Living on the island of Bali in the early nineties, I witnessed amazing things: young girls dancing in a trance over burning red coals; five small Balinese men lifting my jeep from a ditch without strain or hesitation; women gracefully balancing 50-pound loads on their heads while walking along slippery paths in rice fields. During my two years there, I came to learn that in Bali the usual logic does not apply.
So it came as no surprise to hear that, against the odds, Bali is back. Most travelers had abandoned the island in the wake of the 2002 bombing in Kuta. And though Bali itself wasn't much affected by the blows dealt the whole of Southeast Asia (SARS, the bird flu, and the devastating tsunami), they have only hindered tourism in the region. But these days Bali is more enticing than ever, having spent the last two years in a frenzy of renewal and reinvention, and high-end travelers are checking back in. Even the Balinese themselves marvel at the pace of the comeback. "Just look at Kuta," says jewelry designer Tricia Kim, an ex-New Yorker living here. "A place called Fuel opened just a few days ago next to the bomb site. It used to be a horrible club and now it's a cool lounge with great food." That's just one example among many in a province that has remained both flexible and resilient (it is steadfastly Hindu, for example, while all its neighbors are Muslim). Arriving in Bali now, one finds not a provincial, if lively, little isle, but a place with enough savvy to offer up multiple versions of paradise. There are sprawling clifftop villas and smart restaurants in the south; yoga centers and ecolodges among the emerald rice fields around Ubud; and in the untrampled north, chic hideaways where a new class of adventurers are exploring Bali's last frontier.
Kuta and Nusa Dua may be the most visited destinations, but the boomingest town in southern Bali is Seminyak, once a sleepy bohemian enclave ten minutes north of Kuta. European jet-setters, honeymooners from Hong Kong, and smart Australians now fill the restaurants on Jalan Oberoi (known as Eat Street) and browse the shops along Seminyak's hectic main drag. The scene has become so stylish that Seminyak has been dubbed the Ibiza of Southeast Asia; it even has its own glossy English-language magazine, The Yak, filled with local gossip and reviews. "Some people come to Bali for culture, some come for the cocktails," jokes one of the editors, Sophie Digby, as she and I sip cappuccinos at Ku dé Ta, the beachside restaurant that serves as Seminyak society's unofficial headquarters. "In terms of the level of design," she adds, "this area has gone from Rough Guide to Wallpaper." Ku dé Ta, with its slick black U-shaped walls framing idyllic ocean views, is a case in point. The French architect Fredo Taffin is Bali's own Philippe Starck, responsible for Seminyak's trendiest spaces—the recently opened members-only Paparazzi Lounge in the nightclub Double Six, the Downtown Villas compound, and ten beachfront villas next to the Gado Gado restaurant—as well as the new villa Istana, consisting of five bedrooms and an infinity pool on the Uluwatu Peninsula. Once the dry, empty southern tip of the island and home to only a few die-hard surfers and the Uluwatu temple, the peninsula has become one of Bali's most glamorous spots. The colonial-style Bayuh Sabbha has just gone up, with nine villas, two pools, a tennis court, and a garden designed by Made Wijaya. Wijaya, who has created tropical gardens for David Bowie and the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay, is also in charge of the landscape of Uluwatu's new Bulgari resort, Bali's most anticipated hotel (opening this fall). Hotelier Christina Ong may soon follow suit; rumor has it that she recently bought property here.
Bayuh Sabbha The new cliffside compound on Uluwatu, by architect Glenn Parker and Made Wijaya, is a colonial-style estate with five bedrooms, beach access, two pools, a tennis court, and a gym. Rates upon request. Contact Elite Havens; 62-361/731-074.
The Club at the Legian This extension of The Legian, a Seminyak favorite, has its own entrance, clubhouse, and 11 minimalist, lacquered-wood villas, each with a pool. It feels like a private members' club—as if the Soho House went tropical. Rates, $850-$1,800. At Jalan Laksmana; 62-361/730-622.
