Bali has long been a destination for dreamers, one of those places where the mere mention of its name conjures up heady images of sweeping silver beaches, black cone volcanoes, glossy green rice fields. A place where tropical birds dance through banyan trees while you rock in a hammock hypnotised by the song of the gamelan, where surfers twirl along empty shorelines, and spiritual enlightenment is just a chant away — the cynics will tell you this version of Bali is a thing of the past.
They have a point: chunks of this paradise island have indeed been paved over. Along the popular south coast, buildings, hotels, shops and restaurants appear to have been assembled with the care of a toddler emptying their toy box, squeezing A-roads down to pipe cleaners and causing 10-mile journeys from airport to hotel to extend to more than an hour — bad enough for tourists but excruciating for locals who have to deal with it daily. Bali is fragile and the relentless pace of development needs to be addressed sooner rather than later, but rest assured, the Island of the Gods still captivates, still weaves its spell — you just have to look a little bit more carefully to experience it.
A 30-minute drive north of Ubud, in the Keliki Valley, I find myself lounging on a teak deck stilted between frangipani trees and bamboo groves. The full panoply of nature surrounds me — sunbeams shoot through cascades of leaves, neon-blue butterflies prance by in trains of four or five, frogs ribbit, cicadas chirp, birds warble and trill. I can hear deep murmuring chants echoing across the valley from a nearby temple where villagers are calling out their daily prayers. The moment feels nothing short of magical. Bill Bensley, architect and designer of newly opened Capella Ubud, has taken enormous care to protect this idyllic environment as much as possible. Not a single tree was felled in the making of this tongue-in-cheek tented camp, 60 per cent of the always-smiling staff come from the local area, and the seductive interiors — intricate wood carvings, hand-painted fabrics, copper bathtubs — have all been sustainably sourced from across Indonesia. I immerse myself here for four nights, practising yoga, walking in nature and philosophising with Bodhi, the doe-eyed in-house healer, while dining on a delicious fusion of Indonesian and international cuisine — roasted cauliflower with yuzu and lime leaf, seared scallops with sweetcorn veloute. Since I visited, Capella Ubud has gone on to win the Best New Luxury Hotel award at Ultratravel’s ULTRAs, held in Dubai.
I’m fairly sure I could stay here forever, but another way to ease Bali’s tourism burden is to leave it altogether. Positioned between a dozen other equally spectacular Indonesian islands, including Sumba, Sumbawa and Flores (although there are more than 17,000 to choose from), Bali is the perfect jumping-off point to explore some of this region’s more adventurous corners. And so, with some reluctance, I hop on a one-hour flight to Flores for a cruise around the edge-of-the-world isles that make up Komodo National Park.
At pint-size port Labuan Bajo, the gorgeous 100ft teak and ivory-white Rascal awaits. The floating love child of three fun-loving British entrepreneurs, and the hippest phinisi yacht to grace these waters, it has the amenities and aesthetic of a boutique hotel — five spacious cabins (unusually, all above deck), with warm wooden floors, tropical-print fabrics, vintage renderings of Indonesian flora and huge windows from which you can watch the sunrise in bed. Single-use plastic is out; glass bottles and beach clean-ups are in. Rascal has its own brand of craft rum (every member of the crew seems capable of mixing a mean punch) and a partnership with Conservation International, which works with governments and local communities to protect vulnerable environments around the planet.
Komodo, sitting south of the Wallace Line that separates Asia from Australasia, turns out to be a fantasy of its own. As we sail from Labuan Bajo to Rinca Island I stare out at a thousand leagues of blue, striped with golden swells of land rippling with long grass; the land is drier, dustier, scrubbier here, more Outback than sultry tropics. Green turtles rise and dip in the waves alongside Rascal’s curvaceous hull and I’m sure if I squint a bit I’ll be able to see the Pequod chasing Moby Dick along the horizon.
A great white leviathan doesn’t surface, but the next morning I do come face to face with a monster of a different kind, one that has roamed the earth for some 40 million years — the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard. Apex predators with jaws of steel, highly venomous bites and the speed of Usain Bolt have ensured their place as these lands’ undisputed rulers. Very few Indonesians live here and those that do are secured on killer-free corners. Tourists visit by the handful rather than bucketload, and Rascal’s relaxed itinerary means we can stride up and down the island’s exuberant interior without seeing another soul and get close enough to note the ravenous glint in the lizards’ eyes.
The following days ebb and flow as easily as the tide; breakfasts of pink and orange tropical fruit and zingy nasi goreng, tuna salad lunches, and pumpkin soup and lamb chop dinners. There’s a hike to the summit of Giliwadarat, a coil of land bound between the Pacific and Indian oceans; stand-up paddleboarding; kayaking, and sun-worshipping on snowflake-white Bidadari beach. There’s time to read a whole book and to search for manta rays on Makassar Reef, where more than 1,000 species of coral cluster to create an underwater cabaret show of purple ostrich feathers and bright green pom-poms, confetti bursts of reef fish and blacktip sharks sashaying along the seabed. On my final evening at sea, the cherry red sun dips, bathing the sky in peach melba light. A strange stillness settles on the water as I sit cross-legged on the top deck watching the volcanic twin peaks of Pulau Sangeang puff messages to the gods. I feel suspended in time and, once again, am loath to leave.
But Bali’s siren call leads me to just-opened Six Senses Uluwatu, on a peachy spot atop 100ft cliffs on the island’s southernmost and still secret-feeling coast. “Carry on south and the next point you’ll hit is Perth,” I’m told at check-in.
This is Bali’s only hotel to have achieved Greenship accreditation from the Green Building Council Indonesia, which means rain is harvested and recycled, lighting and air-conditioning are solar-powered, drinking water purified, mineralised and bottled on site. About 90 per cent of the timber and nearly all of the furniture has been made locally — but you’d never know any of this if I hadn’t told you, so beautifully is all the eco-goodness woven into the design.
Mimicking the aesthetic of nearby 1,000-year-old Uluwatu Temple, the resort funnels down the hillside towards dramatic white bluffs and the Indian Ocean. The 103 suites and villas are bordered by tropical gardens and built around three large pools. Alluring interiors have carved wooden sliding doors, gorgeous Indonesian fabrics in teal and navy blue, yoga mats in the dressing rooms and sun terraces where I vinyasa under a shower of frangipani petals. There are no bad views.
The soul-soothing location combined with Six Senses’ wellness prowess means it doesn’t take long for me to slip back into that seductive Bali state of mind. I have zero inclination to check my emails or Twitter. Instead, I tune into the sound of the sea, the tring-tring of birdsong and the HD colours. I have daily massages, organic feeds and sound sleeps. I’m so content I almost forget why I’m here — to discover if Bali has been broken by tourism.
Well, has it? No — not yet. Parts of it may be creaking under the strain, but this teardrop of terra firma remains a place imbued with a magical atmosphere quite unlike anywhere else in the region. To ensure it keeps mesmerising generations to come, look beyond the brash resort towns and hotels that give little to nothing back to the community. Seek out those special little corners, those forward-thinking and philanthropic enterprises and exciting neighbouring islands. Think of it as working on your travel karma — the rewards are yours for the taking.