You can't help some stick insects. I'm floating in the villa swimming pool with a river and a jungle as its backdrop, as a pair of kingfishers, bluer than even a prime ministerial silk tie, swoop from one bank to another. It's about then that I spot a pea-green praying mantis, its multiple legs flaying like a mini chorus line in the tepid chlorinated waters and seemingly in distress.
I swim across to it, grabbing a fallen palm leaf on the surface of the pool which I use to gently scoop it up, placing it on the pebbled edge of the pool. I watch as it stands there for a while on its impossibly thin legs before it starts to quiver, eventually toppling back in the water.
I repeat the palm-leaf scooping exercise only to watch the praying mantis again fall into the pool. This time I allow it to paddle away to the other end of the pool. If this contrary insect can't bear to get out of the water, warmed delectably by the noon tropical Balinese sun, you can't really blame it. I can't seem to extract myself either.
This, after all, is the sort of blissful natural setting, combined with the luxuries and comforts first-world travellers have come to expect, for which Bali has become renowned. Across from the villa's exquisite man-made, and meticulously-maintained gardens, on the other side of the jungle are rice terraces, which we can just make out through the vegetation.
We're staying at Villa Mawar, located on the edge of the Penet River in the quiet village of Cepaka, part of the coastal village of Canguu in the south of Bali, its winding main street dotted with other luxury private villas which have provided the local community with quite the lucrative cottage industry, as it were. It's all wonderfully removed from the raucousness of much of the rest of an increasingly over-developed island.
In fact, the only noise that intrudes on us during our stay occurs when we arrive. It's the sound emitting from the fast-flowing, churned-up Penet as the result of heavy downpour. It's quite the spectacle but over the course of our four-night stay the river calms down into its more natural gentle flow. And it doesn't take long to realise that the villa's motto – "tropical calm and natural elegance" – is no hollow marketing pitch.
The love affair with Bali may have been tested following recent tragic events beyond the control of the Balinese themselves, with visitor numbers having fallen in recent times. But for most of us it's a relationship that's hard to shake, and one we keep deepening. The 10-year-old Villa Mawar is Australian-owned (as of last year) and as it eventuates, originally Australian-designed. Its architect was Martin Grounds of the Perth-based Grounds-Kent Architects, contemporaries of another leading Western Australian hotel and resort architect, Kerry Hill. Grounds really couldn't have accepted a more stunning yet challenging site to design a slice of Balinese heaven.
To reach the villa itself, it's necessary to walk down steep steps from the roadside entrance to the amphitheatre-like site perched above the river, passing through a framed traditional entrance or doorway to the compound proper, then stepping above a water-lily and fish-filled pond. Volcanic Balinese stone, a common and distinctive building material on this mountainous island, was used in the construction of the site with the villa buildings designed on the same principle as traditional Bali house compounds.
Each of the pavilions has its own function such as dining, bathing and sleeping though in a luxurious villa, designed for foreigners, that can also include a spa and a gym, as is the case here at Villa Mawar. In fact, Grounds was recently commendably invited back by its current owner to design a new and sympathetic addition to the original design of the villa complex. The owners agreed for the gym to be designed in the style of a traditional Javanese Joglo house.
It features a central high pyramid roof containing an elaborately carved, more than 100 years old ceiling, allowing guests performing yoga moves to admire the artistry above them. Perhaps one of the most unusual considerations in the design of Villa Mawar was the necessity to create a separate pathway for local villagers so they could continue to practice twice-year religious ceremonies on the banks of the river, the most formal aspects of which are conducted on the opposite shoreline where a small temple is located in the jungle.
Back in the pool, it's become a case of contemplating what not to do next. So seductive can a stay be at one of these villas that I know of someone who only left her accommodation just down the road only once during a four-day stay. As much as we've been seduced by our villa, and the concept of a kind of voluntary house-arrest, it's impossible to resist the offer of a stroll around the village with Wayan, our driver and fixer, invariably dressed in signature Harley Davidson shirts.
We stroll down the road late one afternoon, the shade afforded by trees offering only partial relief from the clinging tropical heat. On one side houses are interrupted by rice paddies that serve as a buffer to the more boisterous Bali beyond Cepaka; on the other are luxury villas entrances and walls interspersed with the occasional traditional, compound-style residence of locals, where generations of family members still live together communally.
The further we walk, the more we notice that Wayan is quite a popular and important figure in this community with fellow villagers pausing for a quick chat or a salutation. Further on, he introduces us to a local man who has done well enough from tourism that he's been able to invest in a modest restaurant. When we arrive for an introduction, the restaurant is closed with Wayan guiding us around to a smoky backroom where we meet the owner, twirling a huge slaughtered pig on a spit, slowly cooking over a period of hours above red-hot coals.
In this climate it's hotter work than it even might be elsewhere, and I'm sure that the owner, a little on the porcine side himself, won't mind the observation that he's understandably sweating like a pig, not that he looks anything but completely content in his work. We head back up the hill to the sanctuary of the villa where dinner is being prepared for us. The food here, overseen by a gentle local woman, Oshin, is simple, and simply delicious, wholesome Balinese fare and we've been enjoying sampling a cuisine that despite Bali's popularity a destination is not one we experience at home.
Although the villa can accommodate eight people, it's just the two of us (sorry to have to tell you) here for four languid days though the last guests, we can see from the visitors' book, were a group of young Australian women who took over the whole place, splitting the costs between them and making it a comparatively affordable stay.
As a result of being the only occupants for four days we've scored one of the best rooms with a generous-sized verandah with views of the river. Even in our room we are forever close to nature. One day, during ablutions in the bathroom, the back end of which is open to nature, a rather large lizard slips across the top of an adjacent stone wall, just a metre or so from the shower, disappearing into the vegetation. But by this stage we are by now so seduced and at one with the natural setting, free-styling praying mantis and all, that we remain completely unperturbed.
Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Garuda all operate regular daily services from Sydney and Melbourne to Bali's recently upgraded Ngurah Rai International Airport. Australians are required to pay $US35 for a visa on arrival. It's advisable to have the correct money with you as the visa fee collectors do not provide change. See virginaustralia.com; jetstar.com.au and garuda-indonesia.com
Rates start from $US1,150 per night plus taxes and service charge, with exclusive use of the villa which can accommodate up to eight people. The nightly tariff include private airport transfers, daily continental breakfast (cooked breakfasts incur an additional charge) and a car with driver for eight hours a day excluding fuel with extra hours able to be negotiated with the driver. Villa Mawar is about 45 minutes from Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport and about 20 minutes from Seminyak.
SEE + DO
If you must leave the villa there's certainly no shortage of activities in the outside world. Seminyak, with its lively array of swish restaurants, bars and shops is nearby with the well-known Echo Beach just down the road. Activities such as golf, white-water rafting, horse-riding, bicycle and sightseeing able to be arranged with the villa manager.
The writer stayed as a guest of Villa Mawar.