It’s one of those places I have always wanted to visit but, somehow, never have. I first tried to go to Bali in 1976, when it was considered off the beaten track but it was such a hassle to get a visa that I soon abandoned the attempt. Then, Bali opened up. New hotels were built, it became a great tourist destination and the visa problem was resolved: if you paid $10 at the airport, they gladly gave you a visa.
But somehow, I never made it. Partly I guess it was the distance. There are no direct flights from India to Bali and you usually change planes in Bangkok, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur and even then it’s not exactly near. Besides, as other destinations opened up – China, the Maldives, Laos, Vietnam, other parts of Thailand etc. – Bali somehow dropped off my radar.
I was aware always that I would have to go at some stage. When we were planning my Discovery Travel and Living show, I said I wanted to do a mini-series on Asian luxury. My argument was that whereas once Asia had been considered exotic and exciting, as the sort of place people came to when they wanted a bit of adventure, it had now become a sybarite’s delight, boasting the finest and most luxurious resorts in the world and had set new standards for pampering and quality.
Integral to that hypothesis was Bali because it was here that the template for the modern upmarket luxury resort was created. (I guess the Maldives have been as influential in their own way but Bali remains the more important destination). So, a month ago, my producer Robin Roy, his crew and I went off to Bali to shoot for part two of Asia Diary (on TV early next year).
My first stop was at the Four Seasons in Jimbaran Bay. It’s a lovely hotel but it is even more important as a symbol of how the meaning of Asian luxury has changed. The hotel is owned by B S Ong, the Singapore-based overseas Chinese millionaire who owns so many of Asia’s great hotels, many of them now managed by Four Seasons (including the chain’s highly regarded resorts in the Maldives). But it was conceived of by Bob Burns when he was head of Asia’s precedent-setting Regent Hotel group.
As early as the beginning of the 1990s, Burns realised that a new kind of traveller was emerging. This new traveller had money to spend and regarded his hotel as being a destination in itself. Thus, you no longer went to say, Bangkok; you went to the Oriental. Till then, hoteliers had been content to build properties that served as bases from which to explore destinations. These hotels were comfortable and luxurious even, but the assumption was that Bali or Phuket or wherever was the reason for your visit. The hotel was merely a convenience. But Burns wanted to change the emphasis – to the hotel itself. If travellers wanted a luxury experience, then the starting point had to be the hotel room.
Burns broke with tradition to conceive of a hotel that had no rooms, only villas. Each villa would be spacious and luxurious with its own garden and its own swimming pool. Guests would be guaranteed luxury – and privacy. Regent’s Japanese backers ran into financial problems and the chain ended up being taken over by the Four Seasons. So by the time the Jimbaran Bay Hotel in Bali was ready, it had become a Four Seasons. But the mixture of Regent imagination and Four Seasons service proved to be a winning combination. The Four Seasons at Jimbaran Bay became one of the world’s most influential resorts and its features – villas, privacy, private pools, gardens, sit-outs, luxury bathrooms etc. – became the guiding principles for the luxury resort business.
By the time I got to Jimbaran Bay though, the hotel had moved a step ahead. As lovely as it was with its villas, its village-style structure and its works of art, there was something even more luxurious across the road. The Four Seasons had built eleven independent houses called Four Seasons Residences. These were not hotel villas but were actually full-fledged bungalows with three bedrooms, 25metre swimming pools, kitchens, dining rooms etc. Our crew took over two such Residences and most of us were agreed that the experience was truly special. (Though we filmed only in the hotel.)
Using Jimbaran Bay as my base, I explored Bali. And frankly I couldn’t see the point of it. I went to Nusa Dua where many of the luxury hotels are. This is an antiseptic, gated community that could have been a retirement home in Florida. I went to Seminyak which is no different from the shopping areas of Phuket, Pattaya or a hundred other mid-market Asian beach resorts. I went to Kuta which was truly horrible and overcrowded. Had I left coming to Bali too late? Had the island lost its charm? I began to worry about the destination itself.
Then, I went to Ubud. Most people think of Bali as a beach resort and they are right. But there’s another Bali, two hours away from the overly touristy beach-Bali, in the hills of Ubud. This is a very different Bali, full of artists, hills, rainforests, rice-fields, wood-carvers and a sense of history. I fell in love with Ubud almost from the time we drove there. I had arranged to have coffee with John O’ Sullivan, the area general manager of the Four Seasons at the chain’s second Bali property, at Sayan. This is also owned by B S Ong and is smaller and newer than Jimbaran Bay. It is also far more spectacular.
