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Years ago, when Bali was mentioned, honeymoons, scuba-diving, lavish resorts and Bob Hope "Road" movies came to mind. Later, with the Kuta bombings and knowledge that Indonesia was a Muslim country with its fair share of turmoil, I figured that there must have been something very special beyond Bali's verdant surface that made it such an attractive destination for so many.
The chance for me to visit Bali surfaced unexpectedly when I was invited by bodog.com to interview founder Calvin Ayer for a men's lifestyle magazine. Certainly, Ayer must have been inspired by Bali, as he was there to tape segments for a television series his company was producing.
Sweetening the last-minute deal would be the fact that I'd be flying Cathay Pacific over (one of the best economy-class flights I've ever experienced), staying in a gorgeous resort and would have plenty of leisure time to travel around the island. Eighteen hours and one Hong Kong stopover later, I would get one of the great surprises of my life as a traveler.
Though the airport in main city Denpasar looked a little like an old Trader Vic's (albeit with 21st-century touches of airport security and cappuccino kiosks), once outside, I realized quickly -- and with great delight -- that I wasn't in Honolulu anymore.
The cab ride to the hotel in the Nusa Dua resort area was a living documentary of daily life in Bali, complete with a savvy driver and motorbikes buzzing around us in all directions. In his narration, he put any fears to rest, praised the perseverance of Bali's people, and pointed out shopping and restaurants along the main drag.
However, as the Nusa Dua resort area opened up to embrace us like a Southeast Asian Emerald City, he recommended that I and my journalist/companion (also there to profile Ayer) hire a driver to take us around the island instead of a bus tour.
"I can tell you ladies are far too independent for the touristy thing," he declared. "As the dollar goes farther here than other places, you'll find a private driver is worth every penny."
The Nusa Dua resort area -- put on the map by the Sultan of Brunei -- is an oasis dotted with sumptuous hotels built for coupling and diving. This is the Bali that I imagined, marrying the exotic with the manicured.
At the very center of the development was our home for the week, the Nusa Dua Beach Resort (www.nusaduahotel.com). Although it's no longer the most posh hotel in the enclave, it remains plenty luxurious, yet also retains a wonderful sense of authenticity thanks to its astute, committed and mostly local staff.
The presidential suite is the one-time private vacation residence of the sultan (where our billionaire bachelor was sultan for the week), complete with elegant landscaping and over-the-top 1930s' decor.
Perfect Day, Every Day
However, what was most appealing about the resort was its real local flavor (as opposed to standard-issue five-star resorts that could also exist in Honolulu or Puerto Rico). The perfect day, which was almost every day, began with watching an indescribably spectacular sunrise on their jetty and then wandering to their main restaurant for a massive breakfast buffet that could carry you through the entire day, not just with tempting local fruits but also an entire halal/kosher/ vegetarian section that added real peace of mind to enjoying local cuisine.
I carried it a step further by taking the Nusa Dua Spa's daily yoga class. The instructor shared her story of losing her business after the Kuta bombings; continuing her work with the hotel was a way of rebuilding her own life, as well as Bali's livelihood.
The hotel activity planners -- in addition to the private drivers they hooked us up with -- also told similar tales that added substance and gravity to the island's limitless supply of beauty.
Our driver Made (Mah-dey) took our interests seriously, grilling us with a smile as he took a mental inventory of everything we wanted to see and do. We had to shop for jewelry, naturally, and we heard Ubud was a must.
Of course, we also had to see some of the Hindu temples and local wildlife.
And though he looked at us quizzically, he agreed to show us some of the more interesting sites in Denpasar (that were not outlet malls) later in the day. For days so carefully planned, everything felt very spontaneous and relaxed.
Ubud was certainly charming, with a main street that featured Seraphim, an elegant shop showcasing pieces by Rah & Katie East light years away from familiar Balianese-made baubles sold in American college towns and gift shops.
We also wandered through Puri Saren (Ubud Palace), where locals were preparing for a major Hindu celebration that involved floats and costumes. Yet the real "wow" moments came with visits to spots like Pura Puseh Batuan, the Bahian Village, Tampak Village and Pura Gunung Kawi Temple.
Made impressed us with a jaunt to I Ketut Pasta in Sukawati/Gianyar (a village where the main street is literally paved with gold and silver), offering beautiful silver jewelry at reasonable prices (chunky silver bracelets with semi-precious stones go for $25-$50), as well as a larger, more expensive mega-shop, where you could actually watch pieces being made. Working our way home via Denpasar, we stopped at the larger-than-life Bajra Sandhi Monument, which symbolized Bali's independence from the Dutch ... something still relevant in the 21st century.
A few months on from that trip, I realized just how enlightened Bali could be beyond facials and architecture. A news story called my attention to a conference staged on Bali to affirm the reality of the Holocaust.
Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for insisting that the Nazi killing of 6 million Jews was just a myth. The Hindu outpost of this predominantly Muslim country brought together moderate Muslim leaders, Hindu spiritual head Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Buddhist teachers, a Jesuit priest and several respected rabbis to discuss peace and tolerance.
On many fronts, with all this in mind, Bali is paradise found.
To learn more, visit: www. bali-tourism-board.com.