The Island of the Gods, as Bali, Indonesia, is known, has an interesting relationship with tourism. In less than 50 years it’s gone from having virtually no hospitality industry and a literal handful of annual international visitors to millions. In fact, Indonesia has even begun a campaign to turn 10 of its other dreamy islands into the “next Bali,” a seemingly difficult task since much of the charm and allure of Bali is its distinctive brand of Hinduism (whereas the rest of Indonesia is Muslim) and spirituality mixed with superstition.
So-called hippies were the first to populate the exotic isle of rice paddies and coconuts, but it wasn’t long before a higher-end customer came through, especially with the openings of a pair of Four Seasons, 25 and 20 years ago (at Jimbaran Bay and Sayan, near Ubud, respectively). For the last couple decades development on the island has been rapid and rampant. The draws include not only picturesque palm-fringed beaches, surfing, yoga, waterfalls and volcano treks, but rich spiritual traditions, flavorful cuisine, and more shopping opportunities than anyone could possibly indulge. Designer and architect Bill Bensley — who first arrived in 1984, designed the now 10-year-old The St. Regis Bali Resort, and is behind the brand-new Capella Ubud, debuting in June — is of the mind that Bali needs to apply the brakes if it wishes to keep the charm that brings such a volume of tourists to its sandy shores.
But that doesn’t seem likely. The appeal for hotel brands must be impossible to ignore, a fact certainly not hurt by the proliferation of multi-generation skilled artisans and craftspeople making everything under the sun a resort could possibly need, and a population eager to engage in what’s now the largest source of income (Even 15 years ago 80 percent of Bali’s economy was tourism related). If the current lineup of openings is any indication, virtually every major hotel brand wants to be on Bali.
A now quite delayed Mandarin Oriental was announced in 2014, and is eyeing a 2020 opening on the southern coast of the island’s Bukit peninsula, where its clifftop perch promises 180-degree views, and there’s private access to a secluded white-sand beach. The project is designed by Jean Michel Gathy of Denniston International, who’s becoming an expert on the area thanks to his second upcoming development: Jumeirah Bali, coming in early 2019 to the south end of Jimbaran, overlooking the popular Dreamland Beach and adjacent to the exclusive New Kuta Golf Course. The lush, all-villa resort is expected to reflect the rich culture of Bali through architectural elements modeled after an ancient Javanese-Hindu water palace.
Fortunately a through line in the new properties bowing is a respect for Balinese culture and customs. When on the island, even at a resort, you know it. Though it’s by Japan’s leading luxury hotel management company, when Hoshinoya Bali opened in the verdant hills of Ubud in early 2017 it brought to the property’s sacred water canals—part of the ancient network recognized as a UNESCO “Cultural Landscape”—furnishings hand-carved by local artisans and time-honored alang-alang thatched roofs. Even the dining melds Japanese technique with contemporary Balinese flavors.
Modern meets tradition in the Hotel Indigo Bali Seminyak Beach, too, a partnership with IHG that debuted mid 2017 on 4.7 hectares a one-minute walk from the sand. From foliage and canopies to wall hangings and staff uniforms, every aspect is deeply Balinese and representative of the skills that are synonymous with the destination. A bit farther north in the hip, expat-beloved beach town of Canggu came COMO Uma Canggu this February. The brand’s third Bali property comprises 199 rooms — including a dozen penthouses with rooftop pools boasting enviable views of the waves — combining striking modern Italian and Asian design, with luxury surf experiences by Tropicsurf, guided temple visits, canoe expeditions, village walks and jungle trekking also on offer. Its COMO Shambhala Retreat spa (offering yoga, Pilates and personal training, too) showcases another highlight of the island: massage therapies and holistic healing.
Moving into high season, 2018 brings an even greater uptick of fresh new spaces. In May the Renaissance Bali, overlooking the surfer’s paradise of Uluwatu, became the brand’s first Indonesian property and one of the first to reflect its global redesign. Think magically lit and evocative open-air lobby, graphic tiling in guest rooms, plenty of warm wood and even a ceramics studio open to guest participation. In late June comes Capella Ubud, a tented resort that gives Bensley the canvas, literally, to do what he does best. The luxury tent mastermind conceived the supremely luxurious and intimate retreat without cutting a single tree, taking inspiration from early 1800s European settlers who came to Bali, and the 22 extravagant one-bedroom tents (plus a two-bedroom lodge) with private saltwater pools are tucked between rainforest, rice paddies, the sacred Wos River and an artist village for the ultimate setting. True to Bensley’s style, each accommodation has its own theme and name, for example, The Princess’ Tent, The Naturalist’s Tent, and The Horn Collector’s Tent, and each contains valuable antiques. Afternoon tea is held at The Officers Tent, along with a daily evening cocktail and canapé ritual, and the Camp Fire is where guests come together for pulled hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows. A tented gymnasium called The Armory gives guests the opportunity for stylish workouts and Auriga Wellness is the place for pampering spa treatments designed around moon phases, while both low- and high-impact excursions beyond the property are available depending on the season.
Before the dry season ends, Six Senses Uluwatu should open its doors this August in a prime south coast perch that puts guests close to one of Bali’s most famous temples, Pura Uluwatu, as well as spectacularly empty and serene beaches. The wellness-minded resort is perhaps the most sustainably minded Bali has seen, featuring an onsite organic garden, a mushroom hut, and bee hives for both the cuisine served in its restaurants and use in the spa. It’s also the only resort on the island to get a Green Certification from the Indonesian government. Complimentary yoga classes, integrated wellness programming, unique cultural immersions (ie blending potions, fishing, charcuterie workshops, local martial art classes), and a cinema under the stars (plus a hut offering gratis ice cream all day, every day) are a few highlights of the tiered resort whose design mimics rice terraces and uses indigenous materials in its expansive pool villas and suites. Of course, no bolthole exists without a temple, and Six Senses, striving for an immersive experience that puts a premium on sense of place, welcomes all guests with a blessing by their local Hindu priest. It is, after all, the Bali way.