I’m lazing on a bamboo bed, sipping a lychee martini and absorbing the last of the day’s sun. Bali’s vast Ayung Gorge stretches away below me, and I can hear the water trickling over the edge of the Alila’s infinity pool. Then, in my peripheral vision, I notice a hairy, grey figure skulking behind me. He creeps past and is swiftly joined by six others. It’s a large family of monkeys. One promptly appropriates a bottle of Nivea Sun (from his excitable chattering it’s clearly a good steal) and another nonchalantly helps himself to my watermelon chunks. I’m usually protective when it comes to food, but I’m not about to pick a fight with these guys, cuddly as they look. As I settle back into my martini I realise that’s one of the joys of Bali: just when you think it’s becoming a little too Westernised, a little too predictable, you experience an unexpected thrill.
We’d arrived at Alila Ubud in the middle of the previous night. Despite the inky darkness it was obvious we’d reached a rural idyll – our taxi cut its way through terraced rice paddies and, on emerging from the car, we were greeted by the chorus of geckos.
With its fresh white linen, frothy duvet and garland of scarlet roses, our king-size bed was a welcome relief. But first we showered in our outdoor bathroom, using Alila’s organic exfoliating rice soap. As bathing experiences go it’s pretty unique – you shower in the shadow of a banana tree with a heavy bamboo screen protecting your modesty. Glass doors strategically placed beside the bed meant, however, that I could sneak a peek at my newly hitched Mr Smith while he washed (yes, we were on our honeymoon).
The next morning we slid back vast transparent doors at the foot of the bed and absorbed the view across the valley below. On our way to breakfast we passed delicately scented frangipani and huge white orchids, and yellow-bellied lizards scuttled across our path. After refuelling with eggs Benedict (yolks cooked to runny perfection), croissants, freshly squeezed papaya juice and earthy Balinese coffee we took up residence by the sublime pool. It’s said to be one of the top 50 in the world but that surely has to be doing it an injustice. It’s a glorious jade green infinity number raised over the gorge – when you swim towards the drop it’s easy to imagine you’re being pulled magnetically towards the edge of a waterfall. It’s both exhilarating and incredibly peaceful.
That afternoon we took one of the hotel’s three daily shuttles into the small, rural town of Ubud, Bali’s arts and crafts centre. It’s a 15-minute drive but I lost count of the number of motorbikes that zipped past us en route. And I could have sworn that several of the drivers were children. When we later mentioned it to a local taxi driver, he sheepishly confessed that his 10-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son often pinch his bike. ‘It’s OK,’ he assured us, ‘the police don’t come this far out of town.’ Once in Ubud we drifted around the covered market, picking our way through stalls selling hand-painted silk sarongs, jewellery, paintings and dodgy looking phallic bottle openers. I felt somewhat smug when I bartered a woman down from 75,000 Indonesian rupiah to 45,000 for a packet of saffron and vanilla pods, but judging by her chuckle as I left, my negotiation skills weren’t so great. Later, we snacked on chicken satay at a nearby restaurant, while watching green hummingbirds dart around the hibiscus.
On our return to Alila we took the hotel’s bicycles and pedalled through the vivid green paddies dotted with scarecrows. We explored local villages, dodging children, chickens and numerous stray dogs. They’re quick to gobble up the many Hindu offerings that the Balinese leave on the streets, which can include rice, banana and, on a dog’s lucky day, duck. It’s fortuitous the Balinese don’t mind their offerings being eaten; they believe it’s the act of making them and praying over them that’s important, not who – or what – gets its paws on them afterwards.
That night we ate at the Alila’s restaurant, overlooking clusters of floating lanterns twinkling in the pool. We started with vegetable spring rolls with chilli sauce, followed by a Balinese coconut curry with tofu and quail’s egg, then banana fritters and creamy vanilla ice-cream. My mojito was the ideal sweet and tangy combination; Mr Smith enjoyed a Bintang, the local beer. We recovered from our food frenzy in the poolside bar, where we played chess on an enormous glass set and sat on sofas so deep our feet couldn’t touch the ground. It was like we’d entered the land of the giants.
The next day we swaddled ourselves in luxury, indulging in a 90-minute massage. Spa Alila is a slick operation. After choosing our oils (there’s one for relaxing, a headier scent for couples, and a minty energising potion), we were led to a glass-fronted room where we could hear the birds and geckos outside. Much to Mr Smith’s horror we were presented with paper pants. He point blank refused to suffer the ‘indignity’, ironically insisting on wearing his Speedos instead. The treatment, though, was sheer bliss. Perfect pressure was applied in firm strokes and our limbs were gently stretched – even our toes were wiggled. Once we managed to rouse ourselves, we were led outside and given dishes of delicate strawberry sorbet, a heavenly wake-up for dazed patients. All that remained was for us to head back to the pool, feeling invigorated and refreshed. In just two days this quiet retreat had soothed our stresses and left us feeling remarkably peaceful. I just hope we can return. They say your first wedding anniversary present should be made from paper. Does a plane ticket count?