Bali is one of those places you wish you could visit in a time machine. Oh, to have visited with the first backpackers in the 1970s, basking in a tropical Eden and marveling at the island’s completely unique culture. By the time we first visited in the 1990s, Bali was already overbuilt, according to the lucky old timers. And today, the development is solid from the Denpasar airport all the way to Ubud – a route that used to pass rice paddies and stands of tropical forest between towns.
Bali’s allure has made it a victim of its own success. The island is only 50 miles tall by 90 miles wide but it receives 12 million tourists annually – everyone from Australian holidaymakers, Chinese package tourists, European backpackers, American honeymooners and weekenders from other parts of Indonesia. Add those folks to the 4 million residents and you’ll get a better idea of why popular Balinese beaches like Kuta, Legian and Sanur are lined with large hotel blocks, nightclubs and, unfortunately, trash.
But Bali remains an amazing place to spend your family holiday. The Balinese cultural spirit remains surprisingly legitimate given the onslaught of gawking visitors. This is especially obvious in Ubud, which despite the crowds remains a must must-stop for temples and monkeys and dance performances and yoga and picturesque traditional houses-turned guesthouses set among the rice paddies.
It is critical, however, to push past the “crazy” to find smaller, simpler spots to spend your nights. It took a lot of research and a bit of trial and error to find the five family-friendly beach spots below. What we gave up in tour buses, nightclubs and offers to braid our hair, we made up for in empty beaches, world-class snorkeling and epic sunsets.
1. Pekutatan, West Bali
Head north from the tourist horde at Kuta Beach and Tanah Lot and you will move from Bali’s “big city” to its sleepy countryside surprisingly quickly. The road itself is packed with transport trucks hustling toward Gilimanuk where they board ferries to Java. But the journey through small villages and towns provides peek-a-boo and full-blown views of the Indian Ocean fringed with rice paddies, coconut palms and clove plantations – and then a perfectly empty stretch of golden sand.
While on our trip around Bali, we realized we would not be happy with our last stop – a high-rise hotel in Sanur. Looking at the map of Bali, we basically starting emailing accommodations that were on unpopulated stretches of coastline. We completely lucked out and got a spot as the second guests in a newly opened villa at Puri Dajuma Cottages. It was a massive splurge, but wow, it was worth it.
The resort is right on the sand with a beachfront pool, great restaurant, ping pong table and front desk that will arrange surf lessons, Balinese cultural classes and local tours. You’ll find the grounds beautifully landscaped and the beach pleasantly empty, with the exception of local kids playing and adults working their neighboring properties. If you’re on a tighter budget, there are non-splurge-y accommodations like guesthouses, bungalows, hotels and rental homes in Pekutatan and other nearby surf towns such as Medewi Beach.
Don’t Miss: Bull Racing in Negara Wealthy landowners in west Bali race water buffalo like Westerners race horses. The makepung buffalo “Grand Prix” season runs from July to November and we were lucky to attend a qualifying meet as four of the six foreigners in attendance. Much like a chariot race, a pair of highly decorated bulls and carriages hurtle around a rice paddy for a kilometer until a poor soul at the finish line grabs their reins and yanks them to a stop. There are no tracks so hang onto your kids during the novice rounds because some bulls decide not to participate and veer into the crowd.
2. Amed, East Bali
Have you ever seen a sunrise and sunset from the same beach? On Bali’s north-facing eastern elbow of coastline, you can. Amed’s bungalows sit right on the rocky, black-pebbled beach that delivers sunrise with hundreds of fishing boats dotting the horizon and sunset behind the mighty Gunung Agung volcano.
Directly offshore are some of Bali’s best underwater attractions. Divers know Tulamben for its U.S.A.T. Liberty wreck sites. Closer to Amed is the “Japanese Wreck” – the rare snorkel-able wreck that is easily reachable by the whole family in the right tide/visibility. Or don your gear and just splash in from the beach to see a truly impressive array of reef fish and critters.
Even though Amed doesn’t have a sandy beach, rocks are just as popular with the younger set. Some bungalows (we loved Kembali Beach Bungalows) have a splash pool to laze by but you’ll be doing most of your swimming in the sea. Wander down the beach to one of the simple oceanfront eateries to get a fish dinner you won’t forget.
Don’t Miss: Tirte Gangga The water palace at Taman Tirte Gangga, built in 1946 by of the last Raja of Karangsem, is a unique royal residence and an Instagrammer’s dream.
Stop on the way to/from Amed or head over for an afternoon. The whole family will enjoy clamoring over the bridges and posing with the statuary. Bring your swimsuits and pay the extra to take a dip in the royal pool: You won’t forget it.
