x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Eat, hike, swim - love on Indonesia's islands

Cover The Indonesian island of Bali is the location for a new film starring Julia Roberts. Rosemary Behan reports from its most life-affirming spots.

Deserted beaches such as this one, near the Waka Shorea resort on the Prapat Agung peninsula in Bali Barat National Park, can be found outside Bali's tourist centres.
Deserted beaches such as this one, near the Waka Shorea resort on the Prapat Agung peninsula in Bali Barat National Park, can be found outside Bali's tourist centres.

The Bali thing was getting to me. Maybe it was the airport terminal that looks like a temple; perhaps it was the hypnotic Javanese gamelan which our taxi driver played on the transfer to Ubud, the island's cultural centre, 40km away - or possibly it was the massage I had in my room there on the first morning. Whatever it was, it hadn't taken long. As if to confirm the cliché, the village of Nyuh Kuning, just south of Ubud, where we were staying, was in the process of welcoming the cast and crew of Eat, Pray, Love - One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert. By Indonesia, she really means Bali - just one of the archipelago's 17,508 islands but with a Hindu culture so distinct it could almost be a separate country.

In Ubud, the bi-annual Galungan festival, which celebrates the triumph of good over evil, had just finished and the roads were lined with penjors, towering fishing-rod like devices laden with offerings to the gods. The Ubud writer's and literary festival had also ended and at our hotel some guests in football shirts gathered to watch a match on television. This place, it seems, really is all things to all people. Given the number of tourists Bali receives (over 1.8m foreign arrivals last year), where were the hawkers and where was the hassle? Ubud, though busy with tourists, seems magically resistant to the droves. Greetings are unfathomably genuine and even taxi drivers are polite to the point where they don't even speak - instead, a small hand-held sign reads "transport?". On saying no thanks, it's turned around to reveal: "Maybe next time." Shopkeepers, too, don't shout from doorways, but greet you politely inside. And what a place to shop it is. Coming from the UAE, it's a thrill to come across dozens of boutique clothes shops in a village-like setting along Monkey Forest Road, Hanoman Street and the sleepy surrounding streets. There are hundreds of types of silk skirts and dresses, shorts and shirts - and what there isn't can be made. It's like Brighton, England, except that the buying process is more interesting. In one shop, where I was the first customer of the day and therefore auspicious, the vendor took my money (two cotton printed dresses for US$18; Dh66) and blessed the shop with it, pressing the notes onto all of his garments before thanking me - I was careful not to tread on the small banana-leaf parcels of rice and flowers sitting on the pavement outside as I left. Then, there is the food. We settled into Cafe Wayan, with its gorgeous coffee shop at the front and telescopic range of indoor-outdoor eating areas stretching so far back you feel you've gone to a different place each time. Its salads, satays and smoked duck - in fact every meal we ate there - were faultless. There was also Cafe Lotus, where we enjoyed a Balinese feast of all of the above opposite the Pura Taman Saraswati temple, where a traditional night-time dance was taking place across a Lotus Pond, and opposite that, Cafe Luna, a fine split-level restaurant, the top having the feel of a tropical Edwardian coffee house and the bottom a languid sitting room perched under fans and over thick forest.

It was a 20-minute fast walk back to our hotel, going south through central Ubud, glimpses of the green rice paddies behind the main road flashing every few metres in some places. Then it was through the Monkey Forest Sanctuary, where hundreds of macaques entertain visitors for hours by jumping in and out of a fountain or simply sitting or sleeping with their young. Nyuh Kuning itself is unassuming, with just a thread of small hotels between rice paddies. Early one morning I walked in a complete circle around Ubud and the other surrounding villages of Dangin Lebak, the tiny Katik Lantang, Penestanan, with its flurry of artists' studios and Campuhan, with the bizarre and ever-so-slightly disturbing Antonio Blanco museum. Again, it was surprising, given Ubud's appeal, how quickly one is still able to escape into quiet fields, through plots of sweet potato, banana, tapioca and mango - and temples dedicated to the health of the rice harvest - then slip back quickly into town.

From Ubud it was a two-and-a-half-hour drive north-west to Munduk, high in the mountains of west Bali. The area is known as Danau Bratan, but it reminded me of Switzerland, with its dramatic green peaks towering above azure lakes and cool mountain air. We stopped for lunch on a ridge overlooking Danau Tamblingan lake before heading down through mist and rainshowers to Munduk. We had booked a room at Puri Lumbung Cottages, which in fact meant an adapted two-storey rice granary, with two double bedrooms and two bathrooms, overlooking a valley of rice terraces and jungle. After an excellent barbecue supper at the restaurant, including local soups and salads and freshly-cut local mangoes and papaya, we returned to our room to discover that night-time brought a choice between having the windows open and suffering an onslaught of mosquitoes and other bugs, plus the screech of cicadas as loud as any car alarm, or closing them and being slightly hot and stuffy: I opted for the latter, opening the windows at daybreak to doze again amid the fresh mountain air and luminous greens.

