Good morning, Indonesia!!
I woke up on the other side of the world and couldn’t believe I had an entire month ahead of me to explore this island.
At this point I had only planned the first two weeks: I would spend the first two days in the trendy/touristy area of Seminyak, then four days further south on Balangan Beach. The second week I had booked my first ever yoga retreat in the rice fields near Ubud.
A continental breakfast was included at the Aswana Seminyak hotel, which I thought would be the easiest way to start the first morning of my vacation. It was picture perfect and was served to me with a cup of hot tea in the quiet lobby of the hotel with a view of the pool.
We had wind and a little rain on those first couple of days which kept it a bit cooler, but I was still very aware that the moisturizer I brought was completely superfluous and any sunscreen I put on my face would inevitably melt off as the day went on.
Oh the humidity!
It wasn’t weather for swimming, and in fact the beach had red flags up all along the shoreline, some with skull and crossbones on them, and ‘swimming is prohibited’ in English and Indonesian.
This of course meant it was ideal weather for surfers, and many folks took to the waves to practice. I was thisclose to trying it out myself…
Instead, I bought my first young coconut and sat at a coffee shop on the beach watching the waves.
In addition to January being the off-season, the stormy weather made for quieter waterfront restaurants, although they looked like they were ready for throngs of tourists at any moment.
Walking down the streets I saw many small and large temples and small offerings on ledges, shelves, or even just on the sidewalk, and it was clear how much the Hindu faith is part of the culture here. Colourful flowers, food, and incense were the most common offerings I could see.
Shops and spas and restaurants lined the streets and you couldn’t go halfway down a block without coming upon Balinese women saying “massage, Miss? Spa treatment, yes?”
Well, twist my rubber arm.
When a one-hour reflexology massage is $10, you are tempted to get one daily.
And maybe because the day before I walked 17,000 steps in Seoul, I went deluxe and tried out the fish tank foot treatment first…
I wish there had been a camera on me when I first put my feet in the water and the tiny fish started nibbling. I squealed like a little kid. It’s the strangest thing ever. Not sure I’d do it again, but it was an interesting experience.
The pool at my hotel was gorgeous and no one used it while I was there except me. It felt like I had booked it for my private use. I did not hate this.
My hotel was a 20 minute walk to the beach and I saw a good sample of what sort of souvenirs and crafts I could get here. From handwoven dreamcatchers and lantern covers to carved wooden statues to candles and jewelry and beautiful fabrics, I realized that it may be a very good thing I can check two bags on the way home…
The beach here felt like it was definitely more of a touristy/party area and it reminded me of the resort spots in Mexico or the Bahamas. I even walked past a sports bar with a huge pool in the middle.
I enjoyed my first Nasi Goreng (fried rice) and a mango lassi at this beautiful little hotel and restaurant. With its own little waterfall.
It was while I was in Seminyak that Anna, a childhood friend (that I had not seen in, oh, 25 years), messaged me on Facebook. She has been living in Germany for the last seven years, happened to be in Bali on her honeymoon, and suggested we meet up! We planned to get together later in the week.
In the meantime I enjoyed some excellent meals, massages, and window shopping in Seminyak.
Before I knew it I was heading to my second location on Balangan Beach, a surf hotspot on the south peninsula of Bali, and I was hoping to get in some surf lessons while I was there.
My driver had trouble finding the resort and ended up dropping me off on what looked like a rocky cliff face, where I was instructed to hike my gear down the pathway to my hotel.
As I waved goodbye to my driver and carefully stepped my flip-flop wearing feet down the rocky hill, I thought “Well this place sure is remote!”
I got to my hotel at the bottom, and the girl in the lobby/restaurant/poolside area basically took me at my word that I had a reservation, and ‘checked me in’ by writing my first name (“Serrah”) and “Room 2” in an ancient looking ledger.
“Retro!” I thought.
And then she took me to my room.
We walked behind the main building to a long thatched-roof building. The doors were woven palm leaves and looked very old. I felt a twinge of concern as she unhooked a very rusty padlock from the door and opened it into my room.
I may have let out a slight gasp.
Now the kindest word I could give this place was RUSTIC.
Like, shockingly rustic.
I feel I should have been more prepared for the rusticness I came upon.
In fact this may be the place where the word ‘rustic’ originated… 😂
All (somewhat true/panicked) jokes aside, this place first made me think of Belize and their small villages and typical rural homes (see: huts). Just add one light switch and running water.
The walls/roof of my room were rattan/palm leaves. There were places I could see right through them.
My shower was a bamboo pole with a switch halfway up that opened and closed the hose that lets water pour out the top.
There was a large knothole in my floor that I could see the jungle below through.
The way I ‘locked’ my door from the inside was by jamming a piece of bamboo in a notch. I locked it from the outside with the rusty padlock and a key that look older than me.
