Back to Bali

As luxury hoteliers venture into its untrammelled reaches, Bali is once again beckoning even the most seasoned Asiaphiles. Cynthia Rosenfeld reports.

January 23 2010
Cynthia Rosenfeld

It’s the question on the lips of knowing travellers, not just those in south-east Asia: what’s the next Bali? And one worth asking, in a region that serendipitously never seems to lack for an island, atoll or coast worth exploring (or rediscovering), from the Southern Maldives to Koh Samui. But lately Indonesia’s own Island of the Gods, which bounced back from its bombing tragedies of 2002 and 2005, has shown signs of a different kind of regeneration. After years of congregating along the southern coasts at Nusa Dua, luxury hoteliers are fanning out over the rest of its 5,6000sq km of mostly verdant terrain and into its untrammelled reaches, reinterpreting Balinese style at the environmental vanguard.

Meanwhile, a handful of talented, long-term expatriates – far from giving up on the island’s promise – are investing in and enhancing the Bali experience with private villas, luxe guesthouses and showrooms for the sought-after art and jewellery they create with local craftspeople. Unlike at Bali’s swankier stalwarts, guests here gain intimate access to how Bali’s stylish set live among the swaying palms, as well as the opportunity to reap creative harvests as in few other places. With a new five-star model and new insider cachet, the next Bali for 2010 could be Bali itself.

“Bali is a spiritual boomerang. People go elsewhere, but come back because of the authenticity of the people, their rituals and the astonishing number of magnificent properties here,” says John O’Sullivan, general manager of the Four Seasons resorts at Sayan and Jimbaran Bay, of the island’s endurance. His own hotels pioneered the deep-soak bathtub and outdoor shower on these shores in 1994, while up among the temples and sacred rivers of Ubud, Indo-chic luxury was carried into the early years of the 21st century with infinity pools and well-padded day beds at Amandari and Como Shambhala Estate at Begawan Giri.

But this revival traces to October 2006, when the Bukit Peninsula, the arid and rocky geological aberration at the isle’s far south end, was chosen by Bulgari as the site of its second resort in the world after Milan. In the past known mainly for its legendary surf break and the black-coral Pura Luhur Uluwatu (one of Hindu Bali’s six most sacred temples), since the Italian brand set up its pampering camp, the Bukit – once devoid of much beyond cacti and bamboo huts – is now peppered with villa construction sites.

Last summer saw the arrival of the first luxury resort to give Bulgari a run for its money, while upping the eco-ante around the island by adhering to the highest environmental standards. Alila Hotels, a nascent Singapore-based brand, has built Alila Villas Uluwatu to Green Globe 21 standards (a “green star” certification body, which launched in Australia) – the first of its kind here, and a stunning eco-sleek venture eschewing Bali’s traditional alang-alang roofs and any other obvious indigenous design element.

Constructed with locally sourced and sustainable materials by Singapore’s esteemed design firm WOHA, the 84 creamy palimanan stone villas are sparsely appointed with low-slung natural fibre furnishings, allowing for unobstructed 180º, azure-sea views from almost every vantage point. Recycled wood has been crafted into spacious day-bed pavilions for lounging alongside 9m x 3m, salt­water plunge pools. The high, thick walls between the villas, strung out along a bluff above the sea, mean one can easily avoid other guests and also the attentions of the excellent staff; but I became quickly attached to Martha, my (male) butler, who, gifted with the ability to sense an oncoming rain shower, discreetly moved my BlackBerry, iPod and laptop under cover while I lay horizontal and near-somnolent during a treatment in the resort’s spa. He arrived by buggy to collect me just as the three-hour indulgence wound down, then reappeared at my villa at bedtime with chocolate chip cookies. And a serene bedtime it is: the Alila’s remote location offers some of Bali’s most harmonious natural concerts from frogs, geckos and crickets.

As it happens, Bulgari and Alila aren’t the Bukit’s sole luxury purveyors: Banyan Tree Ungasan opened in January and Raffles has started construction on a new resort. However, those who opt to unwind here rarely venture into Bali’s social scene, choosing to capitalise on a newly resuscitated island pleasure: solitude.

While more choice among resorts and luxury villas is a good thing for Bali-bound travellers, rumours of imminent overdevelopment swirl along its more populous south-west coast, 10 minutes’ drive north of bustling Seminyak and 45 minutes (without Bali’s notorious high-season traffic) from the Bukit. They say that although the government has banned further building permits, 600-plus villas are approved for construction. But it’s still possible to consider the timeless scene of rice farmers methodically sowing terraced emerald fields and breathe relatively pristine sea air. One does so, from the comfort of a chaise longue next to an infinity pool, at Oazia Spa Villas, an enchanted private health sanctuary hidden behind modern Balinese brick-and-mortar walls in increasingly dense, but still appealing, Canggu.

