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Bali: Discovering paradise

I had long decided that spending time in beautiful Bali would be the reward for the hard slog of my trip. Whether I was dragging myself up the Inca Trail, or in the midst of that tortured 30-hour coach journey to Vietnam, or at my bug-infested hostel in Vang Vieng, I'd close my eyes and dream of the sunsets and cocktails of this gorgeous island. And while many dreams fail to live up to reality, this one definitely did - and then some. In fact, I liked it so much, I ended up postponing my trip to Australia and staying there for a month!

I guess I just couldn't bring myself to leave behind the life of breathtaking sunsets, turquoise seascapes, colourful plant life, and the incredible Balinese hospitality that I'd become accustomed to. For 30 sensational days my life consisted of sunbathing, swimming in private pools, drinking cocktails, bike rides amid rice fields and beaches, and wandering around chilled little markets and shops in the sun. It was absolutely idyllic, and one of the most peaceful and fun times of my life.

Bali: Discovering paradise

I'd originally planned on making my way through a number of islands on the world's largest archipelago, starting in Indonesia's capital, Jakarta. However, a mixture of government warnings and stark reports from other travellers made me decide to head straight to the tourist haven of Bali for some serious rest and relaxation.

The incredible Balinese hospitality

Bali is broken up into a number of smaller districts, and I travelled around several of these during my time on the island. Each offers something unique, and attracts different types of travellers; from luxury lovers and culture enthusiasts to holidaymakers and young gap year adventurers looking for a good time - there's something for everyone. And when you feel you've explored Bali enough (as if that's even possible!) the Gili Islands, which are a short boat ride away, offer an even more paradisiacal experience.

Seminyak: Party in tourist town

Seminyak: Party in tourist town

When you ask people about Seminyak, the words "party" and "touristy" are likely to be thrown around. Indeed, this area has a lot to offer holidaymakers, with plenty of Western bars and restaurants, ranging from American and Mexican to Greek and Italian, and a number of high-end beach clubs lining its gorgeous shore. Admittedly, it can get a bit same-y and it is difficult to experience true Balinese culture here. However, there is no question that this area has its merits.

Wandering around Seminyak, you'll hear an Aussie twang at every turn: this is a haven for tourists from Down Under. Seminyak Square and the adjacent streets are a very pleasant place to wander and buy some clothes or trinkets in its many boutique stores, or sit down for a beer or meal. There are plenty of high-end bars and restaurants to visit along with the usual tourist fare.

The area is at its busiest around sundown: bars and restaurants fill up with sun-kissed tourists, the music gets louder, and restaurant workers holding glow sticks take to the motorbike-filled roads to help tourists cross safely over to their next bar.

There are plenty of private villas in and around Seminyak - although the high level of demand in this area means that properties - and private pools - are often smaller, while prices are higher. If you're willing to venture away from the square, a short drive from the centre you'll discover a number of gorgeous, large villas set in traditional Balinese areas rather than against a backdrop of pubs and clubs.

One name you'll hear coming up time and time again is "Potato Head": arguably the most famous beach club on Bali. If you want to splash the cash, you can head down there early and reserve a comfy cabana before proceeding to spend the day snacking on gourmet food and sipping cocktails at the infinity pool bar, before wandering down to the seafront to watch a truly incredible sunset.

This was without doubt the most spectacular sunset I'd ever seen

And it's this sunset that draws so many people to Seminyak beach. I'd seen some truly incredible sunsets on my adventure - with the epic sundown over the salt flats in Bolivia springing to mind, as well the burning red phenomenon of Ko Phangan, but this was without doubt the most spectacular sunset I'd ever seen. The sky was decorated with blues, oranges, yellows and reds, which reflected on the expanse of wet sand to fantastic effect.

While Seminyak may not provide the most authentic Indonesian experience ever, it's certainly very enjoyable if you embrace it for what it is. Every day we'd wake up and, after a morning swim in my villa's private pool, head out for a strong coffee and some breakfast. A meander around the shops would follow, before more swimming, and ordering lunch and some Bintangs (the delicious beer of Bali) to the poolside.

At around 3pm we'd get ready for our evening out and head down to the beach to watch the incredible sunset with some cocktails, before choosing which of the myriad restaurants we'd dine at. Then it would be onto one of the bars on the Seminyak strip for some live music and dancing - and one night, when we were feeling particularly brave, karaoke.