Downtown Villas This collection of nine bungalows is right off Seminyak's busy main street and the vibe is bustling and urban, owing to the Indonesian celebrities and business travelers with families who stay here. The Miami-like decor includes huge contemporary paintings, lap pools, and teak bathrooms. Rates, $300-$800. At 9D Jalan Pura Dalem; 62-361/736-464; www.downtownbali.com.
The Istana Fredo Taffin's four-bedroom limestone-and-teak villa on the Uluwatu Peninsula could be transplanted from the Hollywood Hills—with a catwalk entrance, sunset views, manicured lawn, guesthouse, private screening room, and crackerjack staff. Rate, $2,000. Contact Elite Havens; 62-361/731-074; www.theistana.com.
Ritz-Carlton Cliff Villas The 38 new villas at this 190-acre resort near Jimbaran Bay are some of the most stunning in the area. Black four-poster beds stand on pale marble floors; sliding-glass doors open up to infinity plunge pools. There's also a new restaurant and a lounge with a glass bar lit from within. Rates, $910- $985. At Jalan Karang Mas Sejahtera, Jimbaran; 62-361/702-222.
Sukhavati Retreat This charming hotel in the town of Cepaka consists of six thatched-roof villas by the river, with traditional furnishings, outdoor showers, and a pool. Rates, $360 per villa; $1,800 for all. Contact Elite Havens; 62-361/731-074.
Villa Sungai This all-white three-bedroom villa that sits by a river—also in Cepaka—is for those who appreciate fashionable accommodations without the fashionistas (Seminyak is 20 minutes away). The staff here is young and warmhearted, and the chef offers very good Southeast Asian and Australian cuisine. $ Rate, $800; 61-410/324-535; www.bali-villasungai.com.
Axiom Former Ku dé Ta chef Chris Patzold breaks out with this modern 20-seat dining room serving inventive Asian dishes such as duck confit ravioli and tarte tatin with wasabi gelato. Dinner, $60. At 18A Jalan Raya Seminyak; 62-361/738-820.
Kafe Warisan A role model for the island's young chefs, Nicolas Tourneville (a.k.a. Doudou) presents consistently good French fare—housemade foie gras and escargots with roasted mushrooms—in a chic open-air room done in colonial style. Dinner, $30. At 38 Jalan Raya Kerobokan; 62-361/731-175.
Ku dé Ta At this Seminyak hot spot, chefs Rob Staedler and Asif Mehrudeen make excellent wild barramundi with tomatoes roasted on the vine, and risotto with octopus, bay leaf, and red wine served with spinach fondue. Dinner, $75. At 9 Jalan Laksmana; 62-361/736-969; www.kudeta.net.
The Restaurant at the Legian One of the pioneers of sophisticated cuisine in Bali, the Legian serves dishes—like gazpacho and crab spring rolls with coriander sorbetto—that are as good as the ocean views. Dinner, $100. At Jalan Laksmana, Seminyak; 62-361/730-622.
Spice This new restaurant at the Conrad resort has earned critical praise for chef Arief Wicaksona's fusion of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian food. Try the lobster curry with jasmine rice. Dinner, $100. At 168 Jalan Pratama, Tanjung Benoa; 62-361/778-788.
TO BRING BACK
Asia Style Excellent Balinese craftsmanship is on display here, from carved wood furniture to woven baskets. At 3 Jalan Raya Kerobokan; 62-361/734-599.
Jenggala Keramik Bali This smart tabletop-design store sells Japanese-inspired ceramic vases, shell-shaped glass platters, and jewel-tone stemware. At Jalan Uluwatu II, Jimbaran; 62-361/703-311; www.jenggala-bali.com.
Milo's Designer Emilo Migliavacca is known for his bold orchid-print tops and silk batik dresses embellished with sequins and beads. At Made's Warung shopping arcade, Jalan Raya Seminyak; 62-361/731-689.
