After booking a much-anticipated vacation to Bali for this August, my first call was to my college friend Sahiba. Aside from being generally awesome and the sweetest person ever, Sahiba just so happens to own and manage an award-winning hotel in Ubud, Bali..all from the comfort of her home in LA. We spoke about how she came to own a hotel in Bali, what it's like running a hotel from across the world, and her tips for a fabulous vacation in Bali.
How did you come to run a hotel in Bali? My father was born in Indonesia, and my grandfather in the 1950's was the first exporter of Indonesian handicrafts. They eventually moved to the United States many years later, and in early 2008, my father decided to purchase a vacation home in his old home of Bali. After leaving the investment banking world in September 2008, I convinced my father to convert the vacation home into a 7-villa hotel. After a series of renovations, Villa Sarna was officially in business by mid-1009. The property is set about 15 minutes from the center of Ubud, among lush greenery and rice paddies. It is truly one of the most peaceful places in the world.
What was it like getting the hotel started? Getting the hotel off the ground took a lot of patience and virtual meetings and contracts with the online booking agents such as Expedia, Orbitz, Agoda, and Wotif. In the beginning, I would have to work at all hours of the night to ensure there would be no over-bookings, but a few years later, I was able to automate the system across all outlets using a channel manager. In 2011 and 2013, Expedia honored Villa Sarna with the Insiders' Select Award, which means their users considered us one of the top 650 hotels in the world.
Is it difficult to run a hotel in Bali from LA? The internet makes handling the customer service, accounting, and marketing very seamless from Los Angeles (or anywhere), although I do wish I could make it to Bali more often.
What do you do when not running a hotel on the other side of the world? The hotel's existence inspired my family to start an eco-friendly candle company called Volcanica Candles in Ubud in 2010, specializing in unique hand-crafted candles. We now employ over 200 Balinese craftspeople - many of whom have family members who are employed at the hotel as well. The people of Bali are among the warmest in the world, and I'm lucky to be immersed in such a wonderful culture.
About: Ubud is the cultural hub of Bali. I would plan to stay 2-3 days here.
What to do: I recommend hiking Mt. Batur Volcano at sunrise, cycling along the rice paddies, white water rafting, and taking a yoga class at Yoga Barn. There are really nice temples here and the biggest attraction is the Monkey Forest in the center of Ubud (just beware of feisty monkeys). Another popular attraction is the cultural Bali Kecak Fire Dance. You can ride an elephant in Ubud at the Elephant Safari Park. My favorite thing to do would be to take a cooking class. They take you on a tour of the local market before teaching you how to prepare a full Indonesian meal. After the class, you enjoy lunch or dinner with other vacationers from all over the world. I took a class at Casa Luna, but Paon Bali also has great reviews.
Restaurants: Bridges (request to sit near the waterfall for dinner); Melting Wok (very casual, great food for lunch); Ibu Rai (also casual); Kafe (for lunch, juices); Pica South American Kitchen (for dinner - amazing food); Locavore (for dinner.. make sure you book well in advance.. a fancier meal - rated #1 on TripAdvisor); Dirty Duck Cafe (you sit among the rice paddies (known for their crispy duck); Ibu Oka was made famous by Anthony Bourdain for its roasted pig; Cascades at the Viceroy (or you can just go for a drink before sunset at the bar...stunning rice paddies). You will read about Mozaic, but it is absurdly expensive/not worth it.
This separated beach area of Bali is very quiet. The hotel resorts are very large and lavish. It is a bit quiet for my taste, but people like it. I've stayed at the Ayodya, but you really can't go wrong with any of the big hotels. I only ate at the hotel...things are very far apart.
This is the hip area of Bali in the south. I would spend about 3-4 days in Seminyak. It is beachfront and only about 20 minutes from the airport, which makes it the most popular area in Bali to stay in. The stores, restaurants, night life, and spas are all excellent. Up-and-coming Indonesian and Australian designers have their boutiques here. The best place to see the sunset is at Ku De Ta. Potato Head has a very relaxed atmosphere as well. Both Ku De Ta and Potato Head are essentially outdoor lounges.
About: This is a very nice area of Bali, near Seminyak and Nusa Dua. One of the coolest parts is that you can pick out your seafood from stands lined up on the beach. They will cook it for you and you dine just steps from the ocean.
Hotels: The Rock Bar at the Ayana Resort is stunning. You take an elevator down the cliff and the bar is at the edge of the cliff looking into the ocean. Fun fact: Julia Roberts stayed at the Four Seasons Jimbaran while filming Eat Pray Love...you can't go wrong with either hotel. If you really want to splurge, the Bvlgari in Uluwatu is incredible. The rooms are individual villas and you are shuttled around the resort by a private golf cart. Monkeys camp out on your terrace. Even if you don't stay there, I would go there for a drink. Uluwatu is a place known for big wave surfing and beautiful cliff views.
A lot of travelers have recently been going to the Gili Islands as well for snorkeling and diving. It is about a 2-hour ferry ride from Bali. I've heard it's really peaceful (no cars), but it is a bit of a trek.
Hiring a private driver is essential to truly explore Bali. All of the hotels arrange them and most are about $50-$100 per day. As of early June, Americans are no longer required to purchase a Visa on Arrival. The maximum length of time you can stay in Indonesia is 30 days.