The Best of Bali (and Surrounding Islands)

I’ve been to Bali and the surrounding islands a total of 5 times since 2014. I’m properly obsessed with Indonesia. Because of my frequent visits, I find friends and family often ask me about the Islands. This is my answer.

Bali is just the beginning. And please, don’t go to Kuta or Seminyak. I recommend renting a motorbike! Be careful, please, but you won’t regret scooting around the island on your own two wheels. And for less than $5USD a day.

My recommendation for places to visit on Bali:

The Bukit Peninsula. Visit Dreamland Beach / Uluwatu area. Gorgeous beaches, more locals than tourists, and a fantastic surf vibe that is just intoxicating. I had the pleasure of staying at a quaint yet modern homestay called Jepun Sari. The owners Adnyana and Komang are a young, entrepreneurial couple that are just starting a family so, besides the amazing accommodation they offer, I highly advocate giving them your business! Go for a yoga class and meal at The Temple Lodge near Bingin Beach. The views alone are worth it. Wanting a nice place to work / get some coffee / and shop for bikinis? Head to Drifter Surf Shop. Amazing place to work with overpriced coffee but the vibe is just right and sometimes, we pay for atmosphere.

Also, side note, find yourself dining at the local warung at least a few times. A warung is a small, local cafe that is almost buffet style but not all you can eat. Instead, you pick your portion and options and pay according to how much you take. You’ll be hard-pressed to pay more than $5USD for a meal.

Typical warung meal, 30,000IDR ($2.15) | A hijab and bikini in the same picture, only in Bali! | Gado - Gado meal

Favorite Beaches in the Bukit. Secret Beach. Go to Karma Beach at the south of the island and please, if you’re able bodied, don’t pay an entrance fee or hundreds of thousands of rupiah to descend to the beach on their little tram. There are stairs! For free! And you’ll get views like the photo below. Green Bowls Beach. Cool surf spot with a fun cave to hang on the beach but beware with an incoming tide, you’ll get stuck in the cave! Bingin Beach. Beautiful spot with restaurants on the beach, more touristy, surfboard rentals. Uluwatu Beach. The famous Uluwatu beach! A popular surf spot with epic sunsets. Climbing through the caves to get to the beach is my favorite part but maybe because I’m a Florida girl and beach access like this doesn’t exist where I’m from.

Wave break at Secret Beach, Uluwatu Cliff views, and an Uluwatu Beach sunset.
Views from Secret Beach, golden hour at Jepun Sari, and a cheeky friend at Drifter Surf shop.
Temple Lodge yoga and meditation, walk to the restaurant, and the gorgeous view from the pool area!

Padang Bai / Nusa Penida / Gili Islands. Padang Bai is a port town (so, naturally more touristy) but if you find yourself here to catch a ride to surrounding Islands such as Nusa Penida, the Gili’s, or maybe Lombok, make sure to stop at Bloo Lagoon and Blue Lagoon beach! There is a public ferry ride to Nusa Penida that costs you about 40,000IDR (2.86USD at time of writing) so don’t let anyone convince you that you must book a private boat for 300,000IDR. Nusa Penida is a must see. I got lucky and went back in 2015 when Guyangan was still open to the public. Last time I went to the island in 2017, it had been closed off to visitors. Maybe it’s changed! Definitely inquire. My favorite hangout was Mike’s Gallery / the homestay next door owned by a young entrepreneur Wayan. Mike and his wife (a local woman) owns the gallery / cafe that makes unbelievably tasty food! The homestay next door is so relaxed. This is where I learned of the concept “pelan pelan” meaning “slow slow” in Bahasa Indonesian, the local language. I remember when I first visited, it was difficult to get them to let me pay them! So accommodating. They can get you set up with a scooter rental and everything on the island. When you land to Nusa Penida, just ask a local taxi to takes you to Mikes Gallery.

