With its mostly dark volcanic sands or rocky shores, Bali doesn't really rate as one of the best islands in the world for beaches. As an Australian, I can confirm that Bali's beaches are fairly mediocre in comparison to most of my own country's accessible, clean and beautiful beaches. There is also a cleanliness issue that will have westerners crinkling their noses — plastic waste from around the archipelago will show up on the cleanest beaches every day and beach goers near a river outlet will smell the effluent of half of Bali after a rainy period.
However, there are advantages to a beach day in Bali; you can park close by without having to sell your firstborn child, great food can be purchased easily and cheaply, and you can also drink alcohol without getting arrested. There is usually someone offering a cheap massage or a sarong if you've forgotten yours, and you don't need to drag chairs and umbrellas around since the popular beaches all have someone renting them cheaply (or for free if you buy a bintang or two). Even better, the weather is almost always good for the beach. It is hot enough, and if it rains, it's usually only going to be for an hour or two.
The dark sand beaches in the southwest, although busy, all have easy access and are never so crowded as to make them unpleasant. The vibe is also fun, particularly closing in on sunset. In the north, the strands are narrow and flat, with few waves to speak of, but blissfully empty of tourists. In the far east, the beaches tend to be rocky and hot, so crap for swimming and sun baking but good for scuba diving and snorkelling. Sanur's beach is safe and pleasant, but the breakwater means you can't really swim... it's more of a wade situation. Nusa Dua has a nice beach and is safe for families, but it is polluted, in my opinion, by noisy water 'sports' such as wakeboarding and jet skis. I'm also not a fan of ND in general due to its clinical resort-style tourism — but that's another blog post. There are plenty of gems; Uluwatu is good for a few pretty beaches, and Nusa Penida and Nusa Lembongan offer some stunning options. What we are looking for is that magical combination of a long stretch and good width of sand with few rocks, cleanliness, accessibility, depth and safety.
I know the 'best beach in Bali' is a big call, but my personal favourite is the gorgeous Virgin Beach in Karangasem. Also called white sand beach (for obvious reasons), this magical spot is a good hour and a half from Ubud, and longer from Canggu, which makes for a long hot scooter ride, so I advise making this a day trip.
After getting through the built-up areas of Gianyar and hitting the main highway, you will eventually get to Candi Dasa (pronounced Chandy Dahsa). I always stop here for a coffee at a cute little quilting store called Wacky Jacky's, which reminds me of my mum (she was a great quilter and also a little wacky). Candi Dasa should have been a great resort area but short-sighted planning and development too close to the water in the eighties and nineties left it with a measly little sandy strip just a metre or so wide — a sad indictment on greedy tourism development. Diagonally opposite the coffee shop is a lovely hotel that has a gelato cart outside... remember this spot for the hot trip home!
The next part of the drive is stunning; you go through the tropical coastal rainforest and over the mountain, through banana plantations and then back down to the coast. There are a couple of signs for Virgin Beach; I prefer the southern end since the parking is literally a few metres from the beach rather than a hot walk downstairs. Turning off the main road, you go over another rise, pay a parking fee of about R10,000 then you will need to stop to look at the view that spreads up the northern coastline.
Then it's down for a couple of minutes to the new parking area before a short walk onto the beach. Another option is to keep driving round and to the left then parking right outside the fisherman cafe. You can then wander through the restaurant and down to the sand. Grab a menu and take a seat under an umbrella on one of their sun lounges. They will bring out more lounges, tables and umbrellas if you need them. These lounges are free to use all day if you purchase food and drink. Otherwise, they are about R25,000 per person. There are plenty of other warungs along the beach... Fisherman's is lovely and has clean amenities, but the others are fairly equivalent in terms of quality and cost.
The water itself is best at high tide, but perfectly good any other time. At lower tide, there is a bit of a dip, so move further out quickly to get beyond the breakers and avoid getting dumped. If you were smart enough to bring a snorkel, this is a good time to use it. My perfect beach day goes as follows:
- Little-to-no breakfast then leave Ubud at 8.30 or 9 am
- Drive to Candi Dasa (1.25 hours)
- Grab a coffee at Wacky Jacky's
- Drive to Virgin Beach (20 minutes) and park outside Fisherman's
- Get a menu to look over and set yourself up on a sun lounge
- Fend off the touts (although sometimes I buy a cheap bracelet that I'll never wear from one or two of the little girls) but arrange one of the ladies for a massage after lunch. She will keep her eye on you and come back at the right time
- Order a drink then get a swim-in to wash off the sweat
- Order some delicious and cheap seafood. I often go for a squid or prawn satay dish and the grilled fish of the day — usually a mani mahi.
- Dry off and read for a bit (note that the wi-fi isn't great in this relatively remote spot)
- Relax and eat lunch, have a beer or cocktail if you aren't driving
- Get a massage (about R100,000 for an hour - US$7) or just a foot massage. My usual lady is Ketut who is a nice strong Balinese women with a knack for finding and soothing away sore bits of muscle.
- A short snooze or more reading
- Another swim, then dry off for the trip home
What I particularly love about Virgin Beach is that even on busy days it doesn't feel crowded...the beach is long, there are plenty of places to offer sun loungers, and it is out of the way so fewer tourists come here anyway. The beach is very, very pretty - the sand isn't exactly white but close enough - and the water is clean and clear and cool.
There is similar beach a bit closer to Ubud called Secret Beach, just south of Padang Bai. It's the same sort of system, but Secret Beach is a slightly smaller area with a longer steeper walk. It's not onerous though and if you have less time, this might be a good option for you.