After breakfast at the restaurant, which overlooks two extinct volcanoes and green valleys caused by the fertile ash, we walked to two local waterfalls with Nyoman Sutarya, a 30-something guide who explained the intricacies of the Balinese caste system and the urgency of eco-tourism initiatives such as Puri Lumbung, that put money into sustainable farming projects for local people - over-farming cloves for export, he said, devastates the land so strict crop rotations were now being pursued by local collectives. On narrow pathways, we passed groves of coffee, cloves, papaya, vanilla, avocado, chilli and banana, and cooled ourselves from the sweat of hiking in the mist of waterfalls. After our walk, we enjoyed foot massages and facials in the spa next to our room; after dinner, I wandered down into the village and caught a shadow puppet show taking place in the garden of an old Dutch villa; a sheet wrapped tightly around a large frame and backlit with a flame served as a screen - it was a violent though apparently funny rendering of the Bhratayuda war and kept a large live audience of all ages enthralled. The following morning, after waking to the sound of a nearby cremation ceremony, we packed up and began the three-hour drive to Bali Barat National Park in the far north-west of the country. In an effort to escape any crowds, I had booked us in at Waka Shorea, the only hotel on the remote Prapat Agung peninsula. From a small reception centre near Labuhan Lalang, we were taken on a 15-minute boat ride to the resort, past empty beaches and the brooding mountains of Java to a jetty, from where we were taken to our room, a smart one-bedroom lanai (building on stilts) set back from the shoreline. There are only 10 rooms, so as not to place any undue stress on the environment or fellow guests, but inside they are luxurious - air conditioning, firm mattresses, rustic designer bathrooms and mini bars.

And splendid isolation it was. On the beach one morning, a large stag and I simultaneously startled each other. As I inched along the beach, as shell-filled and wild as a desert island, I came across more deer, munching their way through the undergrowth. At sundown the same day, the same trees were filled with black monkeys. On a trek to Teluk Tarima, a spectacularly wild mangrove beach a few kilometres from the resort, we heard the screech of wild chickens and saw the endangered Bali starling. Back at the resort, free-roaming wild pigs endeared themselves to guests.

The best part, though, was the snorkelling. There was reasonable visibility and a good variety of fish on the reefs in front of the resort, and huge schoals of batfish hung spookily near the jetty, but Menjangan Island, one of Bali's best dive sites, is a five-minute boat ride away. It enjoys protection by national park status and its southern reefs are sheltered from storms and strong currents by the island itself. It's also spared the tourist droves by the long journey times from Denpasar, Kuta and Ubud. The fringing reef we snorkelled on the southern side was the best I've seen anywhere. As soon as we entered the water - unpromising from the surface - the reef dropped off to form an underwater cliff 40m deep. As we made our way along the shelf, the visibility was so good we could see our shadows on the seabed far below. The steep reef front was packed with fish and corals: I had just been reading a comprehensive guide to Indonesia's underwater species and it seemed that everything I had just been looking at was there - purple sea anemones, plate sponges that looked like large leaves, curtain sponges that rippled like chamois leather and leaf-like fan sponges. With caves and crevasses, everywhere you looked, you saw a different species. A dozen hard corals supported scallops, giant clams, sea cucumbers, blue linkia starfish, razorfish, trumpetfish, sailfin snappers, groupers, bigeye trevally, butterflyfish, longfin bannerfish, emperor angelfish, exquisite parrotfish and giant wrasses to name just a few. The only downside had been an invasion of the deadly crown of thorns starfish a few years ago - the pest eats and destroys coral, but thankfully, although we saw one or two, most have been destroyed by a team of specialist divers who inject them with poison - chopping them up doesn't work, apparently. We left to begin the eight-hour road trip to Padangbai, the small port town on the east coast which serves Lombok. I began to wonder if I'd done the right thing in planning a lightning trip to the Gili Islands - somewhere I'd been wanting to visit ever since they fell off my backpacking itinerary due to a shortage of time. After staying overnight in Padangbai, itself surprisingly charming, we boarded the 90-minute Gili Cat speedboat service to Gili Trawangan, the largest of the three Gili Islands. We were glad that we went. Clear turquoise water greeted us at the jetty, and a horse and cart - amazingly, the islands still have no proper roads or motorised vehicles - took us to the exquisite Alam Gili hotel on the north-east coast. Just 1km by 1.5km, Gili Trawangan packs a lot into a small space - though luckily, most of it was packed into spaces well away from our hotel. The main cluster of hotels is along the south-eastern and eastern shore, where small bars and restaurants jostle for space. Our most memorable evening involved eating freshly-caught milkfish at a seafront barbecue, and shopping at a French designer boutique before riding back to our hotel in a tiny horse and cart late at night, with no lights on but a stereo with Lady Gaga's Poker Face blaring from speakers. As we looked out of the back of the cart into the black night and the star-filled sky above, we wondered how long this could last. Our lodging was in a small group of beautifully crafted Indonesian-style houses - ours small and simple but with a gorgeous veranda and day-bed, others grand, two-storey villas. In front of the hotel, across the quiet dirt track, was a sandy beach-cum-restaurant where we were delighted to find another outpost of Cafe Weyan. The Balinese-owned Alam hotel group, it turns out, owns a string of fabulous properties in Bali and Lombok, all pairing traditional design with luxurious interiors and stunning settings.

The day after we arrived, we hired a private boat and stopped off at dive sites around Gili Meno and Gili Air: at Gili Meno, we allowed the current to carry us along canyons of coral, crossing huge reefs and green turtles at speed before being picked up by our boat at the other end of the swell. At Gili Air, the island closest to the mainland, we snorkelled just offshore before landing at a beachside cafe and ordering a lunch of satay and delicious spicy water spinach and fresh mango and lemon juice. When my well-travelled companion announced that this was one of the best lunches she'd ever had, I had to agree - the view across the water to the mountains of Lombok, the white sand beach, the sailing boats, snorkelling, good food and not a motorised vehicle in sight - this, we thought, we'll etch on the memory. New resorts were springing up alongside ours on Gili Trawangan - so we'll have to keep the memory safe. rbehan@thenational.ae