WHAT’S THE SCORE?
Five years ago, in 2018, my wife and I married in her native country of Indonesia. I spent the week beforehand catching up with family in Ubud, Bali. The superabundance of nature and the way it harmonised with Balinese culture instilled a desire, flirting with necessity, to return to the jungle town. We had planned to spend three months in Indonesia with our newborn daughter as lockdowns eased, to introduce her to the land that shaped her mother’s childhood. Thwarted by pandemic tourism measures, we put it off until it was safer – and legal – to do so. We made do with three weeks last year instead, which gave us ample time to get a feel for Ubud. What we found is a village that is evolving as much as it’s thriving.
Ubud has long been considered the cultural capital of Bali. As the only island in the Indonesian archipelago where the dominant religion is Hinduism, folklore and art has flourished in tandem. Its streets are often clogged and cacophonous, with hundreds of festivals taking place every year. Ubud is home to the Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets, the Agung Rai Museum of Art, and the Ramayana Ballet, which kicks off nightly on Ubud’s palace grounds. And let’s not forget the Sacred Monkey Forest of Padangtegal, a tourism draw for decades. However, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a vibrant network of communities that welcome as much as they synergise
WHERE TO STAY
FOUR SEASONS RESORT AT BALI SAYAN
While having dinner with my mother and sister at a restaurant named Sayan House in 2018, I witnessed something spectacular emerging from the western slopes of the Ayung River Valley. An enormous wooden suspension bridge extended into space, surfing a canopy of banyan, tamarind and palm trees, before terminating in a perfectly circular man-made lotus pond that reflected the evening sky. Impressed, I promised myself that I’d come back for a closer look. Five years later, I’m strolling across that same bridge, attempting to keep my two-year-old from toppling into the infinity pond while reaching for the tantalising, gem-like pedals of a lotus flower.
There’s a chance you’ll have come across the Four Seasons Resort at Bali Sayan before. The curvilinear architecture, designed by John Heah a quarter century ago and modelled after a rice bowl, has been photographed extensively, featured in countless ‘best of’ listicles, and celebrated with awards, accolades and write-ups. Like all good design, it is evergreen and still chimes with contemporary aesthetics.
The main building on which the lotus pool sits atop offers 18 suites and our room is one of 39 standalone villas. Being on the banks of the Ayung River, the rushing waters have a hypnagogic effect as we drift off to sleep. In the morning, the sun glints off a large deck and infinity pool overlooking the river, and immense coconut palms and waringin trees soar hundreds of feet into the air – or about eye level with where breakfast is served, in the Ayung Terrace, a masterpiece of open-plan dining rendered in teak. However, it’s arguably not the best setting in which we eat at the Four Seasons. Loading our daughter into a backpack carrier, we stroll through the Sayan Valley and make offerings at a temple before reclining on a platform to enjoy a picnic, the staff setting up a camp-style kitchen and cooking over a traditional coconut-husk barbecue. Similarly, we enjoy a chef’s-table experience at Sokasi, led by chef Wayan Sutariawan, in an outdoor bale where we embark upon a comprehensive seven-course journey through the island’s most iconic dishes, given a fine-dining finish with the occasional addition of blowtorch or liquid nitrogen.
The Balinese have been perfecting the arts of massage and wellness for thousands of years and there’s no better for it than the Sacred River Spa. However, the custom-built yoga bale gives it a run for its money with its antigravity ceremony, in which one is ensconced in a womblike hammock, gently revolved and led through a guided meditation. Our therapist billed it as the best nap you’ll ever have. She wasn’t far off the mark. 25 years on and the Four Seasons Sayan still remains one of the best hotels in Indonesia, and a perfect distillation of jungle luxury.
Rooms from £1,011 per night; fourseasons.com/sayan
WHAT TO DO
The Four Seasons Sayan is one of the few properties on the planet that runs a check-in arrival service via whitewater raft, where guests don a helmet and life preserver, grab a paddle and drive north through paddy fields to the portage entry. The Ayung River is the longest on the island of Bali, filtering down from the northern mountain ranges through the island’s heartlands before exiting into the Badung Strait in Sanur. It’s also, along with the subak irrigation network, a Unesco World Heritage Site. And it just so happens that it passes right next to our villa at Four Seasons Ubud Sayan.
While the thought of braving Class II and III rapids might seem daunting, in actuality it’s family-friendly and a lot of fun. Aside from choppy water, we encounter enormous waterfalls spewing from hundreds of feet, vendors setting up shop on riverbanks, monitor lizards sunning themselves on the volcanic sands of leeside inlets, and plenty of perfect jumping rocks to take a plunge. Arriving back at the resort, greeted with chilled towels, makes the experience all the more memorable.
