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Authentic Bali

T+L heads to Bali in search of some of the island’s most authentic experiences.

By Peter Jon Lindberg

“And now we drink,” said the priest. The holy water came from deep within the cave in which we knelt. The priest, ormangku, had collected it in a rusty bucket left under a dripping stalactite. The cave was discovered five centuries ago by the Javanese priest Nirartha, progenitor of Bali’s particular strain of Shaivite Hinduism. In my sarong, sash, and headdress, I had nibbled the devotional rice, stuck a few grains on my forehead and solar plexus, assembled offerings, and prayed until my folded legs tingled on the cold cavern floor.

The mangku rang a bell and asked for blessings upon my wife and me. He spoke Kawi, the ancient language of poets and priests, in the rapid-fire patter of an auctioneer. The only words I understood were “hotel” and “Alila.”

Every Bali resort worth its hand-harvested salt has a slate of edifying cultural activities, but the Alila Villas Uluwatu goes several steps beyond. Filling a dense handbook, Alila’s roster of Journeys” offers a more immersive experience than the average guest perhaps requires. You want to learn to play the gamelan? Practice djamoemedicine? Carve stone? Talk to the concierge.

Our choice was a guided tour of the temples of the Bukit Peninsula, on Bali’s southern coast, highlighted by a visit to the cave-hidden Pura Goa Gong, “the gong temple,” so named for a miraculous stalagmite that resonates when struck. Alila calls this excursion the Journey of Enlightenment. Before setting out we were issued a lengthy information packet that included the invaluable tip, “Sun protection and mosquito repellent are recommended for Enlightenment.”

But back to the water. My wife, Nilou, and I eyed the bucket nervously, thinking, as one would, about dysentery. A film of algae had formed across the top. But the water was blessed, we reminded ourselves, and couldn’t possibly hurt us. (I thought of the Ganges, where pilgrims brush their teeth downstream from women washing laundry with lye.) The mangku splashed a few drops on our heads, then lifted the ladle and administered the requisite dose. It tasted awful, like licking a battery. I suppose it was vaguely energizing. But it reeked to high heaven. As I struggled to swallow I considered that we might either reach enlightenment or die, or both.

We did not die. Not even a little. Nor, alas, did we achieve enlightenment. The holy water turned out to be benign, which was a relief and a disappointment. Instead of wrestling with giardia or epiphany, that night we enjoyed a transcendent meal at the Warung, the Alila’s Indonesian restaurant, whose tongue-tingling soto ayam (a chile-spiced chicken soup) was the best Balinese dish we had on the island. After dinner we reclined in our courtyard balepavilion, gazing at a moonlit sea, with only the surf and the peep of geckos breaking the silence of our clifftop perch. The Alila’s clean lines and spare design—cool terrazzo and limestone offset with glowing hardwoods—made the resort even more of a retreat from the world outside its gates: an island overflowing with color and music and aromas and textures, a place that floods the senses.

Like so many travelers, we’d come back to Bali to connect with its spectacularly vibrant culture, and to see how it has endured. For after the setbacks of the last decade, Bali is booming again. Tourist arrivals are shattering all records. The resort enclaves of Seminyak and Kuta are so crowded with new shops, hotels, and restaurants that developers are reaching into unexploited corners of the island. Nilou and I had last visited six years ago, and in that time Bali appears to have discovered traffic: downtown Ubud was now mired in gridlock. The town was still buzzing from Julia Roberts’s recent visit for the filming of Eat Pray Love, which has turned a whole new generation on to Bali’s mystic charms.

