While development threatens to swamp some of the Indonesian island’s built-up areas, Bali’s almost mystical landscapes still draw new visitors year after year.

The island of Bali has long been a must-see for tourists and travellers because of its spiritual and sacred spaces, its almost mystical landscapes and its unique Hindu culture in the largely Muslim country of Indonesia. While development threatens to swamp some of the island’s built-up places, the magical and the mundane manage to flourish side-by-side, drawing new visitors to the enchanted isle year after year.

What is it known for?
Bali’s statues, shrines and simple pleasures have been attracting travellers since the Dutch opened the island to tourism in 1914. First it was wealthy Westerners who could afford the time and passage to this remote spot in the Indian Ocean. Then in the 1960s and ‘70s, surfers, mainly from Australia, came to ride the classic waves. Now luxury hotels and golf courses have colonized the south shore, and it can take two hours to get from one end of Kuta, the major beach resort area near the capital Denpasar, to the other, a distance of only about 7km. But what has not changed is the special quality of the Balinese culture. “The Balinese people are, in general, really wonderful,” said Corey O’Malley, an Australian who has lived in the remote central highlands for about six years. “The rich, vibrant and ever-present culture of the Balinese and the lushness of the island beyond the traffic zones are an aesthetic feast.”

Tourism, which took a serious blow after the terrorist bombings in 2002 and 2005, has rebounded strongly, getting a boost recently from the island’s strong association with the best-selling book and hit movie Eat Pray Love, which inspired a wealth of finding-yourself travel offers from tour companies and hotels, ranging from massages and meditation on the beach to yoga and ritual prayers at mountain temples. Bali had more than 2.7 million foreign visitors in 2011, the majority of which were from Australia, followed by Japan and China. But while the beach resorts in Kuta, Seminyak and Jimbaran are hot tourism destinations, the sea is not integral to island life. It is the land, the rice paddies and the mountainous interior where the cultural heart of Bali can be found. For example, the town of Ubud, located in the foothills, is known as the island’s epicentre for local arts, dance, music and opera.

Where do you want to live?
Bali’s south coast is the most popular and most built-up region, including the beach towns centred around the capital Denpasar. “Seminyak has proved incredibly popular in the last couple of years,” explained James Cook, a marketing director with Savills Singapore, an international real estate agency. “It is full of lively beach bars, restaurants, boutiques and shops. It’s chaotic and great fun.” Owners here pay a premium to be near the clubs and restaurants, and to have close access to the airport and beaches. Across town, centrally located Sanur, Bali’s oldest beach resort area, is having a resurgence, with many new hotels under construction. “Sanur was forgotten as the focus moved to the resort areas of Jimbaran and Nusa Dua, but it has a gentle elegance of its own,” Cook said. 

Up the coast from Seminyak is the quieter area of Canggu, not far from the Tanah Lot Temple, one of the most sacred sites in Bali. It is popular with ex-pats, many of whom own villas near the black-sand beaches. “Some of the old Bali hands and expatriates, as well as the well-heeled have moved farther north up the coast,” Cook said. “There are some beautiful villas with magnificent views of the sea and the rice paddy fields.”

Some prospective residents are drawn to villas in Ubud, for the town’s more cultural and artsy vibe. “It all depends on personal choice and what you are looking for in your ideal home in Bali,” Cook added.

Side trips
The beaches near the cliff-top Uluwatu Temple at the tip of Bukit Peninsula are popular with surfers, tourists and residents alike, and on the island’s east coast, sun seekers head to the beaches of Candidasa and Pasir Putih. The island of Nusa Lembongan, just off Bali’s south coast, is a very popular getaway spot, as are the Gili Islands off the neighbouring Indonesian island of Lombok. Plus, the charms of Bali’s volcanic, mountainous interior appeal to some explorers. “I like riding a motorbike around on tiny roads in the mountains, trying hard to get lost, seeing what I can find,” O’Malley said. “Bali is a mountain island for me; paradise is in there.”

Ngurah Rai International Airport in southern Kuta has flights to many major capitals around the world. Bali is a three-hour flight to Perth in Western Australia and about a six-hour flight to Sydney. London is 16.5 hours away and it is more than 21 hours to New York.

Practical information
The market is buoyant in Bali, seeing both domestic and foreign investment, with Australians making up roughly half of overseas buyers. “Investment is coming from Jakarta and Surabaya, as well as from expatriates such as Singaporeans and Russians,” Cook said. “The British and the French are also very interested in property here.” While the Indonesian government does not allow foreigners to buy property directly, purchasers can secure a long-term lease or some ex-pats use a notary, called a nominee, to act as the official owner and mortgage holder, but that also carries its own risks.

Villas can cost between eight billion and 50 billion Indonesian rupiah. Many hotels and resorts also sell villas, apartments or studios that get included in the hotel’s inventory when not use by the owners. This type of property can start as low as 280 million Indonesian rupiah, and is usually a long-term leasehold, up to 70 years in some cases.

Further information
The Beat: bi-weekly entertainment magazine and gig guide to music, clubs and other events around the island

The Yak: lifestyle, culture and travel magazine centred around Seminyak

Murni and Jonathan’s Bali Blog: lush photos of Bali flora and fauna, people and culture