“Bali’s changed beyond recognition,” many locals and expats will tell you. And it’s true. Since the 2010 release of feel-good feature film Eat Pray Love starring Julia Roberts, based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir in which she swaps her frantic Manhattan lifestyle for a journey across the world to find herself, it put the Island of the gods in the spotlight. As a result, tourism has boomed, and hotels have been sprouting all over. However, despite the changes, Bali’s original soul somehow subsists, and beyond the main hotspots, its natural, spiritual appeal remains untouched. We’ve scoured the island for the best 5-star retreats set away from the crowds that will be sure to plunge you right into the exotic paradise’s irresistible allure.
Although it was almost 10 years ago, I remember the very first time I stayed at an Alila hotel like it was yesterday. It was in the Maldives and sadly it no longer exists, but it’s an experience that stayed with me and that very few hotels have matched up to since – until my stay at Bali’s Alila Soori.
Oozing style from every angle, arriving at the ultra-sleek Alila Soori is like stepping into a design magazine. And although you’ll find sand, and you’ll find sea, the hotel doesn’t offer you the typical beach holiday package. However, it’s precisely that, which makes up its invigorating, magnetic get-away-from-it-all setting. As powerful waves unfurl across the length of glittering silver sands, there’s a sense that something greater is at work.
Located on the outskirts of the village of Tabanan on the west coast of the island, 20-minutes’ drive from the photogenic Tanah Lot temple, the five-star hotel sits in a secluded spot on a long stretch of beach where locals come to watch the sun set, to fish, or just to dip their toes in the ocean. So although the hotel is the only structure on the beach, the community atmosphere that surrounds it brings life and soul to the solitary establishment.
Designed by Singapore-based firm SCDA, the hotel has a striking layout moulded with Feng Shui principles, creating a soothing energy flow throughout. As soon as you step inside the hotel’s open-plan lobby with its enormous infinity-edge water feature that looks like it runs right out to the ocean, time falls away suddenly, leaving the elements to pace your movements.
An extremely well-managed hotel, the experience is seamless from beginning to end. The 48 open-plan villas mix soothing hues of opulent and slate greys with beiges and whites. The ocean-front second-level pool villas, which, elevated above the beach look like they’re sitting exactly where the surf breaks, provide some of the best vistas right from the comfort of your king size bed. The pièce de resistance is the double sliding doors that open onto a private infinity-edge pool looking out to the ocean. The terrace comes with an ultra comfortable day bed where you can sleep off jetlag rocked by the waves crashing on the shore. Fuss-free, the villas are simple but the tasteful décor instates a real feeling of well-being that makes it hard to step outside. But you must. First, for the incredible spa, second for the delectable cuisine at the restaurant helmed by Argentine chef Fernando Trump.
First, the spa. Not only does it look the part (more design-magazine-ready sleek) with its indoor basin sprinkled with flower petals and scented with local herbs, but the treatments are second to none. A very chic heavenly hideaway where the staff is well trained in using age-old Asian and Western techniques, they tailor everything to your needs. I would recommend the Therapeutic Deep Tissue Massage, which mixes Balinese, Swedish and Thai techniques, leaving you like a slice of jelly to walk back to your room as though stepping on air, for a deep rejuvenating slumber. As well as yoga and meditation, you can also embark on a half-day or full-day ‘journey’ that I can only imagine would leave you hanging somewhere between heaven and nirvana.
Dinner, like breakfast, are both served at Cotta, the beachfront restaurant where the genuinely friendly staff serves a mix of Asian and local dishes, all cooked to perfection. And for something more romantic and more personalised, there’s the Ombak special signature ‘playful and provocative’ dining experience, leaving guests to enjoy a candle-lit multi-course picnic out on the lawn.
From sitting down to dinner to watching the star-studded night sky roll in on the beach, every moment spent here exercise a magnetic pull on you. There is something strangely soothing in Alila Soori’s wind-swept atmosphere, something intangible, and wholly underestimated until you set foot inside. It surprised me, and has left me with one desire: to be able to go back and never leave.
Como Shambhala Estate
A 25-minute drive from the centre of Ubud, the award-winning Como Shambhala Estate will wow you to no ends. First, it’s not called an estate for nothing. One of the first luxury hotels to set up in Bali, it’s one of the few to be truly set right inside the majestic Ayung Valley, the sacred Valley of the Kings. It runs right down to the river where a sprinkling of wooden meditation pavilions dots the verdant valley sides. The Como Shambhala Estate is first and foremost a retreat for the rejuvenation of the mind, body and soul, but just that’s half the story.
Focused on well-being, the COMO Hotels flagship is helmed by high-ranking experts from the resident yoga teachers and Ayurvedic doctors to the dieticians and spa therapists. Upon arrival, guests can opt to meet with the resident consultant who puts a holistic programme together that especially tailored to each guest for improving a specific aspect of their health and wellbeing. However, not everyone who checks in is here to heal –there’s plenty to keep regular holidaymakers busy too.
