Anticipation kicks in the moment I disembark and walk through the airport arrival hall. It’s like I’m returning into the arms of an old friend whom I haven’t seen in far too long. Bali is fun and laid-back, and this time I’m looking forward to her showing me a good time down south in swanky Seminyak, famed for being home to world-class cuisine, glitzy nightlife, trendy stores and boutiques, beach resorts, luxury villas, sleek spa centres, and other urban pleasures that may cause pain when you get home and receive your credit card statement.
The first inkling that I might need to manage my expectations strikes me during a wander down the quiet main street where my hotel is situated. Where are all the tourists? And the chic restaurants? Those momentary thoughts drift away as the soothing view of a small verdant padi field, wooden warungs and rustic-styled outlets begin to float into my vision. I yelp in glee at a familiar sight, and squeal to my bestie: “Look, an Indomart! Ooh, and another convenience store across the road!”
When the highlight of the neighbourhood appears to be the convenience stores, and excitement is derived from discovering locally-made granola, I think it’s clear that we’re not in the heart of upscale Seminyak (as I had mistakenly assumed). Instead, we’re on its fringes, close to up-and-coming Canggu, which has been called the “new Seminyak”, but closer perhaps to Kerobokan, which is mainly a residential area. Or are we in Umalas?
It turns out that I have landed somewhere in the middle of the Seminyak — Kerobokan — Canggu triangle, a relatively sedate location that’s merely a short scooter or car ride away to the buzzing hotspots. This little triangle lies in South Bali, a perpetual magnet for tourists who are drawn to this part of the island for its sand and surf, among many other natural, cultural and lifestyle attractions.
Apart from Seminyak, they also flock to popular destinations like Ubud, Jimbaran, Nusa Dua and Kuta to indulge in various holiday styles, from romantic retreats to spiritual sojourns to beach bumming. It helps that the airport is nearby, which makes airport transfers quicker than if one were staying elsewhere on the island.
An off-white blanket smothers the sky, keeping out any bright rays of sun, matching the mood hanging over my bestie’s head after her insipid experience with our hotel’s version of cappuccino. But as the saying goes, “Behind every cloud, there’s a silver lining” and that sliver of brightness didn’t take long to reveal itself. Embarking on an urgent mission to find seriously good coffee without forking out for transport, we meander further along Jalan Batu Belig on foot and eventually stumble upon what appears to be a striking hybrid of a bungalow and a tree. The leafy haven of Watercress oozes minimalist rustic chic with its mix of wooden furniture, pink banquette, exposed ceiling beams, large open windows that allow for plenty of natural light to filter in, and a collection of artsy mirrors adorning a whitewashed brick wall.
Started about four years ago by two Australian natives from Byron Bay, Watercress is a little celebrity in these parts, having gained recognition for its smorgasbord of wholesome dishes behind a glass display. They call it their “homage to the warung — where you choose a bit of this and some of that”. From spinach lasagna and avocado salsa to falafel and fish kebab, this healthy range is popular with brunch visitors.
And the coffee? A Revolver Espresso signage hangs in the Watercress doorway, indicating a synergy with this established bean business in Bali famed for Australian-style coffee. A satisfied smile surfaces on my companion’s face after her first sip and the same expression spreads across mine after a mouthful of moist carrot cake. Bliss.
PEEKS AT PETITENGET
With this pleasing find in our immediate neighbourhood, the next day we decide to venture further along another main road to see what other delightful finds we can make. Named after an ancient beach temple, Jalan Petitenget stretches from south of Kerobokan downwards to northwest Seminyak along a two-kilometre winding street lined with opportunities to unwind and indulge.
“Can I see your coffee machine?” or “Can I see your menu?” Call it snobbery or fussiness, but those two simple enquiries opened doors for us, literally. The lovely Balinese are very obliging people who seem quite happy to lead you inside their premises for a peek in the hopes of course that you’ll stay, which is precisely what happened at Pepito Cafe.
Not totally convinced by the frontage but curious to see a bit more, we approach the front door where a lady gladly allows us inside just to see their coffee machine. There’s a simultaneous nod of approval, even more so because we’re charmed by the cafe’s contemporary and homely interior.
Pepito cafe offers a diverse food menu from local to western but this being post-lunch hour, we only have room for a beverage. The queen of coffee across the table (my bestie) is mildly enthusiastic about her drink while my delicious hot chocolate feels as comforting as a warm snuggle under the comforter.
A stone’s throw away we discover Pison, enclosed within a double-storey unadorned building. Like the Batman beacon, the image of a coffee bean on an outdoor signage calls out to serious coffee lovers. Yet the sight of its discreet entrance and somewhat austere appearance actually makes me wonder if Pison is actually a gambling den or maybe the headquarters of a clandestine motorcycle gang (a perception formed as I clap eyes on the row of motorbikes parked outside).
“Look, they have valet parking! And the attendants wear Pison-branded T-shirts,” exclaims my bestie as our eyes travel towards an elegant-looking lady sashaying out of the front door and getting into her sleek car. Surely this can’t be a shabby or a shady place, I recall mumbling to bestie.
Certainly, it’s far from it. Walking through its wooden door, I’m accosted by the aroma of coffee and the bustle of ‘hipster’ coffee folks. I suddenly feel like I’m in some trendy cafe in Bangsar or perhaps even Europe.
Brick, wood, concrete and tiles combine to lend this space its rustic feel. Meanwhile, the high-ceilinged interior features a bustling barista station at the front and an upstairs space where there’s more seating areas. The Saturday mid-afternoon crowd fills the nooks and crannies but thankfully a few tables are still available.
Cosy in parts and airy elsewhere, Pison emanates contemporary chic with a library-cum-coffee club feel, enhanced by live music if you come on the right day, at the right time. The coffee is pleasing but the same can’t be said for their desserts. Still, it’s a hip venue that’s popular all day from breakfast through to dinner time.
SLICE OF SPAIN
On our last night, we surrender our dinner fate to our host who recommends a restaurant serving Western cuisine out in Canggu. Within five minutes by car, we find ourselves at a quiet entrance — a dimly lit, slightly muddy, dirt road leading into darkness.
It seems that our driver has chosen to drop us off by the main road instead of entering the driveway. Once past the driveway, shadows and bewilderment continue to creep in as we follow a path that soon reveals a surprising object. A small gypsy wagon! Then another and another, adorned with ornate furnishings and painted embellishments. In fact, a row of them are planted there with their interior lit up. I feel like we’ve just stumbled upon a gypsy community but with the residents mysteriously absent.
This sprawling bohemian wonderland, which overlooks a lagoon, is called La Laguna. I’m told that it’s a magnet for sun-seekers. Besides the charming vintage wagons, my eyes dance at the sights of bean bags on the lawn, rows of lights streaming between the trees, alfresco seating, and lush greenery. I couldn’t help exclaiming in delight when we finally find ourselves at the main restaurant area that resembles a large open-air wooden cabin.
La Laguna was conceptualised by Gonzalo and Sandra Assiego who initially intended to use the land to accommodate their children’s increasing collection of native wildlife which included peacocks and horses. A Spanish Gypsy heritage and their love of animals played their part in the design and creation. In 2014, La Laguna opened its doors to customers and its unique decor helped to separate this rustic beach bar and restaurant from others.
By the time we arrive, it’s already far too dark to enjoy the sea view but the beach and the lagoon make their presence felt through spirited breezes and the familiar scent of the sea, sending me subliminal messages to make a return visit.
Tomorrow we leave for home. The reunion with Bali has been far too brief but I promise her that I’ll be back, in exchange for reserving me front row seats facing the sunset.