Bali is a beach-and-coconut-tree escape, the chance to relax and recuperate during the holidays. Dozens of island resorts are designed and catered for visitors to drop’n’flop, and we sampled one of the better ones, the Hotel Nikko in Benoa Beach. Airy and relaxed even in high season, the resort makes life a little easier for young families with spacious family suites (think tall bunk beds and rubber ducks in the oversize tub); an inclusive kids program with toys, books and more importantly, staff to look after the kids; family-sharing options on the menu at their outstanding Bali Luna restaurant; inclusive buffet breakfasts; and of course, a terrific pool and white sand beachfront. This is all young kids need really – sun, sand and freshly squeezed juice! Raquel beamed when I raced her along the coastline on a jetski, taking advantage of the discounted watersport rates offered for hotel guests. There was even a family spa– easily a highlight on our Asia adventure – in which Ana and I got a gentle Balinese massage while Raquel got her nails painted, and Galileo was head-massaged into a blissful slumber. The day culminated with a sensational outdoor bubble bath, and later that evening, dancing to the songs in the piano bar off the lobby. We didn’t want to leave the Hotel Nikko, which would be just as well, given Bali’s transportation challenges.
I have never seen traffic anywhere as snarled, choked and unpleasant as Bali’s Uluwatu Road in the late afternoon. I’ve never seen taxi drivers as unscrupulous as those preying on tourists in high season Bali. A simple drive to Ubud 46 kilometres away took us over 3 hours. A simple drive to the airport 9 kilometres away from our place in Jimbaran took nearly 90 minutes. Even with GrabTaxi (SE Asia’s Uber equivalent) and a similar local service called Go-Jek, drivers frequently tried to double or triple the agreed-upon price in the app, and randomly cancelled rides if something better popped us, leaving us stranded. Winding narrow back roads and some terrifying driving all but ensured at least one kid would throw up in the car. Taxi drivers physically accosted us on arrival at the airport – definitely arrange a driver to avoid this – and some Grab drivers told us that the taxi mafia physically threaten them or in some cases have beaten them up. It’s horrendous and an unpleasant symptom of overtourism. Unless we braved the roads on our scooter with both two kids, going anywhere proved to be an immense challenge in terms of patience and nerves. By the end of our month-long stay, you could have offered us the world up north and we would have gladly declined to avoid the frustration of getting there. If Bali were a resort bubble island, this would be OK, but there’s so much to see and do and so much culture to explore. I suggest you pace yourself with the activities, keep it local, budget extra extra time to get around, and keep a towel handy if your little ones turn green in the backseat. Note: Bali’s roads are notorious and scooter accidents are all too common. It is not uncommon to see tourists hobbling on crutches and wrapped in bandages. Insurance is rare and expensive for bikes, more than double what we paid for the bike itself. We picked up helmets for the kids, and my comfort level and experience riding gave me confidence to explore the island with them on the scooter. I do not recommend anyone doing the same without knowing and accepting the risks.
Balinese art and sculpture is extraordinary. Huge statues of Hindu folklore greet visitors at intersections, temples are built of polished black volcanic stone, ceilings and doors are painstakingly crafted out of wood with incredible attention to detail. Easily the most jaw-dropping of all is the 121-metre high statue that towers over the Garuda Wisnu Kencana Cultural Park, transforming the skyline of south Bali. The world’s second tallest statue took three decades to complete, and fortuitously we arrived at its unveiling. On scooter, I discovered back roads to get up close, and took the kids to the opening night party to see hundreds of performers entertain dignitaries beneath giant bronze statues of Garuda and Vishnu, and between looming cliffs carved from limestone. Even though the heavens opened up with a torrential downpour, the bright costumes and passionate dances were sensational. The Balinese beamed their wide smiles at the kids, sweeping them up and tussling their curly hair. We’ve found our young kids get treated like royalty in Asia, and Bali was no different. Locals were fascinated with Raquel’s corkscrew locks, and Gali’s naughty smiles. We braved the Transportation Woes of Uluwatu Street to get to the namesake temple, perched on a dramatic cliff overlooking waves smashing into the coast. Somehow navigating the chaos of crowds that gather here each sunset, we got tickets for the famous kecak dance – inspiring me ever since I saw the film Baraka – and a spirited performance of Hindu folklore. It would have been a perfect evening if we could have got home without the taxi saga (this one drove off with our stroller and never returned it). One more reason to have your own driver, if you can afford it. On scooter, Raquel and I stumbled into stunning temples, explored Nusa Dua and Seminyak, while Ana and I visited a fantastic art museum in Ubud. Still, the statue of a golden-crowned Vishnu riding the mythical eagle-like Garuda will stay with us forever, a symbol of Bali’s art, culture and ambition.