The one tiny and dim lightbulb hanging crookedly from the ceiling, the grey mosquito nets, and the ancient dusty floor fan in the corner were the most humorous juxtaposition to the ‘welcome to your honeymoon suite’ look of two ridiculous towels folded into kissing swans that had been so delicately placed at the foot of my bed.
I honestly had to take several deep breaths and tell myself I’d be fine.
My first thought was: This is the place I got all those vaccines for.
I tried to put myself in the mindset that maybe this is more like what I should expect in Bali. Maybe my hotel in Seminyak was an overly fancy and rare example of what places are like here.
Either way the photos of this hotel that I saw online did not tell the whole story and did not meet my expectations. (Buyer beware.)
To get my mind off what I had gotten myself into I took off for a walk down the beach to the north end where the water and waves were stunning, and many people were making using of the photo opportunities with that view.
Along the way I saw several people learning to surf and particularly enjoyed watching one guy triumphantly punch his fists into the air as he succeeded at his first surf in to shore. I hoped I would enjoy it as much as that!
I couldn’t believe the number of stray dogs here. They almost outnumbered the people. They would lie in the shade of people’s beach umbrellas, tussle in the sand with each other, and hang out next to the restaurants likely hoping for scraps.
And then I got to the end of the beach and the wedding photographers almost outnumbered the stray dogs!
I counted 9 or 10 couples taking either wedding photos or engagement photos; on the sand, in the water, and up along the cliff overlooking the water.
I got some Mie Goreng (fried noodles with egg) at one of the restaurants on the beach and booked a surf lesson for the next morning.
That night was …interesting. The mosquito netting was an absolute must-have as this place was SO buggy. That and probably full of other creatures I didn’t want to think about. A foot-long gecko occasionally creeped in and out of my bathroom and I just hoped he would be hungry enough to eat all the scary bugs. The hole in the floor made me wonder what sort of things regularly crawled through so I put my flip flops over it so I wouldn’t be reminded of it. Plus it was a dusty, stale oven in that room; I was so hot that the ancient floor fan was just effective enough to keep me from dragging my pillow down to the beach and hoping for the best.
Needless to say, I was delighted when morning came and I could get some fresh air and breakfast. And my first banana pancake of the trip.
This beach is definitely a hotspot for surfers and folks learning how to surf. The waves aren’t very big this time of year, but they are constant so it’s a good place to try out your skills as a newbie at high tide.
Armed with a surf shirt and surfer booties (neoprene slippers) we found some shade on the sand to do some intro lessons on how to lie on a board, paddle, and stand up and balance.
The best part was when we went out to the ‘white water’; broken foamy waves. My instructor Jack would hold my board ready and then give me a push when a wave came along and yell “up!” when it was time for me to stand up on my board.
I was absolutely overjoyed when I first succeeded, getting up to standing and riding my longboard into shore, jumping off before reaching the spot where the coral reef broke through the sand. I turned around and raised my arms in triumph and Jack cheered from the waves!
I was able to get to a decent balanced standing position about seven or eight times during our 60 minute lesson. It was amazing!!
I booked a second lesson with Jack for the next morning and went in to get some shade.
A large bottle of water, and a chicken sandwich and fries for lunch, followed by a swim in the hotel pool, brought me to the early afternoon. I had been thinking of finding a new hotel as I didn’t quite feel like I could do the dark, grass-walls, hot room for another two nights. Plus, my friend Anna invited me to their resort in Nusa Dua on the Saturday and I thought maybe I should just find a room in that area.
I was sitting by the pool (where I could access the wifi) and started looking up hotels when I wondered if I’d had a bit too much sun. I needed to lie down so the hotel search was paused.
At about 4:30, I still couldn’t pull myself out of bed and felt awful. I ended up staying in bed through the night and what turned out to be food poisoning made me fully sick at about 10pm. It was after that that I dragged myself to the lobby to send off an email to my friend and travel agent that basically said “I cannot stay here another night, please book me something with real walls and air conditioning in Nusa Dua.”
I texted my driver Purna and asked him to pick me up the next morning and take me to Nusa Dua. I apologized to Jack and cancelled my 2nd surf lesson.
We got to Mercure Nusa Dua and I was relieved to find a cool and quiet room in this 5 star resort. I’d got a good deal on the room but I would have given them all my money to have a good night’s sleep at that point! I was happy to drop off my gear and know I was coming back here that night.
When I arrived at Anna’s resort and was brought to the Villa lobby, I knew that I was upgrading my day exponentially.
Anna came to get me and bring me down to the beach to the reserved chairs she and her wife had booked for the three of us that day. She also had surf board rentals organized, and ordered us all fresh coconuts to drink when I arrived. Deluxe!
How does one start catching up on 25 years? The last time Anna and I saw each other we were in elementary school!