The breath-taking views as you meander down the stone path into the depths of the valley where natural rock pools nestle among the forested hillside, will make you forget a world exists outside the hotel. But that’s if you can tear yourself away from your room.
Arranged like a Balinese village peppered with temples and shrines, the villas are surrounded by smooth walls, making each one extremely private. For the best indoor-outdoor experience, choose a Retreat Pool Villa with its slither of turquoise infinity pool suspended over the verdant valley and a wooden deck with swing bed that you’ll never want to leave. And you won’t have to because every guest has their own butler on hand to satisfy their every whim – ask for Poorna if you can, he’s got the balance between warmth and efficiency down to a T.
The interiors boast neutral clean hues and open-grain timber furniture, creating a restful atmosphere. And while the rooms aren’t anything flashy, they are irresistibly soothing. Lined by sliding doors, the space is dressed by valley vistas and the glimmer of the turquoise pool that runs all the way to the bathroom. For guests who like to be pampered, the stand-out free-standing oversized bathtub is perfect for soaking while looking out to the valley. Alternatively, for a complete n experience, there’s also a shower outside.
We also loved the ultra-decadent Residences that overhang the valley. Like exotic manors crouching in the leafy gardens, each one is designed individually to cater for guests looking for that extra swank. Named things like Forest in the Mist Sanskrit, if budget is no limit then opt for the Umabona with its traditional imperial Balinese style, views from multiples terraces, and multi-tiered pool.
However, as tempting as it is to revel in your villa, the cuisine prepared with organic locally-sourced produce here is a great reason to let yourself be coaxed out. There are two restaurants, Glow, the more casual health food venue serving international dishes, and the second, the magnificent Kudus house. An artefact in itself, the original 150-year-old traditional wooden Javanese residence abounds in authentic charm. When it comes to food, don’t pass up on the stand-out dish of tangy stir-fried whole Jaya mud crab with red onion, green papaya and yellow turmeric and coconut sauce.
The most special meal of the day here though is breakfast. Also served at Kudus, you get to sip on a fresh green tea while looking out at the interrupted views of the valley while the golden sun rises through cloudless blues skies. Whatever you choose from the menu will be memorable, from the estate-grown tropical seasonal fruit to the tasty crunch house-toasted muesli.
And I haven’t even started on the spa – the raison d’être of Como Hotels. Run by some of the best therapists you will have ever come across, you’ll want to move in. Instead, you’ll only be able to opt to take the sumptuous trademark Como Shambhala essential oil products home, which you’ll also find in the rooms.
Those products provided an olfactory track to the experience, which quite frankly surpassed all expectations and even during the short time I spent here, the estate’s magnetic pull and its extremely competent, warm staff’s gentle manner and inner glow was infectious. Reflecting the ways of nature, every detail here exists for a reason, everything is linked within a barely tangible ecosystem that encourages a general sense of wellbeing. Set back on my path to betterment by the resident experts, I left with an unexpected feeling of inner calm and lightness. You’re in good hands here, so go on and let go.
Amandari was one of the first hotels of the group and it hasn’t aged one bit. Despite not having flashy amenities like some of the newer more contemporary hotels, it’s got everything you need and brims with local soul and authenticity.
The hotel’s appeal is largely due to the dedicated staff, some of whom have been here for over 30 years and who treat visitors like guests in their own home. Respectful but discreet, the staff here are proud of their hotel and of their Balinese heritage, which they love to share with guests.
Located a 20-minute drive from the centre of Ubud, the hotel brims with timeless understated elegance punctuated by local craft throughout the shared areas to the smallest details in the rooms.
The 30 villas and one suite, some of which come with large private outdoor pools, are set out like Balinese villages, each with wooden ‘kulkul’ traditional doorb outside. Windows and sliding silk screen panels adorned with ornate celestial Japanese style paintings line the spacious light-filled rooms. Everything, from the woven thatched ceilings to the room-service menu is made by local artisans. The hotel also supports local charities and you’ll find a little wooden bird or figure to sponsor and take home with you.
Some rooms, elevated above the Ayung valley, have terraces looking out to the majestic views that span all the way to the horizon. And for unwinding completely, there is also an intimate spa hidden within one of the villas at the extremity of the hotel grounds.
In terms of facilities, the hotel has a main infinity-edge pool facing the valley, which is located close to the restaurant set above in its own bale, an opulent polished open-air veranda. Serving mainly local specialities made with the very best of ingredients grown locally, a meal here will keep you satisfied for the week to come – portions, like everything else here, are very generous.
At night, the hazy lights around the pool and the soft murmur of the river below give an ethereal feeling to the whole experience. It’s quiet here, and as you lay your head to rest, bare audible music floating on the warm night breeze from neighbouring temples fuel restful dreams.
