I’m not into resorts Period.
If I’m in a foreign country I’d rather pal around with stray dogs than cabana boys, eat the local scram over EuroCali cuisine, hike overland than work on my tan, pool-side.
Now imagine you are in beautiful Bali, Indonesia. Daily life is driven by a form of Hinduism in which Balinese are constantly preparing for festivals and putting out offerings for seemingly insatiable deities. Furthermore you find accommodations for as little as 2,000 yen per night, food and drink for less than it costs to flush the toilet in Tokyo. You’re ready to enjoy paradise.
Soon, though, you realize you can’t. Every conversation is the prelude to a shrewd and tenacious sales pitch. Your gregarious hosts and their relatives are constantly offering massages, crafts, river rafting, trips around the island, postcards and sarongs. You are shadowed by street hawkers.
The last straw is an artist who entrenches himself beside your breakfast table: “I know you like my paintings,” he says angrily. “Just looking, right? No looking. I know you have money. Let’s do business!”
At dinner time, he’s still waiting for you.
At this point you’re willing to try anything. Even a resort.
My wife and I fled to the Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran Bay to get away from it all. A gigantic property nearly hidden by the lush gardens along the coast, the resort’s grounds have been somewhat cynically described by the Lonely Planet travel guide as “Balinese tract housing.” Admittedly, the resort is rather sprawling, but dotted with Hindu shrines and stone sculptures of Shiva’s elephant-headed son Ganesh, the estate possesses a centuries-old feel that successfully tones down the standard resort pomp.
I had somehow expected to find that the Balinese facade was just a cover for rooms that would have better suited an upscale Holiday Inn. Instead, our villa was suitably rustic, and designed for amphibious pleasures. The thatched-roof sleeping pavilion housed an oversized soaking tub built for two. Showers could be taken in the garden. Surrounded by a private yard, the villa featured a private 12-sq.-meter plunge pool and sun deck, open-air living/dining room with a view of Jimbaran Bay, where the local fleet works and anchors. Had the sightseeing been any less tempting, we would have never left our digs.
We experienced the highlight of our Jimbaran Bay stay on the second day there — a spa treatment called the Lular Jimbaran. According to spa director Belinda Sheperd, the Lular is a Javanese beauty ritual that in traditional culture “whitens and cleanses” women for marriage. At the Four Seasons spa, men are also eligible for purification.
We were escorted to a spa suite that featured double massage beds and a duo of Balinese massage therapists. The naturally lit room had all the right touches. While the two of us were getting kneaded with an herbal coconut oil blended with oils of basil, vetiver and patchouli, our eyes were fixed on a well-placed ceramic bowl with a floating geranium. The rhythm of the massage, together with the aromatic delights, created a trancelike effect.
But that was the predictable part. Included in the Lular, explains the brochure, is an “exfoliation with granular turmeric, sandalwood, sweet woods, rice powder, ginger root and spices.” Even to a spa amateur, this would seem pretty straightforward. But what Sheperd describes as a “Javanese polish” and “yogurt splash” might need further explanation.
Basically, your spa professional takes a shower with you.
The truth is that in the Four Seasons spa you can be as modest as you wanna be. Sheperd’s guide on “how to spa” even suggests that guests wear bathing suit bottoms during their treatments. According to Sheperd, the recommendations are “mostly for the comfort of the guests,” adding that “Balinese are probably more comfortable with nudity than most Westerners.”
I’m sure she was right, because after my masseur asked me to step into the garden to take an outdoor shower, he didn’t hesitate in making sure that every part of me was thoroughly doused with exfoliant and yogurt.
I did wonder for a moment why the masseur was standing next to me as I splashed in the garden (sans bathing suit bottoms). Was he waiting for his turn? Maybe he wanted to talk, I concluded. Beyond being patient, he indulged my nervous inquisitiveness about everything from his family life to his knowledge of foreign languages, only occasionally calling out directions. “More wet,” he kept saying. “Get more wet.”
I did as he said, wondering if shower consultation was part of the service. He held his tongue as I unwittingly washed my hair with what was probably the exfoliant. It was only when I reached for the yogurt that he corrected me — “Wait!” — and stepped in to do the honors.
“You don’t really have to do that,” I said, but of course he started scrubbing anyway. The yogurt, as it turns out, is used to wash away the yellowish stain left by the turmeric.
After being separated briefly for our scrubbing sessions, my wife and I soaked together in an oversized bath infused with plants and flowers from the spa garden, and were served jamu, an herbal beverage consisting of fruit juices, turmeric, ginger and lime. Talk about couple-friendly.
Finally we were back on the massage table for a floral body lotion, then reclined in a sitting area with more natural drinks as a final cooling-off period. Needless to say, we left the spa center thoroughly relaxed.
Since I had finally overcome resort-phobia, I was understandably reluctant when my wife suggested we head to the Four Season’s other Bali location, Sayan.
Even the staunchest resort curmudgeons would marvel at the architectural achievement at the Four Season’s Sayan location. It is built on 7 hectares of terraced rice slopes in Bali’s central highlands. A 55-meter teak bridge leads to a large elliptical lotus pond that rests atop the roof of the resort’s central building. The design is so brilliantly deceiving that had it not been for a stairwell descending into the three-level structure, it would have been nearly impossible to determine what we were standing on. The entire complex seems to disappear into the landscape. Paddy fields and gardens dominate, as does the Ayung River. Villas are discretely sunken into the ground, camouflaged by lily ponds on their roofs. I was sold.
If the spa was the highlight of our Jimbaran Bay stint, the private Balinese cooking class was definitely the best of our Sayan adventure.
At 8 a.m. one of the resort chefs drove my wife and me to the local market in Gianyar, a convergence of vendors peddling everything from livestock and spices to political T-shirts. He pointed out all the Balinese spices and other things, including live chickens we would use in our cooking class.
Later we headed back to the resort, where in the main kitchen we were led through hands-on preparation of beef satay, tum ayam (steamed chicken parcels), serombotan (Klungkung-style mixed vegetables), pepes ikan (char-grilled butterfish wrapped in turmeric leaf) and nasi gurih (coconut pandan rice). Come to think of it, many of the ingredients were the same ones we’d been scrubbed down with in Jimbaran Bay. It was all I could do to keep from exfoliating.
We ate the spoils of our labor in the oval-shaped Ayung Terrace dining room, overlooking a fantastic vista of the rice fields and the river’s edge, remarking on how we had never seen such a perfect marriage of dramatic architecture and exotic surroundings.
“Are you ready to leave?” my wife asked, knowing what my answer would be. I’d never been so glad to have been wrong.