Whether you’ve read the book, watched the movie or have a bunch of girlfriends who have, good chance you’ve heard about this famous trip to enlightenment from Italy to Bali via India that Elizabeth Gilbert took a while ago. Needless to say countless of women have followed in her path since, searching for something or just wanting to visit those magical places she shared with the world, myself included. The third of the journey (the love part), and most will say the culminating one since she met her current life partner there, happened to be based in Bali’s spiritual capital, Ubud. While I sadly didn’t meet my Javier Bardem (!), I did fall in love with the town, its people, the food, and the overall sense of serenity that exudes from just about everywhere.
Unsurprisingly, within moments of arriving there, I was charmed. Hypnotized by a way of life we’ve all unsuccessfully tried to make our own, relieved that the obvious hike in tourism has left most of the beauty and spirits intact, and most of all utterly gleeful for the chance to live here for a week, no matter how hard it will be to go back… Though I can hardly communicate the intangible nature of what makes Ubud so magical, I hope the following highlights will give a good idea of its beauty and why I so want to pack my things now and move there.
Settling into Ubud, one has two choices: an array of gorgeous and luxurious resorts perched above the river some 10-20km away from town, or an even bigger selection of family-run guest houses smack in the middle of it, offering a comfortable local experience at crazy inexpensive prices. Guess where I went… I spent a week a Puri Bayu Guest House where for a mere $25/night I had a big bedroom, lovely outdoor bathroom to shower with the local flora and fauna, …
…and a big terrace where they would serve my breakfast every morning. This is some serious bargain, especially considering that this is an intimate and quiet 4 bedrooms private house located right outside the center (no noise!) facing the rice paddies, and accessible via a narrow path. You feel secluded though are still within minutes of everything…bliss.
Breakfasts were amazing and different every day, always accompanied by fresh flowers, beautifully cut fruits, tea/coffee, and a scrumptious main dish.
I hope you like bananas as they have them everywhere here. Stuffed in French Toast was lovely but the real deal is the local specialty of green banana pancakes topped with fresh coconut and cane sugar…I feel I could start every day like this.
Another winner was their savory chicken porridge (bubur) served with shredded chicken and roasted peanuts, a very filling start to the day!
Like in most places, the day starts early in Ubud and you should too if you want to make the most of it. Just across from the guest house was this extensive rice field that would greet me day and night, though I always thought it looked its best in the early dawn, around 6:30am…
Another reason to wake up that early is for the chance to go to the market, and by that I mean the real market. Ubud’s market is usually a place for tourists packed high with cheap souvenirs and clothes which you can bargain to your heart’s content. Locals don’t shop there during the day so if you want to immerse yourself and get an insider’s view of their morning rituals, you have to show up between 6am-8am when the local food market is taking place (before they clear everything up to make place for the sarongs and wooden statues).
It’s a real feast for the senses and I literally lost myself in there, the only tourist for about an hour, trying to capture as much as I could, taste local delicacies, and enjoy the hustle surrounding me.
Flowers are an important part of life in Ubud, and Bali in general and are used as daily offerings to the gods (and visiting guests too!).
Food stalls offer a delicious and cheap way to compose an enormous breakfast.
While the main market at street level is for fruits, veggies, sweets and breakfast bites, you should not miss the downstairs, covered area which is the meat and groceries market. You’ll find everything for a gargantuan feast from whole grilled chicken to suckling pig and every animal parts you can imagine, not nearly as intimidating as certain Chinese markets I’ve visited in the past. Despite being that early, the meat grilling over flaming coals smelled like heaven and venturing through the dark alleys only brought up more delicacies such as homemade tofu, fresh vanilla pods, and spice mixes.
Back on the main floor, it’s time to grab something a bit more substantial to eat as to mini pancakes are long gone. I wasn’t feeling the fish too much but I loved the porridge at the house so much I looked out for something similar.
