Text and photos by Cathy Rose A. Garcia,
Associate Editor

Bali is best known for its beaches and surfing spots, but this popular Indonesian island destination has so much more to offer. The tropical paradise also has centuries-old temples, a rich culture, stunning sunsets, picturesque rice terraces, relaxing spa treatments, and safari parks. It’s no wonder then that Bali accounts for 40% of the total foreign visitor arrivals in Indonesia.

The world-famous Kuta Beach is where it all started for Bali. Throngs of people gather at the beach by late afternoon to catch the famed Bali sunset over the Indian ocean.

“Bali started with Kuta. Then Sanur, Seminyak, and Legian. We want to bring Kuta back to its glory days. Let the world know that here is where it all started,” Dario Orsini, general manager of the Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort, told BusinessWorld.

AirAsia Philippines earlier this month brought group of journalists and bloggers to Bali. The budget carrier started direct flights from Manila to the Indonesian island in January.

The group stayed at the Sheraton Bali Kuta, the only five-star resort on Kuta Beach. If you’re staying at a suite with a private balcony, you can even enjoy the breathtaking sunset without leaving the hotel.

“We are able to offer an oasis of relaxation, coupled with good service that Sheraton is known for… Kuta is like the heart of the city. You have everything here, everything is walking distance,” Mr. Orsini said.

Sheraton Bali Kuta’s Bene restaurant gets quite a crowd on Fridays for its “Seafood Martini Friday.” Guests can pig out on grilled seafood, an Italian-inspired buffet, and free-flowing drinks, including 10 different martinis, house wine, and mocktails.

At the hotel’s Shine Spa, we got a foot massage while enjoying the ocean view, while others tried out a traditional Balinese massage at a private room.

Next door is the Beachwalk Shopping Center, an open-air mall with a wide range of retailers, local restaurants, and global fastfood chains. Zara, H&M, and TopShop can be found alongside small shops selling Indonesian souvenirs, beauty products, snacks, beachwear, and accessories.

Mr. Orsini, who has lived on the island for 11 years, noted the influx of tourists continues for Bali.

“There used to be a peak season, but now Bali is pretty much all year round. Normally, June, July, and August are the peak and the crazy peak is December and January. Pretty much all year round,” he said.

In 2017, a total of 5.65 million tourists entered Indonesia through Ngurah Rai International Airport, falling short of the six million target. Tourism was affected when the airport had to be shuttered for several days in November after Mount Agung’s volcanic eruption.

Our next stop was Ubud, which would be familiar to anyone who has read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love. But unlike the quiet streets depicted in the film version starring Julia Roberts, Ubud is a busy town with a lively arts scene, cute cafés, and spas.

According to Insight Guides Bali and Lombok, the name Ubud comes from the Balinese word for medicine “ubad” because of the medicinal herbs and plants found around the area.

“Here in Ubud, you have to go to Neka Gallery. The gallery is full of their arts and crafts, the batik, the fabric. It’s very rich in the cultural fabric and the art of batik,” AirAsia Philippines Chair Marianne “Maan” Hontiveros, who has been to Bali numerous times, said in an interview.

Ms. Hontiveros also suggested visiting studios of master wood carvers, as well as shops selling high-quality ceramics.

“There are master wood carvers here. Bring home a piece of art from Bali, whether it is a wind chime or something. They work with the indigenous materials very well,” she said.

In Ubud, our group were the first guests at the Element by Westin Bali Ubud, which is scheduled to formally open this month.

“We have a big wellness component here. We have complimentary yoga in the morning and evening, meditation. We will have a third-party nutritionist on appointment. Ubud is a lot about wellness, activeness, and healthy lifestyle. The Element brand fits quite nicely in with Ubud,” Stephan Faessler, Element by Westin Bali Ubud general manager, said in an interview.

The Ubud hotel is the first under the Element by Westin brand in Indonesia, and only the second in Asia Pacific after Kuala Lumpur.

Aside from the complimentary yoga and aquarobic activities every day, Element also has a Pancamaya Wellness spa. Spa packages feature natural facials, Balinese massage, Hatha yoga, and healthy juices.

The hotel is located along Jalan Raya Andong — known as handicraft street. Here you can find stores selling wooden furniture, glass lamps, stone carvings, giant dreamcatchers, ukeleles, and trendy rattan bags.

Ubud Market is just a short bike ride from the hotel. The market has a wide selection of handicrafts, silver jewelry, cotton sarongs, wicker bags, and crochet dresses, but the quality varies from stall to stall.

Haggling is a must at the market. Like the Filipino language, you can say “mahal” if you think an item is expensive, and “mura” if it’s cheap. Don’t forget to say terimah kasih (thank you) after getting a good deal.

KKday, an online travel platform specializing in local tours, organized a half-day trip to some must-see places in the Tampasiring area, near Ubud.

The Tegalalang Rice Terrace is where the long-stemmed indigenous Balinese rice is grown. Our tour guide explained the rice terraces involved the traditional Balinese cooperative irrigation system called subak. We had some iced coffee and banana fritters while enjoying the view. For the more adventurous, you can hop on a swing over the rice terraces.

The next stop was the Pura Tirtha Empul (Holy Water Temple). The Balinese believe the holy springs were created by the Hindu God Indra, and many locals go here for ritual purification.

Before entering the temple, you need to wear a sarong as a sign of respect. It’s better to bring your own sarong, especially if you’re going to take a dip in the pool. There are sarongs you can borrow from the entrance office but you are not supposed to get them wet.

The holy springs gush out through 30 waterspouts into two pools, where people line up for the purification ritual. Bathers start from the left side to wash themselves under the first spout, and go on until they finish all the waterspouts. Under each fountain, you should say a little prayer, whether its for health or peace of mind. Make sure though you don’t use the 11th and 12th fountains because these are only meant for the dead.

The water is extremely cold, but on a hot day it is a very refreshing experience. We were told not to take a bath after the ritual to ensure that we make the most of the waters’ “healing powers.” Personally, I felt like my skin got smoother after the bath at the temple.

We also stopped by the Goa Gajah or Elephant Cave, which is believed to date back to the 11th century. The cave’s facade is covered with menacing figures, including one which is thought to be an elephant, hence the name.

A thousand-year-old statue of the demonic goddess Hariti is also found next to the cave. Hariti is believed to have once eaten children, but converted to Buddhism and became their protector.

The final stop was at a restaurant serving a local speciality called “dirty duck” or simply crispy duck.

With a view of lush rice fields, we sampled the traditional Balinese smoked duck with rice, vegetables, Balinese satay, sambal, and kropek.

As locals would say, “Enak sekali” — a very delicious end to a short but fun trip to Bali.

AirAsia Philippines offers four flights a week between Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 and Bali Ngurah Rai International Airport.