Ubud: Rice fields, plant life and tranquility

Ubud: Rice fields, plant life and tranquility

Moving away from the coast, Ubud is a haven for those seeking tranquility. Set among rice fields, this area boasts some of the most beautiful plant life I have ever seen, and also has a lovely town. It was certainly one of the most relaxing parts of my Bali trip - and that's saying something.

While you can stay in villas in Ubud, during my time there I chose something a little different: hotels which were made up of their own small villas or rustic luxury wooden huts. What made these accommodation choices unique is that they were part hotel, part art gallery and museum, and this was apparent in the unbelievable decor around the gardens and pool.

They had an indoor-outdoor vibe, with the accommodation being constructed in an airy wooden design, and each morning you stepped out of your residence onto lush green grass, surrounded by statues and ribbon-bedecked archways. Then it was only a couple more steps and a dive into the refreshing pool. I am not exaggerating when I say I have never stayed anywhere more beautiful than those Ubud hotels.

Ubud is the place to go if you want to explore the rice fields: as it is inland it's pretty much the greenest and most beautiful place you'll find in Bali. A short bike ride will take you to coffee shops where you can enjoy your morning cup while looking out over the stunning rice fields.

Bali was by far the most Westernised country I'd been to in South East Asia, but Ubud's town centre is - for me - the perfect mix of the touristy and the tranquil. Like Seminyak, it had a wide range of world foods - I spent a particularly enjoyable night of tapas and shisha at a Cuban restaurant called Cafe Havana, for example - but it also has Balinese restaurants.

Ubud's town centre is the perfect mix of the touristy and the tranquil

There are plenty of boutique shops here too, but it's largely cheaper and a bit more relaxed than Seminyak, hence why a short wander round will reveal a lot of dreadlocked hippies sat cross-legged at vegan cafes in elephant pants. You can buy everything from Hindu-inspired jewellery and artwork to designer clothes and hand-painted ukuleles. Haggling is definitely required, however, as the local shop owners massively hike up the prices: unsurprising really when these stores are set amongst designer brands like Pandora!

In my opinion the best bar to hit up once the sun goes down is "The Laughing Buddha": a live music venue with delectable frozen margaritas and chocolate desserts. The atmosphere, and performances, here are top notch - and it's a great option for a fun but chilled night time venue.

Kuta

 Padang Padang beach

Bali has a unique appeal: managing to be both luxurious and hip at the same time. South Kuta is the area where the latter really comes into its own, with bronzed surfers and hippies in sarongs flocking to its gorgeous little beaches.

My favourite beach in Bali was definitely Padang Padang - and not just for its fun name! While Seminyak beach really did have the ultimate sunset, the large beach itself is usually quite deserted during the day, with people only using it to walk to and from various beach bars, and the sea is incredibly rough.

Padang Padang beach, on the other hand, has plenty of character. Brown rocks tower over the sandy beach, and rock pools filled with crystal clear water line the shore. The picturesque beach is a favourite with surfers, and you can hire boards from the beach. Sunbathers often turn up without a towel, and buy colourful tie-dye sarongs from one of the beach stalls to lay on and catch some rays.

Emerging from the thick cover of the trees that line the steps down to the beach, you'll also spy lanterns and bunting designed to make the beach look even prettier. There's a snack bar too, where you can sit to enjoy a refreshing Bintang and some tempura.

Kuta also has plenty of shops and malls

Other than glorious beaches, Kuta also has plenty of shops and malls, where you'll see workers dressed in traditional Balinese costume and even buy some yourself if you like. The area seems quite controlled - tourists are generally expected to stick to tourist areas, but a quick wander off the beaten path will take you to beach shacks selling drinks out of ice-buckets, cigarettes and oddly-flavoured crisps.

Gili Air

Ahhhhhhh Gili Air! Never have I been in a more peaceful or beautiful place - and it also managed to be quite a lot of fun too.

Gili Islands, Indonesia

The Gili Islands lie off the coast of Bali, close to Lombok. Gili T is known for its party atmosphere, with hordes of backpackers catching the ferry there every day, while Gili Menos is very back to basics. We chose to go to Gili Air - the island that has both a bit of a party atmosphere without being too developed.

I would wholeheartedly recommend that anyone in Bali visits Gili Air - after all, it was my favourite time in Indonesia. That said, be warned that the ferry rides are choppy to say the least. After being shepherded into a small boat, you're expected to stay inside while the boat bounces on the rough water and waves reach all the way up to the window.

