Penelope Bennett unfurls her sarong, slips into her fanciest flip-flops, fastens a hibiscus behind one ear and samples the swishest of Bali’s new resorts
ONCE A MYSTICAL island visited by backpackers, hippies and surfers, Bali has over time become the mystical (slash-lose-yourself-slash-party-as-if-your-life-depends-on-it-slash-go-mystical-again) island visited by everyone: hippies, yuppies, rock and pop stars, supermodels, oligarchs and bonus-swollen bankers, Hollywood royalty, discerning honeymooners, DJs and their disciples, hard-to-please thrill-seekers, culture fiends and Eat, Pray, Love aficionados alike.
One of 17,500 islands that make up the predominantly Muslim Indonesian archipelago, Bali is famous for — among other things — its truly unique spiritual vibe. The people of Bali are beautifully tolerant and hospitable. Theirs is a form of religious expression more concerned with art and ritual than with scripture, law, and belief. Balinese Hinduism, or Hindu dharma, is about the worship of local and ancestral spirits more than it is about rebirth and reincarnation. For one thing, the island’s main (and active) volcano, Gunung Agung, is worshipped by locals as the centre of the universe. In contrast we in the West think the universe revolves around… (take your pick of all things materialistic).
If you’re not used to it, the sight of so many processions and folk on their way to or from yet another ceremony, often piled four to a tired-looking moped, can be alarming; the ancestral style of tailored shirt with batik skirt is not, in fact, daily wear but given there is so much to worship day in, day out locals are inevitably always in traditional dress. Mind you, it becomes a familiar sight soon enough. I’ve travelled through Bali three times now and on my last trip felt convinced that the reason it hadn’t rained over our village was quite simply because we hadn’t yet prayed for it to rain.
The décor of London nightclub Chinawhite — all carved friezes, lush oriental interiors and iconic parasols — went some way to promote Bali’s party kudos to the rest of the world (or the world that is London). All it lacked was a cockerel and wooden cage in one corner, a stack of coconut husks in the other, rice grain drying on the ground out front and a queue of Blue Bird taxis to take you home come daybreak and the picture would be complete.
In line with the number of visitors it welcomes each year — three million in 2009, by one count — and the countless experiences it offers every one (a world-famous writers’ and artists’ festival, a silver industry respected on the world stage, retreats, temples, bars, clubs and diving schools), the choice of fine hotels to pick from on Bali is fittingly vast. There’s the well-known clifftop Bulgari one, and the Four Seasons is much talked about. But what of the slick, new designer one in an as-yet undeveloped part of the island; its sister hotel on the awesome Bukit peninsula; the newbie from one of South East Asia’s leading hotel chains; and the discreet, established one to which loved-up couples flock? Read on for insight (and check spearswms.com for full-length reviews of each).
Alila Villas Soori
It takes some skill to build 48 villas within relative proximity of each other yet make it look, upon approach and once within the compound, as if the only thing standing is a reception pavilion. Seclusion-seekers, this was built for you.
Located a little more than an hour’s drive west of Bali’s Denpasar airport, Alila Villas Soori isn’t the easiest place to find despite being well signposted, so you’re best off taking Soori up on its offer of an airport pick-up (and throw in the chaperone option to speed your way through customs while you’re at it). In a nod to all that is available locally, Soori is constructed in a clever blend of sandstone, terracotta and lava rocks. Among the achingly sleek villas on offer — and within close proximity to the helipad — are a five-bedroom villa and a ten-bedroom one, each with its own gym, spa and jaw-droppingly hi-tech kitchen, plus a guest room for the host (Alila’s term for a butler).
Some villas look out on to rice paddies, aka the true face of Bali. Our view, mind, was of awesome, thundering waves crashing down on black volcanic sand beaches and by God, was it ever a gorgeous sight to wake up to. That we couldn’t swim in the wide expanse of water ahead of us was a low point — the current is simply too powerful and guests are recommended to keep out of the water for their own safety, regardless of how brave they’re feeling. That said, this didn’t seem to upset other guests and before long I too was busying myself instead with a mixture of yoga, swimming (there is a very generously sized pool to make up for the forbidden ocean), sunbathing, formidable spa treatments and ‘Journeys’ — familiarisation initiatives devised by Alila for guests to engage with and contribute to the local community.