I settled on a sweet version this time, very typical, made with red rice and sweetened with coconut milk and cane syrup which I savored back at home on my balcony.
Staying with the food theme, Ubud has of course many wonderful restaurants and I’ve listed my favorites here. Most popular are the local warungs, family-owned casual cafes which serve Balinese cuisine for the most part in a very casual setting and at very reasonable prices. It’s nice that it’s where the locals eat too and if you stick with them you’ll rarely pay above $10 for a full meal.
Warung Sopa advertises itself as ‘the friendly cafe for vegetarian‘ and is a lovely place to hang out for a while and feel good about what you’re eating.
A fresh and minty limeade was a godsend in the midday heat (did I mention every day was incredibly sunny and warm?) and as everything looked so good I opted for their Nasi campur which is a local dish of rice topped with your chosen sides (vegetarian in this case though Nasi campur usually includes meat). I had ratatouille, banana flowers, eggplant curry, and crispy tofu miso cubes with organic red rice.
All of it very slowly consumed as I read my book laying on a cushioned bench… no idea how long I stayed there but that proves how comfortable and relaxed the place is!
At the other end of the spectrum sits an equally tasty though definitely not vegetarian warung dedicated to one thing only – suckling pig! It became hugely famous when Antony Bourdain filmed its No Reservation show at the roadside joint and declared it the best suckling pig he’s ever had… and I concur!
Constantly busy, you just grab a seat on the floor and order ‘the special’ (i.e. you want to go early as they run out by mid-afternoon usually). What you’ll get is a heaping paper bowl filled with a mound of rice, topped with a generous portion of tender and juicy roasted pig, a spicy sauce, a big chunk of fatty skin, some insanely crispy and to-die-for cracklings, and a small piece of blood sausage.
It’s considered the most famous dish in Ubud, a bit strange for a town so popular with vegetarians, but you’ll soon realize why once you’ve taken your first bite. I still dream about it…
With such good weather, afternoon breaks in the shade are much appreciated and every other place seems to be serving amazing fresh juices and smoothies so take advantage of the vitamin boost at many of the roadside cafes. Ice cream is harder to come by though a few gelaterias are there to curb your cravings – I even found a dragon fruit flavored one.
Another favorite restaurant of mine was Clear Cafe, probably the most happening while I was there since it was pretty filled up every night with beautiful locals (i.e. Aussie expats wearing tattoos, dreads, an incredible tan, a toned yogi body, and a gleeful expression surely acquired by the simple fact of living here every day…ah!).
Though not vegetarian, it’s another health conscious eatery serving organic food, fresh fish, and some raw menu items. As delicious as it was, what really makes it truly great is the sophisticated and clean interior, as if you were in a spa’s relaxation room, and the incredibly gentle prices with most entrees not topping $10. I’d definitely be a regular if I lived here…and I think I could even pull the tattoos and dreads!
When you’re in the mood for a more casual setting and need to do some quick groceries as well than you won’t find better than Bali Buddha. A small health food store on the ground floor is the perfect place to grab a few items for tomorrow’s picnic (all these rice paddies around are begging to be explored) – they have amazing baked goods, some fruits, chocolates, etc. Upstairs is their lovely cafe where you can enjoy a bite or a full meal. I had a veggie burger made with beets and some fries, healthy comfort food, while checking the yoga schedule of the studio across the street (yoga studios are as numerous as warungs around here).
You get an idea now that the casual cafes and restaurants are what I preferred about Ubud, though the serious foodie that I am could hardly pass the chance to be so near one of the top restaurants in Indonesia. Mosaic is the most upscale restaurant in Ubud and a chance to try what gastronomic Balinese cuisine with French technique tastes like (very good indeed). I could have just sat there and ordered a tasting menu but since I had the time, I decided instead to join their cooking workshop! I signed up for an afternoon in the restaurant’s demo kitchen with the Chef and another student – probably the most rewarding way for me to spend a few hours.
