Michael Lamb says there are at least 10 great reasons to visit Bali this year (even if it's trickier to get there than it used to be)
1. There's plenty of space
Come on, it's Bali, Island of the Gods, Paradise Lost & Found, and we can't let the Aussies have it all to themselves. The place is running on severely reduced tourist numbers (though up from virtually zero in 2021), so you're guaranteed to nab the top spots on the sun loungers or at the beach bar.
2. Connect to reconnect
Speaking of the kangaroo chasers, with Air New Zealand not resuming direct flights to Bali until next year, a connecting flight through Oz offers the chance to catch up with your cork-hatted cousins, or Kiwi whānau who flew the nest. We stopped over in Melbourne before flying Virgin Australia to Ngurah Rai airport in Bali. Depending where in Australia you want to fly from, you'll be able to get a direct flight with either Virgin Australia, Jetstar, Qantas or Air Asia. Although it has to be said, the superb Air NZ flights across the Tasman showed me that our national carrier, for their part of this route, is streets ahead of the Aussies.
3. Bali needs you
This is an island largely powered by tourism and, away from the tourist meccas of the south coast, is struggling with a post-Covid economic hangover. The Balinese throw out the welcome mat like few other cultures on Earth, and you'll feel the love wherever you roam on the island. And let's face it, there are deals and bargains to be had, especially in some of the resorts and larger hotels where they need volume.
We finished our trip at the fab, freshly refurbed Bali Karma Sajtra Hotel near Petitenget beach. At just $71 per night for a deluxe room - and because the flights typically leave late - it was also our "day hotel" before heading to the airport. That said, when it comes to everyday interactions, don't nickel and dime it: every rupiah counts for the Balinese right now so tip generously and don't haggle that sunhat down from $2 to $1, it's not a good look.
4. Head for the hills
While basking in the sunsets on the southern beaches is always a must-do, quieter Bali is a great opportunity to spend a little time exploring. We grabbed an old-school 4x4 for just $32 a day from Bali Car Hire, gassed up for about a buck a litre (!) and headed over to the east coast via Sidemen, Lake Bakur and Mount Agung. Pandemic worries receded into a distant bad dream as we wandered the Sidemen rice paddies with our super affable guide, Komang, from Sidemen Tour And Trekking ($7.50pp for two hours).
One superb resort we tried there, the luxe Samanvaya in Sidemen, was full and humming. At the next, the Desa Saya Eco Resort up Bali's east coast at Tejakula, we were the only guests, yet both experiences were fun. There's something very relaxing about having a giant swimming pool all to yourself, though the 10 staff per guest ratio can be a tad disconcerting.
5. Spiritual cleansing
There's a reason David Bowie wanted his ashes scattered in Bali, following the Indonesian custom of Ngaben. Nobody seems to know where exactly this occurred, which I guess is half the point of being scattered. Bowie first showed up in Bali in the 90s with Iggy Pop in tow and fell for the island's spiritual grace - and architecture.
For those seeking cleansing of the soul, healing rituals are offered at temples like Pura Tirta Empul north of Ubud, though they must be approached with respect for the Hindu protocols involved, not as a mere Instagram moment. For a less culturally sensitive boost, opt for reflexology, available at the ubiquitous spas for about $12 an hour.
6. Dip into Bali's craftier side
From Balinese cooking classes to wood carving or jewellery making, the locals love getting creative with visitors.
We headed to the famous Green Village in Ubud and tried a two-hour bamboo house model-making class (about $70pp), which also came with a great lunch and Green Village tour.
7. Beachfront dining
Hot sand, cold beer and freshly caught fish being grilled on the barbecue as you bask a gorgeous tropical sunset - sound okay? Bingin Beach was my pick on this trip. Down about a thousand steps, which deters the casuals, we hit the Lucky Fish Lounge for a seafood feast. It's just how it should be: choose your fish (typically red snapper, mahi mahi, tuna and calamari), which they then cook to perfection over wildly smoking barbecues revved by fans you'd more typically find cooling grandma's brow. Add a frosty Bintang (beer) and a sundown swim and you've found paradise.
8. Try the treetop lifestyle
The Balinese have embraced bamboo houses to the point where many visitors assume these villas are a traditional island design. They certainly fit the Balinese vibe, offering soaring structures often set in the jungle where the squirrels and monkeys can eyeball you up high. Our bamboo villa at Escape In Bali near Ubud had the flourish of a gravity-defying basking net, another Insta-fave, and great for those photos to really irritate your friends shivering back in an Aotearoa winter.
9. Did we mention the warmth, sunshine and cocktails?
Okay we did, and there's also the floating breakfasts, new favourite of the social media set. The Balinese do amazing breakfasts: add the sunrise, a pool and you have a picture-perfect feast. Our room at Eco Six Bali, near Ubud, had a rooftop plunge pool for the floating breakfast experience, with views over rice fields to Mt Agung in the distance. This being Bali, your breakfast - whether floating or stationary - is usually included in the room price.
10. A top Bali travel tip
As a reward for reading this far, here's a secret travel tip worth its weight in gold: book yourself a VIP arrival service. This hack guarantees a relaxing start in Bali and can be had for as little as $100 if you shop around, including sorting your Visa On Arrival in advance (which you have to cough up around $50 for regardless).
The service meets you off the airbridge and whisks you through the airport in double quick time. Wave goodbye to your fellow passengers, knowing you'll be poolside while they're still sweating it out in an airport queue. You're welcome.
BALI: NEED TO KNOW
• Foot and Mouth Disease is a recent issue in Bali, however, humans cannot catch it. You may notice additional biosecurity screening and protocols when flying back into Australia and New Zealand, so make sure you fill out declaration cards correctly, thoroughly clean any items carrying dirt (like shoes) and follow all biosecurity instructions.
• There are currently no airlines flying direct from New Zealand to Bali. The easiest way to get there is to fly via Australia - Jetstar, Virgin Australia, and Qantas all offer direct routes of less than 7 hours from Sydney and Melbourne. From Perth, it's less than four hours, and you can also choose to fly with Air Asia. A travel agent can help get the best route for you.
• Happily, one small step on the road to Bali just got easier with Australia scrapping their fiddly, Covid-related Digital Passenger Declaration (DPD) process, making transiting there that much easier.
• To enter Indonesia, you'll need to complete their online e-CD (Electronic Customs Declaration) and download a Covid tracer app called Peduli Lindungi (available free on the app stores), although to be honest, you'll never use it.
• Your temperature will be scanned on arrival (remote scanners that you won't even notice). On the ground in Bali, masks are occasionally spotted but that's about it.
• Although you no longer need specific Covid-related insurance, full travel insurance is, of course, the only sensible option. It's always good to check the policy covers you for driving and riding scooters - the latter is still far the easiest way to get around the busier parts of the island.
• Check welcomebacktobali.com for more info.