Bali is an idea: A perfect tropical island, with fine hotels, happy people, great beaches, good weather, and cheap. There are excellent facilities for catering to any size meeting, it's a wonderful place to hold a convention. It's a perfect to add-on to a visit to South East Asia.
Best activity in Bali: sit on your verandah, watch the clouds crash silently in to the distant purple cones of volcanic mountains, listen to the frangipane blossoms drop silently to the ground, wonder how you got to be in such a beautiful location, and amuse yourself by trying to remember the meaning of the word "s t r e s s".
Greatest Pity about Bali: Many visitors to Bali see only the sights which have been arranged or contrived to please tourists. Anything within half an hour's drive of the airport can safely be assumed to be made for holidaying visitors. Nothing wrong with that if you want to drink cheap (but decent) beer, or to spend your time in the easy, self-contained refuge of a hotel compound. That can be nice, but never think that it's got anything to do with Bali.
Bali is very small, but what it lacks in kilometres of length and width size, it makes up in depth and details. The fabulous, brilliant, never-ending and real Bali begins just slightly off the beaten path. And it's accessible, sort of.
There is a non-system of unofficial tourism control in Bali that's been very effective in preserving the character of 90% of this much-visited island. Balinese tourist control consists of building good roads between the airport and the best hotels, but rather worse roads to the small villages, the interesting temples, the panoramic views of crater lakes and volcanic mountains, and the undisturbed black-sand beaches.
In Bali the naturalness of the location is inversely proportional to the quality of the road. But since it's not a big island, even the bad roads are not long roads.
For backpackers and locals the mini-vans known as bemos will take you anywhere. But, they don't go anywhere until they're over-full. They make the sophomoric exercise of telephone booth cramming look like a lonely experience. By far the best way to get around is to rent your own car. Rentals are reasonable and, for $5 more you can get a driver for the day.
Second best activity in Bali: Park your car and walk ten minutes along a country path. You'll be shocked at how quickly you have given the 20th century the slip: no overheard wires, no modern buildings. Perhaps there might be a 20th century T-shirt worn between the sarong and the smiling face of the woman walking along the path towards you with a load of bricks on her head, perhaps not.
Once in the countryside, you're welcome to look in on almost any temple ceremony - there's one nearly every other day in most villages. Don't expect marked paths, but from anywhere you can head out on a cross counrty walk through the shimmering greener than green rice terraces built up over 1,000 years of continuous cultivation. On Mount Bratur you can climb a volcano or contemplate its lake from a great height. In the highlands, walk through aromatic clove orchards, and buy a few kilos of fruit for a dollar.
It is a good idea to pick up some fruit for your Balinese friends (if you've been in Bali two days you've got Balinese friends.) Balinese rarely travel more than a few kilometres from their home, so to a "southerner", fruit from the north is a welcome gift. If the fruit is especially good, your friend may flatter your gift by saying that it will be used as an offering in the temple. Don't be disappointed at this, what the gods don't eat is brought home again.
Cockfights are supposed to be illegal in Bali, or at least semi-illegal, but at many major village festivals the gentle Balinese are happily laying bets on this blood sport. Find a cockfight and then do the rounds of the major temples and understand the depth of the Balinese attachment to their very gentle Hinduism.
It's the island's own brand of Hinduism that is the single largest influence on the Balinese character. Bali was the only major hold-out against the tide of Islam that swept this part of the world 400 years ago.
Balinese Hinduism incorporates Bali's even older animist religion. Offerings for unknown and unnamed spirits are handed out several times a day. Tiny servings of flowers and fruit are left on the ground to appease the bad spirits, and higher up on shrines, doorways, merchandise, kitchen stoves ... to encourage the good spirits.
Every bend in the road has a shrine, or a place to make an offering. After any automobile accident the nearest shrine is heaped with flowery offerings to mollify the obviously outraged resident spirit.
On your first few days in Bali, you notice every place these offerings are left. After a few days you begin to notice (and be concerned about) any place that doesn't have an offering to the local spirit.
The ceremonies that are such a constant part of Balinese life are occasions for the parallel realities of the spirit world and the human realm to come together. It is normal to hear gamelan orchestras practising on a quiet afternoon or playing at temple festivals long into the night. Balinese music is rarely written down, but groups of forty musician play complex, sparkling rhythms in perfect synchronization for hours on end. The dance that almost inevitably goes with the music will be based on traditional stories from the biographies of the gods.
The depths of Hinduism are inaccessible to the short term visitor, but there's no doubt that it is Bali's spiritualism that makes this place so unique. Bali is only one green spot in a sea of islands. Other islands have the all the physical attributes to let cold northerners think of them as being paradise. No where other than Bali seems to have the divine magic that touches every part of everyday life. No where else defies logical study to such an extent that the only realistic description of Bali is a highly romanticized version of the facts.