In the last 10 years I’ve travelled a lot. And I am not the ‘resort type’, preferring small isolated hotels where I can do my own thing. So I begin this two-and-a-half day visit to The Laguna, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa (a brand name owned by Starwood Hotels) with both excitement and some trepidation. It will be my first luxury resort in Southeast Asia and my first visit to Bali. But I am wary of the hype. Island of Gods? Come on, I’ve done enough exotic islands — Fiji, Maldives, Mauritius, even off the beaten track ones like Reunion and the Cayman Islands. How different can one more ‘sun-kissed beach’ be? Frankly, my sangfroid didn’t work. What follows are therefore the reluctant confessions of a wannabe resort junkie and a Bali convert — in proselytising mode.
The plane descends slowly, hovering like a hungry kingfisher just above the ocean’s surface, then finally cruises onto a landing strip apparently made out of clear blue water. Until the uncomfortable thud (the part I hate about plane arrivals), announcing terra firma. Bali is an island of exceptional beauty and the landing one of the most extraordinary I have experienced. Just a small landing strip jutting into the Indian Ocean. That’s all.
A gaggle of purposeful vacationers get off the plane. But I dawdle because from the arrival windows I have caught a glimpse of something that will charm me endlessly over the next two days — a huge ornately sculpted ceremonial gate of stone, at the arrival entrance to the Ngurah Rai International Airport. Stone and wood sculpture dominates the island wherever you go — on the exteriors of homes, shops, at the entrance to villages and hotels. Ornate carvings, embellished gateways, statues of gods and demons, female figures in classical poses, demon masks in full teeth-bared growls — an eclectic mix of impulses drawn from Hindu, Buddhist and local animistic religions. The island is aesthetic and uncluttered. Years of political control appear to have cleansed the urban landscape of the kind of competitive iconography that we see everywhere in India. Hoardings selling political parties, politicians, pop stars, movie stars, films. Nothing. It’s nice. The only exception is I Gusti Ngurah Rai — a Balinese national hero who died in a suicidal assault on the Dutch in 1946 while commandeering Indonesian troops in Bali. I spot two huge Ngurah Rai statues on roundabouts along the drive to the resort. On another roundabout is a gigantic, in-motion, freeze-frame, cement statue of Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield of the Mahabharata. Chariots, weapons, six horses, chafing at the bit — the whole shebang. Aha! The Hindu connection. I am quickly shaken out of my satisfied smile by another statue of what appears to be a cherubic boy atop a menacing dragon. That’s certainly not Hindu. But that is Bali — syncretic. And somewhat surprising.
Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world. Bali (one of 33 Indonesian provinces) is over 93 percent Hindu. Between the two, you would imagine a certain modest public culture. Wrong. As we wait to clear immigration, I take in the hoardings: Blue Glue —the Wow Bikini, advertised by a model posing languidly on the beach. A backlit neon hoarding for the ‘Billabong Girls’ has me quelling a Victorian splutter. (To my shame, I discover later in Kuta, that Billabong Girls is just a swimwear store!). The Balinese may be deeply religious (often maintaining not one but several small temples in their homes), they make offerings to the gods on an alarmingly regular basis, but they are also liberal and relaxed. Men don’t gawk. Shopkeepers don’t hustle. And despite the horrific Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 the island still gives visas on arrival. In this paranoid age of swine flu and terrorism (and SRK’s insulting incarceration!), that’s a plus.
The Laguna Resort & Spa is a short 20-minute run from Denpasar in the high-end Nusa Dua area, south of the island. Developed exclusively as a resort enclave in the 1970s, Nusa Dua houses over 15 resorts and villas of various sizes. But The Laguna was no cookie-cutter tropical resort. Yes, it was lovely, well appointed and luxurious. But also curiously intimate. While other resort chains in the neighbourhood maintain upwards of 500 rooms, the Laguna keeps it down to 271. Add to that the somewhat unusual landscaping with seven artificial lagoons spread amid lush greenery and stone pathways, and you really can have both worlds — be with people and alone, all at once. Fifty of the rooms are ‘lagoon access’ (including the deluxe room inhabited by yours truly). A private balcony allows you to dive straight into the water from your room. I spent my last afternoon doing just that — swimming from lagoon to lagoon across the resort with just enough stamina to make it back to my room the same way. It was liberating — no lugging around room keys and towels. I encountered just a handful of other lagoon lappers, each busy doing their own (no) things.
But I am letting my proselytising narrative get ahead of me. My first taste of intimate luxury was actually the spa. Within half an hour of arrival, I handed myself (swollen feet, puffy eyes, sore backside and all) over to Wati, one of the spa’s therapists. The spa menu — Javanese Lulur, Laguna Kelapa Ritual, Balinese Boreh... Wati recommends the Balinese Boreh. I enter a candlelit room, shed my modesty and lie down on a massage table. What follows is hypnotic. Wati converses just enough to make me at ease (“Relaaax, Ms Fallah”) and then descends into peaceful silence. She gently rubs a fragrant concoction of finely ground rice and Balinese spices into my jet-lagged, cellulite-infested body, and then wraps me up in a thin transparent plastic sheet. I marinate for 20 minutes as body heat lets the spices sink into my skin. She then takes me practically sleepwalking to an attached open courtyard, with a white stone shower stall, private jacuzzi and a huge green banyan tree overhead. I feel like Brooke Shields (remember Blue Lagoon?) bathing under open skies. Then comes the 60-minute delicious deep tissue massage with sandalwood oil. Finally, the warm bubbling jacuzzi into which Wati pours sweet smelling herbs. As I bob in the fragrant water, I am now Pakeezah — of course sans rose petals or Meena Kumari’s luxuriant mane floating in the water (damn my short hair!), but as close to the courtesan fantasy as I am likely to get. So I dream on. Until Wati’s gentle tap on my shoulder (“Ms Pakeezah!”), as she serves me sweet ginger tea laced with honey, heralding the end of the session. I dress and float back to my room on a small, happy, sleepy cloud. I could have fallen face down and slept for the next 48 hours. But time is short and I haven’t even begun to enjoy the real purpose of my visit — food.
