The most notable event of this week is my first trip to the small Indonesian island, the mere mention of which evokes paradisiac visions in so many minds. Bali is a sentiment, an aspiration, an idyllic state of being… the flower-petal offerings, rice paddy fields, scooters and surfers, losing yourself in the sybaritic pleasures of the west coast villages, the romance of the gorgeous southern beaches or the serenity of the terraced greenery, volcanos and hillside temples at the heart of the island or in the less touristy north. As I’m just here for three days and know I’ll be back soon, I decide to stay in hip Canggu, which is still in that low-key stage of urbanisation where you get a cosy sense of community among the picturesque villas, organic cafes and specialty shops spread out among fields and palm trees. At the break of dawn, young creatives, yogis and surfers drive down to Batu Bolong or Echo’s for a morning run, sun salutations or to tackle the swell. Walking a few miles to the south along the black volcanic beach takes you to stylish, buzzing and more commercialised Seminyak, where the food is fancier and the beach clubs are corny but exude classic tropical paradise.
4AM Start. I leave the house before dawn on Friday with butterflies basking around in my stomach. I’ve always loved travelling early in the morning – the allure of starting the day before most others to go and have a good time somewhere dreamy. A cup of fresh mint tea and a double espresso at Changi contribute to waking me up fully, and carrying my light weekend bag in one hand, a pair of acclaimed holiday reads, Fates and Furies and my friend’s beautifully curated guidebook, in the other, the styling complete with flamingo-embroidered espadrilles on my feet and a summery holiday playlist blasting from my headphones, I excitedly board the plane for my first trip with Singapore as my point of departure and return.
Frii Bali Echo Beach. When I’m travelling with friends later in the year, we’ll stay in some of the many stunning Airbnb villas dotted around the island, but on this trip I’m staying in a small hotel, which turns out to be a great choice for the occasion – laidback hostel-like vibe, lively rooftop bar and great location right between the beach and the enclave of healthy cafes/galleries/boutiques. While there’s no restaurant to speak of, many more vital facilities are in place: it’s impeccably clean and well-designed (main attribute being the rainforest shower head), the staff is friendly, helpful and cheerful, there’s free mineral water in the room, which, incidentally, leads directly out to the pool, and the slogan matches my (everyone’s) mission well: ‘My Journey, My Story‘.
Presence. Wishing to enjoy all moments of this little retreat, I’m pleased to find that being mindful of where I am turns out to come fully naturally. Too preoccupied with the beautiful creations on the plates in front of me or gazing at the sky formations above my head, I end up reading just a few chapters of my alleged pageturner of a novel when I take it out at cafes or on the beach, and apart from letting my parents know I arrived safely (on Friday), posting a photo on Instagram for general documentation (on Saturday) and briefly chatting with a few friends (on Sunday), I only feel like using my phone for the gps and for checking the time, the few times when it matters. Also, as there’s no one else with whom to plan and discuss what to see, do and consume, I sense and choose what I feel like at any given moment.
Walk, Walk, Walk. Had thought of renting a bicycle – or maybe actually a scooter so I could join the incessantly honking streams on the roads, purchase petrol from the old Absolut vodka bottles in racks outside convenience stores and maybe ask nice-looking strangers if they want a lift. It does look wonderful – driving down the winding rice-paddy back roads in the splendid sunshine, the combined sense of speed and freedom, and maybe with your arms wrapped around a friend. But this time I just walk everywhere, which has three clear benefits besides just being easy: I see a lot of things really slowly and properly, the repetitive simplicity of planting one foot in front of the other spurs meditation and reflection and the slow way of getting from A to B creates temporal and stomach space between meals. That’s basically what the three days consist of: exercise, see, eat, repeat. I walk 20k each day, take in a wealth of heavenly sights and devour as many nourishing treats as physically possible.
Life’s Crate. The first meal is a ‘mangolicious’ smoothie bowl topped with papaya, pineapple, toasted cashews and a straight line of shredded coconut, a strong long black and a cold-pressed green juice at the almost too cool Crate Cafe in a ramshacle concrete shed a few minutes’ walk from the hotel – playful street art on the walls, casually chic people, such a cheerful soundtrack and atmosphere, such an impressive selection of hip and hyped menu items. Great coffee too!
