Bali: Eat, pray, relax

A decade after Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love, we retrace the author's steps to Bali


It's with some irony that the check-in desk for Qatar Airways at Heathrow is just round the corner from the one for El Al. Given that the Emirates don't recognise Israel, and given that we were connecting to our second flight in Doha, I had fretted that my regular visits to Tel Aviv would set off alarm bells somewhere.

I needn't have worried. We sailed through the transfer, gawped at the price for a cup of coffee in the incredibly flashy Doha airport, and were soon en route.

Our destination was Bali, the Indonesian island famed for its glorious beaches, lush jungle and volcanic scenery. A decade on from the publication of Elizabeth Gilbert's global bestseller Eat, Pray, Love about finding herself there, the uplands jungle town of Ubud continues to be awash with tourists looking to chill out, enjoy a fresh smoothie, and generally reject the trappings of modern life. After a whirlwind time in Britain following the EU referendum, I couldn't wait.

Naturally, Ubud today is not quite the spiritual idyll Gilbert described, thanks in no small measure to her making the place so popular with global travellers. In common with the rest of Bali, there are the taxi drivers and tour operators aggressively punting for business and shopkeepers claiming to offer a bargain. At the same time, Ubud's entrepreneurs are wise to the financial rewards of Gilbert-esque trends such as clean eating and wellness.

Nevertheless, Bali's undisputed cultural hub, where art galleries and studios are everywhere and bartering for local crafts is part of the fun, is certainly ideal for taking a break. You can't move for yoga centres, spas and cafes offering detox juices and vegan delights, and the general ambience is one of calm.

Getting there

Qatar Airways offers daily flights from Heathrow to Denpasar Airport in Bali, with a transfer in Doha, from around £520 return. Travel to Ubud by taxi (including Uber) takes one hour and costs less than £10.

Enjoying a massage just off the main artery, Monkey Forest Road (so named because of the genuine monkey forest at the end, where the creatures roam free, jumping from vine to tree and occasionally terrorising tourists by nicking their lunches), the hustle and bustle of back home felt like a distant memory.

You'll want a day to wander round the town centre, taking in the rather grand Ubud Palace, watching some traditional Balinese dancing, and browsing the markets and shops selling what my nana would have appreciatively termed tsatske (trinkets). Food is a particular joy - we may not have followed in Gilbert's Italian footsteps, but we certainly did justice to the "eat" component of her memoir thanks to endless cheap restaurants serving local produce in imaginative recipes.

Given the proximity to the rice paddies you can't not tuck in to a portion of Nasi Goreng, a delicious local stir fry dish served with egg and spicy "sambal" sauce. Often made with chicken, here it's tofu instead; as a kosher vegetarian I have found few destinations easier to eat in than Bali.

Backpackers might stay in the town centre, and rent mopeds to get around, but you're better off booking a room at one of the many resorts, villas and homestays just outside (if you can stretch to it, go for the lavish Amandari Resort) where the humidity is less stifling.

Wherever you stay, make the effort to see Ubud's surroundings and not just the town; for less than 350 rupiah (£20) we hired a taxi driver for a morning's tour of the region's ornate temples (Ubud has seemingly as many holy sites as hotels), with their decorative pavilions and shrines, as well as to show us the cascading rice paddies that are so integral to the local economy.

A particular highlight was Gunung Kawi, known to some as the Mountain of the Poets. Dating back to around the 11th century when, legend has it, it was forged as a royal burial chamber for the king and his wives and concubines, you make your way down a lengthy set of steps to nine imposing tombs built into the rock face, with a river flowing below.

The scenery is mesmerising and it's a gorgeous walk - although you'll want to start early to have the place to yourself and climb back up before the sun is too high in the sky.

Other activities are less uniquely Balinese but just as enjoyable - you can trek with elephants, do cooking and art classes, or spend a day scaling sacred Mount Batur. Given the heat, we opted to cool off white water rafting, dodging the rapids, taking in the dense tropical forest, and enjoying the animal depictions carved into the riverbank.

Gilbert spent several months roaming Ubud, but for most visitors a couple of days will suffice. In any case, you can't fly 19 hours to Bali without travelling further across the region.

We couldn't quite squeeze in a trip to Komodo Island to see the famous "dragons" which live there, but still enjoyed a few days on the Gili Islands, a trio of miniature paradises in the Bali Sea about two hours away by speedboat, where we snorkelled amidst the coral, sunbathed on white sand to the distant cry of a mosque, and watched the sun go down with a cocktail or two.

With no cars - the taxi service involves horse-drawn carts - and many rooms little more than wooden shacks, the vibe is hippyish and unpretentious, even on the most touristy island, Gili Trawangan. Popular for years with Australians, the Gilis are getting increasingly poshed up, so they're worth seeing before the fancy hotels arrive.

For braver souls, you can summit Mount Rinjani on nearby Lombok; we made it 2,600 metres to the crater and spent a chilly, eerie night in a tent on a rocky outcrop above the clouds, an adventure more than redeemed by the glorious sunrise the next morning. Two days later my muscles still ached, but the sense of achievement was unparalleled.

And if that's not your cup of tea, mainland Bali has plenty more to offer visitors; for party animals there are the surfer hotspots of Kuta, Legian and Seminyak (the latter being higher end, but still overflowing with bars and clubs) and for quiet luxury head to the resorts and hotels of Nusa Dua or Sanur.

Unlike Gilbert, I'm not sure that I truly "found myself" in Bali, but then again, I wasn't really looking. What I was on the hunt for was an enjoyable, stimulating and exciting holiday - and on that front the trip was easily a success.

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