Beautiful beaches. Traditional culture and cuisine. Chic contemporary restaurants and shopping. Thriving tourist enclaves. Welcoming, warm locals. There’s so much to love about Bali that it can be almost difficult to choose which part of the island to invest your time in. Pamela Hayes, owner of Villa Sungai private villas, has three grandchildren, has been travelling to Bali since 1997 and still visits every quarter. She shares her vision of everything Indonesia’s most popular tourist destination has to offer and why it makes for an excellent family holiday destination. 

What makes Bali so special?

Bali is a tropical haven where peace, beauty, culture and nature abound. Rice paddies cascading down rolling hills, crystal clear water licking at white sands, an array of exotic fish, volcanoes piercing the clouds and landscapes dotted with temple ruins all combine to keep bringing us back…particularly to the outlying, less inhabited and more beautiful areas of the island.

The climate is mild. The daytime temperature is always in the high twenties and the nights are cooler, but never cold.

With the Hindu religion being at the very core of Balinese culture, its people are defined by a sense of spiritualism and good will. I love the way the Balinese go about each day making offerings and being thankful. I like the way they treat others. A great deal of emphasis is placed on making the little parts of life beautiful.

The Balinese handle service so very well. They have proven a capacity to attain the level of professionalism that Westerners expect in even the very best establishments (and Bali does do 6 star). I also like to travel where the local language is not English and yet it is spoken well by the locals in shops, restaurants, resorts. This reminds you that you are indeed away from home and yet there is no inconvenience through language barriers.

Because of the commitment of major premium hotel chains such as AmanFour Seasons Hotels and ResortsThe Bulgari Resort  and Banyan Tree with their flagship resorts that attract high-end clientele, Bali has managed to attract outposts for some of the world’s best restaurateurs. This is most unusual for a holiday island and it is a lovely bonus if you choose to dine out.

Where’s the best place to stay in Bali for families traveling with kids?

This depends on budget and personal preferences. The closer to Kuta you get, the more down market the shopping and dining becomes. Yet there are many very popular family hotels in the area and some are beachfront. And young children will think everything is special!

The further north you go the better the beaches are maintained/cleaned (by better hotels/resorts) and the fewer touts and sellers of watches [on the beaches and in the streets]. The better hotels know that their guests do not want to be continually hassled and control this to some extent.

Kuta, Legian or Seminyak. What’s the difference and which is better for families travelling with children? 

Nearly all properties make children welcome so it is more a matter of the experience the parents wish to achieve rather than that of the children.

Kuta has many budget-type places to stay and is closer to the airport and also has many clubs and pubs.

There is Kuta Square, fixed-price shops on both sides with a road island in-between and at certain times of the days it's manic, traffic-congested and there is heavy walking traffic.

Most people at some stage end up in Matahari Department Store. Poppies Lane is popular with surfers, backpackers and travellers looking for budget accommodation. You will find bars and warungs (cheap eats), restaurants and shops, some with fixed prices and the market-type stalls selling beachwear.

Legian is more laid back. It's quieter [for foot traffic] than Kuta, still has a good choice of restaurants, bars and shopping and, in certain sections, the beach is also quieter. The beachfront hotels are separated from the beach by a walking-only path. Kuta and Legian beach are abuzz from around 4.30pm til sunset.

Located just north of Legian, Seminyak is one of Bali's more relaxed, upscale areas. Seminyak has more upmarket shopping boutiques, restaurants and accommodation…and it is spreading up the coast towards Canggu. Seminyak is filled with beachside resorts, villa complexes, fine dining restaurants and funky bars. Much of Bali's nightlife has moved into this area making Seminyak the place to be seen. You can also find some great stores stocking designer homewares, clothes, furniture and other good quality Balinese items. [To read more about shopping for children in Seminyak read Shop Seminyak.]

I prefer Seminyak because the beaches are better maintained and perhaps the sewerage is more ethically disposed of (and yet all the beaches join up!). You need to get away from the tourist areas for pristine water. Touts are also less prevalent than at the Kuta end.

How does Jimbaran Bay differ from these three destinations?

I would definitely choose Jimbaran above the Kuta/Legian/Seminyak beaches as they are usually cleaner and they are not big surf beaches [good for younger children]. However, you are more remote if parents want shopping and better dining.

Uluwatu is a well known surfing destination. But is it appropriate for families?

All the major resorts sell themselves as being suitable for children and provide kids’ clubs. Bear in mind that children won’t be suited to the surfing beaches but the resorts themselves will work for children as well as anywhere. Again, you are more remote [if you want to access the amenities and nightlife of] Kuta/Seminyak/Legian.

What about Canggu? Is it family-friendly?

Primarily Canggu is a villa enclave. The beaches are for serious surfers and are black sand so not so attractive to guests if they are used to white/yellow sand beaches. But to walk along any beach can be nice and especially fun for children.

It depends on the villa as to whether they are going to be family-friendly. But there are quite a number of casual family-friendly dining options in Canggu and this is increasing all the time. Canggu is the new happening area of Bali. Lunches out can be particularly fun for a change [from in-villa dining].

[Canggu is about a half hour drive from Seminyak and further to Kuta.] For families, there is no need to travel to Seminyak [from Canggu] and it would really be a waste of time. It’s better to let the children play on the beach while parents enjoy the laid back eateries which are mostly beachfront. But you want upmarket dining [or your villa does not focus on premium dining] you will need to go to Seminyak.

What’s in Ubud?