Deus. From the shack I spot the Deus flagship store across a big meadow, and once I’ve drained the last kale fibres in my glass, I walk over to check out this temple of enthusiasm for ‘caffeine and gasoline, burnt rubber and trimming fins, fiberglass and blues, tacos and tattoos’, all arranged in a beautiful dark wooden villa. Currently there’s an exhibition by the surf artist Harry Holiday in the bright and airy room between the über-cool shop-space and the perfectly styled backyard. The jolly, bearded dude sits at the centre of this white-painted room, working on a simplistic line drawing, an impressive selection of his vibrant prints of surfer gals on flowery boards displayed in a neat line on the walls around him. Growing up in San Diego, Harry has a deep passion for the lifestyle associated with surfing – constantly travelling around the world, he stops and unlatches his old suitcase to churn out dreamy washes of watercolour wherever the surf’s up and he recognises the special vibe that defines his escapist driving force.
Fika. Thus inspired, I head for the beach. Halfway there though, I’m caught in a hefty shower and seek shelter in a Swedish cafe (‘fika’ means grabbing a coffee and a cake with someone), where I have another long black along with a fresh berry/mint/cucumber/ginger juice, not with someone, but surrounded by cool entrepreneurs hunched over their Macs in the beautiful room with big windows that conveniently let the lush greenery outside serve as decoration in the otherwise light grey and minimalistic (Scandi-/Eames-styled) room.
Old Man’s. As the rain subsides, I walk down to the charming hangout at the backdrop of the Batu Bolong surf breaks, and start walking down the wide beach. The current is too strong here for swimming – it’s clearly a surfers’ haven. There’s a happy crowd of people lounging in the sand just below the bar, but apart from that I have the compact dark expanse pretty much to myself as I stroll ever so slowly towards Seminyak, clearing my mind and taking in the beautiful scenery below the now clear sky.
Grocer and Grind. Coming from the terribly non-charming Kuta on the drive from the airport earlier that morning, the part of Seminyak that’s furthest inland looked similarly rubbish, but down towards the ocean the village appears super cool. I settle down in a window seat at the first hip eatery/concept store I find, where I enjoy a well-composed raw superfood salad and a fresh beetroot/apple/ginger/lemon juice while watching all the mopeds and various vacationing types at the crossroads in front of me. Like in Canggu, the Seminyak vibe is very international, with Australians and Europeans flocking here to be part of the renowned relaxed lifestyle. Everyone does have a big seemingly carefree, very contagious smile plastered onto their sunburned faces.
Feather and Find. For dessert, I cross the street to devour an organic raw vegan cacao and mint ice cream garnished with pink dragon fruit and goji berries, and an immunity-boosting turmeric/aloe vera shot, at the cutest little girlie combined ice cream parlour and silk dress shop, which is run by two lovely ladies (one Australian, one Indonesian), who have plenty of time to photograph each other posing in their flowery designs between serving and chitchatting to customers.
Priorities. As there are not enough meals in the day for all of the hip casual-ranging-to-fancy restaurants I’ve been recommended (Shelter Cafe, Sea Circus, Sistersfield, Ku De Ta, La Favela, Mama San, etc…), I spend the next few hours browsing in vintage shops, galleries and little alleyways between beautifully ornamented villas before heading back down to the beach by Pantai Seminyak.
Golden Hour. Making my way back to Canggu in the stunning sunset I watch the black silhouettes of people and ponies set against the shining water and smile to myself as the thrilling and comforting sensation of being just where I want to be settles upon me. At Old Man’s, I enjoy the juice of a fresh coconut while soaking up the day’s last bit of energising sea breeze smells, sounds and sights.
Betelnut Cafe. I have dinner (raw superfood salad/green juice/turmeric shot) on the roof terrace of this cabin-like spot, with a cute white dog at my feet and the view of the sunset across the fields and palm trees and a swarm of black dragon kites flying on the horizon. A sweet girl from Cologne sits down at my table, and we have a lovely German chat all the way through our organic quinoa bowls. Her friends and boyfriend are still out surfing.
Friday Night In. Before 7pm I’m back at the hotel, having walked back along a pitch-black road hoping for the best (kind of eerie but also kind of romantic that there’s no street lighting here). Spend the evening with a drawing kit from a drawer by the bed, sketching yoga posing and surfing stick figures, listening to the summer soundtrack, my feet planted in the lit-up pool.
