I've Been Traveling to Bali for Years — and It's Better Than Ever

The island's resorts, beaches, and clubs have only gotten better. Here's how to plan your perfect trip.

“Back on Bali.” This was the mantra I’d repeated to myself for weeks leading up to my return to this beloved island — one I had visited regularly from 2013 until the world shut down in 2020. 

Almost three years to the day since my last trip, I found myself walking along the 2½-mile stretch of Jimbaran Beach just after sunrise, watching the waves roll in with their gentle, predictable rhythm. Fishermen pushed brightly painted boats past the breaks while an older woman knelt to place a canang sari — the traditional Hindu offering of flowers — near the water’s edge. I had never seen the water in Bali so clear or the sand so pristine. 

The island felt different, in more ways than one. Over the course of my weeklong visit, I discovered that the pandemic had acted as an unintended reset, both for the physical landscape and for the people of the island. It had also slightly redefined Bali’s modern-day identity: remote work and “the great resignation” brought in a wave of digital nomads drawn by nostalgia for the hippie days of the 1970s, allowing them to shed the constraints of home. 

This new, youthful spirit was on full display as I traversed southern Bali on a quest to take the temperature of a place I had missed so much. The feeling was especially evident in the hotels, restaurants, and beach clubs that had opened or been renovated since my previous trip. A new generation had blossomed, creating a revived, island-grown energy. 

And everyone spoke about the geographic shifts that had taken place over the past few years. On the busy southwestern coast, the formerly sleepy surf town of Canggu had long been labeled “the next Seminyak” but has fully come into its own as a resort destination (neighboring Pererenan, meanwhile, is now being touted as “the next Canggu”). I also spent a few days inland around Ubud, awed as ever by the area’s lush, undiluted beauty and the quiltlike composition of the rice fields that cover its landscapes. I was heartened to find its famous cultural community thriving. 

Everywhere I went, I was grateful to see an island fervently welcoming those of us who had dreamed of returning during a long, closed-off sleep. 

Along the Coast: Jimbaran, Sanur, and the Bukit Peninsula

My first stop was the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay. The hotel sits on the Bukit Peninsula, which is shaped like a hook jutting out from the southernmost part of the island. Although it opened in 1993, the property emanates a subtle burnish after a comprehensive 2017 renovation, and the landscaping — spread across 35 acres at the bay’s southern edge — is some of the most mature (and therefore some of the prettiest) you’ll find at any of the resorts in this area. Catch a breeze at the right moment and you’ll be enveloped in a magical rainfall of bougainvillea and fragrant frangipani petals. Some of the staff have been at the resort since it opened, and it was heartwarming to watch the genuine pleasure they take in greeting repeat guests by name. 

Related: 22 Best Things to Do in Bali

While the Four Seasons is now considered a classic, newcomers are creating a sense of competition on its doorstep. December 2021 saw the debut of Raffles Bali, an intimate all-villa resort with private access to a small but secluded sandy cove. Twelve miles north of the Bukit peninsula, the Andaz Bali is modeled after a modern Balinese village and has 127 spacious guest rooms and suites on a prime stretch of Sanur Beach. And in the established resort enclave of Nusa Dua, Marriott has just put the finishing touches on the 287-key Laguna, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, which has an extensive maze of lagoon-like pools for those who wish to forgo the ocean.

A lively community has grown up around the dramatic cliffside beauty and surf culture of Uluwatu, which is home to Bali’s most famous waves (and is a magnet for Australians, who are once again arriving in droves, surfboards in hand). Here, the post-pandemic appetite for a simpler aesthetic felt most pronounced — perhaps it was a desire to tap in to decades past, when shacks were the only structures on the beach. Whatever the reason, the travelers I met in Uluwatu were eschewing the big luxury brands in favor of private villas or one of the newer, more casual boutique hotels that hug the cliffs and line the shore. 

There’s a micro-culture around beach clubs in Uluwatu, with performances and screenings scheduled to accompany the barbecues and craft cocktails at spots like Ulu Cliffhouse, Roosterfish Beach Club, and Sundays Beach Club. Some of these clubs now have rather fabulous accommodations, as well: my favorite was Ulu, which has seven thatched-roof suites that mix a bold tropical palette with hits of California-style mid-century cool. 

The Four Seasons has its own beach club, Sundara, with a bar, two restaurants, and an infinity pool that seems to float above the sea 115 feet below. While resort guests get priority reservations for the restaurant and the live music, Bali locals frequently stop by, which lends the place a pleasantly clubby atmosphere that feels familiar, but never exclusive. 