We first started in the gardens where we learned about specific Balinese ingredients we were to use a bit later – no better way than to see them in their natural state, touch them and taste them to remember them. Most of them I know will be hard to find fresh back home but it was fascinating to taste them and think of ways they could be integrated in Western cuisine (which was the title of the workshop: ‘Balinese ingredients in Western cuisine’).
Kalamansi lime (sweeter than a lemon), carambola (mini star fruit… super sour!), fresh vanilla beans, fresh turmeric
Then it was off to the kitchen to start prepping our 3-course meal using mostly local ingredients. Never have I learned so much technique and tips in such a short period of time – it did help we were only two therefore having full attention of the Chef!
2.5 hours later we were sitting down to enjoy the fruits of our labour – definitely deserving of the praise the restaurant has been getting. I have all the notes and recipes to bring back home so this calls for a special dinner at my house sometimes soon…practice makes perfect!
On top of recipes or cooking books, I always love bringing back home some food items (pending immigration approval!) and in Ubud you’ll have the choice between the obvious coffee (get the Kopi Luwak as I described here) and the chocolate. For something unique and that you’ll enjoy a lot back home I’d suggest stopping by Confiture Michèle, a lovely shop selling homemade jam made with local ingredients. You’ll get to try fruits you’ll never find back home and the small jars make for the most adorable gifts. I left with ‘spicy guava’ and ‘vanilla-passion fruit’, looking forward to many summery breakfasts back home.
After all this food, no matter how healthy it is, one needs a break and Ubud is filled with temples welcoming you to do just that. Wandering the streets you can easily duck into any side alley and find yourself in another world, suddenly cut off from the bustling city center and feeling like you just stumbled upon your own little piece of paradise.
Though not as hidden as many others, the Water Temple just off the main street is a sight to behold and one of the most peaceful places you’ll find around. Surprising how long can someone stare at waterlilies… they just have such a calming effect.
Balinese don’t need temples to pray though as they do so multiple times a day at home, in the streets, in their shops, etc. Fresh offerings made of flowers and burning incense in tiny banana leaves baskets are deposited every day at the feet of the numerous statues of gods and goddesses, family shrines, as well as in front of homes and shops to bring good karma and please the spirits.
Besides its temples, Ubud counts many other places of beauty and rest including a handful of interesting museums. The Blanco Renaissance Museum is a must see as it shows all the eccentricity and flamboyance of its creator, painter Antonio Blanco, and lets you enter his unique home, now housing over 300 of his sexy and humorous artworks.
The building and paintings are worth seeing though just wandering around the property and its gardens is reason enough to visit.
Slightly outside the city center, the ARMA Museum (Agung Rai Museum of Art) is the best place to get familiar with Balinese art from the classical to the modern. Housed in beautiful traditional buildings set amidst pleasant gardens, the museum also serves as cultural center and you’re sure to witness during your visit either a dance practice, music lesson, or wood carving session – I happened to see all three!
One cannot come back from Bali without mentioning the massages… Spas are probably the most abundant of businesses in Ubud and you should take full advantage of it like I did! With prices hovering around $10-12 for an hour of Balinese massage to $25 for a 2 hours extravaganza of massage-scrub-floral bath, there is absolutely no shame in booking one every day and trying a different one each time.
I particularly loved Kayma Spa which is hidden in the middle of the busy Monkey Forest Road in the town center yet is such a peaceful place with views of rice paddies right from your treatment room you’d forget you’re in the city altogether.
Once you’re all rested and feeling like a million bucks, a stroll through the smaller streets of Ubud is an ideal way to spend the rest of the afternoon, peeking into little shops and galleries. Jalan Kajeng is a particularly picturesque one.
If shopping is on your mind, then look no further than Jalan Hanoman street which stretches North-South with an endless array of clothing and jewellery stores, yoga shops, textiles and homewares stores and cute little cafes for breaks in between.
