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June 27, 2009

Bali’s new high

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Filed under : General Green
The island once extolled by Hollywood as an exotic heaven-on-earth has bounced back from its troubles, more luxurious than ever. Johnny Morris gets his tropical fix.

Given that Bali is just one of 17,508 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago, it produces more than its fair share of news and views. Before my visit, I found opinions about the tropical island fell into two distinct camps: that it was A Paradise Lost and A Paradise Promised. The gloom-mongers, fuelled by rampant headlines and cautious Foreign Office reports, warned that, if I managed to avoid rabies, pestilence, terror attacks and unregulated aeroplanes dropping out of the sky, I would be severely disappointed by the crass commercialism of the island. “What is worse than Benidorm?” I was asked. Answer: A tropical Benidorm full of drunken Australians (cue laughter and sneers all round).

Whereas, over in the Pollyanna camp, any mention of the holiday island elicited fond smiles. “Ah, Baaaali, how wonderful,” the island-lovers swooned. “So exotic.” And they are right – about the image, at least. For the romantics (and particularly honeymooners) the Bali brand is strong, still up there with the Maldives and Mauritius in the dreamy-destination league.

The island started branding itself as an exotic holiday-island paradise in the 1920s, when the ruling Dutch colonials lured the first tourist to the island with tales of coconut cocktails and cockfights. Early documentary films were spiced with orgiastic dance sequences and shots of bare-chested maidens; the title of one of the documentaries, Goona-Goona (the Balinese term for “magic”), became New York slang for sexual allure. Soon the West had dived headfirst into a love affair with exotic Bali, its appeal strengthened by Hollywood stories of unfettered romance in a tropical paradise. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope chased Dorothy Lamour around fake palm trees in Road to Bali, and in the musical South Pacific the protagonists sang, “Bali-hai, my special island”.

But what’s the reality behind the fantasy? In recent history, Bali has suffered a series of body blows to its tourist industry that would have devastated most holiday destinations: the 1997 Asian financial crisis, followed by two major bomb attacks in 2002 and 2005. Yet the island seems to have an innate ability to bounce back. Last year, a record nearly 2 million foreigners visited and, in January, tourist arrivals were up 18 per cent. Even in the brutally honest world of TripAdvisor, the Bali section is sprinkled with more stars than a fairy’s wedding.

The island’s resilience has not gone unnoticed by real-estate companies and the major hotel groups, who have been building new villas and opening hotels with a Dubai-style urgency. In 2006 the luxury goods brand Bulgari choose Bali for its second and only hotel outside Milan, and last year the Thai group Anantara launched a new beachfront resort at Seminyak. Orient Express recently opened villas in Jimbaran, while the Alila hotel joined a bevy of new boutique properties on the island. Still in the pipeline are a new Banyan Tree and a delayed W hotel. Original retreats that put luxury Bali on the map have been polishing up their places, too. The cherished Amandari in Ubud has celebrated its twentieth year with a general overhaul, and the grand dame of tropical retreats, The Oberoi, is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance, due in part to its proximity to the newly fashionable Seminyak shops and restaurants.

So what is the secret of Asia’s new luxury launch pad? Earlier this year, I was invited to the grandest opening of the season at the St Regis hotel, the first of the group’s beach resorts in Asia. The theme was diamonds and pearls and the dress code “resort chic”. In recession-hit London, how could I refuse? So I packed my pearls, and headed for the airport.

The party

Boom! The drums banged out like tropical thunder and a parade of bare-chested teenage boys, wearing pink chiffon neck scarves and sporting frangipanis behind their ears, marched through the cavernous marble lobby of the St Regis resort, flanked by girls in pearls and silks, brandishing metre-long flaming torches. Looking like a rally for pyromaniac virgins, the procession swept along the 70-metre stone catwalk that dominates the resort gardens, treating us to a super-charged version of the hotel’s evening fire ritual. After the ribbon-cutting and the briefest of speeches, the drama continued, with the chief sommelier smashing open a jeroboam of champagne with a cutlass. It was terribly camp and a great piece of theatre – all that was missing was Dorothy Lamour.

Life here hasn’t always been as glamorous, though. As Peter Rieger, a German property developer, explained: “As recently as 1998 we would telephone each other if there had been a cheese delivery to the island.” (This was recalled as one of the army of smiling waiters handed him a second plate of tuna tartare followed by pan-fried foie gras.)

After more champagne, it was time for the star turn of the evening, the jazz pianist Jamie Cullum. It turns out that the diminutive Jamie is very big in Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan (a good celebrity choice, then, for a hotel targeting Asian clientele: even the hard-working team of 40 chefs took a rest from knocking out the mountains of caviar canapés to witness his masterclass in informal entertainment). The invited crowd lapped it up and Jamie’s girlfriend, Sophie Dahl, was the only one left in the shadows as Asian women illuminated his piano with a halo of camera lights.

Next up, after a stage-invasion of designer dresses and two karaoke-style encores, was a giant white chocolate cake the size and shape of small volcano, wheeled out and paraded around the party by six chefs. No one bothered to eat any of the massive creation, but later someone fell into it on their way to the post-party drinks at the hotel’s King Cole cocktail bar. Sake and champagne chasers, anyone? For the new wave of visitors, St Regis is doing a great job of repackaging exoticism in the Islands of the Gods.

