Bali is a beautiful and popular island - no matter how crowded, it is worth going. Its unique culture, cooking and architecture make it a great place for holiday. However, we were warned: avoid the Kuta/ubud axis where 90% of the tourists stay trapped in nice beach, luxury villas and all a party lover/backpacker would need.
We decided to do it our way - saving where it didn't matter and splurging when we wanted to. It was our first non-backpack holiday where we did spend on luxury accommodation ( which we never did before ). Expectations were high as Bali is surrounded by this yoga/relaxed / eat,pray & love aura ! We had a few disappointments but some amazing discoveries as well !
How did we want it: Away from Kuta / Ubud and with our own transport to explore the lesser known area and go away from the mass tourism. We achieved this by renting our own automatic scooter. We travelled super light, with planned every 4 days at least 2 days in the same place for washing our clothe. In this way, Alexis was driving with a backpack between his legs and I was carrying on my back the second one.
One stuff that I am sure you know: No more than 4 hours of driving in a day, because (I promise) you already don't feel your butt by the second hour. Also do plan for a daily flat tire budget ( we didn't ): it doesn't cost much to get it fixed, from 10,000 Rupiah for a quick fix to 70,000 Rupiah for the whole inside part changed ( and delivered at your hotel in the middle of nowhere ! ). Anyhow, even in the most impossible places, there is always some guy who can fix you up and someone willing to help. It is part of the trip, don't get frustrated. Our bike had good tires when we rented it ( not smooth ) but it had to go through 500 Km on shitty rocky roads at time with 150Kg on it, so...
To help you with saving some time and finding a good scooter, you can check out BikesBooking. They have a good selection in Bali. ( They also offer the bigger ones )
We know there is a way to get a tourist driving license in one or two days in Denpasar for a small price & quite easily... but we didn't really want to spend so much time around Kuta, so we took the risk of driving without one. It is not recommended... Apart from Ubud and Denpasar we didn't really saw any police on the road and when we saw them... well.... we drove behind cars or trucks as far away from the side walk to avoid being stopped. It worked - we only got really close to being stopped once, on the last day in Denpasar on a road block and we just kinda played dumb ignoring the police gesturing us to go aside. We do have other countries motorcycle driving license though - Alexis's know how to drive very well ( and hell we survived driving in Vietnam for a year ! )
The itinerary started from Denpasar where we found a cheap hotel in Kuta for the first night that had free transfer from the airport. (The airport taxi in Denpasar are super expensive - I heard using grab or go-jek app from just outside the terminal is much better, but we haven't tried it yet). In Kuta we stayed just one night, to find a motorcycle rental shop as well as change money. Since our flight from Bangkok arrived early afternoon, we went to visit the same evening the Ulu Watu temple and see the kecak dance there at sunset. The kecak dance was impressive and very mesmerizing ! At sunset the temple is beautiful with the nice orange color - however there is only one road going there, and traffic was very long - it took us more than 45min to 1 hour to drive there from kuta ( on a motorcycle ).
The following day, we went to Tanah lot temple and pursue on some other nearby temple ( can't remember the name ) and drove to Sang Giri mountain tent resort in Jatiluwih unesco rice paddy. Finding the location of that resort was very difficult - get their number and call as you get closer. We did everything with our offline "nokia map app" and some google preparation when internet was available. This resort was "glam-ping": isolated, no internet and super serene. The view was amazing and the tent super comfy. The food at the resort was great as well ( there isn't anywhere else to eat around really ). In this area, there was no gas station - you have to do with the small side of the road bottle petrol sales to keep going.
After this we had initially planned to go through the mountain to have some fresh air and enjoy the view and get to the menjagan national park at one of our most expensive accommodation. This was the longest stretch of road to do. We did some nice viewpoint coffee stops and took on the lakes view there. However when we arrived close to the menjagan, torrential rain poured down. So much that the road was blocked and no cars could even go through. We waited for more than 2 hours at a nearby café for the water to recede. After a while, I ended up walking with water more than knee deep through the "river" holding all our belongings over my head and Alexis barely managed to go through without flooding the engine of the motorcycle. We finally arrived at the Menjagan hotel ( 5 star luxury ) looking like dirty, wet hobos. Very funny but the staff was super friendly and show us where to park ( and of course we had a flat tire on the last 200m arriving there... ).
The menjagan was one of our best surprise. This hotel until today has exceeded all my expectations. The food, the people & the settings. Beautiful. In the morning at the beach café, you can see flying fish hopping above the water or if you chose to have breakfast at the jungle house, you can sit with a panoramic view above the trees ! The next day we went for a snorkeling around the menjagan island ( we were not divers yet back then ). We enjoyed it so much that we decided to stay one more day there and skip Mt batur. On the last day we booked a private Balinese cooking class, which was done at sunset in a private open hut in the middle of the mangrove - wonderful.
The staff helped us find some local guys who could come all the way to the national park to fix our flat tire and we were on our way. Since we didn't stop at Mt Batur, that part of the road all the way to the north of Sidemen road was very very long. I would recommend not doing it in one stretch it possible. We booked a small guesthouse last minute in the middle of the padi fields with a beautiful view of Mount Agung. Quite peaceful - the next day from there, we visited Tirta Gangga ( you can swim and relax there and there are changing rooms available ). Then we headed to Ubud.
Ubud was good and yet disappointing. We did a couple of days around and visited a lot of main and secondary attractions & temples. They were all beautiful - however there is just too many people. I didn't find that "spiritual" vibe that everyone tries to sell you. This was just hipser/touristy crap. What we loved in Ubud was the traditional dances, we saw a few ! The dancers are just so graceful and the music is quite something too. At night is does captivate you. I would recommend watching as many genre as you can. The one at the main palace had some of the nicest costumes. The monkey forest is spooky and outside of the tour hours, it provides a good walk. We purchased our souvenirs outside of Ubud whenever the shop seemed like someplace a local would go, or if it look like a wholesaler. I think we did some good deals ( but I may never know ! ). The hotel we stayed was the most expensive of the whole trip, the kamandalu. Very disappointed - not the room or the service, it was good. The food was really not on par with my expectations or what a 5 star hotel standard should be. We drove back to the main town for all diners / lunch after the first (bad) a la carte experience.
After Ubud, we drove straight to give back the motorcycle, had lunch in Kuta and caught a taxi to the airport. Holidays were over, but we did go back to Bali again not long after for diving in Amed ( where we did our open water certification ! ). And for sure there will be other visits. The island has still some nice places for us to discover !