3. Gili Air, Western Lombok
From Amed, take the 75-minute boat ride across the strait to the Gili Islands, three small coral-fringed islets off the northeast coast of Bali’s island neighbor to the east, Lombok. No, you’re no longer on Bali. But if you’re looking for a nearby white sand beach, you’re going to love the Gilis.
Each Gili has its own personality: There’s a raging, full-moon-party, club scene on Gili Trawangan, an uber rural vibe on Gili Meno, and something in the middle on Gili Air – the island we chose. Gili Air sports horse carts instead of cars, snorkeling everywhere and just enough nightlife and guest houses to satisfy everyone’s needs. There are also a variety of rooms, cottages and villas available in the Gilis on Airbnb.
The sea life of the surrounding reef is eye-popping. At low tide, you can see sea creatures without getting your feet wet – even with flashlights at night! And you’ll love the fact that there’s not much to do after you finish snorkeling. Rent bikes and ride around the island. Wander to the west side to watch the sunset. Bring a deck of cards to lunch. Play on a seaside swing. Done and done.
Don’t Miss: The Other Gilis – Regardless of the Gili you choose, take a ferry to see one of the others or a snorkeling trip to view another reef. (Maybe spend 4th of July wandering around Gili T with some friends – like the Harrisons?!)
4. Pemuteran, North Bali
An hour west of Lovina you’ll find Pemuteran, a much smaller collection of guest houses, homestays and tiny resorts on a sandy bay. When you get tired of relaxing at the beach, head over to Bali’s only national park, Bali Barat or take a boat trip to snorkel at the park’s Menjangan Island.
Don’t Miss: Lovina – Get your fix of Balinese shopping, food and culture in lovely Lovina, the north coast beach destination.
5. Nusa Penida, Southeast Bali
There are two islands off the southeast coast of Bali: the smaller, more popular surf isle, Nusa Lembogan, and our pick, the larger, less popular, Nusa Penida. Once settled into your bungalow, you’ll want to head out to see remarkable natural sights like Broken Beach (Pasih Uug) and Angel’s Billabong (especially if you’re like me and didn’t know “billabong” was anything but a surf brand). But the best part of Nusa Penida is that there’s not much to do on this expansive, under-developed island but relax, eat, swim and repeat.
Don’t Miss: Mola-Mola – Say your submarine prayers and you might encounter a mola-mola (sunfish), a manta ray and more incredible creatures during your underwater time on Nusa Penida.
Good to Know
Our Summer Works – Monsoons clouds and rain hit much of South and Southeast Asia during the northern hemisphere’s summer holidays. But Bali’s wettest period is December to February, so many consider May, June and July the best time to visit.
Hire a Driver – A good friend recommended their “driver” when we were heading to Bali. We thought, “Wha??? We aren’t royalty… “ But when we arrived, we met our friend’s driver, Dewa, at the airport and soon realized why most families hire a driver while in Bali. For $55 a day, Dewa drove the four of us anywhere we wanted to go: He would wait a few hours for us to see a temple or meet us at the ferry after a three day trip to Lombok – and he was extraordinarily kind, knowledgeable and good with our kids. (There are many “Dewas” in Bali but you can reach “our” Dewa Alit here and see reviews of his services here.) Bali is blessed with hundreds of such drivers to serve its tourists. And Indonesia is blessed with massive oil reserves, which makes it possible to criss-cross the whole island for a fixed price and not break the bank.
Distances are Driveable – With a few exceptions, traveling across Bali takes place on two-lane roads through villages and towns. It is not highway-fast driving but it still only takes half a day to get from one side of the island to the other. That means if you want to stay on the west coast one day and move to the east coast the next day, it is entirely possible.
Pack Aqua Gear– If you like snorkeling, Bali’s one spot that you can rationalize bringing your own gear because there are so many places to dive in. Either way, water shoes are a good idea to keep feet safe on the reef. We loved seeing lionfish – even baby lionfish! – in the rocks right offshore but would hate to accidentally step on one.
Party All the Time – The 210-day Balinese calendar means festivals come around more often than they do for we 365-day calendar folk. With innumerable religious ceremonies, you can check the calendar and aim for a specific holiday – say, March’s Omed-Omedan, the festival of “splashes and smooches” – or just roll the dice. We got lucky and happened to be in town for Tumpek Landep, a day to bless “metal” items, which used to mean daggers but in today’s Bali translates to motorbikes, cars and computers. Just about every car windshield was covered in floral offerings and every motorbike was getting washed in the roadside waterways. That’s devotion.
Day Trip to Beaches– My list above includes beaches you might want to stay at for a few nights. I like this list of Bali’s remote beaches that you might want to visit for the day and explore – both above and below the sea.
by Maryann Jones Thompson, February 2017
© ROAM Family Travel 2017 – All rights reserved
Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, best bali beaches, bali with kids, bali family vacation, bali family holiday, undiscovered bali, bali off the beaten track