Bali's Katamama Hotel review, Seminyak

There is a certain amount of incredulity in people's voices when you reveal, no, confess, that you've never been to Bali.

"You've never been to Bali?" is said in italics. In the same tone as: "You don't like oysters?" It's like you've just owned up to something unnatural and decidedly un-Australian.

The other thing that happens when you talk about Bali is that everyone – and I mean everyone – has been there before. Usually 20 or 25 years ago, when everything was different. "All this here used to be rice paddies" being a particularly popular refrain. "I remember when I first came here 20 years ago and…" being another. What comes after ''and" is moot because that's when I start picking lint out of my navel.

It seems appropriate to be flying Virgin and I am finally spat out at Denpasar airport at about 4pm. The baggage arrives at carousel No. 3. Then No. 4. And finally actually pops out at No. 5. By which time it's the rush hour – a rookie mistake that my driver quickly corrects – it's always rush hour here: "If there's no traffic," he smiles, "then you're not in Bali."

No doubt it wasn't like this 20 years ago …

We are heading for Seminyak and the new Katamama Hotel, part of the Potato Head group. Katamama only opened in March last year but has already been showered with accolades by such travel luminaries as US Conde Nast Traveller, which included it in its 2017 Hot List of the best new hotels in the world.

I am making notes as we go and taking photographs through the car window at the traffic chaos outside – not least because I have booked a Kawasaki Versys 650cc motorbike for tomorrow and intend driving it out to Tirta Gangga, the royal water palace 80 kilometres away.

Among my notes are these snippets: "The Balinese do love a statue" and "Good God, what have I done?"

My partner and I dine in the hotel that night, at the first overseas outlet of Frank Camorra's Movida, and at 9am the next day Agus from Bali Eagle Bikers is waiting in the car park with the motorbike as promised.

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And, then, almost before I know it, we're off and crawling through the congested streets. The Kawasaki, with its high ground clearance and upright riding position, looks incongruous among the thousands of scooters around us, like a giraffe among a herd of water buffalo. We also seem to be among the few riders wearing helmets, jeans AND jackets when the fashion (at least among the tourists) seems to be the opposite.

It's actually not too hazardous if you keep your wits about you and our only close call comes when a truck decides that a No U-Turn sign really means "Do A U-Turn Here" and we have to weave around quick-smart to avoid a collision.

Unlike, say, India, where the horn is a quintessential part of the driving experience, riding here is relatively peaceful and nobody seems to get angry despite what, to Australian eyes, would seem plenty of provocation. As long as you assume that the people in front of you WILL do the stupidest, most dangerous thing you can imagine, and take appropriate avoidance measures, you should be fine. Wear a helmet, though, OK?

Once past the clogged artery of Denpasar we join the well-maintained seaside road towards the laidback beach town of Candi Dasa, stopping for lunch along the way at a seafood warung where we stuff our faces with delicious food for about $3 each.

There's still plenty of traffic doing crazy things – red lights in particular seem to be mere suggestions – but things move along at a rapid clip and before we know it we're climbing winding roads through tropical greenery and past vertiginous hillsides tiered and planted with rice.

We stop to take photographs of a particularly pretty paddy field. "This is what Seminyak looked like 20 years ago and …" begins my partner before coming to an annoyed halt. "Are you picking lint out of your navel again?"

The royal water palace at Tirta Gangga looks old but was only built in 1948 – and then rebuilt in 1963 after nearby Mount Agung blew its top and destroyed most of it. Today it's a lush and frighteningly photogenic one-hectare garden complex of carp-filled pools, bridges, fountains, stone carvings, statues and stepping stones. 

There are also a couple of swimming pools inside the complex so take your swimmers. We didn't (big mistake, given the helmets and the heat) and could only look on enviously as a group of soft, pale German tourists and a skinny brown trio of laughing local boys splashed and sparkled in the cool waters.

There's a restaurant here, and a small hotel if you fancy staying the night. Several hours later, after getting horribly lost east of Denpasar and needing a police escort to get back on the right road, my bottom is wishing we had stayed. Next time for sure.

Still, it's not like Katamama is short of distractions. "That large, deep bath in the room's looking pretty good, I can tell you." Sorry, that was my bum talking.

I've got to say that, at first sight, the hotel is a disappointment. As part of a homage to the building materials of old Balinese temples it's made of 1.5 million hand-pressed dun and russet-coloured bricks, which alone took two years to make. Sadly, it reminds us both, disconcertingly, of a low-rise housing commission estate.

That said, the outside really isn't the drawcard. Tucked away down a long private drive, Katamama isn't a show pony. It has no grand entrance and is deliberately low key; it's telling you that it's inside where it shines.

And shine it does. There's a wonderful breeziness about this 57-room boutique hotel that creeps up and slaps you playfully around the back of the head when you're not looking. This starts in the unfussy reception area, which also doubles as the cocktail bar and where an old record player on display is surrounded by stacks of vinyl albums such as the soundtrack from La Cage aux Folles and George Benson's breakout 1976 album Breezin'.

Check-in isn't done here, though. That's done, low key again, in the rooms while another member of staff pops by and whips up a welcoming cocktail.

Ah, yes, the rooms. There's an understated stylishness going on here that at first glance is hard to put your finger on but which finally comes home to rest mid last century. The rooms, and especially the more expensive suites on the top floor, are equipped with the sort of Nordic Parker furniture that was so popular in Australia – and, it seems, Indonesia – in the 1950s and '60s.

Some of the pieces are reproductions and some are originals but it really doesn't matter which is which. These, paired with bold splashes of teal and original artworks by Indonesia artists, give the hotel a faint and very cool Mad Men vibe, if you can imagine Don Draper in a peci instead of a fedora.

Also part of the experience is the very different Potato Head Beach Club (to which Katamama guests get exclusive access and privileges). Sitting next door to the hotel the high rear wall of the club is a semi-circular amphitheatre made entirely of antique wooden window shutters sourced from old homes across the country.

Weathered and peeling, the giant curved facade looks like some kind of gladiatorial Colosseum, a funky, music-pumping Thunderdome for the 21st century. Inside, you'll find several eateries and bars, including the hotel's signature and quite wonderful Kaum restaurant, as well as an infinity pool (swim-up bar, natch) and a 500-square-metre lawn overlooking the beach.

We book a sun lounger around the pool for a perfect view of people flying galleon-shaped kites along the beach and taking selfies as the sun sets like liquid gold over the ocean.

A beer and a cocktail later and I feel like I've lost my Bali virginity in the most delightful way. And how many people can say that?

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/indonesia

katamama.com

balitourismboard.org

kaum.com

FLY

Virgin Australia flies to Denpasar in Bali from every major city from about $729 return. See flights.virginaustralia.com

STAY

Katamama ("mama says" in Bahasa Indonesian) is a boutique hotel in Seminyak with 57 suites and a single-minded dedication to local art, design, architecture and the use of Indonesian materials and ingredients. The gym, spa and pool are small but perfectly proportioned – and the ocean and Potato Head Beach Club are next door. Rooms from about $750  a night, twin share; see katamama.com

RIDE

See balieaglebikers.com

Keith Austin was a guest of Katamama.

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