The evening begins under a full moon on the beachside bar. Something more exotic than just a wine? The steward offers up a Raspberry Cosmopolitan (vodka, cointreau, fresh strawberry and raspberry juice, shaken and strained). Delicious but perhaps too sweet for me. (I switch to wine for the rest of the evening.) Dinner at the Mayang Sari, a ‘modern’ Indonesian restaurant, is unexpected. It’s ‘nouvelle cuisine meets Indonesian spices’ — light, delicate, dishes with an emphasis on presentation. Tiny bite-sized courses follow — thin slice wagyu beef with green mango and pomelo, organic greens and a splash of kemangi oil; pan-seared quail breast; oven-roasted lamb slices and baby lobster tail served with a small spicy rice cake and capsicum sambal. It’s all delicious but my palate, hungrily anticipating rich Southeast Asian spices served up in generous portions, is somewhat disappointed. Traditional Balinese food is not easily on offer at the resort. Plenty of seafood but somewhat ‘continentalised’. Not surprising. Apart from wealthy Indonesians, the resort’s clientele is predominantly German, Russian, Australian, British, French and Swiss. China and India are still ‘emerging’ markets, I am told.
The following day’s epicurean adventures are infinitely more satisfying. We are taken by Chef Made Putra, the Laguna’s award-winning executive chef on a food expedition. Pasar Bandung (Bandung Market), 31km from the resort, is our first stop. It’s a spice market, and like all traditional spice markets, smelly, cramped and fascinating. Tumulawak, candle nut, kaffir lime, galangal — I try to remember names and match them to the smells in my nose as we wind our way around the tiny passages of the spice stalls. Chef Putra expertly buys 100 grams here and half a kilo there, looking much like a magician collecting herbs for the evening’s cauldron. The staple Indian adrak is put to shame by the staggering varieties of ginger and other roots that Bali grows. Each distinct in touch, colour and smell. I love experimental cooking, and I pick up several little packets of bumbu wangen (the basic Balinese spice mixture) to take home. Next port of call, the Jimbaran fish market, with fresh seafood as far as you can see — cuttlefish, octopus, squid, black clams, mud clams, large oysters, zebra carp, blue parrot fish, red groupers, yellow tail snappers, red snappers, padi padi, and on and on. Back at the resort — a cookery lesson. In less than an hour, I learn from Chef Putra and his assistants how to put together a tasty, traditional Balinese meal of minced fish satay, rice, fish curry and raw papaya-green bean salad. Dessert is stewed jackfruit, pumpkin and cassava in sweet coconut milk. The basic fish curry concept is simple — fry shallots, ginger, garlic, add in the ground bumbu wangen spices, throw in some lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, coconut milk and the fish and voila! Well, not quite that simple, but for an Indian cook it is a familiar territory.
The glutton in me is now burping satisfaction. But this is Bali and the shopping gods demand propitiation. Ubud, in central Bali, is about 25km from Denpasar and an hour and a half drive from Nusa Dua. It takes longer because we linger to take in views of the rice terraces at Tegal Alang. Ubud district is known for villages specialising in particular traditional crafts — painting, stone sculpture, wood sculpture, kite making, mask making... We drive along the longest handicraft row in the world — over 20km of handicraft stalls along the main road. The eye is so exhausted from window-shopping that I am unable to actually buy anything in Ubud, settling instead for strong Balinese coffee at a tiny café. Just as well, because the next day’s visit to Kuta, a beach town on the western coast, provides great shopping. Bargaining in the traditional markets is a ritual. They say 100,000 rupiah (approx. $10 or Rs 500), you say 25,000. Seal the deal at 50,000. For a Dilliwali with Janpath nostalgia, it’s a blast, and I pick up things I don’t even want just for the high of the bargain — batik garments, wooden sculptures, a tiny turtle of coconut shell for my tiny son.
Two days in Bali is too short. On my last morning I squeeze in Tanah Lot, a sea temple on the island’s west coast and accessible only at low tide. Built in the 15th century by one of the last priests to come from Java, the main temple ceremony propitiates guardian spirits of the sea. Sadly I arrive at high tide and can only watch from a distance as waves crash against an unyielding temple. Very dramatic.
For every one thing I managed to do in Bali, there are 10 things I missed — Kecak and fire dance, temples galore, including the famous 16th-century Uluwatu holy temple located on a cliff, elephant safari, the Alas Kedaton monkey forest, rafting on the Ayung River, watersports, snorkelling in Lovina on the north of the island, Mt Agung... Also missing from my Bali trip is the Indian Ocean! Yup. Busy doing everything else, I lost track of the moon. My first full moon night is a precursor to erratic low tides and ocean dipping is tragically stymied. Well, leave a place with something left to do the next time, I say. I know there will be a next time. Because Bali is more than just another sun-kissed beach (and they give visas on arrival).