After a couple of minutes, people start dashing outside because they feel ill - and once a certain number of people have gone outside, no-one else is allowed to - making for an especially traumatic three hours for those of us who are less seafaring.

However, stepping off the boat (thank goodness!) at Gili Air, your worries are instantly forgotten. I have a theory that it is impossible to be unhappy on Gili Air. The only way to get around is by the horse and carriage, which trot round the path that circles the island.

Idyllic wooden hut accommodation in Gili Air

On our ride to Sandy Beach Bungalows - our idyllic wooden hut accommodation complete with outdoor showers - there was an unending string of shops, bars, restaurants and diving schools: all set on the beach. However, what was nice about the island was that it was clear that it was also a home, rather than merely being set up for tourists. Like everywhere in Bali, industry pretty much revolves around tourists, but it was not completely devoid of locals, who clearly have lives on the island.

Our days on Gili Air routinely started with breakfast and coffee on a cabana overlooking the turquoise sea, and then riding our bikes around the island - stopping every now and then for a drink or to go lie on the beach or swim in the sea; or do all three at the same time. One day while sat on the sand we saw a shoal of flying fish, which is something I won't forget quickly! After the sun went down we'd go for a meal at one of Gili Air's many restaurants - which almost always involved dining in a cabana and relaxing with a shisha to finish.

So what now? Australia or home?

During my time in Bali I had a pretty difficult decision to make: to carry on travelling and go work in Australia for up to a year, or to head back to Britain. As much as I wanted to continue travelling, I concluded that the lure of a stable job at home, seeing my friends and family, and the British culture and sense of humour were too strong a draw.

I had no doubt that I would travel again, but for now it was time to stop living out of a backpack and get back to reality. So after a short trip to Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney to visit some family and friends in Oz, I boarded a plane back to England - via a city break in Berlin, of course!

Highlights

My experience of travelling the world had been absolutely incredible - I learned a lot about myself and about the countries I visited, and met so many interesting people that my worldview was well and truly expanded. Vietnam was - in many ways - my favourite part of travelling, but I was also absolutely in love with Brazil - and then there was Bali! Every single country I'd visited had incredible experiences to offer.

I'd achieved things I could only have dreamed of before: from conquering the Inca Trail back in Peru to paragliding in Rio and travelling solo all the way down the coast of Vietnam, subsisting only on noodles and veggies. I'd also been on and in more buses, trains, planes, boats, taxis and tuk tuks than I now care to remember. I'd kayaked in the sea in Brazil's Paratay, in Vietnam's famed Ha Long Bay, and down the Mekong in Vang Vieng in Laos - and now had a new favourite hobby.

I'll never forget the awe I felt speeding across Bolivia's salt flats to salsa music with my new friends, experiencing the sheer power of Brazil's Iguassu Falls, or watching the Balinese sun go down from Seminyak beach. I'll never share as many beers or tipsy conversations with strangers as I did on Bangkok's Khao San Road. Gili Air will always be my "happy place" - I've never felt more chilled than I did spending my days cycling its sandy paths and drinking in its beach bars.

Biking around Hoi An for a week and watching the colourful lanterns bob down the river every night is one of my favourite memories, as is the luxury and beauty of beautiful Bali after the hard slog of six months on the road. Relaxing and writing in Thai hippie haven Pai, and my first taste of white wine in months in Laos' Luang Prabang wine bars were also real highlights.

I'd had the most interesting dinner of my life when I ate and drank "happy juice" with my Vietnamese motorbike guides, learning about their traditions and cultures. And trying "weasel coffee" earlier that day is not something I'll forget very fast either. No swim will ever beat treading water in the stunning Kuang Si waterfalls in Laos, no cityscape can top Hong Kong at night, and no journey will be as inspiring as winding my way up the stunning Hai Van Pass on the back of a motorcycle.

That said, as sad as I was to leave my life on the road behind, I felt ready for a break from travelling and to pick up where I had left off in England. But when that undeniable feeling of wanderlust comes over me again, I can't wait to discover new "bests" in countries I've never visited, and return to some of those I truly loved.

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Reconnect with nature on a trip across the stunning island of Bali

Reconnect with nature on a trip across the stunning island of Bali

Immerse yourself in the islands rich culture with a trip combining the golden beach of Kuta and the tranquil rice paddies of Ubud

Type: Beach
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Caroline Howley

Travel Enthusiast and Writer

Follow the adventures of a writer who decided to one day leave everything behind and go in a...

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