Happily Lost in Paradise: Getting Swept Away by the Mysticism of Bali
Track along the beach at Four Seasons Bali by chien_chia on Flickr.com
Ubud rice paddy fiels by pesik on Flickr.com
Learn to surf in Kuta by eguidetravel on Flickr.com
surfboards in Kuta by eguidetravel on Flickr.com
Four Seasons Bali by mark_lehmkuhler on Flickr.com
Four Seasons Bali by joewen1980 on Flickr.com
I’m not accustomed to sobbing at spas, but in Bali, I did just that. I had been scrubbed with papaya and hibiscus sugar and rubbed with deliciously scented lotions and oils, while lying on a massage bed draped in silky batik fabric. Part of the island fruit ritual at the Four Seasons Bali at Jimbaran Bay also included a soak in a deep tub outdoors.
Wrapped in a fluffy towel, I walked out in my own private courtyard, surrounded by stonewalls and oversized potted plants, and slipped into the warm water. The courtyard was bathed in golden light. The sun was about to set. Birds chirped from the treetops. In the distance, I could hear quiet chanting. I assumed that the esthetician had put on a CD, but she hadn’t. Then I remembered I had seen a Hindu temple next door to at the resort. The chanting became increasing louder, mournful, yet sweet like a lullaby. Enveloped in such beauty, tears welled up in my eyes and trickled down my cheeks. This was one of those rare, soul-stirring moments that can happen when you travel, if you’re lucky.
In Bali, these moments aren’t as rare as they might be elsewhere. There’s something about this Indonesian island that gets under your skin – in a good way.
Maybe it was the people. They go to great lengths to please visitors. Some examples… My room’s air-conditioning problem at one resort was fixed within an hour. The next day, a tray of chocolate dipped strawberries and truffles were delivered with a handwritten note from the general manager apologizing for any inconvenience. A cab driver got out of his car to stop traffic on a busy street so that I could get across. A hotel employee shooed a very large frog off the steps leading to my room after he saw me stop dead in my tracks, sensing my irrational fear of amphibians.
Unfortunately, because of all of this, Bali has ruined me for good. The calibre of care and attention to detail I experienced is now my gold standard. At the Four Seasons (where Christine Aguilera honeymooned) , there’s even a staff person whose job it is to gather up the frangipani blossoms that have fallen from the trees, then to select the most perfect to decorate guest rooms. And they say Virgos are nitpicky.
In this environment, kicking back and making the world go away is easy. After all, Bali is famous for its resorts and beaches. Go ahead, plant your tush in a lounge chair and watch bronzed surfer boys navigate the waves. Do little, do nothing, or do it all – Bali is a buffet of choices. At the funky Contiki Resort, the 18-to-35 set launch into action around the clock. On property, you can splash and sip at the swim-up-bar while DJs spin tunes from morning to night, play volleyball, or watch free movies in its own theatre. Its boutique-hotel feel attracts a diverse clientele, from Japanese college students on an extended getaway to sun-starved Brits. The all-inclusive resort is plunked in the middle of the newest, and most happening, area of Bali – Semanyak. It is teeming with restaurants, nightclubs and shops selling everything from Balinese armoires to bootleg DVDs.
Its central location and its freebies, like dining that includes Balinese music and dance performances and a shuttle to the bustling shopping town of Kuta make Contiki a logical choice of accommodation. Planning your day is simple, just ask one of the CAPs (a.k.a. Contiki Action Planners) to suggest and book activities. The must-try ones include: elephant safari rides, surfing lessons from Rip Curl, white water rafting through pristine tropical forests, Indonesian cooking lessons at Casa Luna (where you’ll learn to make the best chicken satay on the planet), and visits to Ubud.
Ubud, surrounded by tiered green rice paddies and fields of lemongrass, is the heart for arts and culture in Bali and. While it’s not on the beach, a visit here reveals Bali’s deeply spiritual nature. Step carefully as you explore the markets and galleries there. The sidewalks are dotted with miniature offerings to the Hindu deities, small baskets with tropical flowers, fruit and incense. Stunning temples chiseled out of limestone and covered with centuries worth of moss give the community its religious pulse. You’re welcome to visit but custom dictates covering up your legs and shoulders with a wrap before you go in. Anyone, however, can visit the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, but come bearing gifts. The grey long-tailed macaques are most devilish than sacred. They’ll chase you until you surrender a banana or some other treat. I found out the hard way that they also find water bottles enticing. I screamed my way all the way to the exit as I fled a thirsty mom and her cling-on baby. Still, it’s an amusing experience, at least for the resident monkey minders who giggle as tourists like me fend off these primate surges.
Away from any wildlife encounters, the Four Seasons Bali at Sayan is spectacular. It is included in the book, 1000 Places to See Before You Die for good reason. Its rooms are the epitome of Balinese chic, especially those in the villas, with their four-poster beds, private plunge pools, outdoor and indoors showers and open-air living rooms. Its spa is equally stunning and more soul nurturing than a week of Oprah. Have your service in a thatched spa villa, nestled in the midst of lush greenery and ponds dotted with white water lilies. I opted for an Ayurvedic treatment, designed to re-balance my off-kilter jet-lagged body, through massage and slowly trickling oil on your forehead. Typically Balinese spas kickstart your pampering with a washing of the feet ritual. It is done in such a soothing and gentle way that even someone like me, with outrageously ticklish feet, can enjoy it. Just a quick tip about Bali and feet – it’s a big no-no to use them to gesture and point to something. It’s the equivalent of slurping soup, thenwiping your mouth on your hostess’s skirt.
Any pointing should be done with your thumb, important bit to note as you shop. Start your negotiations with a vendor by insulting him immediately is a bad move. The top shops in Bali include: gold and silver jewelry, batik fabric, wood carvings, black pearls, housewares and paintings. Prices in general are good, often less than what you would pay in Canada. My favourite place to pick up inexpensive souvenirs is at the grocery store. Here, I picked up packets of seasoning to make nasi goreng (Indonesian-style fried rice), jars of peanut sauce, coffee, shrimp crackers, green tea and cans of Bintang, the island brewski of choice.
Shopping in the tropical heat can be oh-so draining. Another spa visit may be in order. Treatments at Ayana’s Spa on the Rocks take place in a very private villa that appears to have sprouted out of the rocks at the base of a towering cliff perched on the Indian Ocean. Imagine sitting on a private deck with a icy glass of wild cherry juice with a stalk of fresh lemongrass. In front of you is nothing but ocean, fishing boats in bright Crayola crayon colours bobbing on the water in the distance, green mountains poking through the clouds and the sound of the waves shattering into droplets against the shore. Climbing up the steep stairs back to reality is a chore, but it’s easier, knowing there are cocktails waiting at the resort’s Rock Bar Bali with a DJ booth carved into a cliff-face.
Cap off the day by tapping into the healing powers of the resort’s Aquatonic pool (the world’s largest) where a circuit of individual stations use jets to pommel any last remnants of tension from your body before you end with a leisurely soak at the final, bubbling pool. Watch the sun sink behind the ocean, before you crawl into a bed strewn with red rose petals, located in one of the new luxury cliff-side villas, complete with your own plunge pool and a bathroom that’s big enough alone to be rented out to a New Yorker. Surely, rooms like these exist only in your dreams. Fortunately, they are as real as the magic that thrives on an island called Bali.
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