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I like Bali.
The part I like most is the part that is less traversed. It seems like everyone has been to the southern part of the island. And more individuals have discovered Ubud since Elizabeth Gilbert put it on the map in Eat Pray Love. But a majority of visitors to this island paradise never venture north of the Monkey Forest – and that’s actually okay with me.
You see, the hidden spots in Bali are still the best ones.
When my Indonesian adventure this past winter took me to the remote northern port of Celukan Bawang, I was excited. It was a bit further afield than I’d ventured before on my previous Bali trips (which I stopped counting at a dozen) and would give me a different view of the island.
We booked our cruise through a Virtuoso travel agent (Michelle Harvell at Cruises Etc.) and one of the perks of select cruises is that they are designated as Virtuoso hosted sailings. They include not only a special private cocktail reception on board but also your own dedicated host agent on the sailing (in this case, the fabulous Barbara Stein and her partner Ted Cookson).
But the very best part is the special Virtuoso Voyager excursion they plan for their guests in a select port. In my experience, they usually pick a port that may be more difficult for travelers to plan their own itinerary. Guests are treated to a full day of touring in a private bus including a deluxe lunch at a Virtuoso resort.
When we docked in Celukan Bawang, the locals literally rolled out the red carpet for us.
We walked along the dockside to Balinese women tossing flower petals as a gamelan orchestra played traditional music.
We were greeted at the end of the dock by our local host – Trails of Indochina – and we boarded our private bus and set off on winding mountain roads for our first stop at the Vihara Buddha Banjar temple, about an hour away.
This site is both a Buddhist temple complex as well as a monastery. The temple is said to mirror Borobudur in some ways.
After this stop, we traveled to Lake Bratan and the beautiful Ulun Danu Temple, ride that was seemingly about another hour away. At this many of our group were restless and needed to use a toilet or stretch their legs.
This water temple was in the middle of a festival day so the grounds were lively with many locals engaged in various worship and ceremonial activities.
It was raining by the time we arrived so we strolled around the grounds with many of the ubiquitous black & white Seabourn golf umbrellas on display. We were limited on what we were able to see up close or photograph because of the ceremonies in progress but it was still a beautiful stop.
Then it was more time on the bus to reach the Buyan and Tamblingan twin lakes. It was a gorgeous view but a few people were annoyed that we had journeyed so far for just a quick rainy photo stop.
Then it was back on the bus for our next stop for lunch at the lovely Moding Plantation Nature Resort and Spa.
Lunch – a lovely three-course Indonesian meal – was immediately served in their Mimpi Restaurant.
The meal was delicious – the main course of roast minced chicken was one of my favorite Indonesian meals on this entire trip. They also offered dietary accommodation such as sauted bananas for those with gluten-intolerance.
During dessert, we were treated to a private performance from a local dance school accompanied by their village gamelan orchestra.
We reluctantly left the beautiful resort and boarded the bus for the ride back to the port.
Our lovely hostess Barbara Stein asked if the group wanted to make any other stops but after all the winding traffic and rainy stops, we answered with a resounding NO as our day was already as good as it was going to get.
I was grateful for the opportunity to visit several sites in northern Bali that I knew I might have never gotten to on my own. And now that I’ve visited the resort, I might again for a longer stay. In this case, the ship offered no comparable tours and due to the lighter tourism on this side of the island, there were almost no independent excursion options available so the Virtuoso option turned this from being a “blah” port to a good one.
The downside of our day was the amount of time we spent on the bus. We were gone for close to eight hours and of that, we spent over five of them on the bus winding up and down the narrow wet hilly roads. This tour is definitely not for anyone who easily gets carsick or who can’t sit for long periods of time. Luckily we were still tired from the volcano hike at Mount Bromo the previous day, so the bus provided a nice nap time!
Still, it was a wonderful way to experience this more remote port. And after this, we’d have a sea day before seeing the Komodo dragons.