The famous Angels Billabong on Nusa Penida.
This is just some of the splendor of Guyangan — natural freshwater pools and waterfalls cascading down a cliffside.

The Gili Islands. I advocate visiting Gili Air and Gili Air only to be completely honest. Gili Trawangan is a tourist / party haven, and Gili Menu is too quiet. Gili Air is just right. Please go diving if you have the pleasure of visiting this island! I don’t have pics to prove it, as my GoPro had a malfunction during my dive but I saw giant sea turtles, cuttlefish, and more beautiful coral and water-life than I have ever in my life. I chose the dive shop 3W Dive and really enjoyed it. No cars or motorbikes on the Gili islands, only walking or horse carriages. Tons of cute restaurants peppering the shore lines. Beautiful water. Prepare to fall in love. And p.s. these islands have a fascination with the magic mushroom. Their motto: “never try, never know.”

Beaches and diving on Gili Air.
I will add a quick bit on Gili Meno. Only reason I recommend coming to this island is to stay in this Airbnb. I had the pleasure of a quick one nighter, just to stay in this place! Tip: have your snorkel or dive boat from Gili Air drop you off instead of paying a transport boat! Yes, it’s that close. We got dropped right at the Airbnb :)
The *worth it* Airbnb on Gili Meno.

I realize a lot of the things I want to share about my experiences in Indonesia probably can’t be replicated, and that makes it difficult to create a “travel guide” per se. I would say, pre-trip, attempt to adopt this piece of travel advice that changed my life. I mention some experiences from Indonesia in that post that I know I was only able to experience because I allowed myself the freedom to not have plans. I digress, on to more surrounding islands!

Flores / Labuan Bajo / Komodo Islands. This is where the magic happened for me, circa 2015. I found myself in the dive town of Labuan Bajo, with a severe sinus infection, all alone, land-locked and teary-eyed. Not really teary eyed but I was bummed I couldn’t dive! Nevertheless, this ended up being such a blessing because I got the chance to spend a week on the “vessel of my dreams” as I call it — a 53 meter phinsi yacht named Zen. They were filming a commercial for the yacht, and needed westerners to come out for a week and look like they were having the time of their lives while getting photographed and filmed. Best “job” ever. The underlying euphoria of this trip was caused by the realization that when I free myself from plans (expectations), a world of opportunity arises. So, you see, the sinus infection was a blessing.

After the dreamy trip on Zen, I found myself back in Labuan Bajo without a clue in the world of what I was to do next. I knew I needed to get back to Bali somehow, to catch a flight I had to Hong Kong in a few days. I walked the town, visited a couple of travel agencies, surfed the internet researching flight costs myself, and finally stumbled upon a wooden sign advertising a boat trip to Bali for 1,000,000IDR. Seems like a lot but that was $70USD versus the $200 flight! Plus, the boat trip was 4 days, 3 nights, and included food and adventure. I was in. That boat trip was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Besides sleeping outdoors amongst the Indonesian archipelago, swimming with more Manta Rays than I could count, and hiking up an island mountain in a bikini and flip flops, I had a powerful realization on this boat trip — I was merely 22 years old, and knew that I could die happy. I had chased my dream. I was living my dream. I felt so fulfilled. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to die (although the last night of the boat trip I wasn’t so sure that wouldn’t be my fate haha!) but I just had this overwhelming feeling of total peace. I had no fear.

Some magical exploration between Flores and Bali.

Moral of this story: take as many boat trips as you can in Indonesia. The Islands do not disappoint. And if you happen to have $80,000 euros laying around, make sure to book a week on Zen, ha. But you can also pay $70 for a few days of island hopping!

My final piece of advice, befriend a local. There are now tons of tech tools to do so (couchsurfing, tinder, meetup, etc) but whatever way you have to do it, please, make friends with a local! You can read every blog on the net, but you will never scratch the surface of a destination you visit until you open up to the locals. Best restaurants, surf spots, and how not to get ripped off, knowing a local is the ultimate travel guide.