Michael Gebicki journeys three hours from Denpasar to Bali's north coast, where the heart of the island's experience remains untouched.
I am in Bali, lying in the cool of pre-dawn, watching geckos chase one another across the thatched cone of the ceiling above my head, caught in the strobe light of a twirling ceiling fan. In the village next door, roosters are singing a chorus against the background sound of waves nibbling at a black-sand beach and I'm thinking there's nowhere else quite like Bali.
The mossy temples, the sound of trickling water in the rice terraces, the tok-tok noise of the bird scarers turning in the wind, the spirit houses in the rice fields with their faded, flapping shreds of golden cloth, the soaring bamboo penjors that arch above the roadsides, the smell of kretek cigarettes, the banyan trees wrapped in chequerboard cloth, the women heading off to noon prayers with a pyramid of fruit and flowers piled on their heads, the sound of a gamelan orchestra drifting through the silky night - with these notes, Bali plays a sweet tune all its own.
Yet over the years, Bali has lost some of what once drew me to it. These days, you need to factor in the pestilential touts on Kuta beach, the sleazy bars, the roadsides clogged with plastic garbage and the looming shadow of environmental degradation. Even Ubud, tucked away amid the moist, green drapery of the rice terraces, now has nightmarish traffic jams and magic is in short supply, unless it's the off-the-shelf, cash-in-the-hand, Eat Pray Love variety.
There's that and then there's this. Set high on Bali's north coast, Spa Village Resort Tembok lies in a part of Bali where the heart of the Balinese experience remains untouched. When I walk along the black-sand beach, there are smiles and waves from the fishermen. Nobody badgers me with sarongs or offers of a massage, and there are no plans to turn the spice gardens into a manicured golf course.
One reason it survives is remoteness. From the airport at Denpasar in the south, it's a three-hour drive to the resort, although the driver sets the scene for what is to come, offering me slippers, water, snacks and a menu, so he can call the resort and have my meal on the table when I arrive.
Set at the end of a bamboo-lined laneway, the resort consists of a big, airy pavilion with wings on either side of a palm-studded lawn featuring a stepped pond filled with water lilies. Overlooking the beach is the resort's swimming pool, which reflects the coconut palms and curtained salas that surround it.
If there's one word for the Spa Village style it's "soothing". As a welcome ritual, I am seated with my feet placed in a petal-strewn bowl of warm water. It's scented with something exotic. I then spend the next five minutes trying not to moan with pleasure as a masseuse performs a slow rolling massage on my head, neck and shoulders. My feet are then scrubbed using volcanic sand from the beach, then washed again, patted dry and inserted into slippers, the footwear of choice. Finally, she gives me a ylang-ylang flower, which I clutch with what I hope is suitable reverence while I am led to my room.
Guest rooms are arranged in the wings on either side of the lawn, each one a silky cocoon with dark wood furnishings, cool marble floors and a big sliding door that opens to the lawns. There are also two villas, each set into its own private enclave, with doors that open to the beach and a plunge pool that has a private sala to one side.
The resort also offers mind, body and spirit rejuvenation. On arrival, guests are invited to choose from one of four Discovery Paths, the resort's roads to renewal: Balance, Creativity, Vigour and the Spa Village Academy. Each one is a program that might involve daily yoga, meditation, art activities and massages, as well as daily excursions outside the resort. Many of these activities dig deep into the roots of Balinese culture. There's jamu, an introduction to Balinese herbs and spices, with the chance to create your own signature herbal tonic. You can learn the traditional craft of palm-leaf weaving, or try your hand at pencak silat, Indonesia's martial art. Even the resort's after-dinner star-gazing has a twist all its own. With your partner, you lie down on a double-size air bed and the staff launch you from the pool's edge to drift around at random.
The menu at the breezy Wantilan Restaurant ventures into spa cuisine, which is based on organic, locally sourced fruits and vegetables. The water spinach comes fresh by bicycle; seafood comes from the fishermen along the beach, and the cook never really knows what tomorrow's catch might bring. For breakfast, I can choose from a vast array of healthy tonics, including avocado, banana, wild Balinese cacao, vanilla bean and honey (it "soothes tired muscles and induces relaxation"), or fresh, young coconut water with lime, mint and honey ("a cooling, hydrating blend, which calms and relaxes").
As well as accommodation, meals and activities around the resort, the standard package includes a daily 50-minute spa treatment. The spa menu is long and intriguing. I can have a fusion of Malay and Thai massage techniques, wraps, a foot massage, a massage under the stars or a facial using sandalwood and tamarind leaves. I can also have a cleansing massage with breast milk. My massage therapist just said so.
I am flat out on the massage table and I have already been scrubbed, kneaded and wrapped in towels in a heating poultice of ginger. She's just re-entered the nice-smelling room where I am lying. "And now, Mr Michael, I am going to wash you with breast milk," she coos softly. I know that the spa industry has a thing for exotic ingredients but, I have to say, I am not really comfortable with this. It's a huge bowl of milk, it's warm and it smells, well, lactic. How many Balinese breasts could it possibly take to fill such a bowl, I wonder, and what about all the Balinese infants that are missing out on vital nourishment to pander to my decadent tastes?
