For as long as I’ve been able to spin the globe and spot Bali—thanks for the geography lesson, Carmen Sandiego—I’ve longed to visit. Imagery of chiseled cliffs plunging into piercing blue water and half-moon-shaped beaches has always been my queen of “travel cool” and a pin I had to put on my map.
Patience is a virtue (I’m told), and because neither money nor time grows on trees, it took me about 20 years from my first brush with Bali’s equatorial imagery to visit. When I finally touched down in April 2014, I made sure to do it in style, staying at a bevy of big and boutique beachside hotels.
In my almost pee-my-pants elation to arrive, I admit, I didn’t do as much research as I normally would when visiting a foreign country. Yet, in retrospect, even if I had put together a researched list of Indonesian travel FYIs, I wouldn’t have caught all the Bali-for-first-timer tips I’ve listed below. Some you just learn on-the-fly.
Arrival and departure taxes
Indonesia taxes tourists at both arrival and departure, in two different currencies. Upon arrival, each person is required to pay US$25. At departure, save enough Indonesian Rupiah for an additional 200,000 Rp (about US$17) departure tax per person.
Cash is king
Most major travel destinations accept credit cards everywhere, but In Bali, cash rules—even at major businesses and restaurants. As fans of credit cards and taking small cash withdrawals from ATMs, Mr. Trip Styler and I came with very little money. One challenge with this approach was our debit cards had trouble at a number of bank machines. Thankfully, we were carrying some U.S. cash, which meant we could convert them into Rupiah for initial costs. To avoid my cash kerfuffle, bring at least US$100 or the local currency equivalent to get you started, be prepared to make lots of trips to the bank machine, and tell your bank (before you leave) that you’ll be making withdrawals in Bali.
Viewfinder Tip: In major beach areas like Jimbaran Bay, taxis charge double to return to your hotel or villa. To avoid this upcharge, walk a few blocks away and hail a cab there.
Hire a driver
Bali’s narrow and winding roads are often congested with a motley mix of trucks, taxis, cars, walkers and cow-drawn carriages (seriously). These thoroughfares are easy for locals to navigate with scooters—the island’s main form of transport. If I lived in Bali, I’d ride a scooter, too, but as a tourist who is unfamiliar with the intricate road system and its rules, I opted to hire a driver for our long trips and airport pick-ups/drop-offs. (We took cabs for short trips.)
Hiring a driver costs the same as or 15 percent more than a cab, making it well worth the extra charge. Our driver, Gusti, drove us around in an air-conditioned Toyota minivan. He was perfectly dependable, always arriving early for our pick-ups. We communicated with him primarily through Blackberry Messenger (we have iPhones but we downloaded BBM for this reason)—Bali drivers’ preferred method of contact.
Embrace Beach Clubs
Beach clubs are a big deal in Bali. High-design digs such as Potato Head, KU DE TA, and Sundara at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay redefine the meaning of seaside style. Each perch offers the same kinds of highfalutin food you’d expect to see on the menu of a New York bistro—I was offered a tuna tartare crostini topped in local greens at Sundara. Most clubs also have infinity pools, and multiple nooks and crannies for those who want a little beach zen. Plus, they’re an excellent last-day option when your flight leaves late (Sundara has excellent bathrooms with showers for getting flight-ready.)
Hotel check-ins and check-outs
If you are used to highly efficient hotel check-ins, you’ll find that the process of arriving and departing Bali hotels can drag on. A less-hurried pace of life, as well as a different set of checks and balances accounts for the 15- to 20-minute process. If your hotel arrival and departure take fewer than five minutes each, thank your lucky stars and celebrate with a bev!
Beach or street
While in Bali, we opted to stay at three beachfront hotels, namely because we didn’t take three planes and travel for a total of 24 hours to stay on a side street. That said, when we go back, we’d consider staying off the beach (especially if we visit for longer than 10 days). Here’s why: In Seminyak—a sultry stretch of sand lined with luxe hotels and upscale beach clubs—enterprising locals set up mattress-topped wooden beach lounges each shaded by a pink umbrella. To rent one of these setups costs between US$5-US$10 per day, though the ocean—nearing hot tub temperatures—is priceless. Therefore, if you find a well-priced hotel (we spotted many between US$30-US$75) a block from the beach, you can still experience Bali’s sand-in-your-toes scene without paying a waterfront premium.
Explore off the main drag
The more you wander Bali’s backways and byways, the more you realize there’s an intricate scheme of streets off the main drag. What may seem like an alley by American standards is often lined with mod clothing boutiques by local designers, fresh-pressed juice shops, and chic coffee outposts you’d miss otherwise. Start on Jalan Laksmana in the boho-meets-high-design Seminyak area. Warning: browsing here might compel you to extend your trip, or completely exhaust your trip budget (whichever comes first).
What tips do you abide by when traveling to the tropics?