Surf and Sun’s Up at 6AM. Get up at the crack of dawn, or actually a few minutes before, and wait on the front steps of the hotel, loudly chirping crickets keeping me company in the dark, surfboard-loaded scooters headed for the beach passing by, until I get picked up by my Javanese surf instructor in his big old truck. A few minutes later I’m lying facedown on a big indigo blue board clad in lighter blue lycra and doing my best to summon a decent level of confidence, flexibility, balance and calm and get these admirable attributes to play a pleasant symphony, harmoniously accompanied by the warm salt water. Look towards the beach! Don’t look down! Focus on the waves! Further back! Left foot towards the centre! Bend your knees! Don’t stand too tall! Ha, ha, try again! Don’t worry! The guy is super patient and cool – seeks out the most ideal waves for me, and kindly keeps track of my slow (two hours) movement up the learning curve – steadily I go from 0% (clinging to the board, completely unable to get up at all) to 95% (manage to stand up and ride the wave for a few seconds before falling). Such an awesome feeling of complete happiness and thrill from circa 60% and upwards! At one point, a few waves to the south, I spot a dad with his two tiny blonde daughters, who just dance away on their little boards effortlessly, fearlessly and joyfully, totally in their right element. If only I’d learned something so cool so early in life! I only had my first and only other surf lesson two years ago in California, where my friend who lives there taught me the basics. In a few years’ time, her now 1-year-old daughter is going to look just like these two adorable kids. Oh well, I may never reach their level, but at least I’ve been swimming and sailing my whole life and feel comfortable and happy in/on/at/by the sea.
Nalu Bowl. Breakfast at the hip Hawaiian (‘nalu’ means wave in Hawaiian) franchise, the Canggu branch of which is tucked in between neat little palm trees up the road from Echo Beach. Ahh…. blended açaí berries, a sprinkle of bee pollen and all sorts of other delicious stuff served in half a hollowed out coconut at a wooden table in front of the cute little whitewashed pavilion. A small glass jar of fresh coconut water to quench my thirst.
Beach. With that delicious fuel to keep me going, I trot along the beach to Seminyak once again, occasionally stopping to take in the views, boring my toes into the coarse black sand to feel it disappear from under my heels every time the waves draw back, rolling my feet back and forth for some intense natural reflexology.
Kopi 1/15. First pit stop is at an airy little joint – designed in a calming minimalistic style and very serious about their coffee – right by Potato Head Club, where I enjoy a cup of heavenly Sumatran filter brew.
Alchemy. After which I hop next door to enjoy a spirulina/vanilla smoothie topped with chia pudding, fresh fruit and cacao-dusted cashews and a cute little vegan lemon cake at a similarly serenely pretty place.
Potato Head. I then feel that I have to spend a few hours chilling on a day bed by the turquoise infinity pool at the corny yet fabulous beach club that’s as good for people-watching and admiring the architecture as well as for … well, just enjoying life. I will save a visit to the bar immersed in the pool for when I’m here with friends, though.
Cafe Organic. When I next need a refreshment, I go back up the street to yet another health-focused oasis for a delicious green juice with grated ginger on top and a scrumptious vegan popsicle. Run by hip ‘garden gangstas’, the light and bright venue is as stylish and inviting as all the other ones…
Seminyak Flea Market. The rest of the afternoon I spend snooping around the lanes between the busy main streets again, and after having spotted lots of beautiful small temples, offering decorations and other such alluring phenomena, I end up at the big tacky flea market, where I get some shorts for my yoga session the following day.
La Laguna. Walking back to Canggu, I pass through this boho place – utterly eccentric and fairytale-like hangout, where the food and cultural events are supposed to be really great.
Beach. Down on the beach I enjoy another pretty sunset in the company of selfie-taking couples and happily playing children.
Bali Fit. I have dinner at this combined fitness studio and restaurant (fresh, healthy, locally-grown food, naturally) opposite the hotel. The owner is super sweet and chatty – the type who asks for my name and repeats it loads to create a sense of friendly intimacy. It works: we hug when I leave. She talks about the chilled island life, puts on some happy hiphop music and serves me a tasty veggie stir fry – and the usual green juice. With just three walls, the cool, grey-painted space opens up to the street where surfers are now scooting home in the warm dusk.
Saturday Night In. Back at the hotel at 8pm, I drink a cup of ginger tea on the roof (I feel like just not drinking any alcohol on this trip) before heading down to my room, where I open the glass doors by the bed and sink my feet into the pool. Listen to the crickets and the remote sound of beach parties. Decide to stay in and chill. When the surf dude from the morning session messages me (ok, that’s a fourth use of wifi to add to the list) to ask if I want to reach 100% in the morning, I say yes.