Alila Villas Uluwatu
Soori’s cool older brother, Alila Villas Uluwatu, has the advantage of being well positioned, firstly as it is twenty minutes away by car from the hustle and bustle of the main town, and secondly as it is perched on the edge of a cliff. You almost need an off-road vehicle to access it — as you do most luxury resorts in Bali, the condition of even major roads seemingly not a priority for the local government. You know you’re getting somewhere when the narrow, pot-hole-ridden dirt track morphs into boulevard-wide ultra-smooth tarmac — if Armani did driveways.
AVU is the kind of hotel you can stay at for days on end and not cease to marvel at. Never mind the hotel as a whole — its chic staff, elegant library, serene and very capable spa — the individual villas in this place are simply stunning: open to the elements but easily sealed off at night by large wooden shutters, brilliantly and naturally lit and ventilated. True luxury — intelligent design, the sole purpose of which is to make me comfortable. We enjoyed more than a bite at Cire, one of AVU’s two restaurants, which accessorised its bread not with butter but with dollops of passion-fruit gel with virgin coconut oil. Again, not rocket science, just something that works with its environment.
You can swim in the ocean here, the southern tip of the island being marginally more sheltered from the heavy currents than the west coast. But if the walk down to the water’s edge and back up again — it’s a cliff, not a slope — doesn’t take your fancy you can always do 50-metre-long laps in the pool that runs parallel to the cliff’s edge.
Banyan Tree Ungasan
When the charm of the boutique hotel has waned and all you really want is: a dedicated play area to leave the kids in while you relax; a ‘do not disturb’ switch by your bed (and one in the bathroom and one in the lounge) for when you’ve forgotten to flip the sign on the main entrance to your villa; a safe with a power point within so that you can charge your valuable gadgets while they’re locked up; two toilets (in a one-bedroom villa); and a breakfast buffet that offers sushi, dim sum, bircher muesli and waffles… Sometimes bigger just hits the spot.
A short drive away from AVU, Banyan Tree Ungasan is a vastly different offering that, to no small number of people, is the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of a white knight. You know and trust one Banyan Tree. You don’t want to leave a trip in an unexplored country to chance, so you stay at the Banyan Tree there. End of story. You like it just the way it is, from the electronic keycard (versus the more homely, generic key), scheduled weekly dance shows and a large 3D map of the resort on display in reception, to the many golf buggies zipping about the place at any given time and the clinic in the basement of the lobby for basic medical attention.
The high point for me (I’ve no children yet to make me appreciate the Turtle Club or its play area, so my potential for excitement was limited) was my incredible massage at the spa. Never mind the intense relaxation it engendered at the time — my masseuse spotted a kink in my spine which a) no other therapist or medical professional had ever noticed, and b) I’ve since had checked out and had identified as some cause for concern. Thank you, Krisna. You are gold.
Luxurious, efficient and down-to-earth, the Balé is a couples place (no children under sixteen, please) but it’s also a grown-up place. There’s no fussing over you, or rather no more fussing than is absolutely necessary. Rather, there’s a distinct but gentle emphasis on respecting the privacy of each and every guest. Each member of staff I encountered gauged perfectly just how tired, open to conversation or in the mood to smile I was, and after giving it some thought I came to the conclusion that the men and women working here were the most natural, proud and happy hospitality insiders I’d met in some time. It was close to service bliss, if there is such a thing.
A silly detail, perhaps, but the doors to each villa have terrific bolting mechanisms: a wooden hatch opens with a key to reveal a thick toggle that you slide across to bolt the door closed or slide — clunkety clunk — the other way for the doors to open. It’s pure novelty, but it works wonders in getting you to warm to your pad.
Our small house didn’t have a view at all, save for the rooftop of the villa next door, but again the little things made up for it — such as the direct access from the pool (think lap, not plunge) to the bathroom and back, and the wonderful Balinese thatched ceiling (uncommon in five-star hotels in Bali, which is a shame given their great character and suitability to the climate).
You can easily walk to the beach, but it isn’t the most scenic walk on offer on Bali — we’re not talking Naples-dirty, but it isn’t Singapore-clean either. Wave for the beach shuttle instead (we waited about 30 seconds for ours each time) and find yourself at your destination in five minutes flat. The hotel beach club had a great atmosphere — all young types befriending each other, Spaniards for the most part — which spilled over seamlessly into the cocktail hour back at the hotel later that same evening.
It’s a wonderful thing to find yourself in a hotel that, contrary to most, dispenses with the rule books and formula. This is old-school harmony at its best.
Time of year to visit
During the dry season, between April and October.