable character perfect for the tropical weather. The fabrics are all made from natural fibers, soft and super light.

Treasures: Treasures is a gallery of fine gold designs. The collections are drawing on the oldest traditions of metalworking and jewelry making. Everything is handmade.

Do & Don'ts

Do make sure to have US$25 per person in cash ready for your visa on arrival.

Do ask your taxi driver to put on the meter.

Do pack as little as possible as you may buy clothes, jewelry and housewares.

Do hire a driver for a full or half-day tour. A local driver may give you good insight and answer many questions about local culture and traditions. I Gusti Lanang Badra, a Ubud native, is highly recommended for his humor and abundant knowledge of Bali. (e-mail: ngurah2000@hotmail.com)

Don't drive a motorbike yourself to ensure safety.

Don't step on offerings.

Don't bring too much cash as most places accept credit cards.

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