Up before the Chickens. Once again, my new friend picks me up in his car just before the sun rises. ‘Ha, ha, we’re up before the chickens! Today will be a good day! I can feel it!’, he assures me and starts singing a happy reggae tune. I have another great few hours of paddling around in the water, quite quickly managing to stand up and ride the waves for more than 10 seconds at a time. So nice lying there, ready to move but not too tense, alternately looking in towards the sun rising up above the beach and out towards the waves, patiently waiting for the good ones. The thrill and speed of popping up and settling into a good position! So satisfying and so much fun! The light of pride in my friend’s eyes as his mission of reaching 100% is complete! Good start to the day indeed!
Drive. As an exception to my usual mode of transport, I accept the guy’s offer to drive me to my next activity. As we scramble down the bumpy roads of Canggu, Bob Marley on the stereo, he tells me that all of these places, my fancy hotel, the eateries and shops, are all so new. He moved here from the more conservative Java to enjoy the relaxed freedom of this island. He loves surfing, and he loves the chilled atmosphere in Canggu, where all that people care about is waves, yoga and veggies. Soon though, he’ll have to move further north when the town develops further and becomes as busy as Seminyak. He laughs when I mention the amazing organic cafes I’ve been to, points out an idyllic organic farmer’s market that we pass and says that with all of the pollution flying around he doesn’t believe that any of the produce is really organic. Gullible Western tourists. Hm. We drive through some of his favourite areas, and with the morning sun shining down on the stunning paddy fields it surely feels like a very … ecological place. Along with Bob Marley, we sing Three Little Birds ever so joyously. Rise up this mornin’, smiled with the risin’ sun…
Desa Seni. He drops me off at a beautiful eco resort village, where I have an Embodied Flow yoga session in a wooden pavilion in a lush garden. ‘Make sure your body is not so rigid that you can’t sense the beating of your heart’, the beautiful young American instructor, Jess, advises in a soft, soothing voice as we get started. Everything she says throughout the next hour, actually, concerns love and compassion. At every downwards-facing dog, I see little yellow leaves flying around in the peaceful garden behind me, and at every warrior position we’re aligned with the gardeners nursing the tropical plants and flowers around us. So soothing.
Milk and Madu. Conveniently, there’s an amazing open-air breakfast place just around the corner (of a rice field) from Desa Seni. It’s set in a garden as well. My rustic table is decked out with a colourful spread consisting of a yummy berry blend topped with homemade toasted quinoa granola, shredded coconut and mint leaves and served in a pretty ceramic bowl, an unsweetened matcha almond latte and an ice-cold fresh green juice with lemon.
Peloton. At this vegan cafe and bicycle shop around another corner, I have a turmeric and ginger shot to top off the hearty morning feast.
Bungalow Living. A bit further down that road, I buy a small white wooden pineapple in a cute little homeware shop (here’s a great cafe and gallery as well). A Chinese symbol of warmth, wealth, welcome and luck, the pineapple may not be a particularly obvious souvenir but the little thing makes me smile, and I’ll think about this lovely weekend every time I look at it at home in Tiong Bahru (where golden silk paper pineapples hang from all the windows and bushes).
On the Road. Thus refueled and with a gift for myself in my bag, I walk back to the hotel along the back roads, passing acid-green meadows, alluring architecture and tanned/toned young couples on shining scooters.
Eden Cafe. After checking out and saying goodbye to the lovely girls at the front desk (wow, the weekend went quickly!), I head a few miles up the road to yet another divine cafe, where everything is locally sourced, anti-inflammatory and prepared with love. I have an avocado/kale wholegrain wrap and a slow-pressed fennel/lime juice. A raw cacao cake dotted with dried goji berries for dessert.
Trade off. Now, should I spend the afternoon at the water temple Tanah Lot (I look it up online – yet another wifi usage! – and it appears absolutely divine) or at the beach? I mean, I do want to experience Tanah Lot, touristy as the excursion might be. But the thought of digesting the weekend lying on my back in the sand seems just a bit more appealing right now. So that’s what I do. There are temples everywhere in Bali, even one right next to Old Man’s. I’ll save the amazing water edition for another time. Once I’ve settled down in a sun lounger facing the surfers on Batu Bolong Beach, a spinach/ginger Nalu Bowl garnished with freeze-dried raspberries in hand, I know I made the right decision. Surely, there’s a spiritual sightseeing aspect to this setup as well.
Happy Feet. On my way to an early dinner, I stop at a massage parlour and enjoy 45 minutes of reflexology, my ultimately favourite type of spa pampering, a skilled human touch after all the sandy foot massages.
