Bali: Where time stands still

In the languid interior of Indonesia's party island, the pace of life slows to a crawl. With a little gentle yoga and a dip in the pool, Lucy Gillmore finds peace in Bali
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The Independent Travel

I was dabbling with iridology. Admittedly a little sceptically, but it was Nyepi or New Year's Day in Bali so I could count the ways to pass the time on one freshly manicured hand. I had almost hypnotised myself watching the rain plish-plash into the infinity pool of Tirta-Ening, my Zen-inspired, aptly named Clear Water residence, and didn't want to risk slipping into the churning Ayung river on a muddy walk round the gardens.

The night before crowds had surged through the steamy streets of Ubud, cramming close to the sides as processions cavorted past, heaving giant papier-mâché monsters and devils aloft on makeshift bamboo floats. Cymbals clashing, firecrackers exploding into the darkness, a momentary power cut plunged the streets into chaotic darkness. Now after hours of sensory saturation the remains of the garish effigies lay broken and abandoned at the sides of the roads and the people were in hiding with their families, lights out, to convince the evil spirits that the island was deserted. The airport was closed. No planes were permitted to take off or land and nobody was allowed on the streets. Following the enforced curfew, the only sounds puncturing the air were the occasional torrential downpour and a dog's bark biting through the quiet. Bali, the Indonesian party island, was taking stock as another year dawned.

And this year, more than most, there were hopes for peaceful and prosperous times ahead. Following the second wave of terrorist bombings in three years last October, when two explosions in restaurants in Jimbaran Bay and one in Kuta, a few kilometres along the south coast, killed 20 people, visitor numbers have declined. At first there were hopes that tourists would rally in defiance of the terrorists whose web has recently extended to London and Amman. But tourism, which so many islanders rely on for their livelihood, is currently limping along.

This tiny bastion of Hinduism in the midst of Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation in the world, might be seen as "godless" by the al-Qa'ida linked extremists, but this intoxicating tropical island is peppered with thousands of temples, its calendar punctuated by religious festivals. In the days before Nyepi we passed whole villages traipsing down to the sea to take part in elaborate ceremonies and pray to the gods, while pavements were scattered with intricate rice and petal offerings.

Hotels have special dispensation during Nyepi to light a few lamps. The Hard Rock Hotel down in Kuta on the south coast, we heard, was holding a party in the basement for its guests, but at the Como Shambhala Estate at Begawan Giri, in the island's vivid volcanic interior, we were within earshot of the village temple so observed a respectful silence.

The stillness, the darkness, the gentle pattering of rain on leaves in this languidly lush land was strangely soothing, if vaguely eerie. Over breakfast in Kudus House, an old Balinese dwelling on the Estate looking out over the densely wooded valley, the river rushing far below, the pungent smell of damp earth drifting in, the silence felt all enveloping, almost spiritual.

In fact there is a "holy" spring in the grounds which supplies the property with all its water; while floating in the stylish infinity pools or soaking in the old-fashioned roll top baths you are immersing yourself in this "healing" water. The spring, or so the story goes, once dried up but after a local holy man prayed over the source the water started to flow once more.

The Estate has recently restyled itself a destination spa with rooms - in contrast to its sister property down the road in Ubud; Uma Ubud calls itself a small resort with a spa. The Estate is a retreat where visitors to the island can also take stock, stepping out of their hectic schedules to re-evaluate their lives. A day's compulsory quiet reflection was in perfect tune with the hotel's ethos.

Both the Estate and Uma Ubud are owned by Singaporean hotelier Christina Ong, whose portfolio of properties includes the celebrity haunt Parrot Cay in the Turks and Caicos, Coco Island in the Maldives, the Metropolitan hotels in Bangkok and London and Uma Paro in Bhutan. At first sight the collection seems unconnected. The Metropolitan hotels in London and Bangkok are slick, urban hangouts. The beach resorts of Parrot Cay and Coco Island attract rich and famous sybarites. Uma means home and Uma Ubud and Uma Paro in Bhutan are boutique hotels which aim to engage guests with the local culture. The unifying factor is the Shambhala spa concept.

