Laid-Back Lovina, Bali
Half a world apart, the North Shore of Indonesia’s Bali and the North Shore of Hawaii’s Oahu share the same laid-back atmosphere. Gorgeous weather, lazy afternoons, and beautiful grey sand beaches are hallmarks of Lovina, Bali.
Just don’t look for any surfers here; that’s the domain of the choppy waters down south, considered some of the planet’s best surfing. In Lovina, you’ll find nearly year-round dolphin watching and unparalleled snorkeling and scuba diving in an ocean so calm it’s almost like a lake. We spent a few days checking out Lovina at the end of our latest Eat Pray Love tour to Bali.
Getting to Lovina from the airport in Denpasar is practically an all-day affair. It’s three hours one-way, so either fly in early and make several sightseeing stops, go after you’ve already visited other areas of the island, or come by boat or small plane from Java, which you can almost see from the beach. My partner Greg and I left from Ubud, in south central Bali, and drove two hours north. We stopped at the stunning lake temples along the way, marveled at the gorgeous mountain vistas, fed the monkey population in the local forests, and visited Singaraja, the former colonial capital city.
On the way back south, we went to a mountain coffee plantation (Bali has a deserved reputation for excellent beans), visited a manuscript library of ancient Balinese palm-leaf books called lontars, and saw the largest Buddhist temple on the island, which features a miniature version of Java’s Borobudur temple.
Along the route, we also stopped for lunch at one of Bali’s hot springs— a water spa fed by hot, sulphuric springs bubbling up from deep below the ground. The restaurant had some of the least expensive and best food we’ve eaten in Bali, and you can make a last-minute decision to go into the springs, since they sell bathing suits and towels alongside the requisite souvenirs. Just be prepared for group bathing; both the Balinese and tourists enjoy the warm waters, but the natural unadulterated springs have long been replaced by rectangular stone pools. Down at the nearby river, you can see the red sulphur which stains the rocks, but there’s no way to get there from the hot spring baths.
We went from sea level to an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet, so we drove through some spectacular weather changes: a 30ºF (10ºC) variance in temperature, sun, wind, fog and pouring rain, then back to full, glorious sunshine again. All these distractions made the journeys quite enjoyable and added to our collection of new events and places.
Our destination in Lovina was the Sunari Villas and Spa Resort, where we were warmly greeted by the general manager, Gede. A typical Balinese, Gede was more than ready to meet our every request, and his smile and manner couldn’t have been more friendly. The lobby is situated at the end of a long landscaped drive, and overlooks the beginning of Sunari’s extensive gardens and walkways. As Gede toured us around, he pointed out that their plants are organic. The lush landscaping feels like a botanical retreat all the way to the Sunari’s charming pool, which opens onto the local beach.
Our villa delighted us further, as our private pool area was also beautifully landscaped, with a fountain and several outdoor seating areas. The main room itself was spare but well-appointed, with a high bale-style ceiling of wood-wrapped grass, yards of romantic (and useful) mosquito netting, and two full closets with clever amenities like an electric mosquito coil and homey touches like two plush spa robes. Each pool villa also features an outdoor bathroom —fully covered except for the shower, which is open to the sky, a traditional Balinese design. Though it meant keeping the door to the bathroom shut all the time, I loved the outdoor marble space and all the light it afforded, and I found myself wishing it would rain so I could shower outside during the downpour. The covered interior did include a full bath, though, in case I preferred my water only from a tap.
The regular rooms at the Sunari are larger even than the villas and are very well-laid out. We especially enjoyed the triangular balconies on the upper floors and the small porches overlooking the garden paths on the bottom levels. The downstairs bathrooms also have indoor baths and outdoor showers, so if an enclosed bathroom is important, make sure to book an upper unit. If you don’t want to spring for a pool villa, the rooms are both comfortable and recently upgraded.
The Sunari’s spa was excellent, and Greg and I agreed that our masseuses provided a relaxing and restorative experience. They allowed us to customize the couples package, making this experience an even better deal. Afterward, soothed and oiled with pure essences, we strolled the twenty steps to the beach, our noses alerted to the wafting scent of a seafood barbecue.
Sunari has two restaurants, and the main one is quite serviceable for both breakfast and dinner; the staff is always exceedingly helpful and the food tasty. The grill is only open for lunch, but what a meal! All-you-can-eat seafood, grilled to order, plus soup, salad, and fresh fruit—all for about the cost of a good burger in the States. Delicious beachfront food in a memorable setting is the perfect way to spend a leisurely Balinese afternoon!