That sense of welcome prevails at the resort’s newest addition, the Healing Village Spa — a 21,500-square-foot wellness compound that was completed during the pandemic. The spa comprises several garden courtyards, open-air lounges, and treatment rooms; its program was conceived by Luisa Anderson, the longtime Four Seasons Southeast Asia spa director. 

I spent three days sampling some highlights from the menu, including chakra alignment, administered in a chromatic-therapy chamber, during which Tibetan singing bowls were placed on my abdomen, making my spine hum. I spent an hour in my own garden, equipped with pumice stones, brass bowls of therapeutic mud, and instructions for a DIY healing cleanse that involved scrubbing, lounging on an infrared bed, and taking a bracing plunge in a 50-degree pool. During an “invisible haircut” at the Rossano Ferretti salon, I had my locks deep-conditioned, giving the appearance of a professional cut (no scissors required). Even if you aren’t staying at the property, it’s worth booking a few hours at the spa—or a full day. It’ll be one of the most relaxing parts of your trip.

Up in the Hills of Ubud

The crowds along Jalan Raya Ubud, the main drag of this inland town known for its craft traditions, were once again as thick as midges at dusk. American and Australian accents, plus the sounds of French and Spanish, mixed with the buzz of scooters in the heavy, humid air. Tables spilled out onto the street from the endless parade of cafés as the scents of coffee and betutu — a heavily spiced Balinese dish made with chicken or duck traditionally wrapped in banana leaves — wafted through the air. Vegan and paleo menus vied with signs hawking temple tours and river-rafting adventures. Tourism, it seemed, was back.

In reality though, the special energy of this place near the banks of the Ayung River never went away — at least not for the people who stayed during the pandemic. 

Related: the Best Times to Visit Bali for Every Activity

“The part that excites me, that kept me feeling good about living here during lockdown, is the creative base,” said designer Elora Hardy. “These people are not just from abroad, but from Jakarta and other islands in Indonesia.” The daughter of Bali-based jewelry designer and artisan John Hardy, she spent much of her early life in Ubud and today has her own design firm, Ibuku, which has pioneered the use of bamboo — one of the world’s most sustainable building materials — in hospitality projects across Asia and beyond. (She was recently honored with T+L’s Global Vision Award for her firm’s environmental efforts.) Among the new expats, she said, are “a lot of young families who’d wanted to come try life here, and finally did so because of everything that happened in the world these last couple of years.” 

We talked about the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which reprised its live-venue form in October after two virtual years, at which Hardy was a featured speaker (she recently authored Bali Mystique, part of Assouline’s sleek destination-book series). She enthused about Ubud Open Studios, which also debuted in October, during which 51 participants, including architects (Ibuku among them), clothing and accessory designers, illustrators, ceramists, photographers, and glassblowers, opened their doors to the public for two days. 

The town’s history as the ultimate vacation destination means it has never lacked for excellent hotels, and these, too, continue to evolve. Capella Ubud, Bali, which opened in 2018, is a tropical fever dream of tented suites designed by Bill Bensley, the legendary Bangkok-based interior designer, with hammered-copper tubs, vivid textiles, and saltwater plunge pools. Twenty minutes south, Bisma Eight, which reopened in December 2021, added 12 spare, stylish private villas in 2022. The property is walking distance from the shops and restaurants of Jalan Hanoman, as well as popular attractions like the Jalan Monkey Forest. Meanwhile, Hardy and her family just unveiled a stunning, towering tree-house guest suite at their eco-retreat, Bambu Indah, which connects three banyan trees and is constructed using intricately woven bamboo for the ceilings, floors, and furniture.

But the place that’s really making waves is a half-hour’s drive north: Buahan, which is one of Banyan Tree’s adults-only Escape resorts. It has only 16 villas, a small spa, and a single, open-air restaurant — all on a steep hillside that offers guests the famous seven-peak view — without a trace of anything man-made to interrupt. The villas are tents in the style of a traditional Indonesian bale. When the canvas walls are rolled up, each has almost 1,800 square feet of indoor-outdoor space that includes a private pool and a sundeck. Floors are rough-hewn timber planks, beds are canopied in diaphanous white cotton, and freestanding bathtubs are positioned to capitalize on the extraordinary scenery. 

Buahan’s executive chef, Eka Sunarya, was just back from a hillside foraging session when I met him at the Botanist Bar, which overlooks the lounge area — which itself overlooks the hotel’s spectacularly situated infinity pool, fringed in red umbrellas that look like enormous hothouse flowers. Sunarya has set himself the task of creating predominantly plant-based dishes (around 70 percent, according to the menu I was studying) that put a creative spin on Balinese culinary traditions. Herbs and vegetables come mostly from Buahan’s own gardens. The desserts were particularly dazzling; my favorites were a pineapple poached in spices with a kombucha-coffee granita and roasted-black-rice bubur (a sweet, congee-like pudding) with pandan-miso gelato. 

