Xanthe West snorkels off the Gili Islands. Picture: Fiona Wringe

The smiling face of our Jetstar pilot, a school dad, is a reassuring sight for my children on their first international flight as we head to Bali. His easy-going familiarity does wonders for their nerves and hey, what do you know, flying turns out to be actually fun.

It's an auspicious start that wobbles a little on the ground as the kids are crammed into taxis, then taken by bus and fast-boat to Gili Trawangan, the largest of the Gili Islands, off the coast of Lombok. On disembarking, the wilting horse and cart that sees us to our accommodation, Trawangan Oasis, pricks our First World guilt and feels scarily close to overturning on deeply pitted dirt tracks. But for the kids, this is all new and extraordinary. And, surprisingly, they take it in their stride.

The island sends us all into immediate hyper-relaxation. Trawangan Oasis, a haven of bungalows surrounded by palm trees, is perfectly named, away from the party strip on this island of sun, surf, backpackers and cats - but importantly, no cars.

Swimming and snorkelling, a glass-bottom boat ride to neighbouring Gili Meno and Gili Air, delicious smoky night markets and dining in the sand under dim lanterns make for an island idyll we are loath to leave. As our three girls' introduction to a new culture, it is a beautifully smooth transition.

Five days later, the kids hold up on another fast-boat and we arrive in peak-hour Ubud. Slightly shell- shocked by the cacophony of cars, motorbikes and horns, we set about acclimatising to our lush new surrounds. The town is packed to the high-season rafters and we are glad to have chosen a villa some way out of the action, in the nearby village of Tegallantang.

Our introduction to Bali's unique take on Hinduism begins next door to our accommodation, the exquisite Villa Pura Padi, at the village temple. The children are fascinated at every step (taking care not to disturb offerings on the footpath), their understanding of local culture deepening with each passing day of colourful sights and sound.

From Ubud, the choices for a family are many and varied.

For starters, there's the Sacred Monkey Forest of Padangtegal. It's the obvious thing to do but, reading online reviews, we're feeling unsure. Should we listen to "This was a highlight of our Bali trip", or heed "I would never bring kids in there"? In the end, we decide a commonsense approach will see us OK, and it does. We remove anything the covetous long-tailed macaques might want, carry no food, and walk through unmolested. (Well, the kids and I are unmolested. My partner is a little bit molested.) The girls are absolutely charmed by the monkeys, the stunning green surrounds and the statues that abound in this holy place.

A Bali Eco Adventure Tour at Bayad on the Petanu River reveals the island culture on a deeper level, through its rich plant life. The delicious, the stinky and the sweet-smelling open up a traditional world through sight, touch and taste (snake fruit and cacao are voted most delicious). We learn of the plants' medicinal, culinary and ritual uses.

Our guide's knowledgeable and friendly manner keeps our children transfixed and uncomplaining - no small feat - over a 5km trail through cultivated gardens of fruit, herb and spice plants, slippery jungle and cool underground darkness through labyrinths that culminate in the Goa Maya cave. Even the kids appear awed by this tiny sacred space.

Ubud is awash with spas and all three girls adore having their feet delicately mauled by doctor fish. The next day, the younger two, aged six and seven, relax into disconcerting silence during their children's massage at the beautifully located Karsa Spa. They emerge almost dazed, but it doesn't last, with one stacking it on the beautiful paving arrangement and shattering the Zen silence. The spa is in the village of Bangkiang Sidem, along the Campuhan Ridge, with a cafe and surrounded by rice fields.

Meanwhile, their older sister takes a day-long cycling and whitewater-rafting adventure with her dad. They arrive back at the villa, exhausted and happy after a 26km cycle, a visit to a traditional Balinese family compound and a ride down a picturesque 9km of the Ayung River.

Simple, free pleasures throughout our trip include journal writing, sketching, photography and walking. The Balinese are renowned for their love of children and our girls draw easy conversation. They prove more adept at rudimentary Bahasa Indonesia than we do and their courtesy is always rewarded with those glorious smiles.

On the way to Kuta, we stop at the well-run Bali Bird Park. It's the only caged animal experience we acquiesce to and the kids marvel at colourful macaws, flamingos, parrots and kingfishers among an array of exotic winged creatures.

In Kuta, we are among Australians en masse. The kids certainly feel instantly at home in our family-oriented resort, a style of accommodation we're new to, which features a pool full of little beaded blonde heads and a serious number of Bintang singlets. After the spacious Villa Pura Padi, we're a little cramped but the kids love the facilities, which include a waterslide and a buffet breakfast featuring chocolate cereal, pancakes, waffles and dessert-style sweets. (They eye my vegetable omelette with disbelief.) Frankly, as long as they're happy, it's all good. Especially at this point, when everyone's starting to tire a little.

It's a short walk to Waterbom Park, which, unexpectedly, is as enjoyable as everyone says it will be. Better, actually. We thought a few hours would do it, but spend most of the day there, our youngest discovering her inner daredevil - well hidden until now. It's brilliant fun.

Shopping is on the agenda in Kuta and the kids go mad for little animals of metal and sand and cloth, and jewellery. The food is fabulous - as it has been all the way - and the beach offers a picturesque wander, especially at sunset at low tide.

By the last day, amazingly, everything has gone more or less to plan. No one has been ill. No one's got rabies (not for want of patting strange dogs). The mosquitoes have mostly left us alone.

After 15 days away, the kids are ready for home. According to the two younger girls, Waterbom Park was the highlight.

My 11-year-old loved whitewater rafting. But they also glimpsed the extraordinary culture that prevails here through the people and environment. For their first trip abroad, Bali and the Gilis proved perfect.

Packing for kids

A decent first-aid kit is a must. While the virtual pharmacy we had on board was mostly unused, you can't have too many bandaids and too much antiseptic. Motion sickness tablets helped, too.

Hand sanitiser. And more hand sanitiser.

We had everyone's favourite sickness preventative, red cordial, and probiotics - but forgot about them after a few days. No one was ill.

Travel versions of favourite games.

Notebooks and pencils. A teacher's suggestion of journal writing was invaluable.

The guidebook for kids My Life in Bali, by Sandrine Soimade, makes sense of the culture from the perspective of a Balinese child.

The West Australian

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