Evenings are quiet around here and the town goes to bed early in contrast with the party meccas of the coast such as Kuta and Seminyak. The only form of entertainment, and one you shouldn’t miss, are the daily dance performances that take place around Ubud in enchanting outdoor theaters. It’s a cultural experience you won’t get to see anywhere else and well worth the $8 admission fee. Most shows start around 7pm and last for 1.5 hours and the Tourist Office can point you to the most popular ones and give you a complete schedule.
I saw the Legong and Barong Dance in the middle of the Ubud Palace one evening, thoroughly enjoying this intensely expressive and dynamic dance tradition.
Girls start training at a very young age to master the intricate bodily gestures with fingers, hands, body, head and eyes all moving with stunning angularity. This form of artistic and religious expression is sure to be one of the highlights of your stay and I only wish I could have seen many more.
To end yet another blissful day in nothing beats stopping by one of the many temples to stare at the starry sky and thank the spirits for giving you your own little Eat, Pray, Love journey…feels like no other place would have succeeded like Ubud did.
Forget about the tourists packed beaches and overdeveloped towns of Bali’s South Coast – the paradise is to be found in its almost intact Eastern region where great mountain scenery, picturesque villages, and gorgeous beaches make it a symbol of natural beauty you’ll rarely encounter these days.
Biking the rice paddies
The small roads going down through charming villages make for one of the most scenic bike rides on the whole island and one of the best ways to see the ‘real Bali’. I had a hard time not stopping my bike every two minutes to capture the stunning rice terraces, lush forested hills and colorful postcards of farm and rural life surrounding this magical area.
The locals here largely rely on agriculture for income and the fertile valleys are filled with not only rice but a slew of other crops as well.
A lot of plantations open their doors to the public so you’ll get a chance to see first hand what grows in the region and what makes the basis of Balinese cuisine.
Kopi luwak (or poop coffee)
Kopi luwak is the rarest, most unique and highly coveted coffee in the world. The reason why? The sweet, ripe 100% Arabica coffee cherries are eaten, digested and fermented by wild civets (a bobcat-like animal native to Indonesia), before being collected, washed, and roasted. In other words, some wild animal is known to pick for his diet only the best coffee berries and therefore is used as a collecting and fermenting agent. The defecated coffee beans are known to have a special taste (I tried it, wasn’t bad though wasn’t the best either!) and are highly priced around the world, reaching up to $600 for 1lb!
Here’s the process illustrated:
Most plantations you visit offers free tasting at the end so you not only get to enjoy fresh coffee and cocoa but also a bunch of different teas such as ginger, lemongrass, cinnamon, mangosteen, etc.
Few know that Bali is home to several active volcanoes – Mount Batur (1771m) and Mount Agung (3142m) being the two highest. Located in the Kintamani region of North-East Bali, Mount Batur is a popular hiking destination. Paths to the summit are steep and volcanic rock hard on the feet but other than that it’s a very accessible hike and can be done in half a day.
Although accessible all day, the still active volcano is most famous for its sunrise trek, i.e. hiking to the summit in time to watch the sunrise. What would compel anyone, especially when on holidays, to scale an active volcano in the middle of the night? I guess I have to blame it on my insatiable appetite for adventure and slightly masochistic nature because I did it…
Climb began at the fresh hour of 3am in order to make the 2 hour trek to the peak for sunrise. You just turn on your torch and follow your Balinese guide through the dark and steep path, occasionally stopping to look back at how far you’ve come and admire the flickering lights on the lake below and the approaching dawn piercing the night sky.
Several makeshift huts near the summit offers weary hikers warm drinks and breakfast (banana sandwiches) as you try to warm up from the cool temperatures and strong winds waiting for the color show to finally lit up the sky. Once it does, take your camera, sit back and bask in the luminous glow of the Bali sunrise, you’ve greatly earned it!
We ended up watching ours from the lower summit as the top of the volcano was covered in clouds. Once the sun was up, we wandered around to admire the dreamy landscape and hissing sulphur rising from the craters before making the final ascent.
