Why you should care
Because few places on Earth offer this kind of accessible beauty.
The OZY Top 25: Each week we share an irresistible vacation hideaway, chosen by OZY staff.
It’s the morning light that I remember best, before the equatorial sun burns off the early mist across the deep ravine of the Ayung River, which overlooks lush fields and deep green tropical forest. The altitude, at nearly 2,000 feet, makes for cool evenings and mornings. A few villagers carry loads to and from the market along footpaths on the far side. We had splurged for a few days during our stay in Ubud, on the Indonesian island of Bali, renting a small villa at the Pita Maha Resort and Spa with our own private splash pool.
It was an easy spot, just north of the town, from which to enjoy Ubud, the cultural and artistic center of Bali. Think dance, music and visual arts. Ubud shot to even greater international fame, if that’s possible, following the filming of Eat, Pray, Love nearby. And yet, there must be few places on Earth that wear tourism with as much dignity. “Ubud still felt pretty authentic” and has retained its “spiritual vibe,” says Sandra Dausetels, who spent several weeks there in 2013, and posted a detailed blog post (with lots about food). Perhaps that’s because Ubud’s role as a thriving cultural center was due in part to the arrival of European artists nearly a hundred years ago.
… the haunting and beautiful sound of the gamelan orchestra.
Every night, somewhere in Ubud, there’s a performance of Balinese dance and music, the haunting and beautiful sound of the gamelan orchestra. Let’s just say it will challenge your concept of music — in a good way. Dances, which derive from the island’s predominantly Hindu heritage, include the kecak, with its choir of 100 men, telling part of the Hindu legend of the Ramayana. It’s been many decades since anyone could observe unadulterated Balinese arts, and yet the town’s thriving tourism arguably supports the arts that otherwise might have perished. Indeed, the Pita Maha hotel is named after an association of Balinese artists, founded in 1936 in an effort to maintain the high quality of local works of art. The Museum Puri Lukisan, located in the middle of Ubud, displays creations in rotating exhibitions. Also worth a visit is the Neka Art Museum.
Large luxury hotels have been kept out of the main town, though there are plenty an hour’s drive away, down the mountain at the main beach resort of Kuta. If your budget permits, Ubud offers wonderful luxury accommodations, in which you might sleep under a mosquito tent, with porous walls open to the cool breezes, surrounded by tropical vegetation. While a small villa at a hotel like the Pita Maha can cost $200 a night or more, charming, simple accommodations with small pools, overlooking rice paddies or the jungle, can be found a short walk from the town center for as little as $25. Visit between April and October for the coolest, driest weather.
Of course, the infusion of tourists, many from nearby Australia, may strike some visitors as a bit too much. Western food and drink have invaded Ubud, although local food also thrives, and it can be very cheap. It’s fresh and full of color and strong flavors, wonderful if you like spice. Satay — meats on a skewer with spicy peanut sauce — is a classic dish. Or try nasi campur, rice surrounded by small portions of meats and vegetables. You can skip the sambal sauce if you’re afraid of heat … but then you’d be missing half the fun.