My taxi sweeps through a gateway of presidential proportions, up a curving cobbled driveway, and stops in front of a group of outsized Balinese statues. I step inside a lobby where great wooden beams rise up like a banyan tree. A frieze depicting the karma of life runs around its dome. Well-dressed, helpful staff glide like acolytes in the shadows below.
Sofitel Bali Nusa Dua Beach Resort makes a bold statement right from the arrival. This isn't a shy hotel. It's outsized and audacious, and it references local culture in unexpected ways amid contemporary decor. Don't expect thatched roofs and Balinese masks. There isn't even a traditional check-in counter, only discreet service stations tucked into corners, leaving the lobby open to views straight down gardens to the ocean beyond.
Although it has more than 400 rooms, most within large concrete blocks, the Sofitel avoids feeling too large and impersonal thanks to attentive staff, a swimming lagoon that wanders through superbly landscaped gardens, and an abundance of intimate areas graced with gazebos and daybeds. The overall impression is of airy lightness and a happy buzz.
Curiously, though, the Sofitel has never taken full advantage of its splendid ocean-front setting. Rooms front the lagoon, restaurants are embedded in the gardens. That has just changed, however, with the opening of Manarai Beach House, which spills right onto the sands. Its blue-and-white parasols march onto the beach like migrating turtles, and the ocean glitters like light from a disco ball. It's a few steps from the bar to the lovely promenade that stretches far along the shoreline, shaded by coconut palms and hung with lanterns at night.
Manarai Beach House isn't the first beach club in Nusa Dua, but it's the first fully fledged beach club of the type you'd normally expect in Seminyak, and a bit of a game-changer in what has long been Bali's upmarket, family-oriented and somewhat sedate tourist enclave. The club is operated by the Ismaya Group, a well-known Indonesian-based international lifestyle company that runs innovative restaurants and organises music festivals with big-name performers. Manarai has already featured British DJ and dance-music maestro Jonas Blue and flamboyant Spanish company Elrow, surely the world's best party organiser.
This is a serious beach club. Two swimming pools satisfy the urge to strip off and show your six-pack, while daybeds invite you to kick back with a cocktail and give passers-by cool glances beneath your sunnies as you suck on a popsicle (top flavour, surely watermelon-lime). The bar serves inventive cocktails with amusing names such as Jamaican Me Horny and Sandy Bottoms. The canopies of daybeds sway in the breeze, and I'm serenaded by the rustle of banana leaves by day and house music by night.
The restaurant offerings are clever, combining the usual comfort-food bar nibbles (pizzas, fat burgers, calamari) with plates from executive chef Stefan Poyet, who previously worked in Michelin-star restaurants in Paris. They run the full gamut from soft-shell fish tacos with pickled red cabbage to sea bass in white-wine sauce, or wagyu steak with chimichurri.
There are, happily, some Balinese classics too. I overdose on ayam betutu, the classic slow-cooked, richly spiced chicken. When the alcohol gets a bit much, I resort to a jamu herbal drink of ginger and lemongrass, sweetened with coconut sugar.
The beach club becomes my hangout. I have ricotta hot cakes for breakfast. On hot afternoons, I plunge into the blue-chequered swimming pool, then dream away my stresses on a daybed. In the evening the insects and music hum, the coconut palms sway, and the ocean sighs on the beach. My fingertips are cold against a cold cocktail of gin and guava juice, and another mellow party unfolds.
Virgin Australia flies to Bali from every major Australian city. Phone 13 67 89, see virginaustralia.com
Sofitel Bali Nusa Dua Beach Resort has a kids' club, full-service spa, health clinic, multiple restaurants and glorious glass wedding chapel. Rooms from $315 a night. Phone 1300 884 400, see sofitel.com
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Sofitel Bali Nusa Dua Beach Resort.