For a Beach Vacation, Should I Go All the Way to Bali or the Maldives When Hawaii Would Do?

Ask Rolf: Vagabonding traveler Rolf Potts answers your questions about travel

02.15.08 | 11:13 AM ET

Rolf Potts

Dear Rolf,

A few years ago I visited a couple Four Seasons properties in Bali. I loved the hotels, but frankly, the ocean didn’t look that different from Hawaii. Recently I’ve been looking at a nice property in the Maldives, but I’m afraid the beach experience won’t be much different from Bali or Hawaii. Is the long journey worth it? Any ideas?

—Ann, Michigan

Dear Ann,

Your query brings up an interesting issue when it comes to beach travel: If you are just looking for some sun, sand and surf, does it matter where in the world you travel?

How you answer that question depends on how you approach your travels.

If the impetus for your travels is luxury comfort—be it in the Four Seasons or any nice hotel—geography is less of an issue than the hotel itself. And, considering that the amenities of five-star hotels don’t differ that much around the world, it might not be worth it to travel all the way to the Maldives if beachfront luxury is all you’re after. This in mind, it would be much cheaper to just journey to the Dominican Republic, say—or Mexico, or Belize, or Grenada or any number of beautiful beach-destinations that are closer to the United States.

Of course, I condone a completely different approach to beach travel—one that will make it worth your while to travel all the way to places like Bali and the Maldives.

If your experience in Bali didn’t seem all that much different than your experience in Hawaii, that probably means you were spending too much time in the hotel and not enough time in the local culture. After all, Bali is home to a fascinating syncretistic Hindu tradition, whereas Hawaii boasts a proud, globalized Polynesian culture. An engaged experience of either society is far more rewarding to your journey than any creature comforts a hotel might offer.

So if beautiful beaches are what inspire you to travel to faraway places, I would give the five-star comfort a miss and stay in a boutique “mom-‘n’-pop” resort or an inexpensive beach hut. This can be difficult, though not impossible, in the Maldives (which has developed its tourist industry with upscale visitors in mind)—but it’s worth the effort. That way, in a less insulating (and slightly less luxurious) environment, you can enjoy beaches while soaking in the culture. In the Maldives, you’re likely to find a gentle, laid-back Islamic society—which will be fun to compare with the Muslim societies of coastal Tanzania (where great beaches abound), should you choose to travel there the following year. Likewise, the Hindu culture you experience along the stunning beaches of Bali might make an interesting contrast should you one day meet local Hindus along the stunning beaches of Trinidad.

My point, I guess, is that beautiful beaches are in no short supply around the world—but unless you travel into the societies that are connected to those beaches, you’re going to be selling your travel experience short.

If you’re used to resort hotels and find the notion of independent travel daunting, don’t worry. These days, even mom-‘n’-pop resorts and inexpensive beach accommodations can be researched in advance. A good place to start is in an indie travel guidebook (such as Lonely Planet, Rough Guides or Moon) to the destination that interests you.  Just cross-reference the cheaper and mid-range accommodation listings with some Internet research, and odds are you’ll be able to find dependable, comfortable lodging that doesn’t isolate you from the country in the process.

Has Rolf has already answered your question? See the Ask Rolf archive. If not, send your questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


14 Comments for For a Beach Vacation, Should I Go All the Way to Bali or the Maldives When Hawaii Would Do?

donald doty 02.15.08 | 6:22 PM ET

Hawaii has some of the best beach’s in the world. I and family have beening going there for over fifteen years. Most all of them are easy to get to also. A lot easier to get to also.Not a real long plane ride. Tks

John M. Edwards 02.15.08 | 7:33 PM ET

Hi Rolf:

In my “Man, Myth, and Magic”-style neverending story in search of the world’s most perfect beach, an absolute stunner comes to mind, like an inappropriate drop comment that startles everybody in a 5-star white-tablecloth restaurant.