And in the Estate, the group's flagship, the desire to focus on general, and life-changing, wellbeing over simple relaxation seems to have found its home. The philosophy has been redefined and the emphasis shifted. The Estate now styles itself a residential health retreat. A sleek new spa is located in a prominent position in the eight-hectare grounds. A series of new spa villas are also under construction. Treatments can still be requested in the water pavilions - down 250 moss-draped stone steps by the river - but so many guests complained about the climb back up that they are considering putting in a travelator. Clinging to the verdant slopes, the pavilions blend into their tranquil grotto-like setting.

There are complimentary classes scheduled throughout the day in disciplines such as yoga, pilates, t'ai chi and qigong and, as well as resident instructors, visiting masters lead retreats throughout the year. Most guests check in for three-, five- or seven-day packages and put themselves in the hands of the Estate's ayuverdic doctor, physiotherapist and Carla, an American nutritionist and naturopath who heads up the wellbeing programme - and practises iridology.

Looking deep into my eyes, she positioned the digital camera in front of my face. Iridology is iris diagnosis. After taking close-up photos of my eyes and downloading them on to her computer she began her assessment. The iris apparently reveals inherited weaknesses and levels of toxicity in the body. Looking at colour, texture and markings the iridologist can determine current or future health problems. Analysing my stress lines and indentations, Carla told me my lymphatic system needed monitoring. The "weakness" revealed itself as* *catarrh or rhinitis and eczema. She advised me to give up dairy products and to start skin brushing. It was disconcertingly accurate.

The Estate, on the edge of the village of Begawan Giri, is 20 minutes' drive from the cultural hub of Ubud. For those who don't want to spend the entire time "on retreat", Uma Ubud offers a slight shift in balance - and budget. On the outskirts of Ubud, it is still a peaceful hideaway. The terrace rooms overlook a tree-tangled valley and are cool cream and contemporary in design with limed oak, modern four-posters with draped netting, and soaring ceilings. There are complimentary yoga classes in the spa every morning and a guided walk through the surrounding paddy fields each day at 8am. However, the hip bar overlooking the floodlit pool is buzzing as guests lounge with well-thumbed novels and gin and tonics from the low semi-circular wooden bar, as the sounds of Café del Mar float around the open-air pavilion.

Uma Ubud is next door to the renowned Neka Art Museum - and a short walk from the Antonio Blanco Renaissance Museum and the galleries and arts and craft shops that line Ubud's streets. This is Bali's artistic heartland. Heading inland from the capital, Denpasar, the road is lined with villages specialising in different crafts; Celuk for silversmiths, Batuan for painters and Mas for wood-carvers. Ubud, however, is in a different league. In 1928 Ubud's royal family invited a number of artists to visit, one of whom was the German painter Walter Spies - the first of a long line of artists to be seduced by Bali's verdant landscape and rich cultural heritage.

The Neka Art Museum houses a fascinating collection of traditional and modern Balinese paintings in a series of red-brick pavilions set in leafy grounds, including a section devoted to the Dutch painter Arie Smit. Smit was born in the Netherlands in 1916 but was drafted to Jakarta during the Second World War and spent three years as a prisoner of war building roads in Thailand, Malaysia and Burma. He moved to Bali in 1956, fell in love with the island and is still there. He is celebrated as the father of the Young Artist movement which developed in the Sixties. With his encouragement, a handful of teenage boys from the little hamlet of Penestanan started to create a series of expressionistic works. His own paintings, many Cézanne-like in style with rich bold colours and brushstrokes capture the vibrancy of this tropical island.

Down the road a huge sign shouts "Danger! Art". Ubud is still a functioning artists' colony. Steps wind steeply up past a jumble of artefacts and bright blue statues to a huge sprawling workshop, walls slung with paintings three-deep. This is the studio of Symons, an American-born artist, known for his sensual pictures of young boys. As I wandered around taking in the vivid shock of canvases, he was lolling in a hammock, reading. Up a set of rickety stairs there was a makeshift bed, an easel and tubes of paint scattered across the floor.

