Every now and then, I indulge in a fantasy, usually about escaping the drudgery of day to day for the exhilaration of moment to moment. It may not be an original fantasy, but what is unusual is that I acted on it.
Leaving behind the responsibilities of work, wife and mother to teens (whose fault-seeking scorn wears one out faster than any toddler drama) became doable when one of my girlfriends was just as ready to disappear.
The Indonesian island of Bali stars in a lot of escape fantasies. Its mystique – a potent swirl of white sand and cerulean sea, laid-back locals and strong cultural heritage – is tempting. But we aren’t interested in Bali’s infamous tourist spots. We’ll bypass the commercial party zones of Kuta, Seminyak and Legian in the wild and crazy south. Instead, we seek remote resorts on the outskirts: the new Hoshinoya Bali near the island’s spiritual centre of Ubud and the powdery black-sand beaches by the newly renovated Soori Bali, near Tabanan on the central-western coast. (Bali’s active volcano forced the closing of the international airport there for two days in late 2017, but Mount Agung is calming down. The threat level has dropped and tourism amenities on almost all of the island are open for business.)
We find paradise, but we also come across tourist traps, garbage-strewn streams and crowded beaches. Bali, we discover, can be as maddening as it is overpoweringly beautiful.
Perhaps that’s always been part of the attraction. Despite its remoteness, it has drawn Western artists and intellectuals with a taste for the exotic since the late 1920s, Robert Pringle writes in A Short History of Bali: Margaret Mead, Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin, even Canadian musicologist Colin McPhee, the first Westerner to study the country’s music. This “expatriate intelligentsia” gave Bali, Pringle wrote, “a global reputation as a place of extraordinary cultural value.”
UBUD OR BUST
Elizabeth Gilbert’s book and the 2010 film Eat, Pray, Love have not done Ubud any favours. Tourists flock to this mountain town looking for spiritual serenity, but its takes some time to find it among streets clogged with motorbikes, cars and Western-branded shops. What was once a quiet agricultural town known for its healers is now thronged with tourists, street hawkers and local touts. The Ubud Royal Palace is overrun with outsiders more intent on the perfect selfie than learning anything about the shrines and architecture. You find a little quiet along the Campuhan ridge walk or wandering the Lotus Temple with is pretty ponds walled off from the noise.
But Martha and I find our peace at Hoshinoya Bali, a 20-minute drive from Ubud’s main drag. The luxury Japanese brand – known for its ryokan hotels – blends Japanese sleek with Balinese tradition. The Bali outpost recently earned a place on Travel + Leisure magazine’s 2018 list of best new hotels in the world.
It’s the middle of the night when we finally arrive, but several staff greet us with deep bows and big smiles. We step through an intricately carved stone arch and into a quiet calm. Waves of music – softer than a harp, more percussive than a pan flute – come from two musicians bent over what look like bamboo xylophones. These gamelan players produce a rolling hum of harmonics that lull the senses.
On the way to our villa, we pass others (there are 30 in total) arranged in quiet alleys that mimic a Balinese family compound. In the morning, we’ll see that Hoshinoya Bali is perched on the rain-forested gorge of the sacred Pakerisan River and discover ancient shrines and monuments throughout the property.
After 24-hours of travel, Martha and I sink into Japanese-style beds that sit on a low, raised platform. A wall-length Balinese wood carving is a masterpiece of delicate work.
Jet-lagged, we’re up before daybreak and open the French doors to our villa’s upper patio with its enormous daybed. I zone out here while listening to a Buddhist morning chant drift over from our neighbour’s villa. As the sun rises and the light improves, I see that my perch overlooks a long, slender pool and that each villa has its own private pool deck, with an overhead fan and more lounge beds. The chest-deep water is as cold as a Canadian lake. But you do your laps anyway. In this heat, you call it refreshing.
The beauty of being near Ubud, but not in Ubud, means it doesn’t take our tour guide (booked through the hotel) long to show us the real Bali. We’re passing through neighbourhoods where tourists never go and every time we exclaim about some new sight, he stops to let us get closer – to the eye-popping green of rice fields; the ingenuity of terraced rice fields in Tegalalang; children running barefoot with homemade kites. On it goes as we weave along two-lane roads skinnier than most Canadian driveways.
Martha and I ask about Balinese Hinduism, so Yande takes us home to meet his family and see their shrine. Spirits, or gods, influence everything here. He shows us how spirits and ancestors are cajoled with daily offerings (hence the home temple) and that Balinese people work to keep a balance between gods and demons. Yande also talks about how Balinese view time: What’s important isn’t the calendar or the clock, but the type of day or time. Is it an auspicious time or an unlucky day to perform a task?
On the way back to Hoshinoya, Yande is careful to swerve around piles of rice drying on the edge of the road. Motorbike drivers fend for themselves (many are adolescents, even women holding small children with one hand and steering with the other): Almost no one wears a helmet. The bikes always seem to dodge just in time, but the blithe disregard for safety is jarring – though maybe understandable given they believe the gods influence everything. If a true escape is a break from our own societal norms, we picked the right place.
There are more cultural lessons back at the resort. Hoshinoya Bali offers several daily classes or tours for free. One afternoon, half a dozen guests sit under a traditional thatched roof bale as a local woman shows us how to make an offering to the gods. We start by weaving our own banana-leaf boxes, then placing specific items and colours in specific corners. To finish, she helps us tie on sarongs to ensure we are properly attired to place our offerings at the base of a hotel’s temple. I say a silent word of thanks for getting Martha and I here safely, and pray my family is coping well without me. But there must have been something wrong with my offering. Later, when my phone rings with a call from home, I start describing my adventures only to be stopped by the main reason for their call: “Mom, Dad wants to know where you left the ant powder!?”
