Bali – Indonesia
Some people think I have the best job in the world and right now it is hard to disagree. I am watching a frangipani flower, its five pearl-white petals drifting out from a sunburst stamen. It is drifting gently on a swimming-pool; my swimming-pool. At least, it is mine for today. Yesterday it belonged to a stranger; tomorrow it will belong to somebody else. Such is the transient nature of hotels; here today, check out tomorrow. To the staff, in too many establishments, we are just so much passing flotsam.
But at the Alila Uluwatu, the latest luxury hotel to arrive in Bali, staff are encouraged to remember every guest’s name, irrespective of whether they are staying for one night or 14. “Hello Bapak (Mister) Andrew,” a gardener will say as he tills the still virgin landscaped gardens, designed with an artful eye to the play of water by the Singapore-based landscape architectural firm Cicada (whose credits include a Design Award from the local president). It’s not said with covert insouciance, nor overly servile, but feels genuinely familiar, as is if they want to make you feel at home in their home. I’m impressed; I can barely remember my own PIN number these days, let alone the names of 50 total strangers.
Uluwatu is the first in a new generation of all pool villa properties that Alila will roll out in the region in the near future. Scheduled for opening in early December is the second on Bali, Alila Villas Soori, which will offer the choice of sea-view rooms or villas that back onto verdant, working paddyfields. In the meantime, Uluwatu has raised the bar for the luxury market on the island. Even before you arrive you are invited to personalise your stay online, choosing from a pillow menu, a bar menu, a spa menu, and the level of host (butler) service you would prefer. Weary from an over-active travel schedule and too many late-night functions I’d ticked “private” – which is basically a polite way of saying “Leave me alone!” When I discovered that those who had picked “indulgent” were receiving nibbles each night along with a bottle of wine, I decided I might have been a bit too hasty.
But it’s not merely in the arena of service that the Alila Uluwatu looks set to shine. It has already received Bali’s only Best Practice Building Planning and Design certificate, a rather cumbersome title bestowed by the Green Globe programme, currently the international benchmark for sustainable tourism. What this means in slightly more sexy language is a design aesthetic that draws from locally-sourced materials, feeds back into the local community and leaves pigeon-sized footprints in its environmental wake. This is as urgent in Bali as everywhere else. The tourism boom that came in the 1980s and 90s may have increased the spending power of the locals, but it did not come without a price. Fertile agricultural land previously used for rice production has been poached by hotels and resort complexes; temples and villages were cleared for urban renewal; and a dramatic increase in pollution was the clear result from the hundreds of new cars and scooters now available for cheap rent.
Alila Uluwatu has responded to this vital demand for ecologically sound tourism in even sexier, media-baiting language, by employing the award-winning architecture firm WOHA to create a spectacular property that uses local handcut limestone and lava rock for its very foundations; woods gleaned from recycled railway sleepers, telephone poles and old coconut trees form the basis of the beautiful batik-themed décor, both inside and out; villa ceilings are made from bamboo; the roofs are of volcanic batu candi. Plants in the gardens have been taken from the island’s remarkable savannah ecosytem and require no, or minimal, irrigation. Hot air created by in-room air-conditioning systems (essential on an island where temperatures average a moist 30°C during the hottest months) is repurposed to heat water; and bath water is pumped through reverse osmosis water tanks for recycling.
It makes for a halcyon package. Asia’s newly wealthy young professionals from Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing have taken to it like ducks to the paddyfield; Jakarta’s rich – and you’ve never seen wealth until you’ve seen the wealth in Jakarta – pop over for the weekend. They gaze awestruck beyond the vertiginous limestone cliffs at a flickering, iridescent Indian Ocean. Ancient ferries – the colour of sweat stains – limp by, carrying the less cosseted to Java, Lombok, Sulawesi and Papua. At night you can spy the fishermen in their jukung, colourfully painted canoes with monster-face prows designed to warn off the Djero Gede Metjaling or Fanged Giant (mysteriously thought to wander the malarial coast), bamboo struts splayed dramatically to stabilise them in the treacherous seas. They are catching the next day’s supply of tuna, fiddler crab, lobster and barramundi, which, come daybreak, they heave onto the beach at Jimbaran Bay.
We went down to Jimbaran, lined with seafood warungs, early one morning with the Alila’s Dutch chef Stefan Zijta and watched as huge yellowfin tuna were dragged onto waiting flatbed minivans packed with ice ready for market. Poached from Jakarta’s Anouska Hempel-designed restaurant Shy, Stefan has settled into life in Bali with understandable ease. His day can start with a trip to Jimbaran to select the best produce for the menus at his twin Uluwatu restaurants (the fine dining Cire and the Balinese Warung), and for the cookery classes he lays on for guests in which you can try your hand at twisting sate lilit (minced seafood satay) onto lemongrass stalks, or folding sumping waluh (grated pumpkin and coconut mixed with sugar and rice flour) origami-like into a banana leaf.
It is all part of Alila’s Journeys experience, designed to maximise your stay and help make sense of the island’s complex culture and history. There are excursions though the local bukit, to some of the island’s hundreds of intricate animist Hindu temples, or to surf among the ocean reefs.
Seen from the air, Bali looks like a half-crouched west-facing cockerel, with a slightly truncated behind and an almost elephantine head; or perhaps as a paunchy fish swimming east, one flipper distended (the Bukit Peninsula on which Uluwatu stands in the southwest corner) gently pushing itself out into the Bali Sea. From one end to the next it is riven with brooding volcanoes, especially on its northern flanks. The most active and towering, Gunung Agung (Mother Mountain), last exploded in 1963 taking an estimated 2,000 locals and their village huts with it, though currently it shows little sign of throwing up anything more substantial than a monsoon downpour to trip down the neighbouring rice terraces, kept fertile by the greedy pecking of gaggles of mud-stained, long-necked ducks. Just eight degrees south of the equator this is verdant land for wildlife. Indolent monkeys lurk in the hinterlands; curious, skinny black squirrels scramble up ficus trees; lemon pansy butterflies flutter down from the cloud forests; and you can hear, though not always see, the distinctive Drango cuckoo.
At the Alila Ubud, Uluwatu’s older, less flashy sister, a pot-bellied lizard, complete with yellow-racing stripe, eyes a pea-sized frog delicately dancing between the pebbles around my sundeck. Perched up in the hinterlands just above Bali’s cultural centre and on the edge of the rich, green Ayung River, Ubud is a more rural experience, loved by those less turned-on by design aesthetics and who want to feel the sweat of a tropical rainforest on their brows.
Now 17 years old it is showing some signs of age, but four-poster beds draped in mosquito nets, lily pond outdoor baths and new private pool villas have breathed some fresh life into the secluded hillside retreat. Its infinity-edge pool was ranked one of the 50 most beautiful in the world by the American Travel and Leisure Magazine. And as I watch the sun set upon it, bats beginning to flit, the days moisture settling back in the forest, and tuck into a twilight feast of Gado-Gado (local vegetables seasoned with peanut sauce and Balinese lime) and Ayam Panggang Sambal Matah (baby chicken with ginger, shallot and chilli, served with young jack fruit) I find it hard to disagree, just as I find it hard to disagree I have the best job in the world.
GT flew to Bali via Singapore from London Heathrow courtesy of British Airways (ba.com) and on to Bali on Air Asia (airasia.com). We stayed at the Alila Ubud and Alila Uluwatu resorts, alilahotels.com or 0062 361 848 2166 (Uluwatu) and 0062 361 975 963 (Ubud).
Words: Andrew Copestake