Bali has no shortage of beaches, although with kids I suggest you find the one that works for you and stick with it to avoid the Transportation Woes. Our local beach was Jimbaran, which is famous for the many seafood restaurants that lay out tables and chairs on the sand each evening. It’s truly a magical sight: hundreds of candlelight dinners under the stars, stretching all the way down the beach, and soundtracked by the sound of waves. We ate a sunset dinner on Jimbaran four times, choosing the restaurant at the far end so the kids could play with their toys in the beach sand. It was always fabulous, and fortunately close enough for us to scooter in and out without tarnishing the experience. We also learned to sit a little higher up as the tide often came in causing some hasty reseating for the front row tables. Unfortunately, Jimbaran by day revealed washed up plastic and garbage. Resorts keep their beachfronts clean, but on a large public beach, Bali’s pollution problem is on full display. The first (and last) time I took my daughter into the surf in Jimbaran, sticky threads of rotting plastic wrapped around our legs. We had much better luck at the Sundays Beach Club, where Raquel relished her first true sea swim, playing in the turquoise waves. The beach was gorgeous and the kids had a blast with free toys provided, as well as the steep funicular to get to the sweet infinity pool on the cliff edge. Sundays was terrific, but as often found in Bali, the good stuff came with a price - both in terms of dollars, and the frustration of finding a way home (the taxi driver tripled the top rate the friendly concierge told us we should pay, scowling and speeding when we refused). We also visited Dreamland and Padang-Padang, but found them overcrowded with tourists, and the surfer-friendly waves not particularly kid friendly.
After Thailand, we figured we’d reached the peak of Asian cuisine, and then we discovered the joys of Indonesian street food served up in eateries known as warungs. The price discrepancy between tourist restaurants and warungs is enormous: the same delicious nasi goring picked up at our favourite warung for $2 might cost $16 at a restaurant. Aware that Bali Belly lurks in the shadows, we were hesitant at first but quickly found two fantastic neighbourhood warungs that made culinary artistry with the local dishes. Our kids have been eating chicken, rice and noodles in some configuration for months already, so it speaks volumes that they (and we) never got tired of our dishes. Sweet soy sauce chicken, gado-gado ayam, tempe stews, and yes, French Fries too. We cooked a fair bit at home but it was usually cheaper and easier to hop on the bike, pick up food at the warungs and bring it home. Groceries from Cocomart and Pepito Express were fresh if a little pricey, juicy tropical fruit was available from street vendors and markets. Some things are more expensive than what you’d pay in Australia or Canada (milk, cheese) and some things a lot cheaper (beer, fruit). Be aware that the Balinese love sweet things, and sugar is everywhere! Just about every place we visited used bottled water for drinking and cooking. We did get a mild case of Bali Belly when we visited a more western-styled warung...but we really should have known better considering the name of the place: Stop Makan Yuk!
Given the weather and the rough state of some of the beaches, waterparks are a popular option for families visiting Bali. Waterbom in Kuta draws big crowds, but we found Splash Waterpark in Canngu far better suited for little ones. Part of the Finns Recreational Club – think of it as sort of a country club – the deck chairs are arranged around a large kiddie waterpark, and the rides are just the right balance of scary, safe and fun for everyone from young kids to teenagers (and yes, us parents too). The huge family size pizza, served to us poolside with cold beer and freshly squeeze watermelon juice, is a thing of beauty. Surf schools are also popular for young kids, and resorts offer the various watersport activities. A good tip for those on a budget is Klub Jimbaran, which has kid-friendly pools and menus. Near to our neighbourhood we found the drop-in Blue Dolphin Playskool incredible pricey and geared towards expats. Better luck was found at a new outdoor play area called Jungle Play, which was opposite our favourite work-and-eat- spot called Café Kul Kul. It cost around $6 per kid at Jungle Play (although there were frequently specials and half-price days), and the staff were absolutely lovely. Also nearby was a day-care-like facility called Hompimpah, where our kids were more than happy to play with the huge range of toys in air-conditioned bliss (about $6 for three hours and half price on Mondays). We signed up Raquel for their weekly ballet classes, while Galileo was content to just visit the cows that lived in a field around the corner from us.
We lived in Bali for a month, renting a house in an area called Puri Gading, and exploring the southern part of the island as best we could. Without our five and two-year-old, we undoubtedly would have seen and done more. Travelling with kids definitely limited our options, but it dramatically expanded our family bonds, and the emotional richness of our experience. Getting around was certainly our greatest challenge, but there were plenty of magical moments. Being in a position to contrast our experiences of long-term family travel in Bali, Chiang Mai and Hoi An Vietnam, I’d honestly recommend Bali for a family resort holiday, and Thailand and Vietnam for the convenience, cost and lifestyle.