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Bali trades in otherworldly


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POSTED: Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bali is an exquisite and, in these economically challenging times, inexpensive destination. My tour package includes three private trips that reveal its natural and cultural splendor. Panorama Tours provides a driver and sarong- and sandal-wearing, English-speaking guide named Made.

We drive in a van to Goa Lowah, a cave on the southeastern coast so full of bats that I half expect to see Bruce Wayne and his butler Alfred there. Thousands of bats hang upside down inside the cavern as others flutter about. The nearby temple features ornate statuary, with garudas (mythical winged creatures), snakes and golden bat symbols adorning the tower tops. Groups of prosperity-seeking Balinese faithfully worship at the bat cave.

In Klungkung, the 18th century Hall of Justice Kertha Gosa seems to float atop a water lily pond, the interior of its roof emblazoned with the outrageously imaginative art Bali is noted for, gaily-colored cartoon-like renderings of legends. A museum displays artifacts and aged photos that provide a glimpse into Indonesia's violent past, with wars against Dutch and Japanese occupiers and a bloody 1960s coup.

A buffet lunch on high at Puri Boga Restoran overlooking serene green rice paddies fortifies me to trek at Mt. Agung's Besakih, Bali's “;Mother Temple,”; an impressive, elaborate complex of picturesque pagodas, thatched roofs, courtyards and festive artwork.

The tour ends at Penglipuran, where visitors see how locals live inside walled, traditional Balinese compounds. Color TVs and barong costumes exist side-by-side, as enormous penned hogs snort and inhabitants hawk handicrafts or drinks. Although they're ancient Hindu symbols, carved swastikas adorning walls shock Western eyes.

THE NEXT Panorama tour is to Ubud in the island's center. First stop is south of Bali's capital, Denpasar, at the Orchid Garden, where a lovely young guide displays brilliantly hued blossoms in a myriad of shapes. It's well worth seeing, as is Bali Bird Park, en route to Ubud, a delightful aviary featuring lorries, hornbills, macaws, flamingos, etc., from Borneo, Papua, Java and Sumatra, plus Komodo dragons.

Near Ubud is Semar Kuning, a huge art factory and gallery where painters practice their craft outside on large stretched canvases. Inside, the artwork ranges from abstract to traditional in a variety of mediums.

At Ubud, I ask where I can purchase monkey masks and wayang kulit (shadow puppets); my guide hasn't a clue. Made leaves me at Ubud's crowded, outdoor market in the blazing heat, where I buy sandals then beat a hasty retreat to stroll about this village renowned for its painters and find the handicrafts I seek. Boutiques, galleries and restaurants line the road; just off the street are spacious, pretty hotels, water lily ponds and flowing streams. The highlight of my Ubud visit is Monkey Forest Road, where primates romp amidst tourists.

My final Panorama tour begins at the gorgeous seaside temple of Tanah Lot, built in the 16th century on Bali's southwestern coastline atop rocks pounded by waves. This being a top visitor attraction, tourists must run a gauntlet of omnipresent pesky peddlers to the ocean. There, a cave contains a supposedly mystical snake, shown for a fee.

Driving inland and north to Tanaban brings the visitor to Bali Butterfly Park, a lepidopterological Jurassic Park that includes praying mantises and other cleverly camouflaged insects in a lushly vegetated enclave. Reputedly Asia's largest man-made butterfly preserve, it exhibits cocoons, butterflies with bird-like wingspans, brilliantly colored crimson, lime green, orange, yellow, etc., bugs, in displays and floating freely around the netted enclosure, which includes streams and waterfalls.

Pressing onward in a comfy van, the climate becomes cooler. I lunch at the open-air Labhagga Restaurant in Pacung, where the Indonesian buffet is as so-so as the vistas of rice paddies, mountain ranges, ocean and Saranam Eco-Resort's thatched roof bungalows are spectacular. (Admission to all venues on Panorama's excursions is included in the hotel/tour package; lunches aren't.)

At the Floating Temple of Ulun Danu, Lake Bratan is crisscrossed by vacationers in motorboats. At water's edge stand a complex of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic places of worship, sporting thatched towers and minarets. (Although Bali remains Hindu, Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation.)

MOST OF MY VISIT is spent at Parigata Villas Resort, shaped like a Balinese walled compound with a watery oasis is in the middle. Each villa includes a private pool and Jacuzzi, providing Edenesque intimacy ideal for couples. The resort is near Sanur Beach, where the seaside Banjar Cafe provides lounge chairs, sun umbrellas and towels. The ocean is calm at Sanur, with its traditional colorful fishing boats, personal watercraft, boardwalk past shops and restaurants.

Other hotel options include The Four Seasons Resort at Sayan, home of the karmic cleansing ceremony, set amidst terraced rice paddies on elaborately manicured grounds in a jungle valley. Shaded pathways through bamboo groves to the fast-flowing river Agung invite one to return to nature. Sumptuous villas surrounded by Monet-like water lily ponds with gurgling fountains are posh enough for pashas. My canopied king-size bed inside a spacious bedroom opens to a wooden deck, pool, outdoor shower and garden.

If this doesn't bliss you out, a three-villa in-house spa will. My treatment begins with a soothing foot wash, followed by Indian Ayurvedic and traditional Balinese massage techniques. Couples' treatment by two massage therapists is a spa specialty.

But my favorite getaway is Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay, on the island's peninsula. Jimbaran also features luxurious villas and a world-class spa. The accommodations are 150 feet above the ocean, with paths stretching seaward for swimming in the ocean or tension pool.

My villa and patio have ocean views and inside, frangipanis float in a tubful of water. An outdoor shower is ensconced in a bamboo garden wrapping around the villa to the patio. An overhanging thatched roof partially covers the verandah beside my private pool. From a double bed, I can watch the world roll by.

The Jimbaran makes good use of its sands, presenting (during high-occupancy season) the cleverly named “;Six on the Beach”; below its ocean- view PJ's restaurant. Holes are dug in the sand for diners' legs, large pillows support backs, tables placed low on the sand, candles illuminating the beach. On the right are six stations of appetizers, such as sashimi and seared ahi; on the left, six tables bear desserts and entrees, including roast suckling pig. In front, a gamelan orchestra accompanies six graceful Balinese dancers. The choreography and costumes bring folklore alive; in one number the golden-outfitted Balinese Bullwinkles don antlers in depicting a deer legend; in another, they dance a sort of cancan. The music and movement is otherworldly, as is Bali.

Alas, a deluge sends us scurrying beneath PJ's thatched roof after half of the six dances have been performed. I'll have to take a rain check on Nirvana, but the journey itself is enlightening.

 

Ed Rampell is co-author of “;Made in Paradise,”; “;Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas”; and “;Pearl Harbor in the Movies.”; The longtime Hawaii resident now lives in Los Angeles.