The Oberoi Hotel Seminyak, Bali: A celebrity playground

I'm chatting to Ardinata over breakfast when he casually mentions he met Mick Jagger sometime in the '80s. Ardinata has been waiting on guests at the Oberoi Bali for a staggering 35 years and loves the hotel. In his eyes, every guest is as important as Jagger and, as I watch him clear away the breakfast plates, I see he genuinely means it. 

I'm staying at the iconic Oberoi Bali. Built in 1972 as an exclusive private club named Kayu Aya on the site of an ancient village, originally it was a multimillion-dollar cluster of villas for the world's rich and famous. Princess Grace and Salvador Dali were among those who owned a villa here. Its full moon parties – awash with beautiful people dancing in the moonlight - are legendary.

The Oberoi is perhaps Bali's most hallowed hotel, not only because the beach fronting the Oberoi Bali is considered to be one of the holiest on the western coast, but this is where tourism in Seminyak, and indeed Bali, first really took off for well-heeled travellers. 

When it first opened in 1978, the Oberoi stood in isolation in the middle of verdant rice fields fronting a gorgeous long stretch of beach. To reach the hotel, guests would travel through rice paddies, farms and local villages. Today its surrounds are almost unrecognisable: boutiques, hip bars, resorts, hotels and homeware stores are crammed into every available inch of land. Sadly, there are no longer any rice fields to be found. 

Yet, inside the Oberoi, an institution on the Island of the Gods, little has changed. Manicured lawns dotted with frangipani trees, pandanus palms and coconut palms roll towards the beach. A sense of calm and order presides with the madness that is Seminyak another world away. 

The hotel sits in six hectares of tropical gardens along 500 metres of prime Seminyak beach frontage. The grounds abound with bird and animal life. General manager John Halpin believes it's because so little natural habit is left to be found.

Huge butterflies and intensely coloured dragonflies flit in the vegetation, birds swoop over the manicured lawns, and even a hungry water monitor swims in the lily-studded water surrounding the spa. We regularly see squirrels racing up trees. It's meant to be the rainy season but the skies are clear and cloudless and the local people are worried that this long, hot dry spell will never end.

The resort is classic Bali; its 74 villas and lanai rooms, restaurants, one bar and amphitheatre for cultural performances recreate the feel of a local village. Its stunning formal gardens and enormous fountain-fed pool flanked by fringed yellow parasols, resemble one of the island's royal water palaces. 

Luxurious and discreet, our one-storey, thatched-roof villa is set down a meandering pathway, built from local materials that have worn and weathered with time. It's so spacious it feels like our own home and, because it comes with its own shady pool, I have trouble dragging our seven-year-old out. "I could live here," she yells exuberantly, jumping into the frangipani studded pool moments after waking. 

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The staff cannot do enough for you and the attention to detail is astounding. Even the fire extinguisher and insect spray in our room are encased in attractive rattan. No chance of offending the eye here.

The Oberoi has long attracted the high-end traveller looking for respite from frantic schedules, or as a base for diplomatic visits. A plethora of celebrities, heads of state and captains of industry have stayed here. Among those they can mention are Julia Roberts, Henry Kissinger, Robert Wagner, Gianni Versace, David Bowie, Barry Humphries and Australian film director Peter Weir. Honeymooners are also popular, many coming on the recommendation of their parents who have also stayed here.

It's oh so tempting to just revel in the Oberoi's legendary service, flop by the pool and not leave the resort confines – and some guests do just that – but beyond is a world of temptation. Some of Bali's best restaurants lie on its doorstep, along with world-class shopping and a vibrant nightlife, all a short stroll up Jalan Oberoi, named after the resort.

Halpin, who has been general manager at the hotel for almost four years (another nine at the Oberoi Lombok), says it's hard to pinpoint exactly what the "recipe" is that results in the incredibly high number of repeat guests (about 30 per cent on average). One reason, he suggests, is the Oberoi is the single most culturally correct Balinese style resort in Seminyak. "Despite its age, it has been lovingly maintained at great expense, and attention to detail of the traditional Balinese architecture, along with personalised service as a priority."

