Where is the best place to combine a proper luxury holiday, ancient, unknown temples and one of the most unique dining experiences? Bali resident MARY JUSTICE THOMASSON would tell you it’s right at her doorstep. Naysayers that say the ol’Bali charm has left the island are, quite frankly, full of it. As a 10-year resident of Bali, I can testify Bali’s never been better. Our culture remains beautifully intact and the Balinese thrive in the luxury of knowing that they are living in a form or paradise where, if they play their cards right, balancing good with evil in their Hindu ceremonies (translate, parties), things generally work out.
Sashaying palms, stunning girls and smiling, happy people abound and while pretikins line the beaches, in the distance are verdant mountains of terraced rice fields and varied volcanic landscapes that dot the island, lending well to multitudes of choices for surf and turf activities.
Bali continues to win travel awards like ‘world’s best island destination’ and ‘best island getaway’ and when you consider that 20 years ago the options for food were nasi goreng or nasi campur (noodles or rice with a little meat and veg thrown in), it’s nice to know that our international restaurants, including top new players like Bambu, now compete on the stage for culinary excellence. It’s true the south of Seminyak is teaming with faddish bars, boutiques, night clubs and parties that pop all day and night so if you want to see more of the ‘ye olde’ Bali, put those pretty little pedicures to the metal and explore. In the main areas of town there are several new delights that await you but many an enlightened visitor will head for the hills of Ubud and the coasts of the North to further explore the island. A good start is in the northwest where English-born, Cordon Bleu chef and interior designer Diana Von Cranach cranks it up a notch or two at our perennial favorite resort, Puri Ganesha. Here, Diana has opened what must be one of the smallest and most unique restaurants on the island. Liperu (which in Bali slang literally means ‘where the hell is Peru?’) seats only 10 and has a small daily menu that tantalises diners with amazing combinations of Balinese-cum-Peruvian flavours, using purely local ingredients served on small bamboo baskets that reflect the seasons. True to her favourite vegan words, it’s all “rawfully good”.
Heading for the hills of Ubud, Von Cranach also teamed up with a friend and colleague, Dutch-born Anneke Van Waisberghe, whose colonial tents à la ‘Out of Africa’ overlook the river south of Ubud and where you can dine on the edge of the world. This is a romantic and ideal setting for Diana to showcase her culinary skills and reach a larger audience, far from her tiny laid-back luxury up north. They call it Dining Within Tent and it is splendidly theatrical with a natural grandeur that sets the tone for the evening. Here, the noises of the rainforest co-exist happily with the sentimental sounds of Waisberghe’s collection of prewar songs played on an old record player that wafts out into the night, mixing with the cackles of the guests’ laughter and the katydids outside.
The lucky night I went, the dinner party theme was the ‘Happy Valley Set’, aka ‘White Mischief’, a largely hedonistic British and Irish group of aristocrats and adventurers who settled in Kenya between the 1920- 40s. My character given in advance was party girl and socialite Lady Idina Sackville and my date was given the title Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll. Hedonistic and hilarious it was indeed, and our linens and silks from the evening had to be sent out for cleaning post haste in the morning. This evening should be pre-booked before your arrival and it will go down in the memoirs as memorable. We certainly enjoyed ourselves, from what we can remember.
And why not continue the theme of tented extravagance and check out Glamping Sandat where two stylish Italians have created glamping tents on the outskirts of Ubud. Our tent was complete with our own infinity pool perched on the forest edge and a private deck for sunbathing ‘au naturel’ in total privacy – perfect for those keen to reconnect with nature while not necessarily chipping a nail. We enjoyed our chandelier-lit tent and all the mod-cons which we didn’t end up using as the open air was far more refreshing. There are five tents and two traditional Balinese Lumbung villas laid out like a rabbit’s warren, with plenty of room for roaming. It has perhaps one of the prettiest gardens I’ve seen in Bali – more English in style than Balinese – with a wonderful assortment of flora and fauna that had been carefully thought out while remaining charmingly chaotic.
Bali continues to surprise me and I recently toured the ‘7 Temples of Enlightenment’ with the charming Professor and Curator of The Sukarno Centre, Enong Ismail, who has partnered up with one of the most exclusive and professional tour organisations on the island, My Private Concierge. To say we were gobsmacked is a gross under exaggeration. On this tour we visited seven world heritage temples and monuments that have recently received their UNESCO certification and for the first time, fully understood the origins of Balinese Hindu religion ‘Hindu Darma’. Our journey took us through the temples as we traced the evolution of this fascinating culture. Many of the temples and meditation places we visited are not even known to locals, let alone visitors and it was a rare opportunity to be one of the first visitors to these sites which are all part of the Pakerisan world heritage listed area. Our day began with tea and smart talk with Pak Ismail at his charming home amongst rice fields on a ridge just off the sacred river of Pakerisan. Pak Ismail’s passion is infectious and he has been documenting Balinese culture since 1979. He sees his rare tours as a way to give back to the society he loves and to share his wealth of information. Most of the temples have been untouched other than the weather playing a role in their appearance. After a few sights, a lovely picnic lunch was laid out in the fields, and just when I thought I couldn’t be more blown away, we went into a 10th century meditation temple that is carved into the side of a stone hill and hidden amongst the rainforest. I wondered whether Indiana Jones might make a quick appearance just to add to the unreality of it all. While there, we were met by a local priest who conducted a blessing for us, wishing us well on our onward journeys in life. His appearance, as Pak Ismail wisely told us, belied his Balinese heritage as there was a distinct Indian flair to his features. Our priest was a sixth generation priest, and indeed I felt blessed. The day finished in a large temple that, in the 12th century, leaders of the Buddhist, Hindu Shiva and ‘respect your ancestor’ religions met and agreed to create one religion for all Hindu Darma, or Balinese Hindu, as it is known today.
Bali continues to be blessed with hidden treasures that can be explored for generations to come and that is what makes this island, in my opinion, one of the best destinations in the world.