Bali: Laid-Back Luxury – With Adventure on the Side

Nell Card, The Guardian, November 25, 2011

"How many steps back up is it … just roughly?" I ask Argus, our guide.

"About 600," he says.

My travel buddy Nicole and I are lying flat-out on our sarongs. We've hiked for three hours through villages, across savannah-like terrain and down a vertical cliff path to get here. And now, in the shade of a boulder on Nyang-Nyang beach – a vast, isolated stretch of coast on the southernmost tip of Bali – we realise it's going to take us another three hours to get back.

At least Argus has packed provisions. He hands out bottles of Pocari Sweat (the Indonesian equivalent of Lucozade) and parcels of noodles, tofu and boiled eggs wrapped in banana leaves.

After lunch, we swim in the bubbly waves of the Indian Ocean. "It's OK," says Nicole, staring up at the cliff from the sea, "I think I can see a handrail."

But there is no handrail. There isn't even a path. The route back up the cliff is a terrifying vertical scramble. Hearts racing and knees shaking, we scrabble over boulders, down gullies and through thick, tropical foliage.

We recover in a nearby warung (a roadside shop and cafe). Newborn chicks scamper around our feet as Argus shares a selection of dragon fruit, pineapple and passion fruit.

Next stop: Pura Luhur, an 11th-century Hindu temple overrun with thieving monkeys. Filthy, sweaty and sunburnt, we return to our hotel at dusk. We are staying at the ultra-luxurious Alila Villas Uluwatu. There are four Alila properties in Bali, each offering guests "a total destination experience" – a chance to discover Bali via a choice of guided tours or "journeys" that introduce you to local life, taking you to rural and remote parts of the island. Our six-hour endurance test was the first of many incredible journeys we sampled during our 10-day visit to the island.

To celebrate our safe return from the hike, we are served champagne (all part of the "journey" package) in the sunset cabana – a bronze and wooden jigsaw structure that protrudes over the Bukit peninsula.

The hotel was designed by Singapore-based architects WOHA and has received a slew of architectural and environmental awards since opening in 2009. It has 84 one-, two- and three-bedroom villas built from local rattan and recycled wood and clad in flat lava rocks, which absorb the heat and camouflage the villas. A screen door behind the bed opens up on to a private, planted courtyard with an outdoor rain shower (which is also a night-time hangout for copulating frogs). Another screen door enables you to plop into your own plunge pool straight from the sofa. Outside, angular frangipani trees artfully shed their flowers on my sun lounger. There's even a private cabana constructed of flat black lava slabs. It's like sunbathing inside a giant Jenga game.

On day three, we reluctantly pack up and head west. The hotel provides a taxi service between resorts (public transport on Bali is virtually nonexistent and the roads are unruly and overcrowded), so we're driven the 50km to Alila Villas Soori near Kerambitan, a discreet complex of 44 beach-side villas.

The landscape is equally rural here: bristling green rice paddies tickle the glittering black coastline. We wander down to the beach.

"It's like walking on a giant eyeshadow," says Nicole as we scrunch up our toes in the compact, black sand. We're watched by young, chestnut-coloured cows as we explore the rock pools and intricately carved Hindu temples on the shoreline. In the shallows I find a small, hand-formed red clay pot, which I take home with me.

That afternoon, we arrange our next Alila adventure: a cycle tour of the villages of Tabanan and Kerambitan. Tabanan is known locally as the rice bowl of Bali. Ancient irrigation systems lace the fields and black, bird-shaped kites soar high above the crops. A young boy wrapping the string of his kite around an old flip-flop waves as we pedal down the narrow lanes that separate the tiny plots of land.

The Balinese still widely worship Dewi Sri, the pre-Hindu era goddess of rice and fertility. Every paddy has its own temple, where handmade offerings – tiny morsels of rice and bright petals arranged on origami-like banana leaves – are left. You see these offerings scattered all over the island. Later, we stop in the shade of a hairy old banyan tree to examine a little heap of offerings which include a lone cigarette and what looks like a handful of mini Ritz crackers.

Beyond the rice paddies, we come to our first village, Tabanan, home to the Pande clan. In Bali, all blacksmiths originate from this clan and the craft is handed down from generation to generation. Our guide introduces us to Wayan, a blacksmith who makes knives and agricultural tools with his wife. His home is a row of single rooms built in the 1950s. Some of the rooms are open platforms; others are shut behind intricately carved doors. Three generations live and work here, and they all come to watch us drink a young coconut in the shade of their open living room. In the workshop next door, Wayan and his wife hammer white-hot metal into tools.

From Tabanan we scoot through the village of Pejaten, famous for its red clay ceramics. After another 7km we reach the village of Kerambitan. The area was once home to one of Bali's most important royal families – great patrons of art and culture who commissioned local craftsmen to kit out their palaces and temples. Our tour ends at Kerambitan palace, built in the 17th century. The eighth royal generation still lives here. We snoop around the peach plastered buildings. The walls are inlaid with dozens of painted plates and each pillar is swaddled in multicoloured fabric. We find miniature stone gods in sarongs, black and white portraits of kings and a pair of red and gold thrones within reach of a fridge full of Bintang beer. We are sorely tempted, but we get back on our wheels and pedal home to raid our own mini bars.

