UP, UP AND AWAY
Susan Kurosawa enjoys the zesty air and cultural connections of Bali’s hill station of Ubud
AT a cool elevation just 45 minutes by road north of Denpasar and the holiday coast of Bali, Ubud conforms to the classic hill-station template of clean and crisp air, gentle pace and deep green views. Ubud has been a haven for foreign artists and creative castaways since the 1930s, when it must have seemed like Shangri-la. Ubud has also been a travellers’ getaway since (at least) the 1970s but the hippie flower-power atmosphere has been replaced with a smarter vibe and cafes are as likely to serve excellent espresso and wines by the glass as they are mango juice and herbal teas.
Today, the main streets are a jumble of shops that may not be all that different to their coastal counterparts in Kuta or Seminyak but the methodical fossicker will be rewarded with good antiques and hand-made finds, especially wood carvings.
Best annual event: The Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (September/October each year), founded by Australian expatriate Janet De Neefe, is a lively litfest of panels, workshops, book launches, lunches and performances, many in exquisite garden or temple settings. This year’s attendees included 2006 Man Booker prize winner Kiran Desai and Australia’s Richard Flanagan. www.ubudwritersfestival.com.
Best reading-up: Copies of the Hello Bali glossy monthly magazine are available in most resort guestrooms. Fragrant Rice by Janet De Neefe is a memoir laced with food tips and easily accomplished recipes. Island of Bali by Mexican expatriate painter and author Miguel Covarrubias, published in 1939, is an anthropological classic (a few of his paintings are displayed at Neka Museum); paperbacks in Bali shops, including at Denpasar airport.
Best music and books store: Ubud Music Centre on Jalan Raya Ubud (often known locally as the main road), diagonally opposite Cafe Lotus, has beautiful coffee-table books on Indonesia such as TropicalGardenDesign by Made Wijaya (Australian-born landscaper Michael White, who adopted Bali, and a local name, decades ago) and well-priced CDs from Cafe del Mar and Putumayo world music collections (look for Asian Lounge). A terrific CD of Indonesian music with the subtle beat of African drums added to zither and flute is Sunda Africa. (But don’t fall for the fake DVDs and CDs at the rear of the store: despite the slick packaging, these are poor recordings and not worth even the $1 price ticket.)
Best restaurants: Casa Luna, run by the ubiquitous De Neefe, has a streetfront patisserie (delicious cinnamon buns) with cafe seating plus tables spread over two airy levels; the menu has Indonesian specialties but most diners who gather here seem to be at the musthave-a-pasta-or-pizza point of their Bali itinerary and they go for the Western food. De Neefe runs popular cooking classes, too. www.casalunabali.com.
Casa Luna is just along from two-storey Ary’s Warung, a long-time favourite that has also had a groovy makeover and added a streetfront lounge bar. Ary’s does well-priced tasting menus (a mad cross-cultural Balinese tapas) and sublime desserts of the order of sage and maple-syrup pannacotta or frozen lemongrass parfait. Dragonfly, on Jalan Dewi Sita, is a chic hangout with open kitchen, bistro menu and free WiFi.
Best nuclear duck: Crispy duck is the signature dish at Tepi Sawah on Jalan Raya Goa Gajah in Peliatan (take a taxi from Ubud proper), a simple cafe overlooking terraced rice paddies; the dish is almost fried to oblivion, though, and the bones are intended to be crunched. It’s not to everyone’s taste but the menu also includes good ribs, nasi goreng and sweet fried bananas. (Its adjoining art gallery, just off the car park, into which touts may try to hook you, is full of uniquely unattractive items and is to be avoided.)
Best splurge dining: The restaurants at Amandari and Four Seasons Sayan resorts, on the ridge slightly out of the town centre, are totally glamorous and well worth a splurge. Mozaic on Jalan Raya Sanggingan, with US chef Chris Salans at the helm, offers a ‘‘ chef’s surprise’’ menu with optional wine pairing. Also divinely pretty is the restaurant at Uma Ubud resort (sister property to Como Shambhala) next to the Neka Museum; if you don’t order imported wine, a meal for two should cost well under $100.
Best cooking school: Cafe Wayan and Bakery on Monkey Forest Road runs Indonesian cooking classes that include lunch and up to three irresistible banana-themed desserts.
Best martini: Nuri’s Warung (widely known as Naughty Nuri’s), diagonally opposite Uma Ubud, serves martinis of eyebrowlifting potency ( Hello Bali describes them as ‘‘ bone twisting’’) and satays cooked over a charcoal grill that’s almost on the footpath; casual, fun and buzzy with expats late at night.