Deep in the mountainous centre of Bali, among hanging banyan trees and lush rice paddies is a small town thought to be the Indonesian island's spiritual and cultural heart. Ubud is a very personal destination. To many its small Balinese village's atmosphere has long since disappeared and its attraction now resides in its strategic location which allows one to be in close contact with the rest of rural Bali. By all means, you should make a point to come and visit the place. You will have a chance to experience a bit of Balinese life which is mostly invisible if you are staying in the tourist hubs of Seminyak, Legian, Sanur, Nusa Dua.

Ubud is the cultural heart of Bali in all respects – in both fine and applied arts. The dance troupe and gamelan orchestras of Ubud Palace consistently win the highest awards in the Bali annual fine arts festival. Ubud and its environs are home to the finest and most comprehensive museums and fine arts galleries on Bali. The views along the Ayung River Gorge are among the most spectacular views in Bali.

I wouldn't recommend spending a whole day in Ubud, especially if you don't like art galleries or markets. It probably doesn’t do Ubud justice as the main centre it is all about shopping and markets. The touts (especially for transport) are extremely annoying and much more prevalent than in Seminyak. I would recommend stopping off there for an hour or so on your way to somewhere else because there are lots of tourist attractions surrounding Ubud.

The real beauty of Ubud is to be found in the surrounding countryside which is breathtaking. The key historical sites are located out of town, some as far as 20 kilometres away, and you might find it worthwhile joining a tour to visit these. If you do visit attractions such as Goa Gajah, Gunung Kawi, Pura Kehen and Tirta Empul under your own steam, try to find a knowledgeable guide when you get there. Whilst you will certainly appreciate the beauty of these places, their cultural and spiritual significance may be lost without a guide.

However, do note that many people will spend a week in Ubud and still have not achieved what they wanted. Some of the finest restaurants, including Bali’s top restaurant, Mozaic,  are located in Ubud or its immediate environs. Unlike most other major towns or cities of Bali, you won’t find any golden arches or any fast food chains in Ubud. If anything, Ubud has done a better job than anywhere else on Bali in maintaining its cultural roots and integrity.

For children I think perhaps you are better not to be locked into Ubud but access it for the odd day trip from more central spots.

Ubud has grown rapidly, and some central parts are creaking under the strain of coping with the number of visitors. That said, most development is sympathetic to the zeitgeist, if not designed specifically in the local style. Growth continues apace, but there are still terraced rice fields along the rivers, and, away from the town centre, regular, quiet village life carries on relatively undisturbed.

Is there anything in Denpasar? Is it worth visiting?

I think of Denpasar as the business area of Bali. Sprawling, hectic and ever-growing, Bali's capital has been the focus of a lot of the island's growth and wealth over the last five decades. It can seem a daunting and chaotic place but spend a little time on its tree-lined streets in the relatively affluent government and business district of Renon and you'll discover a more genteel side. Southeast of the town centre, Renon is laid out on a grand scale, with wide streets, large car parks and huge tracts of landscaped space. You'll find the government offices here, many of which are impressive structures displaying an ersatz Balinese style.

Denpasar might not be a tropical paradise, but it's as much a part of “the real Bali” as the rice paddies and cliff top temples. This is the hub of the island for almost 800,000 locals and here you will find their shopping malls and parks. Most enticing, however, is the growing range of fabulous restaurants and cafés aimed at the burgeoning middle class. You'll also want to sample Denpasar's markets, its excellent Museum Negeri Propinsi Bali (Jalan Let Col Wisnu, Denpasar, Indonesia, Tel: + 62 361 222680) and its modern Balinese vibe. Most visitors stay in the tourist towns of the south and visit Denpasar as a day trip (if traffic is kind you can get here in 30 minutes from Seminyak).

What are the experiences that make Bali for kids for unique?

I prefer a more personal and private holiday that is equally attractive to adults and children but not part of the tourist hubs. Bali has so much more to offer than theme parks and water parks.

Stay at a private villa and access children’s activities such as elephant riding, white water rafting, surfing lessons, dance performances, puppet shows, the Bali Zoo on a daily outing basis so that you can take advantage of what your villa provides. Unless you are staying in low-level accommodation, your accommodation should leave you with memories of much more than just a bed.

A good villa will be something that will be an experience in itself without needing to leave, especially if the surrounding area is beautiful. You have your own built-in concierge and (hopefully) spa facility and, of course, a feature pool that children will spend most of their time in. The children then get to know the staff and experience the local culture, something that cannot be achieved in a resort in the tourist hubs. I also prefer less touristy locations so if you choose to stay on or near the beach make sure it is away from the tourist areas where pollution is more of an issue.

I love the east coast of the island around Candi Dasa because it is still pristine and has ocean views from the better resorts. If you want a total beach experience, in the south you can find (relatively) still water for the children at Jimbaran or the nicer parts of Tanjung/Nusa Dua and the sand is white/yellow.

What are your top must-dos for visitors to Bali?

For younger children I suggest:

·  Bali Zoo 

·  A traditional dance performance (but not a full blown 90-minute one as the children will become bored). A 15-minute show can be hosted by Villa Sungai

For teenagers I suggest:

·  Water sports at Sanur (or scuba diving on Nusa Lembongan)

·  White-water rafting on the Ayung River 

·  Elephant riding at Elephant Safari Park in Taro, Ubud 

For more information on private villas in Bali, read the suitcases&strollers story Balinese Villas Compared or Thai and Bali Villas

For more Bali basics, read the suitcases&strollers story Bali Essentials. For more information on activities to do with kids in Bali, read the suitcases&strollers story Bali Insider. For more information on family-friendly restaurants in Bali, read the suitcases&strollers story here.