I think about that call on our last morning, while sipping tea in Hoshinoya Bali’s most stunning feature – lounge beds suspended over the lush valley. It’s like hanging out in the treehouse you never had as a kid. The breeze carries a deliciously sweet scent of champak flowers and humus-y forest floor. I breathe in deeply, pull out my phone – and slip it into airplane mode.
BLACK SAND TABANAN
One of the first social-media brags guests make at Soori Bali is posted from the open lobby: The area is a soaring, impressive stage for the ocean view. Staff members, accustomed to the stunned reaction, simply steer guests to the wide couches so they can sit and soak it all in with a chilled cocktail and an even chillier, tightly rolled white towel. Consider the towel a chance to cleanse yourself of the outside world before stepping into architect Soo K. Chan’s version of paradise.
Chan, founder of Singapore based SCDA Architects, and his wife, Ling Fu, designed Soori as a vacation home, blending its stellar location with proper feng shui. Eventually, the property expanded from private retreat to resort refuge.
Perched between waving rice fields with views of Batukaru, an extinct volcano, and the pounding surf of the Indian Ocean, there is no dull view from any of Soori Bali’s 48 villas. It’s this dazzling colour combination of black sand, white surf and radiant green rice fields that mesmerizes guests.
Chan relaunched the hotel in 2017 when he took the management reigns back from Alila Bali. He took it in a new direction, focusing on health and well-being, offering a range of holistic treatments at the spa, yoga and qigong sessions, tea ceremonies and more. The hotel grounds are used as practice and performance areas by the local gamelan orchestra and dance group. As a guest, you will stumble across both often and it’s enchanting.
With the refocus successfully under way, touch-ups to the villas continue. The wall-sized glass doors of our ocean-facing villa also open onto a burbling plunge pool. A teak pool deck with an enormous lounge bed covered in oversized pillows is a great spot to watch the sun set over the surf. The soft spongy spots of decking that need replacing are not so lovely, but flip flops solve that problem quickly enough, and this area is our go-to spot every day. Amazingly, no lounge chairs or umbrellas mar the beach view: The sand is black as tar, soft as icing sugar and packed down enough that biking along the sand is easily done. As dusk approaches, villagers turn out to enjoy the ocean, too. And look for the bat cave near the end of the beach: We learned of it one night to our horror and delight while dining on one of Soori’s restaurant patios.
Soori employs most of the residents of the village next door and we borrow bikes one morning to explore it. We stop to take more photos than is actually necessary of religious statuary (so grotesque and adorable at the same time) and guzzle Teh Botol (jasmine iced tea). Our ride brings us closer to the locals but also to local problems, such as a few litter-plugged streams and a beach strewn with plastic flotsam. It is an an unvarnished look behind the tourist brochures.
A free guided tour offered by the hotel also takes us on a walk along the rice fields during harvest. A longer, customized tour the next morning takes us farther afield and gives us more time to explore temples, including one of Bali’s most picturesque (and, therefore, most busy and commercialized): the fisherman’s seaside temple, Tanah Lot. Lunch that day is cooked by our driver’s wife and served away from Tanah Lot’s commercial bustle: seasoned beef and rice with sambal, or hot sauce, wrapped ingeniously in a banana leaf. Still, stumbling into the tourist masses Bali is infamous for was a shock. For some visitors, this is the only “real Bali” they see. Time to get back to Soori’s sanctuary.
That night I take a good look at the flowers left on our pillows daily: frangipani cupped by a palm leaf and secured with a sliver of bamboo. They are like little, ready-made offerings. Just before our ride to the airport, I take a detour onto that soft, black sand one last time.
I place my offerings in the surf and whispered a prayer of my own. Sure, I am hoping it is an auspicious day for our long flight home, but I am also praying that Bali remains a fantasy-fulfilling paradise, a place to indulge the senses and restore the soul, for years to come.
Accommodation was complimentary; the writer received a business-class upgrade from Cathay Pacific. Neither the airline nor the resorts reviewed or approved this story.
More than just a frivolous indulgence, flying business class is one way to humanize long-haul travel. Cathay Pacific’s business-class seats are pricey – but I was surprised when I left the airplane 15 hours into my trip feeling more refreshed than when I got on. That’s never happened to me on a long-haul before – and travelling to Bali takes almost a full 24 hours. Cathay’s lie-flat beds, finely tuned cabin pressure – even the fresh orchid at each seat - made a big difference. And I appreciate any airline that serves a juicy Angus burger at 4 a.m. (while you’re on your third movie, second glass of Bordeaux and long after the white-linen meal service is finished). Flying business also meant a long layover in Hong Kong was spent exploring and indulging in Cathay’s five business-class lounges. The newest and biggest is the Pier, where you can wash off the fog of travel in marble shower suites and linger over tea chosen with a tea sommelier before moving onto a made-to-order noodle bowl for lunch.
WHERE TO STAY
Hoshinoya Bali is on Travel + Leisure magazine’s list of best new hotels of the world for 2018. Thirty split-level villas offer privacy, peace and opulence on the outskirts of Ubud, Bali. Private transfers can be booked for a fee; villas start at US$525.
Soori Bali, on Bali’s southwestern coast, lets guests choose between ocean-view and mountain-view villas. Both are mesmerizing, but it’s hard to beat the wonder of watching the sun set and the surf pound on Tabanan’s black sand. Rooms from US$600 include breakfast for two and resort activities. Return airport transfers available.