I had been to Candidasa, East Bali, when I was younger, and knew the story of how the town grew so quickly with tourism in the 70s and 80s that they mined the offshore reef for construction materials, and the beach subsequently washed away. It seemed such a sad story, and I thought the area must have then been rejected by tourists looking for the legendary long beaches Bali is famous for.
But there has been a steady growth of luxury resorts and stunning villas in nearby Manggisand around Candidasa. The highway has been extended, so the journey from the airport is under 90 minutes, and although there is not a lot of beach, some resorts and villas have taken steps to capture some private sand for their guests. The quiet little town is a great base for discovering the east. Mount Agung, which can be seen from all directions, is a towering backdrop to paddy fields and arid hills. The scuba diving along the Amed Coast is some of the best in Bali, with the wreck of US cargo ship The Liberty a perfect introduction to wreck diving.
We were guests of Villa Gils, owned by an Australian, and run by the best staff I have ever seen in Bali. Wayan manages the villa and staff, and her husband Made drives the car. Wayan will plan every moment of your time in Bali (or not – depending on your preference). Nothing was too much trouble. For my birthday, a huge floral arrangement and cake appeared. We had a simple, fresh seafood barbecue on the White Sand Beach which we told her we loved, so Made was despatched to the markets the next day to buy fresh mahe, prawns and squid, which were cooked over coals in half a 44-gallon drum.
The villa layout suits extended families very well – the main villa has an open plan living area downstairs, including various lounges and a small kitchen with bar fridge. Upstairs is a master bedroom with outdoor bathroom and a family room for babies or small children. Next to the main villa are two double rooms, each with its own outdoor bathroom. They open directly onto the pool area and so would not be ideal for small children who cannot swim.
The pool is long and clear, with sun lounges and a dining pavilion along one side, and a smaller lounge pavilion at one end. A short walk leads to some steps down to a small beach with snorkelling opportunities.
If you want to stay in the villa and relax, you can have a massage or mani-pedi; the children can make an offering at the temple, have a Balinese dance lesson or learn to cook with the staff. They can even bring a yoga teacher in for a session.
If you want to get out and explore, which we did, you can do a yoga class at the local ashram, visit the local school that Made and Wayan’s little girl attends (you will be expected to give a small talk). Or visit the scary Dutchman, Pak Jorge, who has a treasure trove of rescued Javanese furniture and relics in a dusty old warehouse along the main road, behind Ida’s Homestay. He often cannot be found to give you a price, and often will not let you in, unless you say you know Wayan, whom he likes!
You can buy soaps and fragranced gifts that are made by the local villagers in the home-factory a short walk from the villa.The nearby Family Supermarket has the cheapest souvenirs in town, and if you want a place to watch the sunset, you can perch at Pandan Restaurant with some sizzling satay in individual clay barbecues and watch the children play soccer on the beach with Balinese kids. Lovely restaurants at Amankila and Alila Manggis resorts are more upmarket places to watch the sun go down with a glass of Champagne or two.
A day trip with Made could include some of the following:
|•||Tenganan Village – 900 of the original Aga people live in this village, which specialises in basket weaving and double ikat fabric weaving. Some of the pieces of cloth can take months to produce, with a complicated method of dyeing both warp and weft threads before weaving. The government has given them land to farm, and they still carry out traditional ceremonies and play traditional instruments. It is very quiet and is not set up for tourists, although you will have a local guide to walk you through the small village and explain their traditions.|
|•||Besakih Temple – If you do not like pushy souvenir vendors, give this place a miss. It is a shame, as this is known as the Mother Temple of Bali, spectacularly winding its way up the side of Mount Agung.|
|•||The Odyssey Submarine excursion is a very expensive way to see some coral and a scuba diver feeding fish for your photographic enjoyment, but the kids loved going down to 120 feet and hearing the noises of being in a real (battery-operated) submarine.|
|•||Pasir Putih – or White Sand Beach is a lovely place to while away an afternoon. Warungs along the beach offer fresh, barbecued seafood and ice-cold Bintang, and the waves are just big enough to body-surf on.|
|•||Amed and the East Coast|
|•||Tulamben – a picturesque beach with smooth, perfectly formed stones is the hopping-off point to The Liberty wreck dive. We dived with Bali Bubbles in Candidasa, who were fantastic.|
Whilst Ubud itself is now incredibly busy and the roads are packed, the drive to and from this hillside town is stunning.
We drove through the following places on a (long) single-day trip: Semarapura is the local capital –the lovely market has a lot of textiles, temple decorations and food stalls.The Taman Kerta Gosa Complex, built in 1710 and restored in the 1900s, contains gardens, water features and pavilions with ceiling panels depicting amazing stories, gory warnings to sinners, and heavenly creatures.
Nearby, the Nyoman Gunarsa Museum has an amazing collection of local, mainly modern, artwork housed in a huge building, which looks rather decrepit with birds flying in through open windows.
We wanted to buy a traditional Balinese gong, so Made took us to a traditional gong-making family in Tihingan village, helped us negotiate a price, then called his brother in Denpasar to organise shipping back to Singapore.
After lunch at Ibu Oka (the suckling pig restaurant) and some shopping in Ubud, we ventured up to the lookout for Mount Kintamani and then took Sidemen Road home. This was one of the most spectacular drives I have done through Bali and it provided some of the most special moments on this trip. We would twist and weave along mountain ridges, then plunge down into green valleys with tiny villages, kids bathing in the waterfalls, ladies with their temple offerings balanced on their heads and men walking along the road with cattle or ducks; a real snapshot of rural life asit might have looked hundreds of years ago.
The highlight for many of us was the day we spentat Bali Asli with Australian chef Penny Williams, a former head chef at Alila Manggis. She now runs a small restaurant and cooking school with more amazing views of Mount Agung. Her classes are themed “A day in the life of…”. We did “A Balinese woman”, going with Penny to Amlapura market to help her buy supplies, and returning to make the daily temple offerings of flowers. Then we all made a selection of dishes that we ate for lunch, learning a lot about the history, culture and food of the island along the way. I highly recommend it and wish we could have gone back for another meal! The few days we stayed at Villa Gils felt longer, as everything flowed so well. Extensive emails with lists of ideas for activities were communicated before we left Singapore, and aftera short chat to Wayan each morning, our days were filled with a balanced mix of day trips and a quiet dinner in the villa, or relaxing by the pool and more formal dinners out.
I did feel quite envious of the Australian couple who lived permanently next door. We could see them each morning on their balcony, having breakfast to the sound of crashing waves while men shimmied up the trees to cut down branches and coconuts. There is so much more to explore there.
Like this? Read more at our travel section.