It’s hard for my family to hunker down and take a vacation. My husband Joel and I run a graphic design company and, like all entrepreneurial couples, we struggle to switch off from work. It’s too easy for us to settle into the daily grind of keeping up with job orders despite the boundless energy of Selah, our four-year-old. Throughout the year, we’ve been making do with quick weekend jaunts near Metro Manila in order to come back energized for the workweek ahead. But every now and then, when budget and inspiration synchronize, I’ll call out to my husband and say, “Let’s do it.”
When it was just my husband and me, we had a rhythm we followed whenever we visited a destination for the first time, and we’ve forgotten how seamless planning could be. With our daughter, we knew we had to reimagine what travel and the style in which we’d do it would be like. For starters, neither of us would be binge-watching movies on long-haul flights for the next few years!
Still, we clung to the idea of integrating a child into the activities we love. At home, we would take baby Selah to restaurants that were more Baby Driver than “Baby Shark” — and let her practice walking on the edges of our table while we drank cocktails.
The way we go about things can raise eyebrows, but it means a lot to our family to be able to enter each other’s worlds. And now, options are opening up again for us as a family with a four-year-old. No longer a baby to be schlepped along on adventures, our daughter can now form strong opinions about travel, so it’s our turn to peer into her world.
We’ve chosen Bali because it has the allure of the familiar yet not so familiar. Indonesia is a neighbor of the Philippines, and the island guarantees a lot of recognizable culinary and artsy experiences, but in the context of a different culture. It’s a new destination for us too. Most importantly, Bali is meant to be a place of tranquil relaxation with the promise of an idyllic balance of what we want from a family vacation. So, with our intentions laid out, we hope for a benevolent universe that would rise to the challenge of our first trip as a family.
Soul And Spirit
Talk of a benevolent universe is appropriate for a place like Bali. Part of the Indonesian archipelago, and sandwiched between the islands of Java and Lombok, it has been a top tourist destination since the 1980s — and a hotspot for craftsmanship, music, nature reserves, yoga retreats, parties and surfing. Bali is also the only Hindu-majority island in Indonesia, with around 80% of the local population professing to be believers, and this tension between hedonism and contemplation is fascinating to us.
“There are no tall buildings here in Bali,” says Arip Alisah — who is both our Airbnb host and guide throughout our stay, and an invaluable font of information for first-timers like us — as we enter the narrow streets of the resort town of Canggu after leaving the highways from Ngurah Rai International Airport. “My Hindu friends tell me there is a belief that structures here cannot be taller than a coconut tree,” he continues, pointing out temples at practically every street corner.
The roads are far more congested with traffic than one would expect from a beach destination. Arip explains that, apart from the sheer volume of cars and scooters squeezing into Canggu’s small roads, the jams may also be a result of people gathering on the streets for one of the many religious rituals that encapsulate their entire lives.
We’d decided on Canggu as a base for its relatively laid-back vibe. Kuta is the classic beach party town brimming with nonstop energy and movement, while Seminyak is its sophisticated version, with luxury resorts and chichi boutiques. Canggu, on the other hand, is a once-sleepy seaside town that’s waking up to its own party spirit. It’s certainly booming, but it still has its rice paddies and humble home-stays. It fit the bill when we were trying to think of a place that had fun things for families to do without going overboard with either stimuli or quiet.
Renting out an entire villa is a good call when you’re in Canggu. Balinese villas are the model for tropical vacation homes all around the world, and for good reason — they’re simply stunning. Their architecture is grounded in design principles that value local materials, harmony with nature, good ventilation, privacy and generous outdoor space.
Arip’s property is configured pavilion-style, with separate areas for hanging out with friends, cooking and relaxing. Designed for quality time, its three bedrooms border the pool and garden area, and face the rice fields that roll into the sunset.
At dusk, after acting on Selah’s orders to dry off from splashing about in the pool, we watch the sun dip into the rice paddies before us. Overhead, kites shaped liked fish or birds energetically dart about. The Balinese, we learn, believe kites send messages of prayer to the deities.
Too Cool For School
It seems that most tourists get around by renting motorbikes or scooters for the duration of their trips. Four-wheeled transport is the safer and air-conditioned option, but we figure out quickly that you could easily get stuck in heavy traffic, even on short journeys.
Imagining our little family zipping around with Joel at the helm, I’m excited about getting all three of us in helmets and on a motorbike. But he quickly shuts down that vision, and we agree to try a motorbike ride-hailing service; father and daughter on one bike, and me on another.
Thankfully, Grab bikes have become commonplace in Bali, and so we fire up the app while we explore Canggu by ourselves. The two of them watch as I get on the first one and wave enthusiastically as we start moving.