The eerie and tranquil setting soon got a lot more action when we were surrounded by a small community of monkeys.
We lingered for a while, feeding them with leftover bread and just enjoying their playful nature before starting our descent. With the sky clearing up with finally had a great view of the valley and lake below us.
In the hills just 4 km from the coast lays the village of Tenganan, the most famous Balinese village for it has kept its ancestral ways of living almost intact for centuries and is a great site to visit.
The villagers strictly adhere to a rigid social organization, always living inside the village, marrying from within and keeping it closed to outsiders after dark.
They also worship their ancestors and cosmology, though the one thing that’s most interesting to visitors is probably their quality craftsmanship which is prominently displayed across the village.
Tenganan produces the unique double weave ikat fabric called Geringsing (of which I purchase a beautiful sarong), nice bamboo carvings (now sold as bookmarks and wall hangings) and some of the best basketwork in all of Indonesia.
Architecturally, the village is very different from what you normally see in Bali and you’ll be able to step in many homes which are almost all selling their craft to the public, making it seems like an endless row of shops in a unique setting.
A nice cultural experience to have before hitting the beach…
White Sand Beach
East Bali is also home to some of the most picturesque and least visited beaches on the island. The beautiful Pantai Pasir Putih (White Sand Beach) used to be a well kept secret due to its somewhat hidden location (the access is restricted by a downhill dirt road or a half-hour boat ride from Candidasa nearby) but words got out and it’s now listed in almost every guide books. Nevertheless, it’s still the closest thing to your idea of a paradise beach and development and crowds have been kept at bay for now.
Once you get there you’re quickly rewarded with a stunning setting of crescent shaped beach going on for about 500m and separated from the world by green cliffs on all sides.
Though not of the whitest of sands, it is the whitest on all the island and along with the glistening turquoise of the water and swaying palm trees it gets pretty close to picture perfect, tropical island postcard scenario. Just set yourself up on one of the available beach chairs and marvel at the view for a few hours, slowly falling into a peaceful slumber to the sound of the rolling waves.
When hunger strikes, just choose from the row of casual warungs (cafés) lining the beach and enjoy a fresh seafood lunch in the shade with a view to die for. I savored there one of the best fish I’ve ever had – lightly curried mahi-mahi, grilled and smoked over charcoals, served alongside rice and a small salad with the ubiquitous side of delicious sambal matah, a must of almost every Balinese dish. It was fresh, slightly spicy, really healthy and went down extremely well with an avocado smoothie… total food bliss.
Casual French eateries have been sprouting out all around Hong Kong Island recently, offering bistro dishes, good wines and a mellow atmosphere to local and expats in search of comfort. Les Fils à Maman, a recent addition to the scene, plays the nostalgia card as well with a quirky decor of childhood memorabilia and a menu of simple ‘mom-style’ cooking to sooth your inner cravings of bygone after school dinners.
In a tiny alley just off Hollywood Road, the restaurant’s bright red and blue theme will lure you right in, if the cartoons and old boys’ toys displayed throughout haven’t done that already. The fun decor is a wink to the four owners’ earlier days and even the menu is composed of some of their own mothers’ dishes, adapted by the restaurant’s French Chef. The relatively small offering is refreshing and the focus is mainly on the Blackboard where specials are continuously updated.
This is uncomplicated, no-fuss homemade comfort food just like your mom would have whipped up in the kitchen, and while it won’t win any culinary awards it certainly will satisfy the myriad of French expats the city boasts and anyone looking for a taste of home so far away… Any place with fried Babybel cheese as a starter is sure to strike a note with the majority!Les Fils à Maman
LG/F, 75 Hollywood Road, Central Hong Kong
T: +852 2871 0045 map
Hong Kong’s frenetic pace is legendary and what attracts people to its energy packed city center, though there are days where all you want to do is get away from it all really. Besides jumping in a cab to a nearby beach or hike in the Northern Territories, I recently found a true oasis a few steps away from busy Hollywood Road – Teakha.