We had a great time chatting and sharing stories of our lives and clearly Anna and Samantha were having a fabulous honeymoon with one week in Nusa Dua, and then heading up north to do some “glamping” for their second week.
We went back to their villa and went swimming in the unbelievably gorgeous lagoon that runs all along the back of the villas there. (Sorry, no photos of the lagoon!)
Anna and Samantha were doing a day trip to Ubud the next day and offered to take me to my yoga retreat if I wanted to share a driver.
We were picked up at 8am by their driver Ketut, and we proceeded to have an adventure-filled day.
A driver costs about $60-70 (CAD) for the day (10 hours max), and we got more than our money’s worth with Ketut!
Ketut was like a driver and tour guide in one, telling us all sort of fascinating aspects about the sights along our way and the Balinese people. In addition to all the temple offerings we were seeing in the streets and in buildings, there were also tall decorative bamboo poles lining all the streets and Ketut explained that these penjor are for a festival that happens in Bali every six months. People put these up to celebrate and they stay up for weeks at a time. The last festival was Dec 25.
We stopped at the Tegenungan Waterfall and got in some good photos and a little refreshing mist to our faces on a beautiful, sunny day.
We were elated when we discovered we were able to order cold coconuts after climbing the 115 tall stone stairs back to the top of the hill afterwards.
We went for lunch on the edge of beautiful rice fields outside Ubud, and had delicious crispy duck, and chicken saté that came steaming hot on a tabletop clay oven.
Out next stop was the Monkey Forest in Ubud, which I had heard was a must-see spot.
As we pulled up, Ketut said we could borrow his umbrellas in case it rained while we were in the forest. It was still really hot and not very cloudy so we declined, not wanting to have anything extraneous the monkeys could grab, as we had been warned they will try to steal anything from purses to cell phones to the glasses right off your face.
Do not panic. The first rule of the monkey forest.
Right away we were delighted to see monkeys all over the place, many filling their faces with papaya and sweet potato and corn.
I never felt like they were going to grab something off me (or even were interested in me at all). Apparently you used to be able to buy bananas to give to the monkeys but they got too agressive… so that’s no longer a thing.
One particular monkey showed a little agression at Samantha only after she stood near him for a picture for a little too long. He hissed and bared his teeth at her and she quickly moved out of his reach. He then proceeded to not only stay sitting there, but he leaned back and crossed his legs like he was just relaxing!
It was only about 15 minutes after we walked through the front gate when the skies opened up and there was a huge downpour.
We were soaked to the skin by the time we got back to the car and we sheepishly told Ketut that the next time he offers us umbrellas, we are taking them.
It was about time for my to check in at my retreat, and then we were going to go back into town and grab dinner.
So now, the story of Finding the Firefly Hotel.
To say I was a little gun shy after the sketchy beachside literal-hole-in-the-floor hotel is an understatement.
So when Ketut used google maps to find the gps location of my yoga retreat and we drove further and further away from anything that looked like civilization, Anna and Samantha’s voiced concerns about my next accommodation were completely valid and I was a little worried.
When we had to drive down this steep tiny road to the bottom of a hill with what looked like an abandoned outdoor community centre, I was thinking ‘oh noooo’.
When we arrived at the bottom, and turned right along a grassy path to arrive at a dead end next to a house and a hill, I thought, “I have been scammed, this place isn’t real. I look like an idiot.”
The gps looked like we should have driven directly into the massive grassy hill to our left.
Ketut got out and walked up this sidewalk along the side of a tall building (that was definitely a private residence) to ask someone for directions.
He came back with another man who said he could carry my bag up the hill to the resort.
We were still skeptical, but at least this man claimed to know that the resort existed.
We walked up this ‘road’. (The only “road” to the hotel, by the way)
And at the top, saw this:
It turns out, the man who came for my bag is the owner. His name is Ariel, he is from Israel, he is an astrophysicist (because of course he is), and built this place himself.
He checked me in, handed me my welcome package and our week’s itinerary, and then picked some wild passion fruit that was growing in front of the office building for all of us to try before taking me to my room.
Anna and Samantha still wanted to make sure the actual buildings were safe and came with me to see where I was staying.
That’s when Samantha saw the infinity pool and decided “this place is probably okay” and then joked she wanted to stay here too.
With that we went back into town to do some shopping and exploring, and stopped into a Starbucks that just happens to look out over a gorgeous lotus pond and temple. No big deal.
Samantha found a restaurant called Hujan Locale she wanted to try for dinner and it was by far the best meal I have had so far in Bali. Soft-shell crab, locally-caught tuna ceviche with watemellon, and fancy cocktails. Even the menu was perfect with very conversational descriptions of each dish.
A perfect way to end this reunion/meeting/weekend with friends!!
So clearly, one of my next trips needs to be to Munich, Germany, to visit these two!!
One fantastic week down, 3 incredibly eventful weeks to go!