It's Time to go Back

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 4th October 2004.

But if, like me, you’d never been there in the first place, what precisely does that mean?

At first, it seemed like a long way to go for a beach holiday. There are no direct flights from the UK to Bali, 87 by 50 miles of volcanic mountains and rain forest, sculpted rice terraces, fast-flowing rivers and palm-fringed beaches. But the discomfort of a 12-hour flight to Singapore, plus a further two hours on to Denpasar, Bali’s capital, melted away with the smiles, the gentleness and the garlands of frangipani with which we were greeted. It was no gimmick, either. Kindness, courtesy and an essentially accepting nature characterize the Balinese. Which is not to say that Bali – or at any rate, south Bali - is an unsullied island paradise.

On the way to our hotel on Seminyak beach, we crawled through traffic-clogged streets. Haphazard development and intense commercialization scars much of the flat, funnel-shaped, densely populated southern region, but here too is the hub of the island, with the finest beaches, the best shops, restaurants, bars and clubs, and fun for everyone. After all, Bali has long been the haunt of beautiful people. Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall married there, David Bowie is a regular visitor and the island has a glitzy ex-patriot community.

With a constant temperature of around 30 degrees C and a forgiving rainy season (October to March) Bali is amazingly versatile, a year-round destination where celebrities, clubbers, backpackers and families (particularly at the purpose-built resort area of Nusa Dua) are equally well catered for. And if you’re looking for a romantic idyll, you can have that too. Kuta and its heaving beach are best left to the young, but there are many less frenetic highlights close by: the beach shack restaurants of Jimbaran Bay, where, feet in the sand, we ate just-caught barbecued fish by candlelight; the island temple of Tanah Lot, magical at sunset; the laid-back resorts of Sanur and Candi Dasa; the sophisticated shops and eateries (such as Ku-de-Ta, The Living Room, Café Warisan) of Seminyak.

All these treats were still to come when, late at night, we finally climbed the steps to the open lobby of our hotel. We halted, entranced by the sight of a long silver roller, dramatically picked out by floodlight, breaking on the darkened shore below us. Looking around next morning, we would have been quite happy not to move: lounging by the pool or boogie boarding in the surf that pounds the acres of white sand fronting the hotel. There are, apparently, newer, even more sybaritic luxury hotels than ours, the Bali Oberoi (opened in 1978) but I don’t care. Elegant yet natural, it felt perfect. Thatched rooms and pool villas, each with a typical Balinese ‘garden bathroom’ with sunken bath, are scattered about a swathe of green lawn studded with magnificent mature trees. They are revered by spiritualists, we were told, for their soothing properties. They certainly had a soothing effect on us.

But Bali beckoned. Even the most diehard sun-and-surf addicts could not fail to notice and be enchanted by Balinese culture and the way the unique Bali Hindu religion is stitched seemlessly into life. Everywhere we went there were processions and ceremonies in traditional dress, household shrines, temples, offerings of flowers in little palm leaf baskets and of towers of fruit carried on the women’s heads. It’s all a question of balance. The belief that the world is composed of opposing forces – positive and negative, good and evil – which must at all times be balanced, dominates every Balinese life. Ancestors must be honoured with family shrines and gods and demons must both be appeased. Even in the fleshpots and flophouses of Kuta you will see shrines and offerings and local workers quietly making them. There’s much to do. Drive north and the Bali you dreamed of unfolds. We hired a guide and a driver with an air-conditioned four-wheel drive to take us off the beaten track (£50 for the day all in); we trekked through rainforest past scampering monkeys and many kinds of spice trees; we freewheeled downhill on mountain bikes past emerald rice terraces and through country villages. A few kilometers north of Denpasar, amid lovely scenery, lies Ubud, the focus of Balinese arts and crafts. Here and in the surrounding villages, each one dedicated to a different craft (woodcarving, painting, silverwork, ceramics, batik, ikat) we polished off the Christmas shopping list for a fraction of what we would have spent at home. Wince-making Balinese-style massages at £8 an hour set us up for more sightseeing and less lazing. Eating out in clean restaurants costs absurdly little: a two-course lunch for two with a local beer could cost less than £5.

We could have scuba-dived on a tropical fish-infested wreck, ridden on Sumatran elephants, reached empty black sand beaches in the west and visited many more intriguing temples than we had time for. But we had to leave.

Not for home though. Half an hour after flying out of Denpasar, we were in Lombok, next along in the great chain of islands that makes up Indonesia. Bali as it was some 30 years ago, that’s how Lombok feels. It has a freshness, naturalness and innocence that made us wish we were staying longer. People daydream on shaded wooden platforms called bales; the indigenous Sasak women wear beautiful hand-woven headscarves and sarungs; there are houses on stilts, colourful markets and local crafts. The island’s highest volcanic mountain, Gunung Rinjani, towers over all. Its eerily beautiful crater lake is a place of pilgrimage for Hindus and Muslims alike, and makes a highly-regarded two-day trek. Hedonists on pilgrimage should head to Mendana Bay in the north-west of the island and settle at the Lombok Oberoi for as long as they possibly can. It’s a place for dreaming and doing very little, where huge reflective pools of water encase a velvety 40-metre swimming pool and drop away in shallow terraces to the sea. There are chaises longues and white umbrellas dotted amongst soaring palm trees, cushioned pavilions surrounded by water, soothing spa treatments in the open air, barbecues by candlelight on the beach. Across the bay lie the three castaway Gili Islands, perfect for diving, snorkeling and picnicking. Back at the hotel, chef Dan Smith’s cooking is fragrant and inventive. But it’s the local staff that really distinguish this seaside hideaway. Attentive to a fault, they radiate warmth and charm in a way that has much more to do with instinct and personality than training.

There’s a direct flight from Singapore to Lombok. When I go back, I might ring the changes and mellow out in Lombok for a week, then go to Bali for a buzz. Whichever, the two islands combined make the journey seem a mere trifle.

Travel facts

For further information about Bali and Lombok, visit Access Bali Online (www.baliwww.com/bali) and Lombok Island (www.lombok.com).Seasons in Style (www.seasonsinstyle.co.uk; 0151 342 0505) offer four nights at The Oberoi, Bali and three nights at The Oberoi, Lombok from £1,360 per person. The price includes flights and transfers and is based on two adults sharing a Luxury Lanai Gardenview Room on a room only basis at The Oberoi, Bali and two adults sharing a Luxury Terrace Pavilion Gardenview on a room only basis at the Oberoi, Lombok.

Return flights are with British Airways from London Heathrow to Singapore, with return connecting flights to Denpasar, Bali, and Ampenan, Lombok.

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