It was that bewitching hour in the tropics when day turns rapidly into bible-black night, as if a curtain has dropped, and driving through plantations of coconut, mangrove and banana we plunged ever deeper into the verdant, virgin valley where far below the vodka-clear Ayung river gurgled over rocks.
The dusk flutes of cockatoos and birds of paradise were in fine voice now, the feathered orchestra accompanying the rhythmic beat of the rain as it pattered on the jungle carapace. We were in the central highlands of Bali, in an Eden-like panorama seeming to belong to the dawn of creation, a heavenly scene so spell-binding that when Pandit Nehru, one of India’s founding fathers, gazed in wonder at the island’s lush innocence, he poetically declared: “It looks like the morning of the world.”
That was half a century ago, when the wealthy white celebrities who first discovered the voluptuous allure of Bali arrived by leisurely steamer from Shanghai.
But where the modern world followed so, inevitably, did trouble. Unfettered building development to accommodate the tourist industry in some parts of Bali swept away the traditional bamboo and thatch to make way for unsympathetic holiday citadels.
Widely reported stories of drug related crime and strict law enforcement, now happily under control, did further damage to the perception of Bali as an exotic Eden.
There are 10,000 temples in Bali, and almost as many gods, all celebrated by great gurning statues in every public space; serene Buddhas who receive offerings of fruit and smoking incense wrapped in parcels of banana leaf, left at their feet each day by Hindu disciples.
None of these deities, however, had the power to reverse the bad press keeping tourists away from Bali – that honour went to a more earthly benefactor in the unlikely shape of Hollywood star Julia Roberts. The Pretty Woman actress starred in Eat, Pray, Love, a true story about a Manhattan career woman who travels to Bali after her marriage breaks down, finding emotional solace and romance.
The film connected with female audiences all over the world, who fell in love with the beauty of the Bali they saw on screen, the zen-like calm of the people, as well as the promise of happiness it seemed to offer, igniting a desire in many to visit the island. They came in droves, rescuing Bali’s tourist industry almost overnight.
“We have Eat, Pray, Love and Julia Roberts to thank for giving Bali back its reputation as an idyllic paradise,” confessed Alasdair Davidson, Scottish-born manager of the Alila Ubud hotel.
For the first time visitor, Bali is akin to seeing a 3D movie for the first time, its vibrant rainbow landscape bigger and more colourful than anything you’ve ever seen.
The burning red leaves on the flame trees really do look as if they have set the boughs on fire. Further towards the horizon water-filled rice fields are sculpted to the contours of gently sloping hills, with moody mountains in the distance completing the tableau.
Bali sits just eight degrees below the equator, an emerald green garden in a necklace of 17,000 Indonesian islands that link the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, a distance of 3,000 miles.
I was a guest of the Alila hotel group (the word means “secret” in Sanskrit) which operates five jungle retreats in Bali, all rich in understated luxury and offering contrasting panoramas and experiences. They feature private visits to ancient temples, trekking through forests to the lip of volcanoes and masterchef classes in Asian-fusion cooking.
Ubud, in the central highlands, is the religious and cultural heart of Bali. It’s here, in a “lost” Shangri-la valley, Alila has hidden a romantic village of grass-roofed haciendas built on stilts, some with teak decks and private pools in gardens decorated with Oriental lily ponds.
This oasis has perhaps the world’s most spectacular infinity swimming pool floating above the tree tops, which seems to disappear into the jungle hillside.
One afternoon cooling in its silk-soft waters I was joined by the hotel’s tribe of resident monkeys. They keep English hours, always arriving at 4pm when tea and cakes are served, first quenching their thirst at the pool-side before cadging for tidbits of iced bun, after which they nonchalantly swing back into the trees.
Far below in the gorge it was possible to hear the joyous squeals of exuberant revellers white water rafting on the Ayung river. Rather than surfing the rapids, I embarked upon a safari between two beaches, starting at Seminyak in the south, a shiny new vacation palace where mighty Indian ocean rollers hit the honey coloured sand with thunderous force, and ending at Soori in the west, a favourite jungle oasis of Cameron Diaz and Justin Bieber.
At Seminyak, surfing addicts boast that the crested, ten metre high peaks of water that break just outside the reef are as challenging as any in Bondi. Once a collection of fishermen’s huts, the resort now revels in its reputation as the St Tropez of Bali with a buzzy boulevard of designer boutiques.
The journey to Soori was a rural adventure traversing narrow bridges, skirting paddy fields and a silver lake at the shore of a 5,000 metre high volcano.
Soori is an exclusive enclave of high-end villas, each with a pool, set on a black sand beach and guarded by a clifftop shrine. A popular stage for weddings, the pounding surf is kept at bay by a sentry guard of coconut trees.
The Barong orchestras, sitting cross legged, play at these ceremonies and barefoot children’s dance troupes perform their hypnotic snake-like gavottes of exaggerated hands, head and hip movements.
These ceremonies, as with everywhere else, were supervised by huge effigies of the spirit world, and I was shown a cocoa tree where the face of Buddha had been carved into the trunk. As the tree has grown the face of Buddha has grown with it, leaving some villagers to believe it has a life force of its own. The tree is now so venerated that the more superstitious locals (and tourists) ask it for winning lottery numbers.
No jackpot has been delivered yet, but a trip to this most prized destination feels like a win all of its own.