The rice paddies and temples appear to have been engulfed by shopping malls lined with Givenchy and Bulgari boutiques in the 20 years since Mr Smith and I last visited Bali. Somehow, though, the island has retained its distinctive charm. Everything still appears to have that same human scale – the malls remain modest, the temples diminutive and the roads more like alleys.
Not that we notice any of this at first. The journey from Ngurah Rai Airport to Alila Villas Soori on the island’s isolated west coast is an impressive indicator of the two days to come. After being met by a car organised by the hotel, the attention to detail en route is deliciously distracting: ginger-scented face flannels, exquisite snacks, cool bottled water and an aloe vera, ylang-ylang and lavender face spray. The driver even offers to phone ahead to ensure a meal is waiting in our villa when we arrive.
After another fragrant flannel (in case we managed to work up a sweat between opening the car door and stepping out, perhaps), we are shown around the resort by the charming manager. Our first response is that this is one of the most beautiful hotels we have ever experienced. The combination of spectacular scenery – the villas overlook a turbulent ocean whose waves crash onto an iridescent black-sand beach – and the effortless elegance of the architecture make the Alila an aesthetic delight.
Once we’re alone in our Ocean Pool Villa, Mr Smith and I eye each other before whooping like children. This is, without question, the most glamorous place we have ever stayed. Our bedroom opens into a living space that opens onto a private pagoda with day-beds overlooking the sea. Each villa has its own swimming pool, indoor and outdoor showers, and his-and-hers toiletries (they are discreetly changed over to his-and-his versions during the afternoon).
For the first half-hour Mr Smith and I are quite literally paralysed by luxury, unable to decide whether to use the day-beds in the lounge or the pagoda, or if, in fact, we should take a dip in the ocean, the 50-metre infinity pool or our own private one. Finally, we settle for soaking in the perfectly proportioned double bath, complete with ergonomic stone head rests. Considering these Mr Smiths are from drought-ravaged Melbourne and normally shower with buckets at their feet (to recycle the water to the garden) this is incredibly exciting.
For the next two days, we revel in the property. There’s the complimentary afternoon tea to enjoy, accompanied by gamelan players, and we end up dining at all three of Soori’s eateries. The first night is casual beachside Coast where I devour a gorgeous grilled snapper with Balinese spices, backdropped by waves glimmering under spotlights and a horizon illuminated by a lightning storm.
The next day we visit the main dining area, Cotta, where I have ayam taliwang (barbecued chicken with red spice) and Mr Smith has rigatoni with portobello mushrooms and truffled ricotta – a seamless curation of cuisines from East and West. Finally, we test informal Drift, where you can order café-style food among books and sofas by day, and enjoy fine-dining at night. In principle this is a great idea, but in practice eating a meal in the severe white room filled with hard-edged furniture was as cosy as chowing down at an Ikea showroom. The food is, as usual, terrific: lobster and mushroom quesadilla, smoked chicken pizza and chargrilled vegetables. All of this is then followed with a delicious green tea martini. Need I say more?
Perhaps it sounds like we are preoccupied with food, but between meals we do book in for massages in the tranquil, temple-like spa beneath the central reflection pool. Greeted with a cool lemon and honey drink, I relax with a reflexology massage, while Mr Smith has a more traditional Balinese massage. Both are heavenly and transport us into complete relaxation mode. Lying in bed at night watching CNN (one of our few criticisms is the lack of bedside reading lights – although we’ve heard they’ve since been installed), we feel a million miles away from the world. In our designer retreat, surrounded by black volcanic rock walls and driftwood sculptures, we feel completely cocooned.
Rested beyond our wildest dreams, we venture out of the Alila grounds on our final morning. The resort’s leisure concierges can organise all types of sightseeing opportunities (they call them ‘journeys’) and we opt, perhaps unsurprisingly, for the gourmet variety. Alila’s sous chef, Made Suriana, acts as our guide to the real Bali. Made, a man of great dignity and knowledge, gives us a crash course in the island’s culinary culture, taking us to markets and showing us deep-fried elvers (baby eels) caught in the local rice paddies. He explains that the small village eggs are the most expensive because they are the equivalent of what we know as free-range. Made also points out the many offerings – woven baskets filled with flowers and food – for sale. One of the cultural shifts in the past two decades is that women, traditionally responsible for creating these gifts to the gods, have now entered the workforce so don’t have time to make their own.
Afterwards, guide becomes chef once again and Made prepares an extraordinary meal while demonstrating the basics of Balinese cooking. As we’re eating, I think of the local people in the markets and how impoverished their lives are by our standards. Still, they devote so many of their scarce resources to their beliefs, making offerings of gratitude for what they do have. It occurs to me how little appreciation Westerners have for their blessings, and that there is much for us to learn in this small, beautiful island of smiling strangers.