Located a few steps back from Tai Ping Shan Street in the increasingly hip ‘PoHo’ neighborhood of Sheung Wan, Teakha seems right at home in the middle of all the cool galleries and design shops that have been popping up there recently. Like any other oasis, it’s not that easy to find (it’s surrounded by garages and tucked away from the street) but the search will be well worth it once you find that gem which will make you feel like you stumbled into a whole new world.
The tiny and cosy teahouse and bakery sits only about 10 people inside with a family style communal table and extra outdoor seating overspills in the back alley which was totally full when I visited on a sunny Sunday afternoon. No panic, just go in to soak in the Etsy-esque atmosphere with its hanging lights made of Mason jars and artistic display of vintage tea kettles, take a whiff of freshly baked pastries, and order you tea or coffee to go so you can wander around this incredibly peaceful neighborhood. Just being here triggers a feel-good factor where patience and contemplation of the finer things around you are all that matters…
Their products are sourced mainly from within Asia, using organic whenever possible and teas and coffees are made to order. The Thai Iced Tea I had is a classic and incredibly good, especially on a hot day.
They have a cake menu that changes daily – on my visit it was Osmanthus and Okinawa Black Sugar Chiffon Cake.
Other baked items include a selection of scones – not your typical ones, they’re a bit more crumbly then what you’d find in England but their perfect size and interesting flavors (figs, ginger, pineapple & honeycomb, apple & cinnamon) make them an ideal accompaniment for whichever beverage you’ll choose.
Whether you enjoy the breeze at an outside table or take your cup for a stroll, it could hardly be a more perfect afternoon. Besides the joy of having found a secret hideout place (doesn’t look so secret on busy weekend afternoons!), you’ll probably forget for a while that you’re in Hong Kong just like I did…and that’s a good thing. When you’ve had enough of this tranquil state, you’re always only a few minutes walk from Soho or whichever spot you’ll pick to get back to reality.Teakha Shop B, 18 Tai Ping Shan Street,
Sheung Wan, Hong Kong T: 28589185
In a corner of an ultra hip hotel somewhere in East London is hiding a treasure of culinary prowess so brilliant I still feel astounded by the discovery. Aptly named the Corner Room, the little-known sister restaurant to acclaimed Michelin-starred Viajante packs so much behind its tucked away location and informal ambiance that anyone would find the trek to Bethnal Green anything but a nuisance for a chance to eat in the diminutive space.
The beautifully renovated Edwardian building makes for a stunning entrance and the walk up to the first floor where the restaurant is waiting offers ample opportunity to soak up the old town hall’s refined decor, a mix of glamour with marble floors, wood panels and vintage and modern art pieces. The restaurant itself is a simple and warm room, adorned with a modern industrial decor mixed with vintage furniture – very light feel to give place to what really strikes here i.e. the food!
This is where the Corner Room truly unleashes its magic – not only is every dish on the short menu a true work of art since it comes from the same kitchen as its sister’s fine dining downstairs (and the culinary genius that is chef Nuno Mendes) but also a ridiculous bargain for such creative and flawlessly executed combinations. Most dishes are below the £13 mark (just unreal) and a killer deal is to be had for lunch with their 3 courses menu for a mere £23.
Another great reason to go for lunch is that it’s the only time the restaurant accepts reservations – yes, just as with every hot eatery in town you’ll have to wait in the evenings to snag one of the rare seats. Just about everything we had was mind blowing and to think that we saved our wallets from a costly and long tasting menu at Viajante downstairs for what really felt like a Michelin meal is the greatest feeling for any food lover out there. Go…now!
Iberico pork for those who don’t know is simply marvelous… it has to be served rare as a good steak would, something I had never seen with pork, and it truly has an amazing, butter-like taste. A must order on the menu for sure.Corner Room 8 Patriot Square London E2 9NF Tel: 0207 871 0460 map