There was a moment, when I was sat in the make-up chair looking at my half painted reflection, that I thought I’d made a big mistake. The white base and lurid yellow, fuschia, and blue eye shadow was rather more Grayson Perry than the elegant Balinese dancer I’d been hoping for. But I kept the faith. Subtler layers were added and blended, and once the wig and towering golden crown went on, not only was I completely unrecognisable from my usual self, but I felt, well, like an incarnated goddess. I might have struggled to master the delicate gestures and steps in the morning’s Balinese dance class, but being dressed from head to toe for the part had a transformative impact not only on my self perception, but also on how I moved.
Bali is a honeymoon hotspot, and a favourite beach retreat for Australian backpackers. On this occasion I was travelling with my brother, so we definitely didn’t fit into the couples-in-love box. And when it comes to beaches, well, although they are nice for a day or two, they’re hardly enough of an attraction to motivate me to fly 17 hours from the UK. The interior of Bali is a different matter, however. The combination of jungles and sacred rivers, Buddhist statues and Hindu temples, makes for a more intriguing destination.
Bali is unlike the rest of Indonesia, in that the island’s population is overwhelmingly Hindu (with influences from Buddhism), and has been so for 2,000 years. There are strong cultural links with the Indian Subcontinent — not only with regards to religion, but literature, popular legends, and performing arts. Balinese identity also draws upon ancient indigenous traditions, including animism. You appreciate this most strongly in the island’s interior: the trees, the waterfalls, and the rocks (not to mention the birds and animals) have their own spirits and power.
The town of Ubud is Bali’s cultural and artistic centre, and attracts a significant tourist footfall on account of its proximity to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. I preferred to stay a little away from the noise and traffic of Ubud at HOSHINOYA Bali, where Balinese culture and Japanese design collide in a fantastic fashion on a densely forested hilltop.
At HOSHINOYA Bali, the buildings are barely visible amongst the dense vegetation, and wherever you look, trees dominate the view. The soundtrack is of the gentle rumble of the river far below, the wind rustling leaves on its way along the valley, and an occasional chirrup of bird call. I lay one afternoon in a bath filled with petals, quite emotional at the sense of peace and my proximity to the natural world. I breakfasted in a hanging cage surrounded by foliage, drank teas infused with turmeric, and was taught to make a Balinese temple offering from long, flat grasses and flowers. The Balinese dance lesson and the subsequent dressing up session showed me another aspect of Balinese life, each gesture infused with sacred meaning.
In spite of HOSHINOYA Bali’s tranquility, I wanted to explore and have a less curated experience of what Ubud and its environs had to offer.
Goa Gajah — better known as the Elephant Cave — dates back to the 9th century. The cave at its heart was a subterranean sanctuary for meditation, and its entrance is protected by menacing figures carved into the stone, said to ward off evil spirits.
The rest of the complex — which has steadily been excavated and rebuilt since its rediscovery by Dutch archeologists in the 1920s — is extensive. I left a flower offering in the temple, surrounded by swirls of white smoke from the burning incense. I looked in detail at the multiple feminine sculptures which line the bathing pool. Each figure holds a water pitcher, and the water which pours forth from it into the pool represents one of the holy rivers of Hinduism, from the River Ganges to the River Kaveri.
The site is steep and I quickly lost count of how many steps there were up and down between the temple buildings and the trees. The latter blocked a lot of light, and there was dark, green moss on much of the stony ground. This served only to enhance the mood. Yes, there were other people here — pilgrims, tourists, and even an ascetic meditating on a rock by a pool — but it didn’t feel crowded. It just felt deeply spiritual, and very, very old.
That night, feeling contemplative, I stayed in Ubud to dine at the award winning Aperitif. The restaurant doesn’t yet have its Michelin star, but as it is just over a year old, it can surely only be a matter of time.
The extravagance began in the cocktail bar, where the combination of Chesterfield sofas, books, warm lighting, and a seemingly endless line up of spirits recreates the ambience of a colonial era gentleman’s club. The styling is far from stuffy, though, and no one was overdressed; the smart casual dress code suffices. We sipped on Lemon 3 Times (a gin and tonic with lemongrass syrup) and a Bee’s Sting (tequila with triple sec, lime, thyme honey, and saline), people watched, and snacked on raw fish amuse bouche presented dramatically on a bowl of beach pebbles and sculptural fish bones.
In Aperitif’s dining room, the chandeliers glitter, the light also reflected by the highly polished floor. Oysters arrived in a cloud of billowing dry ice, and with each course it was hard to decide whether the appearance or the flavour of the dish came out on top. Slivers of pumpkin were arranged to look like a flower, the iberico pork with beetroot and horseradish was a revelation, and the venison wellington was given a fabulous Balinese twist by being seasoned with rendang spices.
In his menu, executive chef Nic Vanderbeeken has encapsulated Ubud’s creative flair, the natural ingredients borne of the sea and the jungle, and the cultural melting pot which defines Balinese identity. Staying at HOSHINOYA Bali, exploring Ubud, and dining at Aperitif was a far richer, more complex and nuanced experience than I had ever expected to find in Bali. And yes, it more than warranted the distance and flying time to get there and back.
A stay in the treetops at HOSHINOYA Bali (www.hoshinoya.com) near Ubud starts from £475 per night (room only). Aperitif’s (www.aperitif.com) eight course degustation menu costs £75, and reservations should be made in advance.