By Alyssa Bird for Architectural Digest.
The crown jewel of the Indonesian archipelago, Bali is an island of rich artistic traditions, ancient temples, and verdant mountains surrounded by turquoise sea. "Bali is my favorite place in the world, my spiritual refuge," says designer Donna Karan, who enlists Balinese craftspeople to help create her Urban Zen home-goods collection. "The first time I went, I fell in love," she recalls. New York-based furniture designer Andrianna Shamaris, who has been producing her line in Indonesia for more than 20 years, calls the island, simply, "another world."
Flourishing artisan trades such as jewelrymaking, woodworking, and basket weaving are among Bali's biggest draws. "Craftsmen are valued members of the community here," says Elora Hardy, the founder of Bali-based architecture and design firm Ibuku and a 2013 AD Innovator. "In general people stay true to their customs and beliefs while being very receptive to visitors."
The inland town of Ubud, the island's cultural hub, comprises several villages that support these crafts. A 30-minute drive north of the southern city of Denpasar--Bali's capital and home to the island's only airport--Ubud offers a wealth of experiences, from admiring Balinese artwork at the Museum Puri Lukisan to sampling the roasts at nearby coffee plantations to seeking out the best handmade wares. For leather goods, cotton bags, and silver jewelry, Hardy recommends Sisi + Nanan on Ubud's stylish Jalan Hanoman street. A few blocks away, Threads of Life carries naturally dyed tribal textiles, while on the other side of town, Gaya Ceramic and Design has custom-made dinnerware as well as pottery classes.
When it's time for a break from shopping, Hardy heads to the Sari Organik café and farm, not far from the town center, for organic Balinese cuisine. "It's a beautiful 20-minute walk through the rice fields," she says. For a more upscale dinner, try Franco-American chef Chris Salans's seasonal fare at the tasting-menu-only Mozaic, or book a table at Locavore, where Balinese produce is highlighted in a modern way.
Ubud is also an ideal base for day trips to the intricately embellished Hindu temples nearby, set among the abundant inland rain forests. Tirta Empul and Goa Gajah, each dating from a millennium ago, serve as fascinating links to ancient times, while Ulun Danu (+62-368-203-3050), a lakeside sanctuary, and the moat-ringed Taman Ayun, both 17th century, project a stately serenity. For accommodations, Karan favors the health-spa retreat Como Shambhala Estate--specifically, the Tirta-Ening villa, complete with its own Japanese water garden--and the eco-friendly 11-suite Bambu Indah boutique hotel, which Hardy's family opened in 2005. Another inviting option is the Hanging Gardens Ubud, dramatically perched above the Ayung River gorge.
Enchanting as the jungles of Bali's interior may be, the island's diverse beaches are some of the world's most beautiful. It's hard to go wrong with any on the Bukit Peninsula, Bali's southern tip. Shamaris frequents Padang-Padang, a cove dotted with theatrical rock formations, as well as Dreamland, a popular surf spot. For a beach-centric stay in the peninsula's eastern Nusa Dua area, try the ultraluxe St. Regis Bali. Or head a few miles west to the more intimate Bulgari Resort Bali or the tranquil Alila Villas Uluwatu. And make sure to plan an evening trip to the clifftop temple Luhur Uluwatu for a phenomenal sunset and a viewing of the kecak fire dance, traditionally performed by an all-male troupe.
Just a few miles north of the peninsula is the fashionable Seminyak district, which features a high concentration of smart shops and restaurants. Start with the busy streets Petitenget and Batu Belig, home to Carga, a chic purveyor of gifts and housewares, and the ceramics studio Kevala Home, respectively. For an unforgettable meal, the restaurant and boutique Métis serves elegant French-Mediterranean cuisine at tables overlooking an idyllic rice field. Hardy's area picks include La Finca for Spanish dishes, Mama San for Pan-Asian fare, and Sardine for freshly caught seafood.
A 30-minute drive northwest of Seminyak is Tanah Lot, perhaps the most recognizable of Bali's shrines. From its west-coast position, it offers one of the island's best sunset views, and less than ten miles away is the Alila Villas Soori hotel, a favorite of celebrities seeking a secluded getaway.
Bali is always evolving, with a steady stream of new restaurants and hotels attesting to its global appeal. In fact, Ritz-Carlton is preparing to unveil two properties here in the coming months, while several other luxury retreats are slated to debut over the next couple of years. Alongside these sophisticated international developments, the island's age-old traditions and natural beauty continue to thrive, making Bali a uniquely captivating destination.