This year, I spent my very first Christmas away from home, trading in New York’s brisk winter for the balmy beaches of Bali, Indonesia. A lifelong New Yorker, I’m used to having Christmas practically smack me in the face, with the city’s sensory seasonal overload oozing over-the-top holiday window displays; jingle bell-shaking, Salvation Army Santas vying for loose change; bustling Christmas markets and tree-hawking Canadian vendors cropping up on every other corner; and chilly temps only tolerable for their potential to deliver that coveted white Christmas.
In Bali – a predominantly Hindu island that's part of a larger Muslim nation – setting out to find the spirit of a Christian Christmas required a decidedly more active approach, but with my boyfriend and I intent on celebrating the season in our own special way this year, rest assured, happy Bali-days were there for the taking.
One of the most refreshing aspects of celebrating Christmas on this chilled-out Indonesian isle was the lack of a suffocating sense of needing to shop, shop, shop – we opted to skip out on the gifts this year, taking a welcomed step back from season’s trademark fervent consumerism. Of course, Bali’s commercial sector, always quick to respond to the needs of visiting Western tourists, made a modest attempt on this front, with a scattering of lightly decorated shop windows and special Christmas sales, especially so in the sparkling new Beachwalk mall in Kuta, where Christmas carols and Santa appearances were scheduled in the two weeks leading up to Christmas Day.
With Bali’s sizable expat community and minority local Christian population, the underlying religious tone of the season could easily be contemplated at a series of special Christmas masses: at the Lembah Pujian Bethel Indonesia Rock Church in Denpasar, more than 10,000 churchgoers reportedly attended services Christmas morning, which were fueled by gospel songs and music and dance performances. Bali Discovery Tours, meanwhile, offered a “A Truly Balinese Christmas” excursion to the isle’s westernmost mountain, where a duo of Christian enclaves welcomed visitors for special Christmas morning services.
Happily, Santa’s reindeer also found their way to Bali’s beaches (new theory: Rudolph’s red nose = sunburn?!), bringing the inappropriately dressed Mr. Claus onto the scene. He was spotted surfing on Kuta Beach, cruising in on a chopper at the island’s legendary Ku De Ta beach bar (pictured above), and also handing out gifts to kids from a local orphanage at the festive tree lighting ceremony at Ayana Resort and Spa.
Of course, Christmastime would not be complete without belting out some Christmas tunes. We got our fix at the new Bali Sheraton Kuta Resort, where a local community choral group sung their Christmas-filled hearts out in the hotel’s panoramic lounge, with a spectacular only-in-Bali sunset dipping behind Kuta Beach in the backdrop, all accompanied by free cocktails and canapés (now, that’s the spirit of giving!).
And what would Christmas be without a memorable meal? Numerous area restaurants decked the halls and adorned their staff in requisite Santa hats, reeling in diners to elaborate multi-course Christmas Eve dinners and Christmas Day brunches. Ayana Resort and Spa served up a particularly savory meal at its Dava restaurant, complete with Tasmanian salmon marinated in Grand Marnier, chestnut and truffle mousseline, red snapper and roast lamb, and a pumpkin souffle.
The final Christmas rite of passage: taking in a tree! In mid-December, several members of the dive team at Bali Crystal Divers joined other professional area divers to set a new Guinness record for the world’s deepest underwater Christmas tree, in tribute to the plight for worldwide freedom of religion and thought. Lucky timing for us, we spent our Christmas Eve diving off the coast of Tulamben, where we snapped pics in front of the record-setting tree (picture above right), trimmed with glow stick-lights and Christmas ornaments made from recycled materials. Take that, Rockefeller Center!
Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!