Of course Bali’s allure has always been about both spiritual pursuits and sybaritic pleasures—to the point that sybaritic pleasures are reframed as spiritual pursuits. Browse any hotel directory: what we call “lounging by the pool” becomes in Bali “an opportunity to meditate”; a massage becomes a healing ritual; afternoon tea is recast as a ceremony; and a morning hike is nothing less than a pilgrimage. More than ever, the island’s resorts are making a priority of cultural relevance, promising unique entrée into Balinese art and architecture, music and dance, cuisine, traditional medicine, and social and religious life. The best hotels actually come close to providing it, granting guests a room with a view, but also a viewpoint: a compelling vantage on Bali itself. At the Four Seasons Bali at Sayan, near Ubud, one can spend the day with local farmers, learning firsthand about Bali’s ingenious subak irrigation system and even planting rice. The three resorts run by the Komaneka group—owned by the Neka family, whose patriarch founded Ubud’s Neka Art Museum—all showcase eclectic collections of contemporary Balinese art; the latest and most lavish property, Komaneka at Bisma, is a veritable gallery unto itself. These days one can have one’s karma cleansed, learn kite-making and Balinese dance, or be healed by adjamoe medicine man, often without leaving the premises. Along with cold towels and chilled juice, your hotel will bring Bali to you.

It’s easy to be skeptical. Who looks to a hotel for a genuine cultural experience? Travelers have forever wrung their hands over The Authenticity Question, from Kona to Kathmandu—but particularly so in Bali, where tourism and tradition have had a long, strange, symbiotic relationship. (For a most incisive critique, seek out French anthropologist Michel Picard’s 1996 study, Bali: Cultural Tourism and Touristic Culture.) So this is not a novel complaint. But neither is it really a complaint at all. One of the great singularities of this island—and one of the great thrills of traveling here—is the thin line between the sacred and the mundane, between the genuine and the disingenuous. If such a line even exists.

For a look at Bali’s next frontier, we ventured out to the southwestern coast, where Alila Hotels & Resorts opened its newest hotel on the island, the Alila Villas Soori. Set between green rice fields and a black-sand beach, the location is stunning, and if it feels a bit sleepy that’s precisely the intention. Seminyak’s trendy boutiques are just 40 minutes away—gods and traffic willing—yet this corner of Bali is still disarmingly quiet. (There’s a reason why many expats are relocating here.)

The Soori’s trump card is its proximity to Tanah Lot, Bali’s most dramatically situated temple, poised on a rocky headland that becomes an island at high tide. At sunset the site is overrun by tour buses, but Alila guests can easily reach Tanah Lot in the morning before the crowds arrive.

Sparsely populated the southwest may be, but like all of Bali it brims with activity. Biking down one rural lane we came upon an artisan village devoted to the making of terra-cotta roof tiles. The air was suffused with woodsmoke from makeshift kilns; every resident was coated in a layer of fine red dust. The village was inarguably poor, yet each house was surrounded by the most intricately hewn stone wall, protecting the most gracefully realized temple and a shrine whose artfulness was breathtaking.

This is where we have to talk about the sheer sensory overload of Bali. There is simply more stuff per square foot on this island than in the entirety of Hong Kong or Manhattan: carved Garuda statues and ornamental gates, kettle gongs and suling flutes, masks and totems and effigies shaded by parasols and wrapped in checkered polengcloths. Nearly all of it is beautiful to behold. In the West we keep our art ensconced in museums, our idolatry sequestered in churches; in Bali, devotional arts and crafts are everywhere you look, spilling onto the sidewalk. Even the gutters are strewn with frangipani petals from yesterday’s canang, prayer offerings in banana-leaf baskets.

Which is why Bali alternately enthralls and flummoxes foreign travelers. Without frames or labels to organize the visible world, a visitor is easily overwhelmed; at the end of the day your eyes—all three of them—are exhausted. Outside a temple you’ll stop to admire the singular grace of a Ganesh sculpture, then down the street you’ll pass a yard full of 200 identical ones for sale. And just as it’s difficult to tell whether that teak dining table is an antique or was simply left out in the rain for six weeks, so is it hard to delineate art from artifice. “But what’s real?” one’s inner skeptic cries. “What should I be looking at?” In Bali there is no easy answer, or the answer is, “Everything is real; look at everything.”

“Look at everything” could be the motto of the Hotel Tugu Bali, located on a tranquil beach in Canggu, not far from Tanah Lot. Owned by Anhar Setjadibrata, a Javanese art collector, the 22-suite Tugu touts a connection to “the art, soul, and romance of Indonesia.” Setjadibrata’s daughter Lucienne, who manages the hotel, explains that her father built the place after her mother demanded he “find someplace to store all this art and get it out of the house.” Certainly the Tugu feels more like a reliquary than a hotel. The public rooms are chockablock with Indonesian objets—stone carvings; shadow puppets; musical instruments—and every vertical surface sports a canvas or print or tapestry. It’s a fabulous place, in the true sense of the word: a vivid fantasia as rich as the tropical landscape, and just as uncontainable. Indeed, the Tugu is a microcosm of Bali itself: one wishes some magical docent would appear to explain it all.

