Kuta, the most accessible, lively and commercialized of Bali's southern beaches, is noted more for surf than for swimming and more for parties than for sunbathing. If you don't want to dance till dawn, Legian or Sanur offer quieter experiences, and Tuban is perfect for a family adventure. If golf is your game, the place to be is Nusa Dua. But for the "real" Bali, you'll need to venture beyond any of these resorts.
Nearest major international airport: Denpasar
Kuta is a mere 2 miles from the airport, but traffic can get heavy so allow plenty of leeway.
Direct Perama tourist minibuses run from Kuta to the city of Ubud, Bali's cultural center, and to more distant beaches such as Lovina. These tourist minibuses are generally more sensible than using the crowded local bemos (converted minivans); Perama are quicker, easier to navigate, and the price difference between the two is negligible.
Renting a car or motorbike is very inexpensive if you use local firms. However, driving on the winding mountain roads and in the crowded beach areas can be exhausting. So, let someone else do the work: For little more than the insurance you'd have to pay for yourself, you can hire a driver as well.
Unlike most of South East Asia, Bali has its (relatively) dry season between May and October, though it's popular at any time of year. Indeed, December and January are especially popular with Australian "summer" holiday-makers despite the humidity and probability of some downpours.
Kuta has the world's first Hard Rock Hotel. At its fringes are several palatial hotels that maintain beautiful gardens designed to incorporate typical local features, notably 'Balinese split gateways.' In addition, there are also plenty of simple, backpacker places.
In every price range, hotels get pretty full in the high season (Christmas, July and August). At other times you can generally bargain prices down considerably. Prices vary significantly with the constantly fluctuating exchange rate.
Indonesian food is healthy and delicious, and uses a tremendous variety of fruits, spices, fish, coconut and peanuts. If terms like gado gado (crunchy salad with peanut sauce) and sambal (chili and coconut mix) are unfamiliar, try ordering a raistafel - a table full of different little dishes to sample. In addition to local food, Kuta restaurants can serve up just about any other international cuisine you crave and at surprisingly reasonable prices for relatively high quality.
Bali is much more than just Kuta. It has more temples than homes, and there are so many festivals that you'll almost certainly find one during a week's stay - if you venture beyond Kuta. For many temple visits, local decorum will require you to wear a sarong (unisex wraparound 'skirt') and sash. If you don't have your own, you can rent one at each site.
Be very careful when using moneychangers in Kuta. They aren't violent, but they have a dozen ploys to cheat you - the essence of which is shamelessly handing you less than you should have. Stacks of 10 notes may have 8 or 9, or may have a confusing mixture of denominations. If challenged, many simply say the rate has changed for 'technical reasons.' Outside Kuta, most moneychangers are honest and reliable, though rates are slightly lower.
While you are there
For cultural displays, it's difficult to beat the setting of Ubud's palaces and temples - much more appealing than seeing the same dances at a Kuta hotel. Ubud also has a delightful range of idyllic, candle-lit restaurants, some of which are part temple.
To fake that you've been there
Chuckle at the over-keen cyclists who you saw struggling up and down the island's steep terrain. Alternatively, casually mention that popping your rented mountain bike on the back of a bemo towards Bedegul meant you could freewheel downhill almost all the way back to Kuta, giving you all the more time for a few pre-prandial drinks.
Linking for a better vacation
Private Vacation Villas in Bali concentrates on giving accommodation options, but also has a good map and information on restaurants and activities.
Mark Elliott has worked and traveled in five continents and is the co-author of Asia Overland, a Trailblazer publication.