The entrance to the Antonio Blanco Renaissance Museum a little further along has a grander - and deceptively conventional - entrance through an engraved stone archway. Blanco, dubbed Bali's Dali, was a flamboyant Catalan artist, also known for his erotic paintings and verse, although this time of women. The museum is Gaudiesque and theatrical, with jade green columns, polished black marble floor, ornate balustrades and opera playing at full volume. A bizarre character - he always wore a beret - and darling of the rich and famous, Blanco fell in love with a beautiful Balinese dancer who modelled for him. They had three daughters and a son, Mario, who is now also a painter in the same exotic style, and whose studio is attached to the museum.

The site of Walter Spies' former home, just across the road, is now the Hotel Tjampuhan. The first artist to be captivated by Ubud, Spies abandoned the area for the more rural Sideman region in the east around 1940, declaring it too crowded. Almost 70 years on not much has changed. But although crammed with cafés, galleries and little boutiques, Ubud still has a relaxed and arty feel. Today, a new road cutting through the interior is also starting to open up the eastern part of the island, but as yet it is relatively untouched by tourism. Following the rains the iridescent green of the paddy fields was almost luminous as we set out after our day's confinement to explore. Driving through rustic villages bedded into the slopes of the Gunung Agung volcano, we had to swerve continuously to avoid the stray dogs, almost as numerous as the island's scooters. Chickens and ducks scurried across the roads, completing the rural picture.

The Patal Kikian lodge, owned by Sideman's royal family, was our destination. Now a hilltop homestay with five rooms for paying guests and panoramic views across to the volcano, Ari, a prince in a Hard Rock Jakarta T-shirt and sarong, pointed out Walter Spies' house a kilometre away. Relaxing with a chilled watermelon juice on the terrace, it still seemed very much off the beaten track and the perfect artist's or writer's retreat - aptly inhabited at the moment by a Spanish painter. Over lunch Ari produced the family photo album. On the slightly tatty pages were pasted photographs of a young Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Roman Polanski - all friends of the king, Ari's father, who had also loved Bali's backcountry.

The sleepy little settlement of Candi Dasa on the east coast with its low key charms is often overlooked by those seduced by the more blatant attractions of the south coast. But it does boast the impossibly glamorous Amankila resort, perched up on the cliffs with three tiered pools approached via grand white stone staircases, as well as backpackers' haunts. The strip that stretches from Kuta to Legian and on to to boho Seminyak, however, is where most tourists check in; surfers, clubbers or those in search of the type of beachside elegance offered by the Four Seasons and Amanresorts. Sunset cocktails at stylish Ku De Ta in Seminyak, a beach bar with views of crashing waves, and an Ibiza vibe is a staple requirement.

Coming full circle back to Ubud, an hour and a half's drive and whole mindset away from the bars and night clubs of the south coast, I felt an enveloping sense of relief. The Estate wrapped its arms around me. After a few laps in the healing waters of the pool, I had my first lesson in pilates. Shambhala means peace in Sanskrit - something all who have fallen in love with Bali wish for the island. On the website, the philosophy is outlined further; "Como Shambhala creates sanctuaries, places of privacy and nurture... we consider Nature to be the greatest healer of all." In the studio below Kudus House overlooking the thick green foliage draped across the river valley, I stretched, located my core and learnt to breathe.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

There are no direct flights between the UK and Bali. The writer travelled with Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; www.cathaypacific.com) which flies to Denpasar via Hong Kong.

A six-night trip to Bali with tailormade specialist Cazenove + Loyd (020-7384 2332; www.cazloyd.com) costs from £1,485 per person. This includes flights with Cathay Pacific from Heathrow, two nights in a Terrace Room at Uma Ubud (00 62 361 972 448) and three nights in a suite at the Estate at Begawan Giri (00 62 361 978 888; www.comoshambhala.bz) including breakfast.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) advises, "There remains a high threat from terrorism in Indonesia. We continue to receive reports that terrorists in Indonesia are planning further attacks on Westerners and Western interests."

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