A HINDU ISLAND in a mostly Muslim archipelago, Bali is a tourism destination that's both commercial and deeply spiritual. The “island of the gods” is estimated to have hosted 2.8 million foreign visitors in 2011 and redevelopment has burgeoned upwards at an ever-faster pace. I remember it fondly as a land of tradition and temples, of a peaceloving, friendly people living an unchanging, timeless existence in touch with nature.
Returning to Bali to find out whether the magic of the old ways still exists, I head for the serene havens of Amanusa, Amandari and Amankila, resorts that have been around for some 20-odd years. My visit is to take in Amankila's 20th anniversary.
Amanusa is a natural first, being closest to Denpasar airport. After being whisked through immigration by resort staff I sit in the limo, mopping my brow with a scented towel and sipping a cold drink from the back-seat bar, thankful for a welcome that's as stressfree as it's efficient, and wondering if my stay will continue to be as agreeable.
I check into one of Amanusa's 35 superb suites and sit out at the private breakfast area by the plunge pool, taking in the hillside and ocean views as I snack on marvellous seafood. Privacy and personalised service are exemplary here; even though the resort is 70 percent full, I only see a handful of guests during my stay.
The coast is five minutes away – I never have to wait more than two minutes for a resort car – where the resort's Beach Club, located on the beachfront of Bali National Golf Resort, is a pristine oasis with butler service. The proximity to the course will soon be a boon for golfers, but today it's closed for redevelopment. Do I hear jackhammers?
My next Aman sojourn promises to deliver something more bucolic. Bali's cultural heritage is most evident in the highlands around Ubud, where Amandari sits among temples gracing ancient villages on breezy hilltops overlooking tumbling rivers. Designed as a Balinese village, the resort features andesite walkways and high Parasstone walls that pay tribute to traditional local design. A pathway running through Amandari to a river below is said to cross sacred land. Every six months for hundreds of years, villagers from nearby Kedewatan have taken the path in a traditional procession down to a pool of holy water. Just above this spring-fed pond sit three modest shrines and a seventh-century stone carving of a tiger.
I'm assigned a pool villa suite overlooking the rice paddies. Again, the quality of the room and service are excellent, with staff eager to help and informative on local matters, as I find when directed to a hiking trail through the forest that I'd never have found on my own.
Back at the resort for a pick-me-up, I'm astounded by the flakiness of the croissants in such a humid climate as Bali's, until the half-German, half-Mexican chef explains that they're hand-rolled and cooked in a climate-controlled room.
Further east, romantic Amankila is perched on a cliff above the Lombok Strait offering an oasis of calm in Karangasem, Bali's most traditional regency. The approach to Amankila imbues a sense of anticipation and excitement as the long drive winds upwards then curls steeply down to an airy hotel lobby surrounded by fragrant frangipani trees.
The landscape and its buildings are architecturally stunning. The resort's three-tiered pool sits dramatically just below the lobby. Set into the cliff-edge, the blue-tiled pools face the sea and flow one into the other down a stepped gradient in the style of terraced rice paddies, functioning as aquatic viewpoints by day and as a backdrop for the traditional dancers that entertain guests every night.
I stay in one of the 34 stilted free-standing suites tucked into the lush vegetation around the resort, each with views over the ocean and the surrounding forest, and with the towering Mount Agung as a backdrop. Below the resort, set back from the private beach in a coconut grove, is the Beach Club, with a larger, 41-metre pool as well as casual dining, and which can be reached on foot or in one of Amankila's open-air buggies. To my delight I find that surfboards, bodyboards, kayaks and Hobie Cats are available.
The resort is close to Manggis, Candi Dasa, Tenganan and other villages where traditional crafts are still practised. The area offers a host of activities from mountain biking and diving to cultural excursions to temples and ancient water palaces. I go diving off Nusa Penida island (and see dozens of manta rays), and biking in the rice fields.
Sadly there can be little doubt that Bali has largely shed its traditional ways over recent years and the old way of life is fast disappearing – inevitable when one considers that tourism is now the major single contributor to the Indonesian economy. Yet I'm so happy to feel that the old magic lives on in resorts such as these, constructed as they are with local materials and in traditional styles, allowing visitors to relax in a natural setting in the old Balinese way.
And the three resorts I've stayed at are superbly managed. From the moment I disembark from the plane, I've not had to think about a single logistical detail; each excursion, transfer and request has been handled without the slightest visible stress or strain. From the service perspective, Aman has created a wonderfully seamless milieu, while ensuring that each of its resorts offers a rich and unique experience.
PHOTO: SEAN LEE-DAVIES