After our lunch, Greg took photos while I wandered onto the sand to talk with the locals. Every beach in Bali features entrepreneurs selling jewelry, sarongs, sometimes massages or hair braiding; though here they hung back, considerate of my private space and not at all pushy. I bought a necklace from each vendor, as well as the sarong I had come for, and then was talked into a beautiful silver ring of very high quality. The prices were as good as the main town markets, even though these folks do a lot less business, and the rupiah was so low against the US dollar in May 2012, it was like getting a 20 percent discount.
The ring seller also offered to take us to see the bottle-nosed dolphins for which Lovina is famous. All the hotels will take you out as well, for about $5 more a person, so decide which you prefer. Just know that you have to be on the boat by 6 am and will return by 8 am, so you may need a beach nap after breakfast. Gede told us that the fishermen have set up underwater shelters for the porpoises, so you are almost guaranteed to see them on your excursion.
I ran into a German couple who had been vacationing at the Sunari five years in a row. They absolutely love the resort, and mentioned that each time they return, enhancement have been made and the property is well-kept-up; a vital feature in a tropical climate. We will definitely be back to the Sunari Villas.
Just down the road is another delightful property: Puri Bagus. Puri means “temple” in Balinese, while bagus means “great, or good.” The property here has been recently remodeled, and it was bagus indeed. This is one of the few hotels I have seen in Bali with any real lawns, and the grass lends an expansive feel to the place, which is laid out along the water’s edge, giving nearly every villa beach views. The rooms are large and again, spare, with a “yoga retreat” feel. Even the open spa pavilion has water views, as do the restaurant and the bar.
Greg and I dined in the restaurant one evening, accompanied by the assistant manager. The chef chose our meal, came out to check on us twice, and readily handled my avoidance of flour and sugar by modifying each course for me perfectly. Dinner was good and beautifully presented, and Greg pronounced the “Arak Madu” —a mixture of local brandy and raw honey—to be excellent. The sun set so spectacularly I wanted to stand and applaud, then, magically, moving lights began to shine on the water. Once darkness had fallen completely, we could see the bobbing lights were mostly locals and a few tourists night fishing.
If you’re a family visiting the area, consider renting the Puri Bagus’ two-bedroom pool villa, perfect for four or more people. If you want your own plunge pool, you’re better off at the Sunari, as Puri Bagus has lovely garden villas but no other private pools. The energy of both Sunari and Puri Bagus was excellent; I found the Puri Bagus to have more of a retreat feel, and both locales reminded me of my time on Kauai.
The most zen-like place we visited was high up in the mountains overlooking the beaches of Lovina — the Damai Villas. Weather-wise, despite being only five km (less than three miles) away from the water, the Damai has a cooler, wetter climate, and it might rain in the afternoons during your stay. Which may not matter, because this hotel is by far the nicest in the Lovina area, with both amenities and prices to prove it. They bill themselves as a three-star property, and it’s just the beginning of their policy to under-promise and over-deliver.
Choices of family or individual pool villas and garden villas all border on the spectacular, though each is tucked into a hill so it feels quite compact, as if you are sitting atop a mountain with exactly the footprint required for your needs. Villas have individually hand-chosen art, and a rich, deep layering to the textiles and wall coverings. Amenities are spa-quality throughout, including hand-crafted peanut clusters and crackers, and a small book collection in each villa. The baths, like at the Sunari, are indoor/outdoor, and there is a spa menu of special baths they will come and create for you in-room; along with 24-hour butler service, they clearly establish a pampering mood.
The Damai’s restaurant can be described as slow food, both in terms of service and locally-sourced ingredients; the manager showed me where they grow their own herbs, and the on-site farm extends to almost all their organic veg and some of their meat, too—talk about locavore! Food is very good and inventive here. Their welcome drink, called a Mojotea—fresh-brewed tea with muddled mint and lime—was a welcome change for me from the sweet tropical fruit punches most hotels proffer.
The Damai’s remote location is the perfect mountain hideaway. Their slogan playfully reminds you that it’s “hard to find, hard to leave,” and the manager mentioned that people often extend their stay here. With complimentary high tea and yoga classes twice a week, cooking workshops on site, and a high-end spa, they definitely give you reasons to stay in the hills. I think the Damai is a great choice if you are looking to get away from it all, and myfriends who have stayed here give it very high marks.
Whether you’re looking for a mountain retreat or a beachfront villa, Lovina offers unparalleled water activities in a laid-back environment where you can experience the quieter side of Bali. Don’t forget to schedule time on the way up and back to check out some of the sights, and explore this lesser-known part of this marvelous place known as “The Island of the Gods.”