A family resort this is not: the age requirement is 18. With huge accommodations and very few guests scattered across a whole lot of land, it’s hard to imagine a more tranquil tropical getaway. 

Vibing in Seminyak, Canggu, and Pererenan

At the risk of dissuading potential visitors to the southern coast of Bali, I’m compelled to divulge that its main towns — despite being literally adjacent to one another — may at some point on your trip feel like they’re separated by entire nations. The culprit? Traffic. Snarly, chaotic, and more dire in this part of the island than anywhere else. (Ubud, long the worst-gridlock-on-Bali incumbent, this time felt manageable by comparison.) It took one full hour — and what felt like about three years off my life — to travel roughly two miles from the center of Canggu to Desa Potato Head, in the beating heart of Petitenget Beach, in Seminyak.

But however long it takes to get there, Desa is worth experiencing. It’s part of Potato Head, the extraordinary hospitality project that is the brainchild of Jakarta-born entrepreneur Ronald Akili. Akili opened Potato Head Bali in 2010, putting Seminyak on the global lifestyle map and reinventing the idea of a beach club. He’s gone on to build Potato Head restaurants in Jakarta and in Singapore. There’s an element of social responsibility in every Akili project (the thousands of old wooden shutters cladding the sides of Potato Head, for instance, were painstakingly salvaged from the neighboring island of Java).

Desa, which soft-opened in 2020, sees Akili’s passions cohere in a multipurpose venue that’s unlike any other place in Asia. It incorporates accommodations, a sustainability learning lab, a radio studio, a co-working space, a library, art galleries, and six eating and drinking outlets, including a killer rooftop bar.

Over in Canggu and the neighboring town of Pererenan, exploded was the word that kept springing to mind as I navigated block after block of new cafés, fitness studios, co-working spaces, and restaurants that would hold their own in Sydney, Tel Aviv, or Venice Beach, California. 

One of the best is the restaurant Shelter, which was opened early last year by Stephen Moore, an English chef whose résumé includes stints at Neil Perry’s Rockpool, in Sydney. Most recently he ran the kitchen at Ku De Ta, Seminyak’s legendary restaurant and beach club. Shelter’s design is pure beachy boho, with hanging plants, colorful encaustic tiles, and plenty of rattan under a thatched roof. Open fires and grills are the focal point of Moore’s huge sand-floored kitchen. The food, which riffs on Mediterranean, was truly outstanding: the flavors were incredibly nuanced, the plating gratifyingly simple. Standouts included wood-roasted scallops with chili, lemon, butter, and sumac and raw hamachi with melon, black garlic, and bee pollen. The clientele was as sleek and polished as I’ve seen anywhere, clearly flush with cash and, to my 50-something eyes, alarmingly young. It felt like an encapsulation of the place, and the moment.

I spent my last two nights at Nirjhara, where Pererenan turns into the more rural town of Tabanan. Like many of the places I discovered on this trip, Nirjhara opened quietly to domestic guests in early 2020 but didn’t officially launch until last summer, when international visitors were once again allowed in. The name, Sanskrit for “waterfall,” references the tumbling rapids below the hotel’s restaurant and infinity pool. The accommodations, 25 in total, are a mix of one- and two-bedroom villas, a handful of two-story “canopy suites” (groovy, multilevel tree houses surrounded by palms), and a sprawling two-bedroom residence with its own full-size swimming pool. 

The restaurant, Ambu, serves both Indonesian and Pan-Asian cuisine. General manager Alejandro Rueda, an affable Mexican, sets a relaxed and pleasant tone for what ends up being an excellent newcomer to the scene. I could say it’s a bit too removed from the action compared with places like Desa, but the location meant traffic wasn’t an issue, which made Pererenan a breeze to access (and Nirjhara will introduce a free shuttle later this year). Some might complain that it doesn’t have a beach, but to me that just meant the crowds, and the hassle, were elsewhere; and those beach clubs can’t claim, as Nirjhara can, to have a naturally occurring waterfall right next to their pools. Something about the place just felt authentic in a not-trying-too-hard way. 

From the terrace of my villa, filtered through a scrim of pandans and palms, I saw a verdant swath of rice fields, and I could just make out the sound of the falls. It was shades of old Bali, through a new lens; one that seems bound, like the rest of the island, to keep evolving.  

A version of this story first appeared in the May 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline "Bali High."

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