The Orchard This well-stocked emporium is the place for modern and colonial-style Indonesian furniture, like teak four-poster beds. $ At 33X Jalan Oberoi, Legian; 62-361/ 736-724; www.theorchard-bali.com.
Paul Ropp Exploding with sexy, colorful clothes, this expat designer's boutique features loose Balinese-print shirts for men and sheer embroidered tops for women. Ropp has locations in Seminyak, Kuta, and just outside Ubud. At 39 Jalan Raya Seminyak; 62-361/734-208; www.paulropp.com.
CATCH A WAVE The new Surf Goddess Retreats teaches women to surf and holds half-day yoga sessions. Rates, $650-$1,900, including classes; www.surfgoddessretreats.com.
BEST BEACH Most of Bali's good beaches are either private, too built up, or black sand. But Dreamland, on the Uluwatu Peninsula, is a stretch of white powder surrounded by cliffs. It's difficult to get to—near the Nikko Hotel in Pecatu—but worth the trouble.
TOP SPA The Ritz-Carlton's spa is hands down the most stunning and extensive facility on the island. On the treatment menu is an elaborate and exotic water-circuit therapy. Treatments, $35-$240. At Jalan Karang Mas Sejahtera; 62-361/702-222.
CAR SERVICE Golden Bird has the island's best cars and drivers. 62-361/701-111
[Ubud and Beyond]
If South Bali attracts an Ibiza set, then Ubud is for a Santa Fe crowd: artists, intellectuals, and wealthy New Agers who come to Bali's central region for a cocktail of tropical design, spa treatments, and spiritual reinvigoration. "Ubud is about people, culture, and nature," explains Tjok Putra, a member of Ubud's royal family. "Our commitment is to maintain that balance while moving forward." To that effect, Putra has become a generous sponsor of local students, artists, and dancers; he also runs a hotel-management school that trains the staff at his three hotels. After lunch at the Hotel Tjampuhan, a royal-family holding since 1944, Putra escorted us to the site of his latest project, the Royal Pita Maha. Ubud's largest resort, it will open half its 92 villas this month; the rest will be finished by the end of the year. Unlike its neighbors—such as the Four Seasons Sayan and Amandari, which offer modern takes on local architecture—Pita Maha is purely Balinese. Traditional stone murals, sculptures of Hindu gods, and paintings of silk-wrapped dancers decorate the hotel, whose construction was delayed because of the dearth of tourists after the bombing. "The traffic light for Bali was yellow," he says. "Now it's green."
Besides Ubud's new resorts (which will soon include Orient-Express's forthcoming Hanging Gardens), what draws many to this region is the Balinese experience on a smaller, more personal scale. Which is why interior designer Linda Garland recently began taking guests at her estate, Panchoran, a 25-acre ecosystem of bamboo, recycled teak, lacy hammocks, and waterfalls, which she has spent 30 years perfecting. "Ubud is more about health; it's an artistic and intellectual center," she says. "[The club] Exiles on a Saturday night is the closest one gets to a rave up here."
As laid-back as Ubud may be, its restaurant scene has nonetheless been recharged. Chris Salans, chef of the French-Asian restaurant Mozaic, says that "we were pretty empty for a few months" after the bombing. Today the place is booked weeks in advance. Even the old standbys have caught a second wind. A dozen years ago I used to drink juice on batik pillows at Ary's Warung; now I'm sipping a ginger martini on a goat-hide stool at the bar. "Just two years ago we thought everyone would have to close down," says owner Agung Odeck. This winter he'll open Betel Nut, an Asian-style bistro down the road.
Begawan Giri Estate Acquired not long ago by Christina Ong, this stunning resort set among jungle gardens on top of a river gorge will add a spa building and spa villas by fall. Rates, $495-$4,400. At Banjar Begawan; 62-361/978-888; www.begawan.com.
