Bali’s Best Beach Town: Frangipani-Scented Sanur

"You, my friend, are the very definition of a man living the overseas dream.” Steve Dowler laughed, but he didn’t disagree with me. Tanned and smiling, he skillfully steered his gleaming black motorbike at a snail’s pace down Sanur’s quiet backstreets, as I strolled alongside. The sun was beating down and cheery shopkeepers called out friendly hello's as we passed by.

For Steve and his wife Carolin, Bali’s welcoming neighborhoods, frangipani-scented evenings, and sunset strolls on the beach are all wrapped up in the gentle seaside town of Sanur, where they made their home in 2015. For the Dowlers, this is Bali’s best beach town. And, having stood spellbound on its sandy shores as the sun rose on the horizon, and wandered the quiet streets to meet new friends in cozy cafés, it’s mine, too.

Sitting on the island’s southeast coast, Sanur’s shores have long lured visitors. From the European steamship arrivals of the 1920s to Hollywood jet-setters, rock stars, and royalty, the island’s seductive powers seem otherworldly.

As one of just a handful of communities ruled by Hindu priests of the Brahmin caste, Sanur’s mystical connections proved its savior when development took hold on Bali. The construction of a luxurious but garish 10-story hotel right on Sanur’s beach resulted in the edict that no future building could surpass the height of a coconut palm. The rule applies to the entire island, but with local leaders here standing especially strong, developers have moved along, leaving Sanur free to set its own pace for change.No building in Sanur is taller than a coconut palm.Having escaped the clutches of mass development, so, too, did Sanur escape the ravages of mass tourism. In many ways, the expats attracted here today mirror those of yesteryear: creative adventurers seeking their own piece of paradise on this tropical island. That’s not to say you won’t find every Western convenience. You will. But Sanur’s fishing-village roots and laidback vibe remain unchanged.

This good-natured culture is rooted in religion. The majority of the local population—some 83%—practice Balinese Hinduism, and the concept of karma is an important pillar of their faith. So, too, is giving thanks, and to that end you’ll see canang sari—daily offerings of vibrant flowers and smoldering incense carefully placed in palm-leaf trays—every-where you go. Temples, taxi dashboards, warungs (small, family-owned businesses)…even the local Starbucks has them.

Sanur’s central street, Jalan Danau Tamblingan, runs north to south through the town and parallel to the shore. Using this as your guide makes it easy to get your bearings here. It’s where you’ll find every expat convenience, from ATMs to warungs, as well as Hardy’s, Sanur’s biggest supermarket. But if you’re looking to settle in here for a stay, get yourself off the main drag and start exploring.

Shaded side roads and leafy laneways lead to a maze of hidden neighborhoods. Walk for a minute and you’ll be struck by the realization that the car horns and lively hum of the main street has been replaced by birdsong and the gentle rustle of verdant climbers clinging to coral walls, as the sea breeze drifts in. Within these walls sit ornate doorways: a tapestry of faded blues and sea greens, rich teaks and wrought iron. And behind them…? Well, that’s what Steve was about to show me.

With a simple step, we were suddenly a world away from Sanur’s streets. A walled, tropical garden, alive with popping pink and vibrant orange blooms, played host to a shimmering pool at its heart. A jet-black cat eyed us lazily from her shaded spot in a traditional, open-air pavilion. To the rear of the garden, a neat bungalow, housing a double bedroom, ensuite. The main house, at the opposite end, is a two-story, two-bedroom villa with a kitchen, sitting room, and furnished veranda.

“When Carolin and I first started thinking about our retirement, we knew we wanted something different from the norm,” says Steve. “The thoughts of a conventional retirement at home just weren’t very exciting, but a move overseas definitely was.

“We had spent time in Bali over the years and loved the laidback lifestyle. Also, the people are really great. So we decided to try it out for a couple of months. I’d heard great things about Sanur and it ticked a lot of boxes for us: a great beach, our pick of restaurants and sports bars, not too noisy, and with a more mature expat community. We made the move here and haven’t look back since.”

And happily, living well here doesn’t cost the earth. “Living in Sanur can be very cheap,” says Steve. “I know people who live quite comfortably, albeit frugally at times, on a pension.

“We usually have breakfast and a couple of meals at home during the week. The local markets stock everything we need. You can get imported goods here, too, but you’ll pay as much, if not more for them, as you would back home. Sanur is packed with quality restaurants and warungs, both in town and at the beach. Depending on where we pick, we can eat out for as little as $4.50 or as much as $50.

“Apart from beer, alcohol is expensive. With a bit of a thirst and every opportunity to socialize, this can easily add to your outgoings. We don’t consciously restrict our spending, but we’re not too extravagant, either. We spend about $2,225 a month, but that doesn’t include rent, utilities, or trips home. For that, we live very well.”

