by Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury Digs? Check. Beaches and Surfing? You bet. Art, meditation, dance and colorful festivals? That too, and more…

Balanese DancerGoddard Photography/iStock

Sandalwood incense scents the humid air as we cycle under curving arcs of bamboo decorations interwoven with frangipani and palm leaf. The 12-foot-tall flowered decorations wave like flags at every street corner of every village we pedal through. We’re a bit off the tourist track,visiting Bali’s southwest coast, and it’s the first day of the lavish Galungan festival, celebrated every 210 days. Villagers are heading to their local temples. Women in rainbow-hued skirts and white lace blouses gracefully balance baskets of fruit and flower offerings on their heads. Men, resplendent in loose white tunics, ride by on scooters. Children are everywhere. Bells tinkle. And everyone greets us with face-splitting smiles and a cheerful “Good morning!”

Barong CeremonyGoddard Photography/iStock

Bali – the “island of the gods” – and its friendly people have fascinated visitors ever since European artists first made this remote tropical island world-famous in the 1930’s.

Today, sporty types come for its epic surfing and scuba-diving. Luxury devotees are lured by its five-star resorts and awesome spas – can you say “indulgence”? The Kuta area, shunned by many as over-crowded and noisy, is sought out by others for its miles-long beach and throbbing nightlife. Yoga fans find mantra heaven gazing out over Bali’s terraced rice paddies.

Balanese womenLP7/iStock

And then there’s Bali’s traditional village life, art, dance and festivals. The island’s unique culture valuing balance and harmony is a chief attraction, and Balinese traditions – fired by the belief that spirits inhabit the sacred mountains, trees, animals and all living things – are embedded in daily life. Tiny palm-leaf tray offerings, sprinkled with flower blossoms and a few grains of rice, greet us daily outside every shop, house and temple and colorful Javanese Hindu-based festivals like the Galungan are celebrated year-round.

Ubud, in a lush inland rainforest, is Bali’s cultural heart. Remember “Eat Pray Love”? Publicized by the romantic flick starring Julia Roberts, we find the town now buzzes with activity. Locals zip by on scooters along Ubud’s narrow, winding cobblestone streets. International visitors throng its designer boutiques, open-air craft markets, antique shops and art galleries. They gawk too at the host of yoga, meditation and healing arts options on offer, and like us, stop in at little coffee shops, funky warungs (modest eateries) and charming garden restaurants serving up exquisite Indonesian delicacies.

Ganesha statueMAC99/iStock

We marvel at the way in which the Balinese way of life finds vibrant expression today in Ubud – in dance, music, stone sculptures, paintings and other art forms.

Our first evening, we happen on a dance performance at the Ubud Palace. Under a starlit sky, two young women perform the classic “Legong” dance, accompanied by a gamelan orchestra’s xylophone rhythms. Wearing glittering headdresses, they move in perfect stylized sync, emotions vividly expressed by darting eyes alone. Then a whole cast of actors in fantastic costumes, including girls dressed as golden deer, enacts the Hindu “Ramayana” love epic.

We’re so enthralled that over the next few evenings, we take in several other performances – like the “Barong” lion dance and the “Kecac,” where 100 men chant in a trance-like state and a fire-walker in a horse costume dances barefoot on blazing coconut husks.

Balinese paintingDima266F/iStock

There’s much else to do in Ubud. We visit some of the art galleries around town – so chock-full, original oils and acrylics lean in piles against the walls. Growing rice on the island traditionally allowed the Balinese plenty of spare time, so painting became part of daily life. Out in the countryside, simple artist-owned stalls sell original art works in a wide range of styles – paintings, drawings, sculpture, wood carvings, even intricately painted eggs and masks hand-carved from bamboo – much of it good and cheaper than in Ubud’s galleries.

Keen on the art, we spend some enjoyable hours at the Neka Art Museum. The history of Balinese art is laid out, from early puppet-style canvasses onward. Some later styles were inspired by Bali-mad European artists like Walter Spies and Adrien LeMayeur – lured to Bali in the 1900s by the beauty of Bali and its people.

Baby MacaqueTrubavin/iStock

Like other tourists, we also can’t resist the “monkey business” at Ubud’s Sacred Monkey Forest. Over 550 macaques scamper about in this protected forest sanctuary, home to three sacred temples. We’re warned not to wear any shiny jewelry or watches, as the cheeky rascals will steal anything they can eat or play with and we do hear lots of laughter as they jump up on people who’ve brought them bananas. Shutters click continuously as people snap photos of the long-tailed felons. The tiny almost-hairless babies suckling from their mothers are adorable.

What bout Bali’s beaches? Perhaps the best beaches and top surfing spots on the island are found on the Bukit peninsula on Bali’s southern coast. Surfers first discovered this beautiful arid island-teardrop (Bukit to its friends). For big fast surfing waves, head to Uluwatu Beach right under the cliff-hanging Uluwatu Temple, one of Bali’s oldest temples.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu templeChuvipro/iStock

The peninsula is also home to Nusa Dua. This planned five-star resort community is where you find long stretches of swimmable gold sand beaches and manicured lawns with beach chairs and umbrellas for the St. Regis, Westin, Melia and other brand-name resorts. Cycling along its stone beachfront path, Nusa Dua reminds us a little of a fancy Hawaii resort area, only more exotic with its stone statues of Garuda sun birds and Hindu gods guarding beach resort entrances. At sunset, we reach a public park with huge Ramayana stone statues, where locals and tourists alike are strolling and jogging.

We treat ourselves to massages too. Balinese massage is a relaxing combination of thumb and fist pressure, long kneading strokes and gentle stretching. It costs far less than in North America, and many spas top the pleasure meter with luxurious add-ons.

Four Seasons SayanCourtesy of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

Take the Four Seasons spa at Sayan (near Ubud), where we cross lotus ponds to reach a private indoor/outdoor spa villa for our couples treatment. After our feet are gently cleaned and perfumed, we’re rubbed with a warm poppy and rose oil scrub. Then we luxuriate in an outdoor bath strewn with rose petals, while served a soothing rose elixir. A deliciously skillful massage follows. Talk about 150 minutes of bliss!

 But for us, it’s the festivals that really capture the welcoming spirit of the Balinese. One day walking to Sayan village, we stumble across preparations for an evening temple festival. Men huddle in groups over charcoal fires on the ground, chatting contentedly as they grill bamboo skewers wrapped with shredded pork, ginger and coconut. They invite us to share some – delicious! Women weave palm leaf baskets for offerings, which they pin in shape with bamboo slivers and fill with flower petals. It’s all so peaceful, so happy, so serene that we’re hard-pressed to tear ourselves away and return to our own lives.

 If you go

 Cathay Pacific, EVA Air and other airlines fly to Denpasar, Bali, via Hong Kong or Taipei (flights from North America are as low as $1,100). Most resorts arrange airport transfers, and luxury hotels around Ubud offer complimentary shuttle service to Ubud town. The best time to visit Bali is the dry season from April to October.

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall/Winter 2015 issue.

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