TRAIL RUNNING OR HIKING
Ubud is an incredible place to explore. Those who veer from the main drag and risk getting a little lost wandering the valleys and rice paddies will be duly rewarded. Unless you’re a masochist, the best time to get out there is in the early morning or evening, when the temperatures are a bit cooler, and you can soak in the stillness of Balinese dawn and dusk. The Campuhan Ridge Walk is the most famous in Ubud, and its serpentine meandering from the Pura Gunung Lebah temple complex up into green meadows will satisfy those in search of a 360-degree view. However, go off the beaten path and you’ll have a more unvarnished (and ultimately more satisfying) experience. Running the narrow strips of elevated concrete poured through broad and brilliantly green rice paddies, vying for space with scooters and monitor lizards, enables one to experience the landscape with a keener appreciation.
Bali, with its millennia-old relationship with Hinduism, is one of the world’s capitals of yoga, and Ubud that of Bali. For anyone who wants to hone their practice, the best teachers from around the planet flock to the bales of inland Bali to instruct. I find myself increasingly obsessed with the classes in Indonesia, which stand head and shoulders above what I was accustomed to in London (after discussing yoga a little too often, I’m accused of being a “walking cliche” by my sister-in-law, who draws not-so-flattering comparisons to Eat, Pray, Love).
Of everywhere I visit, I’m most drawn to the Alchemy Yoga Centre, which was opened by Ashton Szabo in partnership with the Alchemy restaurant and academy, a centre for raw vegan food. Yes, so far, so Julia Roberts. However, I’m struck by the way that all different backgrounds and creeds mix on their respective mats, with excellent classes from local instructors such as Id Yani complementing that of international yoga veterans like Ashton. The bale itself is a sight to behold, a bamboo edifice rising like an enormous armadillo from organic gardens that supply the vegan café nearby. Alongside half a dozen classes each day, Alchemy also offers a $200 yoga teacher training. I’m loath to leave, and perform advanced calculus in my mind to determine whether there’s a way to fit that training into my life schedule.
WHAT TO EAT
Babi guling is the most popular delicacy in Bali by a country mile amongst the locals, and Anthony Bourdain helped put it on the map for roving eaters when he made it a matter of fact that “no questions about it, this is the best pig I’ve ever had.” The babi (pig) is customarily slaughtered next to the guling (spit) so it’s of the most immaculate freshness, then stuffed with salam herbs, ginger, chilli and oil before being turned over open flame for hours and sometimes days while being basted with sugary coconut water, enabling it to caramelise to porcine perfection that shatters under tooth like glass candy.
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On earlier trips I sheepishly followed Bourdain’s lead and ate at Ibu Oka, which is indeed delicious, but I was interested to chat with the people I’d met in hospitality, particularly the local Balinese, about the babi guling stand that they rated highest. The most resounding answer was Panda Egi. It requires a bit of a schlep, being a 20-minute drive east to the neighbouring conurbation of Gianyar, but those that make the effort will earn themselves a mind-bending flavour experience.
After an incredible breakfast sandwich made with bacon and brightly-yolked eggs from local pigs and chickens, I drive with Locavore restaurant manager Riyan Mudadalam northwards out of Ubud, past the famous steps of Tegallalang rice terraces, ascending into the mountains. Pulling off into an unpaved, overgrown driveway, we arrive at one of Locavore’s choice farms in the municipality of Buahan Kaja for a morning of foraging. There are no imported ingredients at Locavore, and most of them come from smallholdings like this.
Locavore’s man-on-the-ground and fixer, Boss, introduces me to the farmer, Agung, who walks us through a brisk tour of the fields. In ten yards we encounter ten different types of herbs and vegetables, including chum chum leaf, wild mushroom, Dayak shallot and electric daisy, which is a bit like numbing sichuan pepper on steroids. Boss points out sparrows that tend to pester the farmers by eating their rice. Agung harvests palm sap from a rickety ladder nailed to the tree in the shadow of Mount Agung, the tallest mountain on Bali. Riyan lays out snacks of fermented sticky rice and cassava with palm sugar atop banana leaves, then muddles up a sambal of lime, chilli, galangal and fermented shrimp paste in a pestle and mortar. Writhing white grubs and enormous crickets are shown to us before being impaled on sharp sticks and roasted guling-style over an open flame. We dip them in the sambal and chew tentatively. The portly grubs taste a bit like bacon fat.
Later that afternoon, back at the restaurant in Ubud, we eat from the Artefacts tasting menu, a greatest-hits playlist run for six months ahead of the restaurant’s relocation to a larger, more comprehensive site for Locavore Next. Memories of earlier flit back as we eat gracile – fried sparrows on sticks with long pepper leaf, a refined interpretation of Balinese bebek goreng (crispy duck). I feel I’m doing Agung a favour by taking down a few rice-botherers. Other highlights include tempura of local spinach leaves from the farm; tomato sorbet with warm tomato broth and celery salt; and 12-hour cooked squid with daikon, edamame, pea shoots, cold-pressed peanut oil and kemangi. For an odyssey in taste and texture revelatory of Bali’s terroir, you can’t go wrong.