IT'S BEEN MANY years since I last visited Bali. What struck me most on my return was the relentless traffic, and the way in which Kuta has spread its seedy tentacles up the coast towards Seminyak. But despite this turn for the worse, there are pockets of opulent tranquillity to be found on the island's southwest coast, and one of these is most definitely Sentosa Private Villas and Spa in Seminyak, which opened in 2006.
Set half a kilometre from the sea, the 45 villas that comprise the resort are the epitome of discreet luxury. Each is walled off, access being gained by the kind of huge, solid-metal door that is only conceivable, not to mention affordable, in Bali. The compounds range from 4,800 to 11,000 square feet, and within each is a sizeable pool, an expansive living room and dining suite with kitchen, and three to five en-suite bedrooms housed in their own villas, the whole ensemble using the pool as the centrepiece and allowing for open-air living, Bali style.
The emphasis here, as the name suggests, is very much on privacy, the guests interacting with staff as often or as seldom as they wish. Indeed, a couple could lock the door for a few days, order room service or cater for themselves, and use the rest of the time to lounge in the pool or get it on like Marvin Gaye. Which is not to say that Sentosa is for couples only: with a variety of available configurations, the villas are well suited to families or groups of holidaying friends.
The man behind Sentosa is Saxon Looker, an Australian-British entrepreneur responsible for a string of resorts in the Asia-Pacific region. Looker's base in Bali is a villa at the resort and his business model (one that he has used elsewhere) is to sell the individual villas off, that way raising the enormous amount of capital it takes to fund a venture of this nature. Owners may use their properties whenever they wish (provided that they give reasonable notice), and when they're not in residence the properties are available to guests.
“With each resort we've done, it's like putting on your dream dinner party,” says Looker. “Here, I worked with Grounds Kent [the architectural firm responsible for the breathtaking Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay] and some amazing local architects; the whole concept is to champion Indonesian materials and culture with a Western sensibility. Sentosa translates as a sense of tranquillity and happiness – the idea came from Sri Sentosa – the Balinese goddess of rice.”
This feeling of harmony is evident on arrival at the resort. When checking in, guests gaze out across the main pool, dotted about with frangipanis, topiarian trees reminiscent of bonsai, strategically placed boulders and a vegetation-draped wall backing the pool. The landscaping is central to the ambience of the resort, and the paths along which the buggies deliver guests to their villas are lined with manicured lawns (clipped by hand), tall palms and more yellow-flowered frangipanis; when guests reach their villas they cross an ornamental goldfish pond by way of a “stepping-stone” bridge. And a temple lies at the centre of the resort, which is still in use, evoking yet more feelings of tradition and harmony.
The aesthetic that Looker describes extends to the Luxé Lounge Spa, where the aim is to achieve more of that mysterious sentosa. The intriguingly titled Art of Surrender includes the application of chocolate-based oils and a star anise herbal bath, while the Chocolate Fondue Body Indulgence includes a bath in the stuff. The more conservative Balinese massage, meanwhile, involves deep-tissue pressure and skin rolling: the effect is marvellous but guests would be well advised to head for the loungers for a long snooze afterwards. Alternatively, if they feel invigorated, the next-door gym is helmed by world champion body-builder Komang Arnawa, whose personal training regime extracts squeals of anguish, or perhaps delight, from gym-goers on a daily basis.
Close to the main pool is the Evo restaurant (taking its name from extra virgin olive oil), which as well as providing sumptuous breakfasts (refreshingly, there's no buffet, but no lack of choice from the way in which the menu has been designed), offers New-York influenced Italian dishes concocted by executive chef Bill Collier. His speciality is the curing of ham and other meats on the premises, such as dry-cured pepperoni, while the restaurant also imports Pata Negra Bellota from Spain, regarded by many as the best of its kind. Outstanding at Evo are the woodoven roasted snapper with pancetta, radicchio and citrus-oregano jam (which gives a tart counterpoint to the sweet flavour of the fish) and the Risotto Veneto: scallops with parsley, garlic and olive oil – deliciously simple.
Delightful though the resort is, one criticism that Looker has heard time and time again is the fact that it's a little distant from the sea. He'd had his eye for some time on a parcel of land next to the ocean at Canggu, a little further up the coast; in 2008 he received a call that has resulted in the creation of his new resort, Sea Sentosa. “They rang me up about this piece of land I'd been looking at for 20 years; it has the best surf on the island like the Waikiki of Bali,” says Looker. “This was only one piece of land that I wanted to do something on. I went there and it was indeed the one I wanted, so I put the concept for Sea Sentosa together.”
As with so many projects of this nature, a certain serendipity led to its design: Italian architect Giacomo Passera has a villa at Sentosa Private Villas, and when Looker mentioned his idea to him, it set him thinking. “I knew what we wanted to do but what we'd decided at that point was simply an apartment resort,” he says. “I told him [Passera] I know what I don't want to do, but not what I want to do. Unbeknown to me he went away that winter and essentially did a thesis about all the environmental building that was going on around the world and came up with the philosophy of Sea Sentosa.” The new resort comprises 67 apartments set behind a 112-metre lagoon (for swimming in as well as gazing upon), just back from the breakers that make Canggu so beloved by surfers. A key design concept is the use of “vertical garden walls” pioneered by French architect Patrick Blanc – essentially hanging gardens that cover many of the walls of the development. Although not then completed, Sea Sentosa picked up the World's Best Apartment accolade at the International Property Awards in London in December – and it is certainly out of the ordinary. The penthouse suites, which have balcony pools under a sweeping arch that beautifully frames the ocean view, perfectly encapsulate Looker's vision when he first spied the plot of land more than two decades ago.