While Seminyak’s venerated party spots – Ku De Ta, Sunset on Seminyak and Métis – still draw throngs of the beautiful (if barely dressed) bodies who once defined the south-west coast’s allure, others gravitate to less sparsely populated reaches of these shores to play house and heal. And Oazia represents the best of this Bali: three roomy, airy houses constructed of limestone and weathered woods, with generous outdoor spaces and intimate corners scattered around leafy central garden compounds. Fine antiques and plush, oversized furnishings fill the one- to four-bedroom villas, the smallest of which, Orchid, is a charming traditional Javanese joglo with a pitched ceiling and dried-grass roof. A small river meanders through the property, and locals quietly come to make offerings to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Alila has also ventured to the northern reaches of this coastline, opening its second all-villa resort in December 2009, above Tanah Lot, the 16th-century temple perched on an offshore rock. Alila Villas Soori – also built to Green Globe 21 standards – sits solo on a wide scarf of black sand beach, all minimalist horizontal lines cast in stone and teak, with vast seaside lounging terraces accompanying each villa. (Guests will have the option to shuttle between Alila’s pleasure palaces here and at Uluwatu with their butlers in tow.)

Beyond the sleek enclaves offered by larger resorts, there are personal experiences to be had, ones that afford interaction with the adoptive islanders who are helping to shape Bali’s contemporary culture. Along the sleepy shores of Sanur and in arty Ubud and its surrounding valleys and villages, travellers now receive privileged access to authentic experiences that previously existed behind closed, hand-carved antique Javanese doors. There is the American Bruce Carpenter, a Sanur-based tribal art consultant, who followed his passion to Bali in 1974 – authoring and co-authoring 16 books on Indonesian art, history and culture – and is riding a boom in collecting born from the global economic crisis.

“Indonesian art offers significant value right now. The most desirable pieces can often be had for less than £200,000, even though many are far rarer than most collectable African art.” He counsels clients on textiles, Balinese paintings and gold ritual adornments – and also doubles as the ultimate insider guide, connecting them directly to working craftsmen and artists, of which talent base he claims Bali possesses “the greatest repository in the world. Many places have a long history of art, but Bali is unique in the extent to which its ancient traditions have flourished unchanged.”

There is also the jeweller Jean-François Fichot, known for his extravagant, original hybrids of Indonesian technique and European flair. At the lush riverside compound where he lives and designs, Fichot leads me past a blossoming lotus pond to a traditional thatched hut-turned-treasure chest for his eclectic creations: earrings fashioned from carved shell inlaid with turquoise, necklaces strung with Mesopotamian beads and Roman glass, and a vibrant fuchsia ruby and 22ct gold Majapahit-style ring. Fichot was an insider’s secret until he opened his first eponymous shop in central Ubud in 2008; of his decision to open a second, larger destination emporium last month, on the southern outskirts of town, the 32-year Bali veteran explains that “the craftsmen I work with here are my family. I want to share them with the world.”

The more high-profile jewellery career of longtime Bali resident John Hardy saw him leverage ancient Balinese motifs, such as the dot and rantai woven chain, into a multimillion-pound empire, which he and his wife Cynthia sold in 2007. Some of that money they invested in the community by building Green School, an eco-educational initiative in Sibang Kaja, about 15 minutes from Ubud. In June 2007, they decided to create an opportunity for those desiring temporary immersion into their artist-expat life with Bambu Indah – seven 19th-century Javanese princes’ houses, adjacent to their own Cheong Yew Kuan-designed ironwood tree house, which have been converted into a sort of haute home-stay. Each whimsically chic villa is filled with souvenirs of the Hardys’ travels: Tibetan vegetable-dyed carpets, Kalimantan shields and Ethiopian rawhide benches are scattered among the batik wall hangings and hand-carved teak beds. The houses share one of Bali’s best panoramas, encompassing the holy Ayung River, fertile rice fields, Pura Dalem Gede Bongkasa temple and the volcanic ridges around Mount Batu Kau.

Not far away, at the edge of Ubud’s Monkey Forest, there is, as of this month, another enticing variation on the barefoot-chic guesthouse experience. The Irish transplant Linda Garland, renowned for her conservation work with bamboo, has decided after 30 years to open Panchoran, her private jungle estate, to paying guests. Its five houses are positioned along the Wos River; the furnishings insist on relaxed contemplation – multiple day beds, hammocks and sun loungers, with surfeits of billowing white linen dressing the huge beds. Garland’s staff appliqués the seashells on the bathroom mirrors and baskets by hand (versions are available for purchase in the retreat’s small boutique). Sapphire- and saffron-hued butterflies flutter among the acres of surrounding bamboo jungle. Garland, who adjuncts as one of the island’s unofficial authorities on healing specialists, invites guests to select from her personal entourage; these include Made Bajra, her gifted masseur, and Ayurvedic specialist Dr Sujatha Kekada, who explains thoroughly and without a trace of mysticism why someone with my fiery dosha, or body type, ought really to lay off the chilli sauce.

Panchoran, like a handful of other unruffled refuges around the island, will feature prominently in the upcoming film version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling Eat, Pray, Love, which promises to rocket it, and indeed Ubud, into a new stratosphere of popularity. But its deeply authentic, unique charms – the moonlit outdoor showers, the dinners taken in tranquillity on a bridge spanning the Wos, the sunrises set to a score of kingfishers and white herons – are ones the silver screen can’t hope to capture in all their beauty. Still, get there soon.

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