Aman Resorts and Bali Zoo: A dream-like, crowd-free week in Bali

The car arrives at 7am to whisk us off to Bali Zoo, a place I would never have thought of visiting had my sister not recommended it a few days earlier.

We arrive before the zoo, 15 minutes south of Ubud, even opens for the Breakfast with the Orang-utans experience and are given the number three.  This turns out to be extremely lucky as we're the third group of about 100 participants to step up for our personal meet-and-greet session with the playful primates. 

It's certainly "hands-on" as the critters are pretty keen to cuddle and grab us, or our necklaces and sunnies, and my heart melts when one of them takes my hand for an affectionate squeeze and we shake for a while. It's actually his foot! 

Three young orang-utans (aged four and five) are on show this morning and we're given a generous 10 minutes to interact, while keepers are happy to take a constant stream of photos and videos. We're told they have 87 per cent human DNA and that's fairly obvious as they play up to the camera with those big soulful eyes and one young fellow, Cecil, throws himself about like a toddler with ADHD.

Breakfast is a delicious spread of Western and Balinese dishes (and endless cups of excellent Balinese coffee) and afterwards there is time to wander around the enclosures (which exhibit only Indonesian animals and birds) before the zoo's car drops us back at the hotel.

Like many Australians, I've been to Bali several times, often in the super-sultry heat of the wet season. This time I wanted a mix of leisurely downtime and a few distinctly different activities. Arriving in early October, at the tail end of the school holidays means we avoided the humidity, the hordes and the high airfares.

And being holed up at three Aman Resorts over a week's stay is not only the last word in luxury but a great way of seeing a fair amount of the island.

Founded in 1988 by Adrian Zecha, a hotelier of Indonesian and Czech descent, Aman Resorts are well established in Indonesia with five properties.  "Aman" means peace, safety or security in languages including Sanskrit, Hindi and Persian and the Balinese locations are well chosen to deliver this.

The dream-like week begins with two nights at Amanusa (meaning peaceful island), on a hill a few kilometres from the gated and manicured five-star enclave of Nusa Dua. Security is just as tight here and our taxi is checked with inspection mirrors and our names are given to the officer on duty. 

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From there on it's bliss as we turn up just in time for afternoon tea, which is served in a pavilion teetering above the gigantic pool (a commodious 30 square metres) and with a view to the ocean beyond.  

The Aman look is classic, and somewhat minimalist – the idea is the beauty of the natural surroundings speaks for itself. There are no reception desks and lobbies, and certainly no brochure racks jammed with colourful flyers of tours and local restaurants. There are, however, about five staff for each guest and, whenever you want a staff member, one seems to miraculously appear.

We arrive with a loose plan to dine the first night in each resort and then hit the nearby hub (which are all about four kilometres) away and easy to reach as Aman provides a complimentary transfer into town and back) for a night in a local restaurant. 

When it opened in 1992, Amanusa stood on its own on a little hill; nowadays it's lapped by the new 18-hole Bali National Golf Club. However, the views are still fairly unrestricted, save for the odd crane in the distance where yet another Nusa Dua resort is under construction. But in this tranquil world of just 30 suites and villas, you could be anywhere. 

The room has a muslin-draped four-poster bed, outdoor shower and sunken bath and additional terrace with day bed. My favourite touch is the delivery of early-morning tea by a petite woman balancing two teapots, tea cups and milk jugs on a tray on her dainty head. And the jeep rides to the resort's beach – beautifully raked and set out with a private cabana for each guest – arenot to be sneered at either.

From Amanusa it's a 90-minute private transfer to resort number two – Amandari (peaceful angel) set high above the Ayung River gorge in the village of Kedewatan, a few kilometres from Ubud.

Designed as a traditional Balinese village, villas are accessed via little laneways bordered by moss-covered stone walls and guarded by statues of warriors, known as dvarapala. The sacred volcanic mountain of Agung looms in the distance beyond the infinity pool and steep pathways lead down through the jungle to the river on which white-water rafters whoosh by.

Once again there are just 30 villas and suites, some with their own pools and some with  several bedrooms. Dotted  around the property are little pavilions perfect for lazing about – the one by the library is very quiet, indeed – while the daily ritual of afternoon tea takes place on rugs, propped up by numerous cushions, by the main pool. 

Ubud is well-known as Bali's cultural centre and it's here we get a little creative. I'd pre-booked the Paon Cooking Class and right on schedule at 8.15am the cooking school minibus turns up. The five-hour experience starts with a tour of Ubud's food market, followed by a stop at a rice paddy (owned by our driver's family) before heading to the home of Puspa who run the classes. 

Paon Cooking class is a well-oiled machine; Puspa, a lady with wit and charm, has been conducting the classes for eight years after a career as a chef. 

For about $37 it has to be one of the best mornings I've ever spent and my vegan friend is also singing its praises. We cut, chop and cook for some time but it's fun as I chat and laugh with many in our group of 30 or so international travellers.  When all the preparation is over we tuck into gado gado, tuna in banana leaf, chicken satays, a curry or two and various salads, ending with banana fritters in coconut cream. 

After our zoo visit, we leave Ubud and head east to one of the more remote areas of Bali. Our third resort, Amankila (peaceful hill) is carved into a cliff overlooking the Lombok Strait, and by far the most dramatic of all the settings.

Again we arrive just in time for afternoon tea, this time served in an alcove overlooking the three-tiered infinity pools, the waters of each cascading into the pool below. It's a spectacular sight; in the near distance we can see Nusa Penida island and on a clear day, there's a glimpse of Lombok.  

The design here is clearing Arabesque and I love it, while many of the ornaments and features in the room are fashioned from mother-of-pearl. A treat is the complimentary morning yoga class in a thatched pavilion by the ocean. Our instructor is a proponent of "laughing yoga" and it's an infectious experience as he coaxes us to join him in a quick, but intense, bout of deep belly laughing. After yoga, I take a dip in the nearby beach club pool (yes this resort has four pools!) and have the most delicious fish tacos for lunch. 

We could let this dreaminess linger on forever – lying in pavilions by the pool as staff serve drinks and afternoon tea – and lying in cabanas on the black sand beach, but my inner puritan says I must get out and explore.

So after some internet surfing (in the library) and a quiet word to the concierge, we concoct an interesting and reasonably priced (about $60 a person) private tour of east Bali, which takes us to several water palaces and temples before we head home to Australia.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

traveller.com.au/bali

GETTING THERE

Garuda Indonesia fly daily to Bali (Denpasar) from Sydney/Melbourne. The flight is just under six hours. Fares vary but average about $599 return in the low season of November. See garuda-indonesia.com

STAYING THERE

Aman Resorts has three luxury properties in Bali. Daily rates start at about $916, including breakfast and hotel and inter-resort transfers. Various packages offer three resort deals where extras such as bicycle rides or cooking classes are provided. See aman.com

TOURING THERE

The Paon Bali cooking class runs daily in Ubud in the morning and afternoon (no market visit in the afternoon) for $37 (see paon-bali.com). Breakfast with the Orang-utans is held daily at Bali Zoo. The cost, including hotel pick-up and general admission, is about $60 (see bali-zoo.com). Several operators provide half and full-day eastern Bali tours; negotiate with hotels for good prices.

Caroline Gladstone travelled courtesy of Aman Resorts and with assistance from Garuda Indonesia. She paid for her tours in Bali.    

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