In the early 1990s, I spent a semester in college studying on the island of Bali. I seldom went to the beach. Back then, although the backpackers and cheap-package tourists would often end up in Kuta, on the south coast, island regulars would head inland to Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali. That’s where you’d nearly always hear hypnotic gamelan music in the background, drifting in from ceremonies or temples. And traffic would stop to make way for women walking down the street in procession, wearing traditional dress—lace kebaya blouses and batik sarongs—balancing baskets of artfully layered fruit, flowers and other temple offerings on their heads.
Ever since then, I can’t help but roll my eyes when friends return from Bali and complain, “I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. The beaches just aren’t that great.” If it was a pristine beach you were looking for, I respond, you should have gone to the Caribbean. Sun-seekers simply looking to spend their holiday at a cool seaside club can find more satisfying options much closer to home than Indonesia. For me, the whole point of experiencing Bali is to engage with its singular culture. Woven from ancient animistic threads and a form of Hinduism unique to the island, Bali is a place of exuberant rituals charged with dance, art and music. It’s a place of skilled artisans and sumptuous architecture, a place long perceived, thanks to the accounts of anthropologists and artists living there in the 1930s, as “an enchanted land of aesthetes,” noted historian Theodore Friend.
Granted, a quarter of a century has passed since I lived in Bali, and much has changed. Half the size of Connecticut, the island is now home to more than 4 million people, and last year, it attracted at least 5 million foreign visitors. Traffic jams and throngs of tourists can overwhelm the narrow roads and small towns. An ever-expanding slate of luxury hotels may tempt the first-timers, but they typically irritate the old-timers. To access that “enchanted land,” it helps if you choose your accommodations strategically. To that end, I returned to Bali a few months ago to find the small inns and guesthouses that skilfully conjure that romantic ideal of the island. Here, four places run by insiders with their own sense of what makes for a classic Balinese experience.
“The ‘old’ Bali is found in the villages,” said Janet de Neefe, who owns Honeymoon Guesthouse, just past the centre of Ubud. “I love driving through the district of Klungkung—30 minutes beyond Ubud—on the way to East Bali and stopping at any off-the-beaten-track villages,” said Ms de Neefe. The Australian native and her Balinese husband, Ketut Suardana, first built their inn in the late 1980s. What started as four cottages has morphed into a 40-room spread. The architecture is traditional Balinese: carved-stone walls, wooden doors and thatched roofs. Ms De Neefe, who teaches cooking classes to her guests, also founded the Ubud Food Festival to promote the culinary heritage of Indonesia. “I’ve been going to the same warungs [roadside restaurants] on the island for 30 years,” she said, “and they are still fantastic. One of my all-time favourites is Warung Teges in the village of Mas, where they serve the best nasi campur [a popular mixed-rice dish].” From about $80 a night, honeymoonguesthouse.com
Originally built by former jewellery designer John Hardy and his wife, Cynthia, the Bambu Indah complex, about 10 minutes west of Ubud, is a fanciful interpretation of traditional architecture. Historic Indonesian houses sit scattered on a hillside, while on the riverbank below are open-air structures made of bamboo and copper that look like giant bird nests. The views of rice terraces are vintage Bali. “You can find the real island by walking through rice fields,” said Cynthia, who sometimes leads walks for guests. You can also taste the real Bali at Bambu Indah’s restaurant (open to non-guests too), where a team of all-female chefs serves local dishes, almost entirely made from ingredients grown on the property. From about $100 a night, bambuindah.com
American Rob Cohen, the director of “The Fast and the Furious,” first visited Bali in the early 2000s. After a disappointing stay in Seminyak on the island’s west coast (“It was commercial, polluted and too crowded,” he recalled), Mr Cohen made his way to East Bali, near Tirta Gangga, a former royal palace. “Passing little warungs and old women selling fresh fish and motor oil, I suddenly thought ‘Oh! This is the Bali I was looking for!’ said Mr Cohen. On that same trip, he bought several acres nearby and eventually hired Bali-based designer Linda Garland to build his home, Villa Campuhan, now a six-bungalow hotel comprising Sumatran structures with saddle-shape thatched roofs. Indonesian artefacts adorn the grounds and the rooms, as do traditional textiles crafted by Threads for Life, a non-profit Mr Cohen helped found. From about $230 a night,villacampuhan.com
Hotel Tugu Bali
When Hotel Tugu Bali opened in 1998, it was the only luxury property in Canggu, a rural seaside village on the island’s southwest coast. Owned by Indonesian entrepreneur Anhar Setjadibrata, the hotel is furnished with a staggering number of Indonesian antiques. Mr Setjadibrata, a seemingly insatiable collector, sourced several historic dwellings from around the country and placed them artfully on the grounds, alongside creaky wooden bridges, lily ponds and perpetually verdant gardens. Today, Canggu has evolved into Bali’s hippest enclave, awash with surfers and vegan cafes. But within the confines of Hotel Tugu, where elaborately costumed dancers and gamelan musicians regularly perform under a soaring thatched roof, it feels like timeless Bali. From about $250 a night, tuguhotels.com
Credit: Gisela Williams for The Wall Street Journal, 5 April 2019.