The drive from Bali’s capital Denpasar to Ubud is the Antiques Roadshow on speed. Statues, vases, carvings, canvasses, textiles, carpets... Here a life-size stone horse, there an extravagantly embellished day-bed. It’s as if every Balinese-style home we’ve ever seen has disgorged its contents onto a roadside market. As the urban jostle melts to green and we wind inland, uphill and northwards, our taxi windows frame a ceaseless cornucopia of art and craft.
By the time we reach our hotel, on the artistic town’s outer fringes, we’ve furnished a thousand palaces and Mr Smith has eyeballed so many table legs I fear he’s developed a furniture fetish. Our eyes need peace, and luckily that’s exactly what Uma by Como, Ubud does best. As we cross the entrance courtyard to the airy lobby and settle on a smooth bench hewn from a tree trunk, we’re embraced by a stillness broken only by birdsong and the chattering of some unknown jungle creature.
This is a place far from Bali’s buzzing coastal tourist hubs. Here, among the lush forests and rice paddies on the slopes of the island’s central mountains, Uma by Como, Ubud’s 29 suites and villas are encircled by nothing but nature. Ours, one of three Uma Pool Suites, awaits at the end of a stroll along stone paths lined with tropical vegetation, through a wooden gate and down a private stairway. We’re led there by Trishna, who, like all the Uma staffers, moves without bustle or fuss but always somehow materialises exactly where she needs to be.
Our villa appears not only to boast a private garden, but a private jungle too. Beyond the low stone wall bordering our lawn, the Tjampuhan Valley drops steeply away, distant hilltops visible beyond its glorious tangle of green foliage and the Oos River chuckling along somewhere down below. We’re at treetop level. No one can see us, and we can’t see anyone. Except...
‘Squirrels!’ shouts Mr Smith. I follow his gaze and discover Uma’s unique entertainment: a furry Olympics in the immediate jungle. The little red critters’ constant play is better than TV.
With its mossy stone walls and long, colonnaded terrace, the garden resembles the grounds of an ancient palace and boasts multiple jungle-viewing options: private infinity plunge pool flowing over the brink of the gorge; sunloungers on the timber deck; two deep wicker chairs on the terrace.
Light streams through the villa’s liberal spaces, over cream stone and timber, filmy voile curtains and the dreamy four-poster bed. It’s all soothing simplicity and entices us to waft in and out through the French doors in sarongs. We wallow in our pool with only the squirrels as audience, bananas dangling from a branch so close we can almost reach out and pull one off.
What to do when you’re so relaxed? Relax even more. We repair to a spa villa to sample Uma’s Como Shambhala Retreat menu. The resort can be as much of a spa as you’d like, with complimentary morning yoga in the central pavilion, a special Shambhala menu of organic and raw foods at Kemiri restaurant and a tempting list of bliss-out therapies. We choose 90-minute massages and Mr Smith opts for an extra head massage. Therapists Ani and Puri stroke and knead us into heaven, and after a while I hear Mr Smith snoring gently. Minutes later, he’s moaning happily. Perhaps he’s thinking of furniture again.
‘That was the best massage I’ve ever had,’ he says, as we float back to our private jungle. ‘It was like my head left my body. But in a good way.’ Much as we’d like to follow through with the super-healthy Shambhala menu for dinner, Kemiri also boasts too many decadences. We can’t resist the grilled Lombok lobster with chilli paste and kaffir lime, and the crispy fried soft-centred duck eggs with oyster sauce. They’re placed reverently on an alfresco table overlooking a fish pond by our waiter Ugung, who wears a tiny flower behind his ear. It indicates he’s prayed today, he says.
Each day in the Balinese lunar calendar requires different prayers to maintain the intricate system of balance that shapes the Hindu beliefs. These beliefs are cherished with particular devotion here in the island’s mountainous heart, where the Balinese believe their gods reside. Sitting in the stillness, watching evening mist curl among the treetops and hearing our enchanted forest’s nocturnal creatures begin their night serenade, we can imagine why. We can also see why the resort is called Uma, a word that means ‘living house.’
Next morning, culture calls. Ubud is not just a religious hub but a locus of art, performance and craft, and the final destination of that art avenue we followed from Denpasar. The town and its surrounding hills are filled with exponents of multiple mediums, from painting to sculpting and jewellery-making. We’re headed to where it all converges: Ubud Market. We set off for the 10-minute trip in Uma’s vehicle with soothing music, chilled-out driver and white interior.
The Serenity-mobile deposits us beneath the fantastically ornamental walls of Ubud’s main palace (the town has many, most still occupied by descendents of pre-colonial royals). From there we dive into the dense and seemingly endless maze of stalls, nooks and carts stacked to the ceiling with clothing, batik, gold, silver, wood, pottery, paintings, antiques and visitors like us, goggling at this frenzy of eye candy. We plunge into theatrical bartering for goods – I score two batik dresses for about US$8 – and Mr Smith falls in love with a painting of local village life. Over-stimulated, we escape to a gallery café (every café has a gallery, or the other way around) to contemplate the crazy scope of the Ubud aesthetic: from the simple, organic forms we love at Uma to the ‘Bali baroque’ flourishes of palaces and temples to imported European styles.
Back in our villa, the housekeeper appraises Mr Smith’s canvas with an expert eye. ‘It’s a good one,’ he says, and identifies the artist and Dutch master who helped develop it. ‘My brother’s learning this style,’ he adds. Some places, everyone’s a critic; in Ubud, everyone’s an artist.
We’ll shop again tomorrow, perhaps at the galleries right outside Uma. But for now we’ll sink into our veranda chairs and soothe our souls with the most beautiful canvas of all: dusk over the jade-green jungle, squirrels scuttling for bed and the treetops reaching up for the sun as it sinks to meet them. All perfectly painted by Uma by Como, Ubud’s resident artist: nature.