Best spa: All the resorts in Ubud have brilliant spas, many in stand-alone pavilions with courtyard gardens such as Como Shambhala or Four Seasons Sayan. But smaller, and with a zen-calm Japanese vibe, is Spa Hati on Jalan Raya Andong, bordered by ricefields and offering treatments in cool suites or a thatched bale screened by wafting white curtains. A one-hour Blissful Journey massage costs about $20 and facials and body scrubs are equally well-priced. There’s a beautiful pool and saltwater jacuzzi, too, so this is a very affordable sanctuary for a morning or afternoon break and the feel-good factor is enhanced by the fact Spa Hati operates as a foundation and supports a local kindergarten and elementary school. www.spahati.com.
Best homewares shops: The Shop at Sayan (which used to be at the Como Shambhala resort), on Jalan Raya Sayan near the entrance to the Four Seasons Sayan resort, is a trove of jewellery — including bespoke pieces featuring coins and South Seas pearls by expat designer Carolyn Tyler — and such treasures as Venetian-style mirrors, onyx elephants, decorative suede and leather purses (a snip at about $15), and bags and sandals by Kerry Grima of Seminyak. www.shopattheshop.com.
On Jalan Raya Sanggingan, Design Unit is a cool showroom with a mix of items, including beautiful carved wooden fish and hand-painted boxes. Down a steep stone staircase from Casa Luna, De Neefe has opened a big emporium filled with myriad homewares, classical dancers’ masks from the nearby wood-carving village of Mas, pillowcases edged with pale batik trim, gorgeous cushion covers, shadow puppets and lengths of ikat cloth.
On Jalan Hanoman (which runs parallel to Monkey Forest Road; the two link in a loop at the Monkey Forest and both are crammed with shops), Wangi-Wangi Natural, on the left-hand side down the hill, is a blink-andmiss shop that sells fantastic window coverings. My beach house looks like the shop in miniature: rough-woven unbleached cotton blinds that drop from bamboo poles (some have double panels; the front is opaque and pulls up to reveal a semi-transparent latticed backdrop; about $22 for a full-length glass door drop).
Best bargaining performances: Ubud Market, on the corner of Jalan Raya Ubud and Monkey Forest Road, is a meandering muddle of stalls and a very cheap place to buy batik shirts, sarongs, woven wares (lidded rice baskets painted with bright designs make great containers for bread or fruit: about $5) and bolts of printed fabric. Go early and ask for ‘‘ morning price’’; haggling is expected and entertained and it’s pretty easy to swipe about 50 per cent off the first asking price.
Best instant cultural connection: Cafe Lotus puts on 80-minute gamelan music and traditional temple dance nights several times a week from 7.30pm (the Thursday gamelan show and barong dance by children is especially delightful); diners who purchase tickets (50,000 Rp, about $6) watch from rows of chairs in the lotus-filled gardens facing the performers before taking dinner in the cafe. Otherwise, sit at a tile-topped table inside Cafe Lotus or loll on flat cushions in a long wooden pavilion. www.lotus-restaurants.com.
Best thrills: Rafting on Ubud’s swift Ayung River is a lovely way to cool off and plenty of local operators offer return transfers to hotels. Sobek has good packages, plus trekking, escorted bike rides through jungle and villages and bird-watching expeditions. Half-day rafting tours cost about $US40 ($45), including lunch, equipment and qualified guides. www.99bali.com.
Best art connections: Neka Museum has the island’s best collection of Balinese art. The historic paintings of Bali scenes probably are of most interest to travellers: look for works by Dutch artist Rudolph Bonnet, an early fan of Ubud, and Australia’s Donald Friend. Bonnet lived at Tjampuhan in the ’ 30s, near the suspension bridge that today leads up the hill to Jalan Raya Ubud, with fellow artist Russianborn Walter Spies who moved to Ubud in 1927, reputedly with his piano, a German bicycle and a butterfly net.
The former Spies house, overlooking a lily pond, is on the estate of the Tjampuhan Hotel and can be booked in the same way as the standard guestrooms. This pretty hotel, by the river of the same name, offers excellent value. www.tjampuhan-bali.com.
Jetstar flies to Bali from Sydney and Melbourne; specials (for travel to December 12) include seven-night packages for $1102 a person twin-share. More: 131 538; www.jetstar.com.
Peace and plenty: Paddy fields near Ubud, top; above from left, a market stall; Balinese dancers; Cafe Lotus