The Chedi Club at Tanah Gajah Once the estate of Indonesian architect Hendra Hadiprana, this new hotel is the sister property of The Legian in Seminyak. (Guests traveling between the two are accompanied by a personal butler.) With its lily ponds, rare birds, and spectacular vistas of rice fields, the Chedi provides an authentic—if eccentric—experience. Pool Villa 6 has the best views. Rates, $310-$830. At Jalan Goa Gajah, Tengkulaka Kaja; 62-361/730-622.
Panchoran After living here for 30 years, Linda Garland just opened her lush, ecofriendly estate to adventurous guests. There are only two villas, the Waterfall and River houses. Rates, $350-$650. At Nyuh Kuning village; 62-361/974-028; www.lindagarland.com.
Royal Pita Maha The traditional Balinese resort owned and designed by the Ubud royal family is the largest in the area, with 92 villas on some 30 acres along the Ayung River. Rates, $400-$1,500. At Kedewatan; 62-361/980-022; www.royalpitamaha-bali.com.
Uma Ubud Christina Ong's newest retreat on the island is a bit of Seminyak glamour brought north. The rooms are stylish but small, at least by Bali's standards; try the more expansive Pool Suites. Rates, $205-$385. At Jalan Raya Sanggingan; 62-361/972-448; www.uma.como.bz.
Villa Kirana The area's most stylish private rental, designed by Made Wijaya, is a colorful five-bedroom compound that has glorious views, an infinity pool, and an impressive collection of Southeast Asian antiques and modern art. Jeweler John Hardy lives a few blocks away. $ Rates, $750-$1,250. Contact Bali Luxury Villa; 62-361/754-344; www.villakiranabali.com.
Ary's Warung The sleek decor of the Ubud classic has been recently modernized with an Indonesian-fusion menu. Dinner, $40. At Jalan Raya Ubud; 62-361/975-053; www.dekco.com.
Ibu Oka This street-food stall, a well-kept secret among Balinese chefs, serves the best spicy suckling pig. $ Lunch, $2. At Jalan Suweta, Ubud.
Lamak This two-story, thatched-roof restaurant wrapped around a courtyard bar has become an expat favorite for its good wine list and funky but exclusive atmosphere (the huge art-filled bathrooms feel like VIP lounges). Dinner, $45. At Jalan Monkey Forest, Ubud; 62-361/974-668; www.lamakbali.com.
Mozaic Chris Salans, who studied with Thomas Keller in Napa, delights his following with dishes like crispy seared foie gras with apples, guava, Spanish saffron, and spicy rujak sauce. Reserve at least a week ahead and ask for a table in the torch-lit garden. Dinner, $75. At Jalan Raya Sanggingan; 62-361/975-768.
Warung Enak Made Wijaya's latest project brings food from all over the Indonesian archipelago. Try the pangek sapi from Sumatra, a sweet basily beef dish served over rice and crunchy winged beans, or the asinan Jakarta, a mix of vegetables and tofu in a nest of fried egg noodles. Dinner, $35. At Jalan Raya Pengosekan; 62-361/972-911.
TO BRING BACK
Gaya This contemporary art center was founded by a collective of regional artists. It exhibits Indonesian crafts, modern furniture, painting, sculpture, and ceramics. At Jalan Raya Sayan, Ubud; 62-361/979-252; www.gayafusion.com.
John Hardy Bali's preeminent jeweler shows his collection by appointment only in a stunning showroom in Mambal. At Jalan Baturning; www.johnbali.com.
Treasures The first stop for jewelry, both traditional and modern, carries a variety of gorgeous baubles fashioned by some of the island's most celebrated designers. Among them are Tricia Kim and Carolyn Tyler. At Jalan Raya Ubud; 62-361/976-697; www.dekco.com.
MASTER MASSEUR When he's not traveling the world tending to clients, Ketut Arsana works his magic at Ubud Bodyworks. Book way in advance. $ Massage, $45. At 25 Jalan Hanoman; 62-361/975-720; www.ubudbodyworkscentre.com.