But our instinctive ritualized beach fetish sometimes doesn’t work. I would say that it was a little kindergarten of the magazine “Travel Savvy,” which I think went swiftly out of business, to insult our intelligence with the suggestion that your average reader only has the attention span of a midget crybaby to scan a series of Top 10 lists. Including, I’m afraid, well-known commercial beach resorts.

That unsettlingly prissy mag was certainly led into a false sense of security by some misguided corporate advertising slouch. Obviously some odious anarchist spy resembling the cartoon character stereotype of the “thug,” wearing a striped shirt, and black eye mask, and carrying a rubber thingie to clobber us over the noggin and make off like a bandit with the money sacks marked $$$.

Obviously somebody didn’t like them, was trying to drive them out of business. Yet another obvious example of industrial espionage.

I don’t know if it’s safe to equate fashion and catwalk canter with travel. But I am amused by a comment a Brit magazine writer here, named Fiona, in New York made to me on the phone once: “Today is Fashion Week, and it’s been an absolute madhouse!!!!!”

Tanjung Aan in Lombok, Indonesia, a perfect crescent of light caramel sand, staring out to sea like a slightly menacing and heavy-lidded Robert Mitchum in a beach chair, kind of tempted me to chuck everything in and almost begin an “import-export” service.

I don’t know, on nice beaches like this, healthy vigorous backpacking babes have a tendency to lose their clothing and stuff, tempted by the powerful pull of earth, wind, and sky. We’ll leave fire out of this one.

Anyway, I waited patiently for my Beachcombers Card to arrive in the mail, but, alas, it never arrived. Any idea where to find a new one?

Ron Cohen 02.17.08 | 12:58 PM ET

Before I have seen shows on Islands to rent. Where can I find information on these properties?

Jesicajeorge 02.18.08 | 1:27 PM ET

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Hulananni 02.21.08 | 6:39 AM ET

Go to the Maldives….the most beautiful water and weather I’ve seen…and I live in “paradise” year-round.  It was a long trip (11 hour layover in Singapore)...worth every minute.

susannah fairbanks 03.10.08 | 2:46 PM ET

You need to go back to Bali and experience the real Bali, get out of the Four Seasons, take a 3 day trip to Menjungan Island and stay at Taman Sari, amazing snorkelling and a drop dead gorgeous spot with very few people. The list is endless in Bali, my husband and I have had an export business there for 20 years and have travelled all over the world including Hawaii.The food is incredible, well worth the flight, best Island,have fun

Terry McDaniel 03.12.08 | 12:26 PM ET

Dear Rolf:  I am looking for the whitest sand beaches.  Are there any that compare to the white sand of Destin in the carribean or Central America or need I travel elsewhere in the world?  Thanks for your help.  Terry

Kenny Doucette 03.20.08 | 11:12 AM ET

if it is to spend the holiday in beach sand etc…any beach will be the same,but to experience a different place,the people there and their culture you must travel across to that place to know and enjoy.
Maldives is a beautiful place,nice weather,water.

Amanda G Gaylord 05.01.08 | 7:26 PM ET

” Is the long journey worth it?” Just yes.

Wayne H Rexroad 05.02.08 | 2:32 PM ET

” Is the long journey worth it?” Pretty sure, the answer is no

Kristin 06.02.08 | 11:01 AM ET

When it comes to vacation spot it purely depends upon one’s interest and the kind of person and it will definitely differs from each other.

Royal Caribbean 06.25.08 | 10:18 AM ET

I’ve been to Maldives and Bali before. Out of those two I would recommend Bali. The islands in Maldives are pretty spread out and have fewer nice hotels. In Bali, things are closer together so it is easier to travel around and see different things without having to take boats (like in Maldives). Basically, Bali is a big island with lots of hotels (but spread across the island) with quite a few things to see. Maldives have lots of islands and you would spend most of your time on one island which is just the hotel and only a few things to do.

muhabbet kuşu budgerigar 07.25.08 | 6:54 PM ET

Maldives very nice, island and water beautiful

Black 08.07.08 | 9:37 AM ET

Yes, this is wonderful! At the coming holidays, too, want to depart in a good place to remember for life. I think about it.

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