But we hadn’t counted on our daughter panicking on seeing me hop on a motorbike with a stranger and ride off. She bawls as I disappear from view. Joel explains later that she thought I was going to live with the new man who had driven off with me.
After assuring Selah that, no, mommy is going to be her mommy forever, we look up places to eat and find a quiet bungalow near the beach called The Shady Shack. Under a leafy canopy in the outdoor garden, Joel and I are just blown away by the food — not strictly Balinese or Indonesian (which Joel loves), but the healthy, fresh food with an international flavor that’s becoming the norm in Bali.
“Ugh, try this!” I groan as I shove my nori bowl toward Joel. It is filled to the brim with tofu sticks, edamame, seasoned mushrooms and other vegetables doused in vinaigrette. When his order arrives, he tells me: “I don’t know what on earth halloumi is, but I love it,” as he chomps on his burger that’s topped with white cheese.
It’s worth noting that Canggu during the day is starkly different from its nighttime personality, when its breezy, wholesome spaces change into busy party venues. Old Man’s bar on the beachfront is both an ever-popular Instagram hotspot and a beer garden. But as long as the sun is out, it’s also a relatively peaceful place for all kinds of travelers to enjoy.
It’s a blessing to find places that embrace families with children. When we enter the photogenic Clear Cafe Canggu (the first and more popular branch is in Ubud), for example, we’re greeted by a massive slide that starts from the second floor, where there are also board games and a wraparound balcony with a play area for kids. The menu — advertised as “clean food for clear minds” — emphasizes fresh and healthy international cuisine, using locally sourced ingredients. While the adults are busy passing around eclectic plates of pad thai, veggie burgers, hummus and nasi campur, it is wonderful to see my picky kid gobble up a bowl of mac and cheese after tiring herself out from a ninth ride on the slide.
As I watch the street scene below and count the number of construction sites around, it is easy to see how Canggu has become this hip wonderland of everything that intersects wellness, youth culture and good vibes (think Bintang tank tops, mandala tattoos and dragon fruit smoothies). It is the very template of a global beach hub experience and paradise for vacationers from all over the world, even as it quietly struggles to hang on to its local culture. “Sometimes, Balinese people are too kind,” chuckles Arip. “We see tourists on the road passed out from drinking too much, and we say nothing.”
The cranky cynic in me is aghast at the simultaneous commodification and erasure of Balinese culture, but witnessing all the new consumer concepts is exciting too. To their credit, many businesses on the island are finding sustainable ways to engage the local population while they bring in foreigners as visitors or investors.
Dada Bacudo, one of the partners at Clear Cafe, is a good example of this dynamic. She’s a Filipina who decided to put down roots in Bali and work with the local community through the business. When Clear Cafe’s original Ubud site suffered a fire, she and her partners took it as an opportunity to work with the community. “Clear raised funds not only to rebuild the restaurant, but also to rebuild the community. Most of our staff chose to remain unemployed while Clear was being rebuilt, and one of our founders donated his money to help them keep afloat. We are a very responsible brand that tries to root for the community,” says Dada. And it’s this same atmosphere of kindness and connection that Clear Cafe aims to bring to Canggu.
Canggu After Dark
While so much of Bali is an all-ages attraction, it also has many playgrounds for grown-ups. Perhaps the most famous of these is the Bali flagship store of Australian brand Deus Ex Machina. Styling itself as “The Temple of Enthusiasm,” Deus is a motorcycle and surfing lifestyle shop offering a plethora of (very expensive) toys for big boys and girls.
We admire the custom motorcycles and merchandise featuring illustrations and typography from our favorite design studios. Eyes wide, we paw at the wares featuring the Deus Ex Machina logo in a variety of styles. “Mommy, how about this? You’ll look gorgeous!” says Selah, as she runs over to the rack of T-shirts and bathing suits in the retail area. She pulls a pricey canvas pennant out from the rack and informs me: “I want this for my room!”
Before she gets any more ideas, I lead her to the other parts of the Deus compound, and as we climb the stairs to the second-floor deck to watch pastel hanging lamps blowing in the wind over the courtyard, Joel heads to the motorcycle workshop to admire the design on the gorgeous beasts parked in the sun.
After coffee at Deus Cafe, we cross the street to Love Anchor, a small, laid-back market with curated accessories, clothes and homeware. As the sun goes down on another Canggu day, the pretty twinkle lights are hard to miss. Shopping here is a nice change of pace. We don’t have to worry about losing Selah in a sea of people. We let her bound down one aisle and hear her exclaim, “There’s my dresses!”
After paying for the brightly colored dresses Selah picked out — “I’ll give you a discount if you get two,” the seller winked; an offer Selah insisted we take — we head to dinner. This time, it is Joel’s choice: the new Black Sand Brewery.
