An unseasonable patter of rain cools the baking sand. Past the beached husks of ruined boats, outside a withered hut, a woman attends to a centuries-old task: extracting salt crystals from the sea. She welcomes a curious visitor with a smile and keeps at her work.
Though this spot is known to outsiders, there is no pretense. It is more like stepping into another time in another world.
Once a pristine refuge, the Indonesian island of Bali was discovered by Western tourists decades ago. It’s a challenge for travelers more interested in experiencing some semblance of a place as it truly is (or was) than escaping into a tropical fantasy of cocktails and comfort at a seaside resort. We should consider ourselves fortunate when we can have a little of both.
A short drive from the bustle of Bali’s capital Denpasar, and not far from the salt-making village, lies the coastal town of Sanur. It looks like it could have been a quaint, unspoiled fishing village 50 years ago. Now it’s a mix of modest homes, trendy shops and upscale hotels. There is noisy traffic on the main roads. A roundabout, like so many in Bali, is decorated by intricately carved stonework and overseen by a Hindu deity. Up the road, one of the newest hotels, Regent Bali, opened its doors in mid-2013.
It's a spectacular property that sits yards from the beach, squeezed between small restaurants and boat rental shops. A peaceful 10 acres of lush gardens, terraces, fountains, exquisitely decorated suites and all the amenities associated with luxury: fine dining, an elegant spa and a mammoth infinity pool whose horizon disappears into the swells of the Indian Ocean.
The hotel’s real accomplishment, however, is to make visitors feel echoes of Balinese culture, even in a place where very few native Balinese could afford to stay. One might say it is as much a work of art as an island. Bali’s love of creativity – sculptural, woven, painted, architectural, cultivated and cooked – has its underpinnings in the island's ancient history and mostly Hindu culture, and can be seen everywhere.
Regent has the feel of a place that is still getting off its feet. The young Balinese staff, some still in school and all extremely friendly and attentive, are eagerly learning the hospitality trade. The hotel's restaurant, Layang-Layang, provides a great introduction to the flavor and fragrance of traditional Balinese food: green papaya soup, crispy fried duck with a green chili sambal, and braised beef with potato and coconut milk.
Closer to the center of the island, the recently popularized town of Ubud is disappointingly but not unexpectedly awash with tourists. But plenty of beauty and culture is still to be found. Wade through the markets and find all manner of textiles and trinkets, spices and curios. The collection at the Puri Lukisan museum is a fascinating portrayal of modern and traditional Balinese art and its incredibly talented artists. Both Bali's history and the influence of welcome and unwelcome visits from outside cultures are clearly felt in its paintings and woodcarvings. Lunch at the nearby Warung Ibu Oka, a mouth-watering traditional meal of roast suckling pig, may almost make one forget that most of the people feasting inside don't appear to be locals.
There are homes and temples on the island where crowds of travelers are invited in to respectfully look around, take photos, interact with those who live or work there, and hopefully leave a donation on the way out. It can be an awkward experience. There are other places that are more hidden.
In Tenganan, a village of about 200 Bali Aga families, who are descended from the island's original inhabitants and practice a fusion of ancient animism and Hinduism, a young man leads a visitor down a cobblestone road to his tiny home. There, his wife weaves and dyes traditional garments, a technique called ikat. And, using a black ink made from a tree root, he etches intricate paintings.
The villager has excellent English and is knowledgeable about the world. His ancestral home remains staunchly rooted in the old ways, even as it receives new eyes, new ideas and, of course, new money.
Perhaps it is the openness of the Balinese people that especially distinguishes the island. It is likely that same warmth attracted so many visitors in search of paradise, and yet paradoxically also presented opportunities for a true and authentic experience of Bali.
Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com
If You Go: Bali
Regent Bali, Sanur Beach: This waterfront luxury hotel, opened in June 2013, has 94 suites, a spa, infinity pool, and Balinese and Western dining options. Suites start at $325 per night. Sanur Beach. www.regenthotels.com/bali
Museum Puri Lukisan, Ubud: Ubud’s oldest art museum features collections of modern and traditional Balinese paintings and wood carvings dating from the 1930s to the present. www.museumpurilukisan.com
Warung Ibu Oka restaurant, Ubud: This popular and inexpensive restaurant is located down a narrow alley not far from the museum. Try the specialty, roast suckling pig, with a cool Balinese beer.
Tenganan: This remote village in eastern Bali is home to the Bali Aga, descendents of the island’s original inhabitants. Paid guided tours are available.
Kusamba: Sea salt is made on a quiet black-sand beach in this coastal village in eastern Bali.