Ubud in central Bali is the island's second tourist destination (after the beach resort of Kuta). In the 1930s, it attracted European bohemians; now the city's sprawling "art villages" sell nasty teak carvings (think life-size, muscular unicorns) and stoneware. After two nights at Soori, we check into Uma Ubud, a boutique hotel on the outskirts of town surrounded by jungle-like gardens. Our colonial-style room is thatched and smells deliciously of damp straw, and the communal areas are furnished with huge pieces of Balinese furniture: beautiful antique wood carvings and two-metre deep sofas carved from teak.

Uma is a 30-minute drive from Mount Batur, an active volcano that serves as an adventure playground for tourists. It, too, offers a range of guided tours and we agree for Anom, our guide, to lead us on a 40km freewheel from the summit. Before we begin, he decides we need a caffeine hit and takes us to an organic coffee farm in Kintamani, a crater-top town.

"Come and taste the civet coffee," he urges, ushering us through the coffee plantation to a makeshift kitchen.

Civets are mongoose-like creatures that steal coffee cherries from the trees. The beans are partially digested before being pooped out whole, collected, washed and ground. The end result is a Balinese delicacy called kopi luwak: one of the world's most expensive coffees.

"It's, um, kind of sour …" I politely suggest.

"It tastes like shit," whispers Nicole. We're both fighting a creeping sense of nervous hilarity. On the drive up, Anom had told us that the ride down would be pretty fast … "Ready for the big downhill?" he shouts. With sour tongues and jangling nerves, we let go of the brakes.

The fertile flanks of Mount Batur are intensely farmed. Orange and passionfruit groves separate leafy fields of potatoes and chillies. A truck of bouncing cabbages rolls by. The tarmac lanes are bustling. Women fry tempeh (fermented tofu) on the roadside and palm sugar rice cakes bake on the pavement in the morning sun. Men groom their cockerels in preparation for their next fight while school children in peach uniforms overtake us on mopeds. We see a procession of women and girls on their way to a Hindu ceremony dressed in jewel-coloured sarongs and sashes carrying multicoloured, handwoven baskets on their heads.

"I want one of them!" Nicole hollers as we zip by. Towards the end, some school kids race out of the playground and line up on the roadside to give us a high five. It's the only point I take my hands off the brakes for the entire ride.

Saddle sore, we take the next day off and treat ourselves to a Balinese massage at the sprawling Como Shambhala Estate ( on the outskirts of Ubud. The mother of all wellbeing retreats, this estate is built in a jungle clearing on the edge of a ravine overlooking the rapid Ayung river. We explore the spectacular gardens before being stretched and pummelled back into shape.

Our final hotel, Alila Manggis, is on the east coast of the island. Compared with its glamorous sisters, Uluwatu and Soori, the accommodation is lacklustre and the surroundings less spectacular. That said, it offers great value for money and the choice of "journeys" sound just as promising. We sign up for our final outing – a journey to the Bali aga (ancient village) of Tenganan, an isolated community famous for its double ikat – a rare fabric which is produced by dyeing both the warp and weft threads, then painstakingly weaving them into symbolic motifs.

We leave the bikes this time and trek to the roadless village on foot. The walk begins in Kastala and quickly rises through verdant rice terraces. ("This is our Old Trafford," boasts our guide.) Mount Agung, Bali's highest mountain, dominates the skyline as we make our way along the edge of a mountain spring used by locals to irrigate the fields. The countryside is one giant tropical fruit bowl: red pineapples grow in the hedgerows and we walk in the shade of jackfruit, durian, snakeskin fruit and cashew nut trees.

We edge across a precarious bamboo bridge and find, all on its own, a table-top stall of handwoven goods. I buy a selection of beautiful little rattan boxes for about 30,000 rupiah (£2.10) each – perfect Christmas pressies. After another hour or so we reach the outer walls of Tenganan.

We step through a narrow gateway, and it feels as though we're entering a new zone in the Crystal Maze. Sacrificial water buffalo drink from troughs in the central square and fluorescent cockerels in handmade cages – dyed green and orange by their owners – guard the gates. Economically separate from the rest of the island, Tenganan is a fiercely private community. We're told that a village official sweeps away the footprints of strangers at the end of each day.

Our guide introduces us to a weaver with cloudy eyes who takes us into his workshop (the Indigo Art Shop) and drapes me in an incredible piece of double ikat. He explains that these fabrics were traditionally worn during ceremonies and rites of passage: for weddings, tooth filings (the Balinese file the teeth of adolescents to rid them of invisible forces of evil), or during a child's first haircut. He is only one of about 15 people in the village who still weave on small makeshift looms and his wares grace the homes of Prince William and Mick Jagger, so we're told. I deliberate for an hour, then he whips out a card reader and I leave £160 poorer with a unique piece of double ikat I will forever have to rescue from behind the back of the sofa.

Outside, dusk has fallen and the villagers are preparing for a celebration at the temple. As we step through the gates of the village, I look back and see a group of men roasting spices over an open fire. Two suckling pigs have been caught, their legs tethered to sturdy stakes. They are preparing babi guling, a spicy pork Balinese delicacy served at ceremonies. The buffalo lurk nervously. In the gloom, I think I can make out the shape of a man sweeping the sand in the central courtyard …