The word most often heard spoken about Bali is "bagus" which simply means good or beautiful. It's an accurate epithet but one often sullied by scenes of louche tourist behaviour along the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak holiday strip.
Yet Bali the beautiful and eternally evocative does exist. All it takes is a hire car, a little effort and a dash of enterprise to find where this fabulous island remains largely untouched by the excesses of mass tourism. I've been visiting for decades and still I find places that evoke my initial responses of enchantment, awe and inspiration.
The roads leading into the interior from the town of Klungkung negotiate a crumpled lava-flow landscape forming the southern skirts of sacred Gunung Agung, the island's largest volcano and Bali's spiritual core.
This serene rural region of fertile valleys, slow-paced change, ancient rituals and sculpted, painstakingly tended rice paddies is where villages like Bungaya, Asak and Timbrah exemplify a Balinese lifestyle largely unperturbed by modern pressures.
It's here you'll find escape from dusty, frenetic Denpasar and the clamour of Kuta. Tradition still holds sway in this lush countryside, seasonal changes are heralded with due ceremony, wise councils of elders make the important decisions on village concerns.
Temples for days
Gods and spirits are intricately woven into Balinese life. Devotion is a fixed, cohesive element that helps keep local culture intact. On the slopes of Gunung Agung is the 8th century Pura Besakih, the 'mother temple'. It's Bali's largest holy site with three main complexes dedicated to the Hindu trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - creator, preserver and destroyer. Besakih is a popular visitor attraction so it's best to treasure its mystique in quiet times before the tour buses roll up.
Other realms of outstanding natural beauty and timeless solitude exist around Iseh and Sidemen in the Unda River valley near Klungkung. Iseh's loveliness and quietude spurred the famous artist Walter Spies (1895-1942) to build a hut here in the 1930s as his tranquil retreat from busy Campuan. His original hut has long since been transformed into a sumptuous four-bedroom holiday villa.
The village of Tenganan, near the huddle of coastal resorts at Candi Dasa, is home to the Bali Aga, descendants of the island's original inhabitants. A visit here offers only the briefest glimpse of old Bali becuase tour groups and the brisk trade in carved wood and palm leaf souvenirs make Tenganan feel like a theme attraction. Nonetheless it's an interesting diversion. The village specialty is a hand-made ceremonial cloth called gringsing.
Unforgettable vistas of precisely scalloped, terraced hillsides are the natural reward of pottering through the eastern regency of Karangasem. In the 19th century this was the most powerful kingdom on the island.
Beyond Amlapura, a less-frequented route snakes past Seraya and heads off around Bali's eastern-most fringe following a precipitous road carved into the flanks of Mt Seraya. It passes above steep hidden valleys in which small, isolated communities eke out a living from salt panning and fishing. There are sensational panoramic views over the sea toward Lombok.
No bid to experience an unadulterated Bali can ignore that it's "the island of the gods" with an estimated 20,000 temples. Apart from Pura Besakih, my shortlist of temples not to miss includes Ulun Danu in its beautiful location on the shores of Lake Beratan at Candi Kunung, just off the road that links Denpasar to the north coast. While there it's worth taking time out in the Bali Botanical Garden.
North east of Ubud at the village of Tampaksiring is the lovely Tirta Empul temple with bathing pools filled by healing waters bubbling from an underground spring in which locals daily wash away their cares and aches. At the nearby 11th century Gunung Kawi temple a complex 300-steps climb is rewarded with the sight of impressive, weather worn stone monuments carved out of the cliff-face. It's in unique locations such as these that it's easy to see and feel the everlasting beauty of Bali.
Stay in villa luxury
Cepaka (pronounced Che-paka) is a village in the district of Tabanan, directly north of the famous Balinese coastal temple Tanah Lot. Cepaka is reached along winding narrow roads that effectively filter out all the commotion common to island travel. It's not a place where the average tourist might wander, except by fortune. There are no tour bus visits. But it would be dishonest to suggest tourism hasn't touched this tranquil village.
Several luxurious villas have been built above a river flowing from the slopes of the mountain called Gunung Batakau. They're owned by foreigners, including several Australians, and occupy land where rice won't grow which is why the village elders granted renewable leases and allowed limited development. Locals helped build the villas, now they work in them and the holiday homes generate income for the village as a whole.
The villas are luxurious yet unobtrusive. It's only when you descend the steep steps leading down to the river that you discover open pavilions and air-conditioned bedrooms set around a pool and air-conditioned bedrooms set around a pool and surrounded by lush gardens.
A villa stay means avoiding the Bali tourist crush while indulging in creature comforts. It can be reasonably affordable when the cost is shared among close friends. For example, Villa Sungai can accommodate up to six adults from around $200 per person per night, depending on season (and Sungai gold next door can accommodate four more adults in two master suites) with 24-hour staff and a chauffeured vehicle available for touring.
Another villa in the area is Kembali on the River and the Walter Spies House in Iseh is also available for holiday rent.