At Tanah Lot Temple, I struck up a conversation with a French-Indonesian shaman who used to be a banker. Or maybe it was the reverse—I couldn’t keep track. He spoke in abstractions. The guy looked as if he not only lived outside the box but was no longer capable of even describing a box. For all I knew he was worth $40 million.

Bali is full of successful, formerly Type A businesspeople who moved here, saw the light, and, as a friend put it, “let the island become them.” Even corporate hoteliers take on an otherworldly quality after enough time in Bali. Liv Gussing, who ran Amandari for seven years until July, is the most serene hotel manager I’ve ever encountered, with a bearing best described as Zenlike. John O’Sullivan, the ebullient Irishman in charge of Bali’s two Four Seasons resorts, has a parallel career as a sort of mystic-poet and calls himself “a Celtic spirit traveling the world in search of hiding relatives.”

Bali’s most famous entrepreneur-gone-native is John Hardy, the Canadian-born jewelry designer who has lived here for 35 years. Hardy sold his stake in his namesake brand in 2007; now he and his wife, Cynthia, devote their time and considerable wealth to a variety of do-good projects, from organic farming to promoting the use of bamboo as a renewable material for construction. Three years ago the Hardys created Bambu Indah (“beautiful bamboo”), an overnight retreat—let’s not call it a resort—on their rural property south of Ubud. Seven teak bungalows—built for 19th-century Javanese noblemen and transplanted by Hardy to Bali—perch on stilts above working rice paddies and vegetable gardens. Reflecting the Hardys’ customary good taste, guesthouses are decorated with antiques from their travels, from Moroccan carpets to Burmese lacquer bowls. Rain showers, copper sinks, and high-tech Japanese toilets help justify the up to $310 average nightly rate. But rooms are less than bug- and snake-proof, and the unmanicured setting—the swimming pool is disguised as a pond, complete with tiny fish—underscores that Bambu Indah is essentially a farm stay, immersing guests in the life of a Balinese farmer. (Or, for that matter, in the life of John Hardy.)

Quirky as Bambu Indah is, it pales next to the Hardys’ latest project: a private school outside Ubud built almost entirely of bamboo. Founded in 2008, the Green School now has 160 students, 20 percent of whom are Indonesian children on scholarships. Much of the curriculum is devoted to lessons in sustainability, be it second-graders growing their own spinach or middle schoolers using recycled and natural materials to build their own clubhouse. The Hardys intend the school to be carbon-neutral; to that end, a vortex whirlpool harnesses energy from the river. At the center of the campus is one of the largest bamboo structures on the planet: a mesmerizing series of double helixes, soaring staircases, and undulating rooflines, levitating three stories off the ground. Its shape recalls a giant lotus flower, or a UFO made of matchsticks.

“We work hard to convince people we’re not just a hippie school in the jungle,” says admissions director Ben Macrory. “That said”—he points to a healing circle with a boulder-size quartz crystal at the center—“we’re also a hippie school in the jungle.”

The Green School has gained a following among Ubud’s expat community, which has always tilted left of center. Liv Gussing’s children were among the first enrollees, and Ben and Blair Ripple, owners of Big Tree Farms, send their daughter there. The Ripples are a remarkable pair: New York and Connecticut natives who moved to Bali 12 years ago, intent on reintroducing sustainable farming to an island that was often turning its back on traditional agricultural ways. I first met the Ripples in 2003, when they were farming a tiny plot on John Hardy’s estate; today, working in cooperation with local farmers around Bali and neighboring Java, they produce 100 different crops, from coffee to sea salt to coconut-palm sugar. (Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller are among the chefs using Big Tree products.) That Ben and Blair are still in their early thirties is one more reason to admire or hate them, depending on how you feel about your own life trajectory. But they’re as charming as they are attractive, and blessed with contagious enthusiasm. Late one night over too many martinis at the Ubud watering hole Naughty Nuri’s, we listened raptly as Ben outlined plans for an organic chocolate factory—“Wonka-esque” was how he described it—and the revival of Big Tree’s Firefly Dinners, farm-to-table banquets held occasionally in a torchlit jungle outside Ubud. By the end of the night Nilou and I were convinced we could make a go of organic farming ourselves. Bali does that to a person.

