The scent of jasmine, amber and lotus was heavy in the mid-morning air. I gathered up my sari and knelt in front of the 500-year-old banyan tree before dipping into the icy temple waters. Alongside me was a lady, head bowed with an offering of fresh marigolds, perfectly cut palm leaves and some crumpled rupiah notes. Behind her was a line of some 30 ladies and, beyond that, watching over us, several generations of families, spanning several hundred years, who carried out this same ritual.
This is what makes Bali so special. Spirituality here runs deep, and as a tourist, you too can become part of traditions that stretch back in time. The temple we were visiting was called the Holy Water Temple just outside Ubud. The Four Seasons concierge had warned us that we might get wet, and he wasn’t wrong! Wading waist-deep into cold water may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the kids were thrilled – even a little awestruck. And we all relished the chance to get a feel for an authentic Balinese ceremony and be met with the most beautiful smiles from the loveliest of people.
This year, Bali will welcome some 10-million tourists. You didn’t read that incorrectly. Pick yourself up off the floor – 10 MILLION. That’s the same as the populations of Los Angeles, Cape Town and Madrid combined. Landing at Denpasar after an 18-hour flight from London, its easy to see the impact of mass tourism. Traffic clogs up the roads, and new hotels have sprung up in the middle of paddy fields. However, with a bit of planning, it is still easy to see what it was that enchanted Western artists back in the 1930s.
Bali is an island with multiple personalities. The lush interior boasts volcanoes and mountains, and Ubud is the place for culture and shopping. The beaches in the south offer fantastic surfing and diving. And touristy Kuta has a million reasons why you should avoid it at all costs.
The Four Seasons hotels are perfectly positioned to take advantage of all the island has to offer. We started our stay at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan. Many travellers arriving in Ubud are after their Eat, Pray, Love moment, and it was here that Julia Roberts stayed in the magnificent 1,500 sq m Royal Villa. If your prayers haven’t been answered to quite that extent, there are also 18 suites and 42 private villas for us mere mortals. I first visited this hotel just after it opened some 15 years ago, and it hasn’t aged.
Architecturally, the hotel is an absolute showstopper. The British-based architect John Heah said he wanted to surprise people with his almost 007-esque creation, and it doesn’t disappoint. From the moment you arrive, nothing quite prepares you for the scale of the theatrical experience. It is also perfectly attuned to nature. The rice in the paddy fields has been planted in such a way that it matures at different times, which also keeps the birds, butterflies and dragonflies interested throughout the year, and the noise of the rushing Ayung River is constant.
On this occasion, I was returning with my wife, Sophie, and two rowdy young boys, Sidney, eight, and Kit, seven. Four Seasons Sayan couldn’t have been a better introduction to all the magic that Bali has to offer. Whilst the architectural beauty may have been a little lost on the children, they certainly won’t forget some of the activities the hotel offers. White-water rafting down the simply stunning Ayung was breathtaking and a significant step up from the thrills of the log flume at Legoland! We took an hour-long trip down the river, with Norman, our ever-smiling guide, pointing out flora and fauna along the way, whilst still managing to navigate the white-knuckle parts of the journey to the squealing delight of the boys (well, and me).
Sayan has two great restaurants to choose from. As well as its main restaurant, there is the Riverside Café, with two swimming pools and river-facing sun loungers. Riverside Café is open for lunch and dinner, and offers its guests casual dining in a relaxed atmosphere. There is a kids’ club close by, and across the other side of the resort, overlooking the paddy fields, is a stunning yoga pavilion and spa, where you can harness your inner Om whilst the kids… well… do their thing.
The hotel once again takes its kids’ offering up a whole notch with its paddy field and rice-planting tour. Our guide walked us through the hills beyond the resort, where we met local villagers living in simple but beautiful Balinese farmers’ houses, nestled amongst the lush vegetation of the forests, their lives seemingly unchanged by the modern world beyond.
Trekking back down to the paddy fields, we were given a brief run-through of the intricacies of rice planting by a local farmer. Then each member of the family was given a Balinese straw hat and hoe before wading in, knee-deep, to the cloggy warm mud of the terrace plantations. There we learnt to prepare the mud and gently line up the young plants in neat rows. Once the mud paddling was over, we were cleaned up and walked through the terraces to an open-air pavilion on the bank of the river for a traditional farmers’ breakfast. This featured several delicious sweet and savoury rice dishes. Learning something of the local culture isn’t a bad way to spend a morning.
From the Sayan, Ubud itself is only 10 minutes away by taxi, and is a magical place. It’s often described as Bali’s cultural heart and it is here where you will find art, crafts, textiles, dance and drama. It is also home to the Monkey Forest, where wild monkeys will steal your camera, handbag, sandwiches or toupee. Like ASBO teens they hang out looking surly and, to complete the look, one even had a cigarette butt in its mouth.
Spiritually cleansed, we left the calm and serenity of the green interior and headed south to Jimbaran Bay for the second week of our trip. The Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay is situated on the southern tip of the island, just 20 minutes from the capital, Denpasar. The resort has 35 acres of tropical gardens wrapped around 147 thatched-roof villas nestling into the hill above Jimbaran Bay. There are extensive bougainvillea-strewn walkways and stone-walled courtyards – the resort even has its own temple with breathtaking views of the coast.
The resort’s private beach, Coconut Grove, offers a long stretch of white sand and a well-equipped water sports area, reserved exclusively for Jimbaran Bay guests. They offer fantastic surf lessons for beginners.
The hotel is perfectly positioned to take advantage of my favourite part of the island, the Bukit Peninsula. Surfer dudes will enjoy the breaks at Uluwatu and Padang Padang. Bali, in general, is less about the beaches themselves than the water. Pemuteran on the north coast and Amed on the east coast offer outstanding diving and snorkeling, and don’t miss the remains of the USS Liberty in Tulamben near Amed, one of very few substantial wrecks to lie in relatively shallow and calm waters close to shore. Just ask the Four Seasons concierge, who will happily arrange your diving.
Adjoining Coconut Grove beach is Sundara, an ‘all-day destination’ named after the Sanskrit word for ‘beautiful’. It has the Sundara Bar, the open-air Sundara Patio and day beds for lounging by the 55-metre infinity pool. Conveniently, the clever people at Four Seasons Jimbaran have thought to put its very well-equipped Kids’ Club right by the beach and adjoining Sundara. So, if the children slip off for entertainment there, you are still within an easy stroll of them. The Sundara restaurant can offer you a bite to eat from your daybed, or in the modern Australian restaurant – the food is sublime and everywhere is child-friendly. Very friendly.
The rainy season peaks between December and February, bringing high humidity and grey days: weather is at its best between April and August, although traffic is particularly bad over the August peak season. Don’t let the long flight put you off. Once you get there, Bali really does have everything you could want for a family holiday. And if you’re thinking of going next year, we might see you there – we have already booked to go again!
Rates at Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan start from £306 per night for a One-Bedroom Duplex Suite, and Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay start from £440 per night for a One-Bedroom Garden Villa. fourseasons.com/bali