The art capital of Indonesia is a renaissance of wonders.
It is no surprise at all that in the 1952 flick Road to Bali Bob Hope and Bing Crosby sought refuge on this Indonesian island from an overprotective and furious father. Indeed, Bali has proven a refuge for many people before and many since that time, so why not two vaudevillians? Of course, where Hope and Crosby fought for the attention - more precisely, the affection - of a young Balinese princess and foiled an evil prince's plot to steal a treasure, visitors will find the island far more peaceful and heroics quite unnecessary.
Bali is just eight degrees south of the equator in the middle-south part of the Malay Archipelago. Java - home to Jakarta, Indonesia's capital city - is to the west, Lombok to the east, and Australia a six-hour jump south across the Indian Ocean. The majority of Indonesia is Muslim, but Bali is a mighty exception with a 92 percent Hindu population. Most Balinese are bilingual or even trilingual, speaking the island's Balinese, the country's Bahasa Indonesian and English - a result of heavy tourism.
The island is arguably one of the most stunning places in the world. This is not only because it is a tropical Eden inundated with lush vegetation in parts and vibrant green rice paddy terraces in others. Its beauty is not simply defined by the surrounding jade and cobalt coral reef waters, and the inland dormant volcanic peaks hugged by clear lakes. You cannot visit Bali without amassing a sense of an ancient and beautiful culture, manifested in the form of highly practiced and developed arts. Expertly created paintings, silverwork and woven cloth can be found in villages, but it is primarily the intricately carved stone and wood sculptures that saturate the island: in hotels, along the side of the road, in and around temples and in front of private residences.
Dance is another of these arts. Balinese dance is characterized by quick changes in movement, from slow to fast and back. Dancers burst from stiffer and more controlled postures as though they are satiating a need to free their bodies from restraint before masterfully recomposing themselves. With dance there is also music. The most popular musical ensemble on the island is the gamelan (meaning to strike or handle), which features drums, metallaphones, xylophones (either bronze or bamboo) and gongs. Other instruments include cymbals, bells, drums, flutes, gong chimes and the anklung (bamboo rattle).
Travelers usually indulge in the resorts and comforts of southeastern Bali, but to the west there is a great deal to see, much of it off the beaten track. Medewi, Soka, Pasut and Klatingdukuh are quiet rural beach towns to the west of Denpasar, the island's capital, that offer some of Bali's best surfing. Far west, in the waters around the tiny Menjangan Island, divers will see a variety of colorful fish, vertebrates, lacy sea fans, sponges and occasionally even whales, whale sharks and manta rays. Along the Menjangan north coast slope is the final resting place for Bali's oldest dive shipwreck, dubbed Anker Wreck. On Menjangan's topside small herds of protected deer roam the grasslands. Also west is Negara, famous for its bull races (called Mekepung). From July to October, jockeys harness their bulls to chariots, grab hold of the animals' tails and career down a 3.2-mile race course. The winner receives instant respect, fame and a chance to become national champion.
Heading north, travelers will come across Singaraja, the Dutch capital of Bali during the colonial era. It is a quiet town with old Dutch warehouses and museums. Heading south from Singaraja through Bali's interior mountainous region will take you to Ubud, the preeminent center for the arts. Once a village with no hotels - only cottages provided by Prince Gde Agung Sukawati for an artists' colony - Ubud has expanded into a mini-metropolis of wealth and elegance. The outskirts are a ring of sprawling mansions and resorts, the interior an assortment of cafes, bouti ques and art houses for collectors and connoisseurs. Oddly enough, the city still attracts bohemians and backpackers as it did in the days of Prince Sukawati.