Downtown Ubud is still a haven for the drawstring-pants crowd, with the requisite banana-pancake cafés, but if you confined yourself to the town’s perimeter you might imagine every visitor was rich and every hotel was a five-star. The humblest rural lane will lead to some discreetly luxurious, $600-a-night resort—usually disguised to resemble an old Balinese village in its layout and landscaping, its architecture and iconography. The refined-rustic look is so pervasive it’s become the vernacular.

But it was only in the past 20 years that high-end resorts began to convey a convincing sense of “Bali-ness.” The trend arguably started at Amandari, which opened in 1989 along the Ayung River Gorge outside Ubud. Each of the resort’s thatched-roof villas was set in its own stone-walled compound and laid out like a traditional Balinese house. Now as then, pebbled pathways thread past lotus ponds and flower gardens; serpentine rice terraces cascade down the hillside to the river far below. The resort feels as secluded and exclusive as any, yet local residents continually pass through on a public footpath, baskets perched on heads, making their way to the riverbank. While Amandari’s design gracefully fuses indoors and out, there’s also a back-and-forth between the hotel and the village just next door. In 1989 this permeability was a novel idea: no longer was a hotel simply a mansion on the hill, but a part of the community. And the agenda shifted as well, from conjuring a fantasy to accessing reality.

Two decades on, Amandari has some of the best cultural programs of any resort—mainly because it’s been here long enough to cultivate lasting connections. The hotel sponsors a celebrated dance program for local children, who rehearse at Amandari daily after school for twice-weekly performances.

But the highlight for Nilou and me was the cooking class, which began with an early morning trip to a nearby market. The drive out was impossibly pretty, passing mist-shrouded fields that seemed to sparkle in the sunrise, with only a flock of babbling ducks to disturb the stillness. The market was extremely rustic—or, as they say in hotelspeak, “authentic”: a rabbit warren of muddy lanes and primitive stalls piled with chicken heads, snails, and dried fish, attended by toothless women and no shortage of flies.

Needless to say, we loved it. Nilou happily changed into her flip-flops and set off into the muck with a big straw basket and a shopping list. An hour later I had to tear her away from a spirited conversation with a shrimp-paste vendor. (That stuff was delicious.) Back in town we took our groceries to the family compound of Bapak Bawa, one of Amandari’s drivers. It was a lovely home—graced, like every Hindu household, by a modest temple in front, where we placed offerings of rice and flowers and incense. A wood-burning stove crackled in the kitchen, and we spent the rest of the morning sautéing fiddleheads, cooking duck curry, and stirring green-papaya soup and black-rice porridge, then enjoyed our seven-course feast on a breezy bale in back of the house that looked out on the Ayung River. It was our favorite day of the trip.

Late on our final night, en route to the airport, we rode in a taxi past Dreamland Beach. The darkness out the window provided much-needed rest for the eyes. Suddenly, out of the black appeared a 50-foot-high statue of Lord Vishnu astride the Garuda, bathed dramatically in spotlights. It was an incredible sight, its ornate majesty a testament to Bali’s artistry and abiding faith.

Then, along the base, we noticed the sign: Pecatu Indah Resort. The statue marked the entrance to a new golf-and-beach complex—built, as it happens, by Tommy Suharto, playboy son of the late Indonesian dictator. This Vishnu had been erected not by priests but by developers; it was, for all intents and purposes, a fake, albeit a convincing one. In that instant I recounted all the internal arguments I’d had about the real versus the unreal, the sacred versus the profane, and in that instant I realized they were all kind of pointless.

“Very beautiful,” the taxi driver murmured as we slowed to admire the statue, and I had to agree.