The must-do highlights of Bali
From the famous rice terraces to the incredible coastal temples, these are the highlights no visitor to Bali should miss.
It's early morning when I'm woken by the soulful call of the lesser coucal bird pining for a mate. Frogs croak incessantly, jubilant about the overnight rain. Curious as to what the raucous noise is all about, I push open the elaborate carved door of our tented retreat. Mist hugs the jungle-shrouded Keliki Valley, and across the deep gorge comes the evocative call to prayer. The sun hasn't even fully showed its face, yet here at the newly unveiled Capella Ubud, the air is thick with the promise of a magical day.
It's a new beginning too for the lavish Bill Bensley-designed jungle retreat. Perched between dense rainforest, verdant rice fields and the sacred Wos River, the luxury canvas retreat delivers an experience unlike any other on the "Island of the Gods". In a destination overrun by ever more luxurious five-star hotels and resorts, it beats to its own drum thanks to a revolutionary design by famed architect Bensley – a confessed Baliphile – with a nod to the owner's background in steel.
It was never the owner's intention to open a hotel, but thankfully he changed his mind. A steel commodities magnate, Suwito Dunawan originally bought the site with the intention of building a private retreat to house his impressive art collection. But the Jakarta businessman decided the site was so special it had to be shared, thus the idea for Capella Ubud was born. Remarkably, not a single tree was felled during construction of the ultra-luxurious camp surrounded by lush pandanus, banyan and palm trees.
"How did you enjoy the orchestra of the forest?" staff ask with a smile at breakfast served in the striking three-level Mads Lange, the signature dining space. Named after a Danish spice trader also known as the "White King of Bali", Mads Lange also houses a second dining concept, Api Jiwa, where new age bites are served theatrically from a daily changing menu under the watchful eye of Australian Matthew McCool, the retreat's Gault and Millau's three hats culinary director.
Breakfast is special – and not only because of the food. Gobsmacking vistas across the sloping property to the mosaic pool and jungle clad valley beyond greet diners. We start with a freshly squeezed green juice with ginger, house-made bread and pastries before choosing from the a la carte menu – one day sampling the Indonesian style nasi campur, another the generous campfire breakfast cooked directly over the flame. Good coffee roasted specifically for the resort from Seminan Cafe in Ubud is also on offer.
The much-anticipated Capella Ubud opened mid-July after a painstaking four-year build. Melding Balinese aesthetics with the island's Dutch colonial past, there are 23 lavish tents boasting private saltwater pools (nine to 27 sq m in size), espresso machines, tea stations, vast wooden terraces, alfresco bathrooms and the owner's private collection of antiques and artwork.
Located in the small artisan village of Keliki (appropriate given the owner's passion for art) the resort is reached via a scenic drive from Ubud. Bensley has attempted to redefine the jungle experience with Capella Ubud, paying respect to the area's densely forested terrain and Bali's deep spiritual culture.
The jungle sanctuary transports guests back in time to an early settler's camp, combining colonial era decor with local aesthetics. On check-in guests are supplied with smart duffel bags and "camp survival kits", containing organic insect repellent, aromatherapy oil, an eye mask and earplugs (the need for which becomes clear later). Personal assistants (on call 24/7) escort guests, aided by hand-crafted walking staffs, along stone paths and suspension bridges to their private canvas retreats.
Each retreat carries a bespoke theme depicting the skill set of camp personnel from the early 1800s, meaning you may find yourself ensconced in the Cartographer's, the Captain's, the Naturalist's, or even the Translator's Tent. Artwork, curios, vintage cameras, rare books, maps and photographs star; yet Wi-Fi, complimentary smart phones and airconditioning meet the needs of today's modern traveller. Appropriately, given my love of reading, we stay in the Librarian's Tent with its 18 sq m pool, flanked on one side by rice terraces, rainforest the other.
Retreat is an apt name for the incredible canvas tents; inside you literally feel cut off from the world. There are daybeds for gazing out over rice terraces and jungle, refreshment trunks (mini bars) stocked with beverages of your choice, oversized four poster beds, and hammered copper baths for leisurely soaks. We loved the complimentary jars of homemade snacks, and local spiced rum with vanilla, anise and clove, to be served over ice with fresh lime.
Beyond our hand carved entrance doors a myriad of interesting activities, expeditions and pampering await. We try a high intensive impact training class with Budi, also the resident Balinese healer, join a sunset rice field trek meeting local farmers, and enjoy a yoga class at the jungle-based tented gym, the Armory.
A new moon treatment delivered in one of three spa tents using organic, locally crafted products is one of the memorable treatments on offer. The general manager, Australian Simon Dorman, who is married to a Balinese woman, says specific techniques, products and scents are offered according to each moon phase. "The new moon is time for renewal and introspection, so we offer a revitalising seaweed and eucalyptus salt scrub, a seaweed wrap concluding with a full body massage using rosemary and eucalyptus oils," he explains. I experience this treatment late one afternoon, delivered by a gracious and softly spoken therapist. Later, I float back to my room as enormous butterflies flit beside me and a chorus of crickets breaks into song.
Evening brings out a whole other side of Capella Ubud, kicking off with nightly cocktails and canapes in the Officer's Tent – perhaps a G&T, or a glass of wine. It feels like we're on safari as we share stories from the day with other guests. Dorman pops in to check on guests while staff fuss over our 10-year-old, Ella.
From there, dinner could be pork cha siu with tamarind nam jim salad, or perhaps organic red rice congee with chicken satay. The chefs are happy to whip up whatever takes your fancy, including cheese burger sliders and fries for Ella. Afterwards everyone gravitates to the camp fire for toasted marshmallows, black and white movies and hands down the best pulled hot chocolate I've ever tried. As we slip into bed, the exotic cacophony of the jungle begins. Sure, take advantage of those earplugs but this is one bedtime lullaby you'll never forget.
As we depart for home, our bags fastidiously packed that morning by our personal camp assistant Okta (I kid you not), staff gather around to say goodbye. "Don't forget to check your bag Ella," Okta says as we drive off in Capella's luxurious transfer vehicle. Intrigued, Ella digs through her backpack. There neatly wrapped in brown paper is a colourful ice cream squishie – a toy, currently all the rage, that she searched high and low for since arriving in Bali. "This is the best place I've ever stayed," she gushes as our driver Dawa breaks into a beaming smile. Yep, let's just say Capella Ubud has forever ruined the average family camping trip.
Retreats from $US840 plus tax per night including breakfast, Wi-Fi, complimentary smart phone, selected alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages, and snacks, back pack with camp essentials, butler, excursions, mountain bikes, evening cocktails and canapes, return airport transfers, laundering and more. See capellahotels.com/en/capella-ubud
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Capella Hotels and Resorts.
See also: The best time to visit Bali