TRANCE DANCE Every new and full moon at 7 p.m., the ARMA museum puts on a concert of Kecak dance, a hypnotic performance involving scores of men making music with only their voices. At Jalan Pengosekan, Ubud; 62-361/976-659.
ART CONNECTIONS The Bali Purnati Center for the Arts, which counts theatrical designer Robert Wilson as a collaborator, is the best source of information about Indonesian art. At Jalan Gunung Abang, Batuan; 62-361/294-590; www.balipurnati.com.
MOUNTAIN BIKING Bali Sobek rents bikes and hires out guides for jungle and village excursions. Rate, $55 a day; www.balisobek.com.
COOK'S TOUR Every Tuesday and Wednesday, local restaurateur and author Janet De Neefe conducts a tour of the Ubud food market, followed by a cooking lesson on Balinese classics like fern salad and mie goreng (fried noodles). Rate, $20 per person. At the Honeymoon Guesthouse, Jalan Bisma; 62-361/973-282; www.casalunabali.com.
LITERARY FESTIVAL De Neefe also organizes the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. This October's events will feature guests like Michael Ondaatje. www.ubudwritersfestival.com
With no sprawling resorts, no nightlife, and few good beaches, the north is rarely on the radar of most travelers to Bali. And that's just the way Diana von Cranach—who with her Balinese husband, Gusti, owns Puri Ganesha Villas in the northwest coastal village of Pemuteran—likes it. "People come up here to chill out," the 56-year-old British interior designer tells me as we sit in the open-air restaurant on her property. At the Puri Ganesha, guests take over one of four lushly decorated villas, all with thatched roofs, pools, gardens, and wraparound terraces. Von Cranach has filled each villa with pieces collected on her travels—carved daybeds, colorful silk pillows, bathroom sinks made of single clamshells—and her style has attracted a very cool crowd, British fashion designer Matthew Williamson included. Von Cranach's knowledge of the area is impressive; she can gossip with you over dinner, take you on a shopping spree in Ubud, and teach you how to cook the Indonesian dishes she learned from her mother-in-law. The coral reefs off the coast and around nearby Menjangan Island have some of the finest snorkeling and diving on Bali; Von Cranach can organize a day with divemaster Chris Brown, whose turtle sanctuary is five minutes down the beach. "This is the place for people who have been partied out in the south or cultured out in Ubud," she says. "They come up here for a little bit of Bali as it still is."
Puri Ganesha Villas Diana von Cranach's four two-story villas on the Bali Sea have become the hideaway of the moment for a high-profile crowd looking for low-profile luxury. Rates, $350-$450; 62-362/94766; www.puriganeshabali.com.
Damai Lovina Villas This retreat in the hills above Lovina Beach is home to one of the island's best chefs, Ketut Tangkas. It's worth the hour-and-a-half trip from Puri Ganesha for his roast rack of lamb in a basket of woven long beans with a shallot-and-garlic confit, or his warm chocolate pudding with lemongrass ice cream and cinnamon-poached pineapple. Serious gourmands should spend the night in one of eight bungalows and take Ketut's morning market tour and cooking class. Rates, $170-$190; five-course dinner, $75. At Jalan Damai, Kayuputih; 62-362/41008; www.damai.com.
Firefly Supper Series The American owners of Big Tree Organics, a farm in the village of Jatu Luwih that supplies area chefs and shops, Ben and Blair Ripple cook six-course meals using their own produce. Tables are set in the middle of their fields and lit by torch (sometimes fireflies provide the lighting). Dinner is served every two or three weeks from June to October. Dinner, $140, including transportation; 62-361/954-010; www.bigtreebali.com.
GUIDE TO GET In addition to overseeing Puri Ganesha Villas, Diana von Cranach moonlights as a bespoke tour operator through her company Well-Kept Secrets. 62-362/94766; www.well-keptsecrets.com
GISELA WILLIAMS LIVES IN GERMANY AND IS A FREQUENT DEPARTURES CONTRIBUTOR.
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