The place

A few days later I found myself at the Amankila resort in rural southeast Bali, following the guidance of my smiling yoga instructor, I Wayan Eka Sukma Putra (thankfully, just plain Eka to his pupils). As he took me through a simple sun salutation, he encouraged me to “Be nice to your body and let it smile all over”. It wasn’t difficult as I looked out across the Lombok Strait from the upper terrace of the luxury lodge. Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Mount Agung volcano, the hotel’s alang-alang-thatched villas are balanced on a steep hillside that runs down to a coconut grove and a vast sweep of empty beach.

As well as saluting the sun, I did my own private acknowledgment to Ed Tuttle, the genius architect who designed this sanctuary-on-stilts. By using bold, simple geometry and a limited palette of sherbet yellows, woody oranges and pale creams, he has created architectural harmony within the lush green vegetation. The only other colour in his picture-perfect scene was the turquoise blue of the three-tiered infinity pools that cascaded out in front of the hotel’s grand amphitheatre. Yes, amphitheatre, because although the villas are traditionally designed, the communal areas of the hotel look more like parts of a palace in a sci-fantasy film. The classic style is noble and vaguely familiar, but it is hard to place exactly from which civilisation it has sprung.

Later that evening, in the same steep-sided amphitheatre overlooking the sea, I enjoyed a musical performance by a local gamelan orchestra that was just as charming as Jamie’s gig. They accompanied a group of local children, performing a series of traditional Balinese dances involving elaborate costumes, hobbyhorses, petal-throwing and a good deal of regular playground fun.

After an Indonesian feast by lantern-light, the strong woody smell from the trees, the gentle sea sounds and the light yoga had worked its magic, I headed happily for bed. Within just a few hours of arriving in Amankila, the place had helped me to embrace traditional Bali: five-star, traditional Bali, but Bali nonetheless.

The people

The main route to the Como Shambhala estate just outside Ubud in central Bali was closed due to a broken bridge. As a result, my taxi driver took me on a long diversion through bumpy back roads. And what a diversion. As we moved through the countryside that surrounds the 23-acre estate, we passed every shade, tone, tinge and tint of green imaginable. There was the dense emerald and sage green of the tropical forest, jade-green mosses growing on ancient stone, the vibrant lime of wild grasses and, best of all, the chartreuse green of the young shoots in the terraced rice fields.

This parade of colour reminded me of a story that John Halpin, of the Uma Ubud hotel, had told me earlier in the day. Apparently, an unnamed new manager had arrived at an unnamed prestigious resort on the island.

In his first days he had noticed the moss and mould growing on the brickwork of the hotel – as it does on all of the volcanic stonework in Bali. Horrified, he sent his staff out with stiff brushes and ordered them to make the place spotless. As misguided as King Canute ordering back the waves, the manager was attempting to banish what’s best about the island: its natural green beauty.

The Pura Dalem temple, close to the back entrance of Como Shambhala, was lacking in neither green moss nor beauty. It stood open to the elements, framed by palms and decorated with a row of vertical flags that it wore like a squaw’s crumbling headdress. Its statues, pillars and surrounding trees were dressed in kain poleng , the holy black-and-white-chequered cloth, and the main courtyard was packed with colourful flowers and fruit offerings.

It was a healing day at the temple, and locals were arriving in their best sarongs carrying baskets of gifts. A young group showed me a decorated fan made from fresh pig bits – guts and all – and pointed out the area where the illegal cock-fighting would take place later in the day. It was all very exotic, but incredibly accessible, and it occurred to me that the legendary friendliness of the locals must stem from events like these. The Balinese were maintaining their strong sense of community, joining together to celebrate and ritualising their lives without any sense of secrecy or taboo. An open animistic/Hindu religion, whose worshippers welcome beer-drinking omnivores like us to witness it, can only be good for the tourist trade.

Of course, Bali isn’t heaven on earth. In between the magic, there are the normal South-East Asian traffic jams of scurrying scooters on badly littered roads. There are beach bars pumping out bland world music to disillusioned gap-year students. Ubud is producing too many good, bad and downright ugly handicrafts, and some villa developments are blocking the views of the very rice fields that drew them there in the first place.

But for a first-time visitor like myself, Bali did manage to deliver three very special and vivid experiences – and there could have been a lot more. My photographer sneaked off for surf lessons on Kuta beach, while my Korean chums headed over to Seminyak for designer retail therapy. I could have started a Botox treatment or completed a course of colonic irrigation at a sanctuary. I could have trekked up a volcano, or visited the remote resorts on the north coast or simply stayed in the St Regis resort and got my 24-hour butler to bring me supplies from the chocolate fountain.

There is still plenty of room for paradise. Just avoid the drunken Aussies at Kuta and the downmarket handicraft shops, and seek out your own special Bali-hai island. Cue song and smiles all round.

credited to and flickr users: c-j-b and jeffrey_huang528

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