I Traveled to Bali As It Reopened to Tourists — Here's What It's Like to Visit Now
"I forgot some of my English," said our buggy driver, Gede, with a laugh as he navigated the traditional Balinese village-esque paths winding across the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay, the aquamarine Indian Ocean radiantly glittering below. "And I lost some of my Bahasa Indonesia," I replied truthfully.
For two solid years during the COVID-19 pandemic, Bali was closed to the world, leaving many of us rusty when it comes to communication. But the famously sweet people from the so-called Island of Gods have not lost an ounce of their signature warmth and loving hospitality during this forced separation. If anything, I found locals to be even more welcoming and enthusiastic about having tourists in their temple-laden paradise once again.
It has been an extremely hard couple of years for the many who rely on tourism to feed their families. But you wouldn't know it by looking at this resort's staff. I didn't need to see their mouths to see the smiles — joy twinkles in their eyes. Yes, masks are still required in public across Bali, and resort employees adhere to the policy, though mostly let guests decide for themselves. Obviously, there's no need for them in the ubiquitous private villas and luxury hotel suites with plunge pools. Elsewhere, like in open-air restaurants, people recently loosened their mask-wearing rules. On this island, it feels like the pandemic is almost in the past.
That sensation is helped by the fact that days are spent outside in fresh air, from dining beachside at Sundara to learning to make Made's Margarita using local Kintamani tangerines in a zero-waste cocktail class at Telu, a brand-new open-air venue built by staff during COVID using reclaimed materials from around the resort.
A breeze wafted in during my Baru detox treatment at the resort's new Healing Village Spa — a glorious, jet-lag-busting 135 minutes that includes dry brushing, a clay wrap, facial, rainbow LED chromotherapy Vichy shower, and famously deep Balinese massage. And when my husband and I embarked on a self-directed ritual of sauna, mud mask, infrared beds, and ice tub immersion, it felt like we'd discovered a lush, ancient secret in the private Longevity Garden.
Returning to my happy place after two years away, Bali seems to have become more Balinese during its reprieve from Westerners — or maybe more proudly so. I'd never heard of Aksara Bali, but was fascinated to learn about the graceful, 1,000-year-old Balinese script from Four Seasons' cultural ambassador Ibu Atik, who taught me to write my name on paper and then, with great concentration, etch it into a lontar palm leaf and fill in the lines with hazelnut-based ink. I was thrilled to hear clanging gamelan as I walked down the cave to Padang Padang Beach and discovered a Hindu ceremony in progress on the sand, complete with the release of two ducks into the calm, turquoise ocean (to the delight of children).
Sitting poolside at Uluwatu Surf Villas after sunset, savoring Indonesian gin cocktails and dishes like tuna gohu, I was captivated by a live piano performance followed by the premiere of two short films created by Threads of Life, which illuminated the beauty and importance of Bali's richly woven material culture. And during a private master class at sustainably handcrafted Balinese jewelry brand John Hardy, I was immersed for a couple of hours in the legacy of drawing, gouache painting, wax carving, and chain weaving. Their popular workshop tours are still on hold due to COVID, but this opportunity to get hands-on instruction from a group of talented artisans and director of heritage Polly Purser resulted in even greater respect for these age-old crafts passed down in villages and families.
As of April, there were not yet crowds in most places. We were able to reserve an ocean-view table at Alila Villas Uluwatu for lobster brunch on Easter just a few hours in advance, for example. There is still traffic (especially on auspicious days when ceremony processions clog the roads), but fewer Westerners. As my friend and driver, Yanna, drove us from Padang Padang Beach north to the jungly rice terraced yoga hub of Ubud (his first time making the trip since COVID), he pointed at pairs of tourists where there used to be throngs. Outside one of my favorite shops, a temple to indigo textiles called Ikat Batik, monkeys seemed to have taken back the streets, eating canang sari offerings and nursing their babies on the sidewalk.
When we checked into COMO Shambhala Estate, which reopened in April after "sleeping" for two years, the general manager, Gede Suteja, said he was excited to count 16 foreigners in Ubud that morning as he drove his kids to school. The popular town struggled tremendously through the pandemic (most shops were closed until April). But there are many reasons to go, from incredible sights to personal well-being. Both are on offer at the heavenly property, where guests get a personal assistant and daily activities include restorative Pilates and hydrotherapy, all overlooking the dense Ayung River valley. On a morning Estate Walk — a hike of some 3,000 steps — we passed the serene and ancient water temple, The Source (used for blessings), as well as multiple waterfalls and several places for spa treatments (a must) and picnics, which we later ate out of traditional rice baskets, each of the dozen or so fresh Indonesian dishes cradled in banana leaves.
It may seem like the island is slowly waking up, but development didn't halt during COVID. Andaz Bali opened in Sanur in April 2021 — the brand's first outpost in Indonesia — with a modern Balinese village aesthetic plus a beachfront seafood restaurant grilling up fresh catch the local way on coconut husks. Desa Potato Head debuted its nearly zero-waste creative village in Seminyak and, most recently, bestowed Bali with an experiential alternative wellness mecca called Sanctuary, as well as plant-based restaurant Tanaman, which imaginatively uses every seed, stem, and leaf in psychedelic, multisensory dishes. Raffles Bali, meanwhile, celebrated its grand opening in 2021 and, at long last, Jumeirah Bali's all-pool villa resort on Dreamland Beach came in late April 2022.
Close to Ubud, Amandari launched a regenerative farming experience with Astungkara Way, while on the eastern coastline of the Lombok Strait, Amankila added a permaculture tour and cooking class, along with a sunrise cruise on the resort's classical jukung-style outrigger boat. Capella Ubud's Capella Culturists facilitate hyperlocal activities with families from Keliki village, like helping prepare ornate penjor bamboo poles or practicing gamelan with kids, and the property completed its 2,000-square-foot Lodge, a two-bedroom family tent with two distinctive bathtubs. Kimpton, LXR and Buahan (under Banyan Tree) properties are forthcoming.
No doubt Bali's reopening was cautious, but the ultra-involved visa requirements, quarantine periods, and multiple PCR tests are done. Checking in at LAX for our Singapore Airlines flight was a longer-than-normal process as we were asked to show the following: negative PCR tests taken within 48 hours (including for our 13-month-old daughter), vaccination cards, proof of insurance covering COVID-19, a hotel reservation, a QR code for the customs form, and the downloaded PeduliLindungi app. By contrast, landing at Ngurah Rai International Airport on April 9, 2022 was fairly simple. We walked through a temperature checkpoint to lines of chairs where, after 15 minutes or so, we showed our PCR tests, vaccination cards, and passports before being allowed to continue to the visa on-arrival counter, where a 30-day visa costs 500,000 IDR (about $38 USD).
It gave me happy chills to hear the masked, gloved woman who checked our documents say "sama sama" (you're welcome) in a singsong-y voice after I said "terima kasih" (thank you). Ours was the first instance of two flights landing at the same time since 2020, and I noticed more and more planes approaching Bali during our trip.
This sweet transition between deserted and overrun is ephemeral, I know, since Bali's special allure is almost impossible to resist. Those nimble enough to make it to the island soon might catch this rare moment: a little bit wilder, incredibly lush, with a tinge of old Bali. Even if it's not for awhile, rest assured, there's no chance of these smiles dimming anytime soon.