Dandelion. The last meal of the trip consists of a juicy chicken breast (from a happy free-range bird, of course) braised in rich coconut milk and served with homegrown veggies in a garden full of fat little bunnies hopping around my feet. Of all the places I’ve been to, this is the only one that labels its food as ‘Balinese’ so now I’ve had that too;)
Invigorated. Driving back to the pretty little island airport late that evening, I think to myself that as lovely as it is to travel and share unique experiences with friends, it’s also nice and exciting to go on a solo adventure from time to time. Bali is a great place to pick for it as well – everything was smooth and pleasant, and I met only generous, warm and fun people, visitors as well as locals. After a hefty few first months in Singapore, I really appreciate my little island retreat and the fact that Bali is just a quick hop away.
I’ll be back, with friends or alone again, go south to the beautiful beaches on the Bukit Peninsula, sail out to the more rustic south-east archipelago, visit Ubud, eat authentic local cuisine, drink cocktails at the beach bars, go find that water temple, have more surf lessons… and do more yoga.
My City. The first several times I came back to London from trips to Denmark I always cried myself to sleep, and only when I started travelling to other places than Denmark did I really feel like I was coming home on returning to London. That trick works here as well – as the plane soars down across the glittery island city-state with its hundreds of tanker tentacles and I can make out the ferris wheel and the Marina Bay Sands, I immediately think of my comfy bed in the lovely Tiong Bahru flat, my walks to and from work, work itself, my new social life… all the little components piecing together my new home.
Notable Pre-Bali Moments of the Week:
Common Man Coffee Roasters. I initiate the working week in this lively and nicely designed place in Robertson Quay, in the company of a friend, filter coffee served in a small glass jar with a label describing origins, brewing methods and flavour components and a great late breakfast of sourdough toast covered in all of the essentials – sautéed spinach and tomatoes, mashed avocado, poached eggs and lemon juice. Utter bliss.
SG/SF Connection. Later in the day, I send a picture of my morning coffee to a friend who will appreciate it as much as I – and that makes for a nice little interaction with her. She’s currently lying on a sofa in San Francisco reflecting on life – how she’s become who she is and what her priorities are, what she wants to achieve in life and how she wants to live it. We consider that for a bit.
Willow and Huxley. From Tuesday, I want to highlight the foldable serpent ballerina flats I find at the amazing little design boutique opposite the office. Practical and stylish at the same time with their rather thick rubber sole, elastic top line and pretty leather top, they’re perfect for someone who appreciates walking very many miles in something that’s aesthetically pleasing.
PUNCH. I spend the public holiday on Wednesday – Hari Raya Puasa – with a friend, leisurely walking from one lovely place to another, the first being this simple and very hip spot downtown. We lounge in a corner with a view of the cosy green courtyard and the open kitchen where our great coffee and breakfasts are being prepared.
Hotel Fort Canning. Next stop is at the end of a walk through Fort Canning Park (for the most part we have the park to ourselves, but the moment we express our satisfaction with the pleasant tranquility loudly, a swarm of loudly chatting people turn up on the path in front of us), at the stately white colonial hotel, where we drink fresh and foamy pineapple juice and watch the news on an old tv screen in the elegant lobby.
Lantern. We finish off in swanky expat style, with a Bloody Mary by the pool on the roof of the Fullerton Bay Hotel, enjoying the view of the glittery bay below us while saying cheers to an entire culture that doesn’t drink alcohol.
Glamour Gym. I was happy with the cold, damp, dark Fitness First below London Bridge (the primitive simplicity of it, being cheered on in the early morning hours by the personal trainers and going there to run with colleagues on lunch breaks), but after meeting her glamorous sister in George Street, Singapore, I’m not sure I can ever go back. I mean, I did also enjoy the slight step up the luxury ladder at the Tottenham Court Road (LDN) and Market Street (SG) branches. Nothing beats George Street, however, and I only discover it on Thursday morning this week! Carved out on the fifth floor of a skyscraper is an outdoor palm tree garden with an infinity pool at the end. Going from the lift to the entrance of the gym by the pool you walk along a meandering waterway, next to which you may place your yoga mat or spinning bike if you feel so inclined. I just go for a refreshing morning swim as the sun rises above the buildings on the opposite side of the bay, lending a rainbow of colours to the sky and sending warm rays down on my face poking up from the slightly cool water.
Tippling Club. Finally, on Thursday night, I meet a friend for a creative cocktail (there’s espresso and chilli in mine) at this dapper, atmospheric institution spanning three charming Peranakan shophouses, this time to say cheers to the weekend’s travel destinations – Bali and Paris respectively.