For couples who want an adventure that is still relatively close to home, Bali and the Gili islands are the ultimate example of East meets West, writes Miranda Luby
“First, drink a Coca Cola,” the Indonesian woman at the pharmacy says, sternly, as if prescribing medication. “Two hours later drink a coconut. Then drink a kombucha. Then one hour of meditation.”
It may seen like an odd remedy for a bit of Bali belly but just like the island itself – which has become a fascinating blend of east meets west, hipster-healthy meets spirituality – it works.
Since the dawn of its tourist boom decades ago and its more recent Eat, Pray, Love boost in popularity, Bali has evolved to meet the needs of more than four million foreign tourists annually by transforming into a melting pot of cultures and concepts, old and new.
Canggu, north of Seminyak, is the perfect place to see this combination in motion.
The villa-filled stretch of coast between Kerobokan and Echo Beach has become the newest trendy hotspot on the island. Think sleek yoga studios, street art, green-juice bars and smoothie bowls, art galleries, polished concrete, hanging ferns, cold-press espresso and restaurants that wouldn’t be out of place in Melbourne – one of the most popular eateries is actually Italian.
Canggu is a place where the menus are in English and the yoga instructors are invariably American and in the corners of some cafes, surrounded by freelancers with their heads buried in laptops, the humidity and the smell of frangipanis is the only hint you’re in Bali.
At The Slow, arguably the area’s trendiest and most beautifully-designed accommodation and restaurant spot, you can brunch on Korean fried broccoli and tamarillo bellinis while at Canggu’s newest beach club, La Brisa, chilli and lemon grass-infused cocktails are poured by men with beards and man buns.
If you’re looking for the best avocado toast of your life (that won’t break the bank) you’ll find it at Crate Café, a place where the food goes cold while its photo is being taken.
Don’t miss Little Flinders (named after the Melbourne street) for an excellent curry and check out The Lawn where tattooed mixologists make drinks for the Instagram stars of the hour.
But despite the Western-way-of-life infusion, an authentic Indonesian undercurrent still runs through the beachside hotspot’s streets.
On Canggu’s main road, across from The Calmtree Bungalows (my recent home away from home) school children sing the sun up in Bahasa, belting out their morning tunes with boundless enthusiasm.
Locally-owned warungs serving family recipes are dotted along the streets all the way down to the black-sand beach where Indonesian families play in the shallows alongside surfers from Torquay paddling back out for another wave.
And, like anywhere, it takes less than you think to get a little off-the-beaten-track. The slightest detour from the main roads sees you surrounded by rice paddies and cows, buying spicy street food from women crouched on the roadside, and meeting some Indonesia people who will barely understand a word you say.
Heading off the large island and over to tiny Gili Trawangan, the same heady mix of cultures colliding can be found. An island without cars, you can ride a bike or take a horse and cart around the 15 kilometre squared sandy paradise, visiting tiny castaway-like beach bars that serve everything from nasi goreng to spaghetti bolognaise.
On the west side of the island, a red sun sets over Bali behind the rumbling Agung, lighting up the volcano like lava erupting from its unstable belly. While western tourists tremble in fear, one Indonesian is not worried about Bali’s “mother mountain”.
“It will not erupt,” she assures me. “The priests have given offerings.”
But it’s not just the yin and yang between east and west on Gili Trawangan that’s intriguing (east in the middle where the call to prayer echoes across the local village and west on the fringe where smoothie bowls, high-end resorts and nightclubs melt into turquoise beaches).
If you’re up early enough in the morning – few people are, given the island’s reputation as a party paradise – you can catch a glimpse of the island behind-the-scenes. Locals sweep the streets and hose down the dusty pavement while on the main beach, boat after small, rickety, Indonesian boat slide up onto the sand, unloaded by a line of workers in a Mary Poppins’ handbag-esque fashion. Building materials, boxes upon boxes of Bintangs, bags of hay for the horses, rice, fruit, vegetables, and everything else you can imagine it might take to keep an island like this running smoothly.
Come 9am, though, and it’s curtains up as the cafes fill with bleary-eyed tourists ready for another day of holiday, blissfully unaware of the logistics behind their morning coffee. it is pretty easy to forget where those Bintangs have come from after a few of them.
On the Gili Islands, there’s also the contrast between the land and the sea. Well-known as a world-class diving and snorkelling spot, you only have to rent a mask and flippers from a beachside hut to experience a world of colourfish fish and enormous but elegant green sea turtles meandering along the reefs just below the surface. While the world up above is hot and windy, the cooling blue currents allow you to leave the heat behind, if only for half an hour.
If you want to escape the heat completely (a few degrees of it, anyway) head north to Ubud, the western tourist yogi’s spiritual jungle home. Nestled among a sea of green, this artful, foodie and serene space is the sort of place you can stay for weeks or – as the noticeable expat community suggests – forever.
The perfect day consists of a sweaty vinyasa class at Yoga Barn followed by lunch at Locavore To Go, an afternoon by the hotel pool, cocktails at Copper Kitchen’s rooftop bar then dinner at Hujan Locale.
Visit in late October for the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival, the ultimate mix of east meets west and a healthy dose of literary culture. The most recent festival, which is now in its 14th year, saw writers such as Surf Coast author Jock Serong and Indonesian novelist and living literary legend Nh. Dini speaking to an international audience about their lives and work.
During the day you can participate in a myriad of workshops from writing to cooking, while at night Ubud comes alive with poetry slam, comedy and local performances by the next generation of Indonesian artists.
Whether you’re searching for local culture or yoga and smoothie bowls, you can find both on Bali and the Gili Islands if you know where to look. And now you know for when you go: Coke, coconut, kombucha and meditation. It works.