From the time you take a walkway into the lobby and realise that you are on top of a cliff looking at the most achingly stunningly beautiful rainforest, it is hard not to be wowed by the Four Seasons in Sayan. John, a poet, triathlon athlete, spa-scholar etc., is an Irishman who has now become a Bali specialist and though I was not staying at the Four Seasons in Sayan, I think he had wanted me to see the property because of the effect it has on all visitors.
Like Jimbaran Bay, it offers all the comforts you never had at home but it also leaves you speechless with its natural beauty. We were shooting next door at Amandari, the hotel that more or less invented Ubud as a tourist destination. In its own way, Amandari is as influential as Jimbaran Bay.
The Aman story is an unusual one. Adrian Zecha, a former journalist (he started the
, so influential in Asia in the Sixties and Seventies), joined up with Bob Burns and a couple of other hoteliers to start the Regent chain. Then, he branched out on his own, building Amanpuri in Phuket, the first of the world’s super-exclusive luxury hotels. Amanpuri was a beach resort but Zecha, an Indonesian, decided that his second hotel, though located in Bali (then known primarily as a beach resort) would be on a part of the island that foreigners were unfamiliar with.
When Zecha decided to build Amandari in Ubud, the area consisted of dust roads and vast expanses of rice fields (there are parallels with Kerala). This suited Zecha because he wanted to build an exclusive hotel far away from the tour groups. Amandari invented many of what came to be regarded as the guiding principles of this kind of hotel: a very small number of villas (around 30), brilliant food, stark, artistic décor that draws heavily from the local architecture but blends perfectly into the surroundings and the air of a private club to which outsiders are only admitted on sufferance.
Like all Amans, it is the kind of hotel that celebrities go to when they want to explore new places without being hassled by mere tourists and can be cocooned in Aman’s trademark luxury and protected from prying eyes. This is where Mick Jagger stayed when he decided to marry Jerry Hall on impulse. (And without any legal sanction as the subsequent divorce demonstrated.) Our show has been very lucky because Aman is the sort of chain that shuns publicity, rarely has much to do with journos and almost never allows TV crews to shoot in its properties. It is the sort of company that prefers to cater to a small group of millionaires (called Aman junkies) and likes being picky (without being snobbish) about the kinds of guests it wants.
I was keen that we shot in Amandari because not only did it extend the Aman formula (now much copied) away from beach resorts and create Ubud as a destination but because it was also the first resort to integrate a local community (in this case, the village next door) so completely with the property. (How did they do that? Watch the show!)
Then, after we’d finished shooting at Amandari with its brand of understated, elegant luxury, I allowed myself a day’s holiday. Amankila is another Aman property, far, far away from tourist Bali (a category to which Ubud now belongs, alas). To say that it is a beach resort is like saying that the Shankaracharya is a Hindu – it’s true enough but it is hardly the full story. Amankila is probably the most breathtakingly elegant beach resort I have ever stayed in. Designed by Ed Tuttle, it is sort of property that deserves to win every design award (which it probably has.)
The villas are large and comfortable without being ostentatious and the views of the sea (which is an inky blue in this part of Bali) are jaw-droppingly astonishing. It has all the usual Aman touches, of course. If you want to have dinner on the beach, they’ll block the whole private beach for you, light it with candles and put a barbecue on the sands so that a chef can cook your fish in front of your eyes. If you want to explore the bay, the hotel has its own boats. And so on.
But all of this pales in comparison to the surroundings. It is not just the location. It is also the architecture. If you believe – as I do – that some buildings are designed so that you can never relax and that some give off an air of peace, then Amankila is the place to go to unwind. Of course, you can take part in all kinds of water-based sporting activities though frankly, this is not my scene. Perhaps as a consequence though, the guest profile is young and the hotel seems to attract Europeans with toned bodies.
So, I saw four terrific hotels and I finally saw the point of Bali. If you know where to look and you avoid the tourist hordes, it is a great destination. It only makes me a little sad that we’ve done so little with our own beach destinations. We don’t lack for natural beauty. We don’t lack money. (All Asian hotels are desperate for Indian high-rollers.) We just lack the imagination. Sad. But true.