Amandari is an ode to Balinese heritage and a real labour of love with authenticity that’s hard to find at other establishments. Loyal to its location and culture, the hotel’s understated style and soul, along with the top-ranking staff whose connection to their roots is close to their hearts, are the hotel’s unbeatable draws.
Aman hotels across the world are renowned for their high-scoring service and extremely well-designed establishments – and Amakila is no exception. In fact, as it’s one of the oldest in the group along with the Amandari, it’s got postcard-perfect credentials but also plenty of soul. The ambience is a little more formal here, with staff on hand to help wherever you are, so if you like service, then this is the place to stay. Otherwise, be prepared to be wowed by the hill-top views of the ocean – right from the comfort of your open-plan suite.
Far from the madding crowds, the hotel is surrounded by coconut groves dancing into the water on craggy slopping cliffs. Located on the east coast in Manggis, it’s an hour’s drive from Ubud and close to the Padang port where you can catch the boat to the popular Gili Islands.
The 33 rooms are all raised above the ground, linked via an elevated pathway, each boasting unmatched views of the glistening ocean.Every suite here feels extremely private, almost like you’re all alone with the sea. Each comes with a four-poster bed, a spacious open-plan bathroom, and a terrace from which watching the sunset is a must. The pared-down rooms have a calm traditional Balinese style of neutral hues, along with cool cream tiled floors and sliding wooden doors.
And if you want to know which suite to book, then opt for the Indrakila suite with a pool overlooking the glistening seas. Alternatively, the ocean suite is another stand-out with splendid ocean views – it doesn’t come with a pool but who needs a pool when you’ve got three?
Down, by the main building behind the reception, the restaurant sprawls out onto a cream-hued marble terrace looking out to the ocean and an eye-popping three-tiered infinity edged pool. Complete with pretty paper parasols and thatched roof poolside cabanas where guests can have massages while being rocked to sleep by the gentle sound of the waves below, it’s like something right out of a postcard.
While the style of the hotel is understated, Balinese accents recalling the nearby Taman Ujung, a floating water palace built by the last Raja of Karangasem, give the hotel subtle character.
A compact resort up on the hill, there’s more down by the beach. Take the path that winds around the hill and you’ll reach a large lap pool and beach club. The beach, sadly an eroded spot where you can nevertheless sunbathe at low tide, isn’t really a match for Bali’s sweeping beaches but the rest of the hotel more than makes up for it.
The setting aside, the ocean-view restaurant where staff will address you as ‘Ibu’ if you are a lady and ‘Bapak’ if you are gentleman, serve meticulously prepared healthy local and international dishes. Try the speciality here, the duck cooked in herbs and spices, raised on the resort’s free-range in nearby Jasri village. The herbs are grown out in the garden and all cold smoking is done in the smokehouse onsite, and all vegetables and fruits are seasonal and plucked right from the Balinese earth, in the shadow of sacred volcano Mount Agung. Breakfast is also taken at the poolside restaurant and is an unmissable experience – waking up to those views is second to none. You’ll have to keep pinching yourself throughout your stay to believe it’s real.
With all the new hotels proliferating across the island and especially in Ubud, we weren’t sure what this new addition would bring to Bali’s extremely high-end hotel scene. While I loved the Viceroy Miami, one of the best urban hotels in the world in my minds, I was a little let-down by this one, which I still enjoyed for several reasons: the Ayung Valley location surrounded by glorious rice fields leading to off-the-beaten-track villages and my room’s private pool overhanging the valley.
A small compact hotel of 25 rooms close to Ubud, the building flanks the Ayung Valley hillsides and gets top marks for views. The main semi-circular swimming pool overlooks the valley and the small lawn around it is the perfect spot for sunbathing, as is the cosy poolside cabana with a view right into the depths of the leafy valley.
The restaurant is on the other side of the pool and also sits on the valley ridge. Serving local food with a contemporary European twist, it’s particularly popular at night with guests, creating a lively atmosphere. Underneath the restaurant is a small spa, which although has yet more spectacular views of the surroundings, is the part of the hotel that’s possibly the most disappointing. A plastic tub sunk into the floor and mismatched elements of décor don’t give off a peaceful atmosphere, and with the restaurant being just above it, the cooking smells don’t really compare to essential oils. However, as there is a plentiful stock of spas around, you shouldn’t struggle to find what you’re looking for elsewhere.
Staggered along the side of the valley, the rooms are bathed in natural light and generous in size, although the bland décor and wood veneer furniture could have a little more kick to it. The highlight undubiously the private plunge pool with a cabana that hangs right over the valley – you’re literally swimming in mid-air. It’s particularly beautiful at sunset and at night, when nature’s steady lull and the twinkling starry night, make you forget the rest of the world exists.