The first time I traveled to Bali, I promptly drove my motorbike into a bush, fell off, and had my keys hastily confiscated by a frantic and apparently litigation-averse bike rental company employee, all in front of a group of attractive Australian surfers who were, in my memory at least, collectively shirtless, tawny, and glistening (and laughing, at me).
It was an inauspicious start to the trip. Luckily, it’s easy to forget about your ego in a place like this, with its sweeping beaches, tidy rice fields, and eclectic crowds: There are honeymooners and backpackers and drunk Australians and women who use juice as a verb and are really into things like mandalas and crystal healing. Even back in 2013, the island was already entering its Eat, Pray, Love hangover, inundated with dime-a-dozen yoga studios, healers of various powers and varying claims to authenticity, and the many tourists who came to visit them.
In November, when I returned to Bali, I was unsurprised to see that what has been a fairly reasonable destination (at least once you get here) is in a development boom, with prices rising and many of the rice fields being cleared away to build villas, homes, and hotels — typically to house visitors and expats.
But Bali can still be both affordable and environmentally conscious, if you do a little hunting. “Eco-friendly,” like “vegetarian,” is a flexible term — maybe you recycle but don’t compost; maybe you eat fish but not chicken — so here you’ll find everything from the most hippie-eco to the more flexible green-friendly. Bali’s busy vacation scene also means that the best deals tend to be a little bit outside the tourist hot spots. You’ll have better luck finding homes that are both environmentally friendly and inexpensive near Ubud than near the popular south coast beaches.
All of them make for delightful vacations, for the environment and your wallet, especially if you rent a motorbike to get around. Just watch out for bushes.
A Beachy Hideaway, Little Tree House, $30-$60 a night
Little Tree House Sanur. (Photo: Airbnb)
The touristy beach-adjacent areas of Uluwatu, Jimbaran, Kuta, and Seminyak are black holes for affordable eco-friendly digs, even on Airbnb. Many of the options are soulless new developments sitting in the middle of construction zones, aesthetically displeasing and a hike from the beach, or they’re linoleum-floored fluorescent-lit little rooms in cheapo hotels.
But Sanur, a quieter pocket just a few minutes’ drive from the busy areas on the southern part of the island, offers surf and sand on a budget — and at the Little Tree House, listed on Airbnb for about $50 a night, you get a lot for your money.
Little Tree is an old Balinese house that has been refurbished into a six-room hotel. (“Old,” on this island, means it dates back to the 1980s.) The name comes from the tree out front, which is not that little. The owners recycled some of its prunings to make their large dining table, the bar in the kitchen, and other pieces of furniture, and the “little tree” still towers over the front-yard pool.
To save energy, Little Tree uses low-wattage candescent light bulbs and energy-efficient water heaters. With no formal recycling program in Bali, the owners collect cans and bottles themselves and give them to a local guy who resells them for money. Each room is airy and comes with Pinterest-ready touches: pillows embroidered with sweet quotes and gauzy mosquito nets canopying the beds. There’s a small, inviting pool out front if the beach, a five-minute walk away, isn’t calling. Within steps away is a smattering of restaurants and spas, plus a few midlevel hotels and a popular yoga studio.
A Verious Serious Eco-Retreat, Green Tara, $25 a night
Bali Permaculture Farm & Surf Villa. (Photo: Airbnb)
Green Tara is the vegan of eco-friendly options in Bali: This is by far the greenest of the green. There are partly open roofs instead of A/C; they grow much of their own food; all the scraps are composted; there’s no Wi-fi or hot water; and for a while the toilet paper supply was cut off in favor of reusable cloths. (That policy didn’t last long.)
If you want to go hardcore environmental, this is the place for you. Located up a winding hill on the Bukit Peninsula, there isn’t much around other than a warung (small restaurant) or two, and most of the guests are here to surf. You’ll want a motorbike to get yourself to the beach or anywhere else. Just be aware that Green Tara is less a crash pad than a community: They want folks who will stay for weeks or months at a time, so there’s a one-week minimum to book and most of their guests are there longer. Everyone is also very tan. But if you come, you can look forward to homegrown bananas, avocados, tomatoes, melons, and other fresh fare, and sharing with a group of creative types who spend their downtime playing music or painting murals when they aren’t tracking down the best waves the island has to offer.