Halpin believes many travellers tire of modern, white-frosted glass and concrete hotels that can be found anywhere in the world. "When they come to Bali, they want to see and feel Bali. The Oberoi Bali is the only five-star luxury resort on this stretch of beach that offers traditional Balinese ambience and lush spacious gardens with no high-rise buildings." His words ring true and, during our stay, we feel like we're getting a glimpse of the Bali of old. 

It's a wrench having to leave, but we'd heard good things about a sister property, the Oberoi Lombok, which lies opposite the three Gili islands. The Oberoi Lombok was built in 1997 and has the same executive chef as the Oberoi Bali. This isn't the only thing it shares. We do a double take when we're shown to our room: the pool villa is almost identical to the one we've just checked out of. "Yes!" I hear Ella shriek as she jumps into the pool. Later we learn the property shares many features of its older sister and was built by the same architect, Australian Peter Muller. 

They've done an excellent job. The same serene feel of the Oberoi Bali has been transplanted to Lombok's north-west coast. Like the Oberoi Bali, the Oberoi Lombok sits on 10 hectares of lush grounds that tumble down to a secluded beach overlooking the Gili Islands. Here the population is predominantly Muslim, and life moves at a much slower speed than Bali. In fact, for the few nights we're there, we don't even see a shop or a tout; it feels like the Bali of decades ago.

As you enter the hotel, the open-air lobby looks across tiered pools that lead down to the sea. It's surrounded by the breezy lambung restaurant, bar and reflecting pools studded with lilies and stocked with poi. Just like the Bali property, the attentive staff can't do enough for you. Days start with breakfast by the pool. One day, we enjoy the traditional Indian breakfast, and are not disappointed. It's low season but, like Bali, there's no sign of rain, meaning the resort is particularly peaceful and quiet. 

We enjoy massages in the spa, our daughter takes an art lesson and a wood carving session with a local man. We take a cultural trip and learn about life in Lombok, and a traditional pony cart ride through the local countryside.

But our favourite day is when we take a trip to the Gili Islands with the hotel's dive centre. From the hotel's private pier, we set out in the resort's speedboat, the day sunny with an intensely blue sky. We hope to see turtles, but our expectations aren't particularly high. 

At Gili Meno we jump overboard into water the colour of the Bombay Sapphire gin bottle and, before long, spot our first large turtle heading out into deeper water. Within moments, we spot a second and third and, by the fourth, we are actually snorkelling above as he chomps on coral on the sea floor, surrounded by small fish hoping for the scraps. This is the first time Ella has actually got the hang of using a snorkel and mask, and is so excited she has to be dragged out of the water shivering and shaking like a skinny wet dog.

Moments after departing for the airport the next day, the heavens open and we are driving in the heaviest downpour I've seen. Small streams become torrents and we drive through deep water that spills across the road. Drenched children run by the roadside laughing and locals come out of their homes turning their face to the skies. Indonesia's wet season has finally arrived. For us, at the end of a holiday reminiscent of the Bali of old, the timing couldn't be better.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

oberoihotels.com

GETTING THERE

Jetstar operates direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane (and other Australian ports) to Denpasar (Bali) on its Boeing 787 Dreamliner. See Jetstar.com.

Lombok is connected by several flights from Bali. Car transfers to the Oberoi Lombok take about an hour and 45 minutes. Daily crossings are also operated by Blue Water Safari in an open-top speedboat from Bali's Benoa Harbour. Estimated travel time is two hours with direct access to the Oberoi Lombok's private jetty. See bwsbali.com.

STAYING THERE

Oberoi offers a "Best of Indonesia" package from $US3140 for three nights at the Oberoi Bali in a luxury lanai garden-view room and three nights at the Oberoi Lombok in a luxury garden-view pavilion for two people including taxes, daily breakfast, afternoon tea, Wi-Fi and return air or harbour transfers. Offer available from April 1-July 20, 2016. See oberoihotels.com

Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts.

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