He’s about to get into making his own craft beer, so Black Sand offers him the opportunity to geek out. The brewery stands out among its neighboring establishments with its soaring ceiling and minimalist furnishings in wood, steel and concrete. Joel points out the metal fermentation vessels behind the glass, which, the bartenders report, had been custom-made for the bar.
Our server’s enthusiastic descriptions of the brews on tap lead me to order two rounds of Black Sand’s Belgian pale ale with fruity notes. It’s perfect, I happily note to Joel. In the meantime, we also notice that somewhere in the brewery there are at least two couples who appear to share our parenting philosophy to let the kids be kids — evident in the small gang of half a dozen or so young children running around while us parents sip our craft beers.
On To Ubud
The 30km trip from Canggu to Ubud can take upward of two hours, with much of that time spent just trying to navigate the narrow streets out of Canggu. “We’re from Bali, we’re used to it!” Arip says good-naturedly from behind the wheel. As Manileños, we’re no strangers to sitting in motionless traffic, but though the congestion here is the same, there is a refreshing lack of noise — no angry beeping, no raised voices, no rising frustration in the air. But there is acknowledgment that the traffic is a relatively new (and growing) phenomenon in Bali, brought about in part by the hordes of tourists who descend upon the tourist hotspot all year round.
Luckily for us, Arip is an expert navigator who takes us around with a lot of patience and good humor, while providing lots of useful information. As we crawl past signs advertising everything from “Dokter Gigi” (dentists, we figure out) to all sorts of food, Arip fields our endless queries: “Hey Arip, what is soto ayam? What about martabak? What is your favorite snack?”
Once out of Canggu, the roads ease up a little, and the drive is surrounded by greenery and kilometers of rice paddies that stretch out to the horizon. We can tell that we are near Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali, when we see shops selling paintings and sculptures popping up on the roadside.
It’s mid-afternoon when we finally reach Ubud, and even at this hour the streets are bustling. The guidebooks still tout Ubud as a quintessentially Balinese town — and it still is, despite how crowded it is, or how large the expat community has become. “Relentlessly on trend”, my guidebook calls it, and it is chock-full of world-class restaurants and chic boutiques, their storefronts along the narrow sidewalks.
Ubud is absolutely packed with tourists, but you get the sense that you’re coexisting with the people who live here. We spot children getting dismissed from school and walking toward their parents waiting for them on scooters, even as a small crowd of foreigners stops on the street, phones raised to take snapshots of the schoolchildren descending the many steps from the gates of the hillside school.
But we note that the kind of travelers sharing the space with us are different from those in Canggu. Groups of silver-haired friends congregate in cafés, bags full of batik and trinkets, almost outnumbering the young backpackers we see everywhere else.
Then there’s nature. There is so much to see that we’d need to organize another vacation to immerse ourselves and traipse through its ancient temples, rice terraces and palaces. Even from inside our car, I find myself longing to peer into the forests we drive by.
For this day trip, we center our visit around the Ubud Art Market, where it takes all our effort to practice self-control with all the beautiful crafts and fabric we see. I walk away, proudly empty-handed, after deliberating on the circular rattan bag everyone seems to own. But it all comes undone when a vendor charms Selah with a paper Balinese dragon and her hapless parents have to buy it!
The town center may be overrun with people, but we only need to leave the crowded main road in order to duck into something otherworldly. After exploring, we step into Cafe Lotus and gaze upon Pura Taman Saraswati, a temple compound surrounded by a tranquil lotus pond. I imagine a time in the future when the three of us will gaze at trees, meditate in temples and amble through the rice terraces. There’s a Bali for every season of your life, I think — and every reason to return.
Serenity In Sanur
On the penultimate day of our vacation, we decide to end with another day trip to the sleepy coastal town of Sanur. The agenda is simple: to bask in the sun at a quiet beach. I start smiling when we turn into the main thoroughfare and catch sight of the little shops and restaurants lining the street — no crowds. After breakfast at the stylish Maya resort, we make our way to the Sanur Beach boardwalk.
That we’d come to the right place is immediately clear. We see beachgoers in their swimsuits lying on lounge chairs and reading books. On the boardwalk, couples bike by while others push strollers. The winds are favorable in Sanur, and we see people on the water kiteboarding and parasailing. The sight of a colorful kite in the shape of a ship against a clear blue sky catches our eyes. My husband hasn’t flown a kite since he was a child, but he surprises himself by how quickly he remembers how to put one together. He has it aloft in minutes.
As our ship takes to the sky, I cannot help but think of what message we are sending to the gods. I have faith in a benevolent universe and I hope our gratitude and joy are noted.