Over dinner that evening, I confess my unease to the resort's general manager. One moment she's perplexed and frowning, the next she's doubled over and laughing. "Not breast milk," she says. "It was fresh milk. Balinese find it hard to say the letter 'F'. It comes out sounding like a 'B'."
The main off-resort activity offered at the Spa Village Resort is diving. The resort was established by a German family who wanted to create a dive resort with something more luxurious than the simple losmens that existed at the time.
The unique underwater feature is an American transport vessel that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. It lies at shallow depths just a few metres from the beach, encrusted in anemones, gorgonians and corals amid the stunningly diverse ecosystem that inhabits the waters of Tulamben. Slightly closer to Tembok, Kubu has a choice of shore or boat dives, with a coral garden that offers frequent sightings of turtles and bumphead parrotfish, and a drop-off overgrown with soft corals that feature an abundance of lionfish, moray eels, stonefish and reef sharks.
For the most part, this region is a tougher, leaner, jungle-clad version of the Balinese landscape. It lacks the heart-melting scenery and sky-mirror rice terraces of the island's south, yet this is still Bali and the visitor is amply repaid.
Early one morning, with smoke from small fires drifting through the coconut palms, I set off to cycle to the waterfall above the village called Les. This is one part of Bali where a foreigner on a bike has novelty value. Diners in the roadside warungs along the way look up in surprise, young girls with infants balanced on their tiny hips point. Following the taut, brown calves of my guide, I turn inland along a green tunnel that leads to Pura Puseh temple and continue up the steepening grade to Les, where we stop at the market to buy sticky rice cooked with palm sugar in a banana leaf. At a cafe higher up the slope of Mount Batur, the road becomes a track that is just barely negotiable on our mountain bikes.
Finally, we trek for 15 minutes through a luscious green garden of banana palms, cassava, chillies, cocoa trees, papayas and cloves beside a rushing stream that ends at a green bowl with water erupting from a notch 20 metres above. We scramble over slippery boulders to the base of the cliff face until we're standing under the falls. Water pounds down our scalps and shoulders in a violent massage that leaves us gasping for breath, as we laugh like clowns, and, yep, there's nowhere else quite like Bali.
The writer was a guest of Spa Village Resort Tembok Bali.
Giving back to Bali
Spa Village Tembok has a number of initiatives that offer practical benefits to the community. The resort provides employment in roles that range from managers to massage therapists, gardeners and kitchen hands.
Artisans are employed to provide instruction to guests and a dance troupe and orchestra is commissioned to perform in evening concerts at the resort. Seafood is bought directly from fishermen along the beach, chickens and eggs come from a nearby farm, and fruit and vegetables are sourced from local markets.
Other companies that benefit from tourism in Bali are also giving back to the community. For a destination transformed by the tourist dollar, Bali remains paradise lost for many of its inhabitants. More than 60 per cent of its rural population live below the poverty line, and many families do not have access to healthcare, basic education or even clothing.
Companies such as Creative Holidays and hotel groups such as Accor and InterContinental are sharing their profits and giving clients the opportunity to give back to the communities that serve them so well.
For every Bali package booked through Creative Holidays, a $1-a-person donation is added to support Bali Kids (balikids.org), a project that provides health, education and medical services to more than 7000 disadvantaged children across Bali. The money is used to buy medical and dental supplies, baby formula and non-prescription medicines, which are difficult to source locally.
The company has also provided a corporate donation towards building a centre that will provide housing for at least 60 orphans, medical and dental care, and support for children with disabilities.
Many hotels in Bali either contribute a percentage of their profits to community projects, offer hospitality training for disadvantaged youths, or run a similar donation scheme. The W Bali and Melia hotels support Bali Kids via annual fund-raisers, and the InterContinental Bali Resort recently helped Bali Life, a non-profit foundation that cares for 25 orphaned children, lease land to plant vegetables and raise livestock.
Accor, the largest international hotel operator in Indonesia, runs the A Tree for a Child program (www.atfac.org), which links environmental sustainability with the well-being of local children. For every five towels recycled by guests, a tree is planted to reforest land in Central Java. The harvested trees in turn provide income for education and healthcare of impoverished children.
Hotel guests can arrange to visit a school in Jimbaran for disabled children, to which Accor hotels in Bali, such as the Pullman and Royal Beach Seminyak, take turns delivering meals each day.
Michael Gebicki, Julie Miller and Sarah Maguire
Mind over matters
In late October, Spa Village Resort Tembok Bali will host another of its ground-breaking Oracle Retreats. The 11-day retreats are a fusion of Balinese massage, meditation, brain-state training, yoga, holistic aromatherapy, long walks and laughter. The aim is a mind, body and soul makeover — a psychic rebalancing with the intention of making you a happier person. One of the retreat's facilitators is Diana Manilova, a healer, teacher and initiate into the higher realms of Mongolian shaman traditions, who has also been described as "a Russian fireball". Prices start from $US2750 ($2680) for two sharing a room.
Garuda Indonesia flies to Denpasar daily from Sydney. Visas can be issued on board the flight, avoiding the tedious queues at Denpasar airport. (02) 9334 9900.
Rates for a double room start from $US265 ($260). +800 9899 9999, www.spavillage.com.