The Family Escape, Wooden House, $35-$60 a night
Wooden House in Ubud Rice Fields. (Photo: Airbnb)
Just a few blocks from Sawah Indah, one of the most famous restaurants in Ubud (the Indonesian president eats here whenever he’s in town), down a dirt road and behind an iron gate, sits an orderly, simple little villa, perfect for the family on a budget. There are two rooms, one upstairs and one down, an open-air kitchen and dining space, and a no-frills bathroom. But the star of the property is the view.
From the wicker chairs on the second-level terrace, you look onto the rice fields, the villa’s own lush garden, and a small temple in the foreground. It feels like you’re a world away from the bustle of city life, but it’s just a 20-minute walk through the rice paddies into Ubud town, with its many restaurants and shops. The villa doesn’t have A/C, but the open-air structure and country location keep it cool and breezy. It was built from coconut wood, a sustainable and fast-growing material, and has a breathable ylang-ylang roof. For balancing rice field living with easy access to a still-amiable but more commercial locale, this one is hard to beat.
The Eco-Indulgence, $50-$65 a night
Stay in a beautiful, private, one-bedroom villa with an incredible pool. (Photo: Airbnb)
A glittering green pool, a mini-spa tucked into a jungle cliff, luxurious gardens — this place feels more like an elegant boutique hotel than an Airbnb steal. Frangipani trees shade the grounds, and scraps from what guests don’t eat go to the neighbors’ cows — and that’s just “things most Balinese do,” says Arik, the owner. Guests are invited to religious ceremonies and events nearby. And this being a Hindu island, there’s a long list of them. You can also take the free shuttle, which runs all day, into Ubud. The drive is about 15 minutes, or you can walk, which takes closer to 45. The rooms are spacious and simple, but sleekly appointed. It will be hard to stay in them, though, when you see the pool, the edge of which butts up against a small cliff, making it look like it falls right into the jungle. It’s new Bali luxury at old Bali prices.
The Aesthete, Amrit Bed and Breakfast, $40-$50 a night
Amrit Bed & Breakfast. (Photo: Airbnb)
The emergence of Airbnb in Bali brought with it a slew of entrepreneurs marketing their rice paddy villas, many of them cookie-cutter new constructions. Amrit B&B just outside of Ubud has the same pitch — a place of your own in the middle of the rice fields — but with better delivery. The building is stylishly Balinese, and Wayan, the owner, has decorated it with all manner of local art, including many modern pieces that give the place an aesthetic edge over the standard paintings of Buddha and stone religious sculptures. There’s a giant tree sculpture on the first floor, organic-shaped wooden lamps, and modern Balinese furniture that feels at once fresh and perfectly at home in a traditional Balinese house. Each room is sunny and large. Most have adjacent sitting areas with stunning views and semi-outdoor bathrooms with full tubs. Located in the middle of an area known for woodcarving, much of the art in the B&B comes from the community. You can hang out in the village, make the 10-minute drive into town, or just take in the aesthetic perfection, inside and out, of the villa itself.
The Jungle Abode, Wayan Sueta Bed & Breakfast, $35-$50 a night
Cozy Wayan Sueta Bed & Breakfast. (Photo: Airbnb)
If you want the experience of real Balinese village living, this place is for you. Situated in a rural village a 30-minute drive from the center of Ubud, this property is not for your average tourist. But it’s perfect for the few who really want to immerse themselves in Balinese life, away from the surfers and the yogis, and in a charming little hamlet where alarmingly young children seem to have the keys to the family motorbike. But aside from the risk of being mowed down by an 8-year-old, there are few downsides to this pared-down escape: The rooms are clean if fairly basic, and the grounds feel a bit like Jurassic Park, with flowers everywhere, shaded by leaves of astonishing size. The houses are made of local wood, the furniture from recycled materials reclaimed from a Javanese home.
But the best part is that the B&B creates a reciprocal relationship between visitors and the owner Wayan’s (different Wayan altogether) village: Visitors get a truly authentic and non-commercialized Balinese experience. They bring money into the village when they visit local haunts, and Wayan buys what he needs from local farmers. His wife cooks the meals, and Wayan, a former tour guide and hotel manager, directs guests to whatever they desire inside or outside the village. It’s not a lavish villa, but it is unlike any conventional hotel experience. You’ll certainly earn that #AuthenticLiving Insta hashtag.