Finding a rental here is very much a “boots on the ground” exercise—Steve and Carolin found their home thanks to a tip-off from a local contact. But that’s not to say you can’t kick start the process before arriving on the island. There are a few excellent Facebook groups, regularly updated, which will give you a sense of what’s available and of going rates. The agencies are worth a look. But keep in mind that prices here are often inflated for foreigners, the pictures can be deceptive, and, of course, the agent’s commission will most likely be factored into the lease price. Accept the advertised price as a guide, but don’t let it completely rule anywhere out for you. Everything’s negotiable.

Los Angeles transplant Ron Piltzer has lived in Sanur since 2013 with his wife Cylvia. Residing in a spacious two-bedroom villa west of the business district, they live on a budget of $1,575 a month. This covers rent, regular meals out, home help, and running a car. A budget as low as this lifts a lot of the stress out of daily life. As Ron says, “I lead a very relaxed, retired man’s life, and I cherish every minute of it.” The couple’s home has high-quality furnishings, two bathrooms, a carport, a patio, a tropical garden, and a swimming pool. They pay just $423 a month to rent it, and that’s a pretty typical example of prices in town.

As with almost anywhere, the closer to the beach you are, the more you’ll pay. If you want bang for your buck, your best bet is to look around the neighborhoods on the far side of the Jalan Bypass Ngurah Rai, Sanur’s western boundary. Here a modern studio apartment, 172 square feet, with a shared outdoor kitchen and living area, is currently on the market for $242 a month. Parking and WiFi are included, and the complex has a shared pool and 24-hour security.It's lovely to be recognized smiled at, and greeted.A three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,775-square-foot villa with a private pool, in the same area, can be rented for $1,450 a month. Parking, WiFi, and Pay TV are included. But take on a lease for a 12-month stay and it’s yours for $922 a month.

Back across the bypass, just minutes from the beach, Steve and Carolin originally rented their home for $14,830 a year. When it came up for renewal, friendly negotiations with their landlord secured them a new agreement of $11,125 a year.

“For the generous reduction, the only concession our landlord asked for was that we take care of the cost of any minor maintenance on the property,” says Steve. “That was no problem at all, as labor, tools, and materials costs are very low here. Utilities and running costs aren’t bad, either. Per month, we pay about $90 for electricity; $45 for internet, cable TV, and our mobile phones; and water is just $4. We also have a housekeeper come three half-days a week—which works out around $80 a month—and a pool man who charges $45 a month.

“If we have any issues, our landlord is just next door. We’ve become quite close to the family and, of course, they’re very happy to have reliable, easygoing, friendly tenants. The location is great, too— close to all the town’s restaurants, massage and beauty salons, bars, and shops, yet so quiet and peaceful. Plus, we’re just a five-minute walk to the beach.”

Wherever you go in Bali, you’ll find friendly, welcoming locals. But for my money, nowhere more so than in Sanur. Although the beachfront resorts attract their fair share of vacationers, you won’t be hassled by hawkers here. Wander the town and you’ll attract the occasional honking taxi, but a friendly wave and a call of “jalan-jalan” lets them know you’re just out for a stroll, and they soon move along. Leave a tip in a restaurant and you’ll most likely be chased by a bemused waiter who thinks you’ve mistakenly overpaid.

Unlike nearby medical tourism hot spots Malaysia and Thailand, Bali isn’t known for its world-class healthcare. So it’s a good idea to take out health insurance that includes medical evacuation coverage, should you need it. That said, you will find private hospitals here, staffed by English-speaking medical professionals and catering to Western visitors, such as BIMC Hospital in Kuta. And when it comes to minor ailments, you won’t need to look far or pay a premium. Ron Dowley speaks highly of the JCI-accredited Sanglah Hospital in Denpasar, which has an international wing. “It’s clean and well run,” he says. “An average visit, including a consultation, testing, and diagnosis, costs about $95.”

With the practicalities taken care of, all that’s left is to relax into the romance and magic of Bali. Take a morning stroll along Sanur’s three miles of sandy beaches, and you’ll spot the brightly colored traditional jukung sailing boats come ashore with the morning’s catch. A paved walkway runs the length of the route, and it’s lined with vibrant markets, luxurious resorts, and hidden gems…art galleries, museums, secret gardens…just waiting to be discovered. It would be very easy to settle in this easygoing corner of Southeast Asia, taking each day as it comes and living on “Bali time.”

“We’re well established here now,” says Steve Dowler. “We have a large number of friendly acquaintances and have made some good friends with whom we connect regularly. There’s a real sense of community here, and it’s lovely to be recognized, smiled at, and greeted. Oh, and the best thing for me: It’s always warm.”

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