On a bend of the river
Villa Sungai in Bali is the perfect sanctuary for stressed holiday-makers
THERE has been a proliferation of villas in Bali in recent years, many arranged in clusters at the coast, hidden amid flowering gardens behind high stone walls. Such is the sense of sequestered privacy that this accommodation is ideal for house parties or family stays. Shops, cafes, bars and nightlife are on the doorstep. A martini or a massage is never more than a few steps away, as one of my Seminyak friends likes to put it.
But venture inland a bit, up towards the west coast and the holy sea temple of Tanah Lot, perched on its own rocky little island, and you get the villa experience with a rustic feel, a sense of being a temporary part of village life and a more specific engagement with Balinese culture.
I have stayed previously at Sungai Gold in Cepaka village and this return visit is to its bigger neighbour, Sungai.
The two villas, with vaulted alang-alang grass roofs and a contemporary colour theme of cream and caramel, are joined as a compound reached via stone steps down to a gorge of banyans with dangling roots and frangipanis with feathery ferns sprouting from the crooks of their branches, like fanciful headdresses.
There’s little sense of what lies in store as you first descend, typically escorted by Little Made, manager, concierge and allround fixer; there’s just the faint rush of the Penet River, swirls of rice sparrows and the wafting scent of tuberose.
Staff we met on the last visit appear to greet us like long-lost friends. The owner of the two Sungai properties, Gold Coastbased Pamela Hayes, has trained her crew well; they have an intuitive sense of when to be on hand and when to be scarce. This radar never seems to falter. You are part of the Sungai family now, and it feels just right.
It’s a separate universe down here in these two linked river houses, which can be rented as one or, more commonly, Sungai Gold accommodates a couple who want to hide away ( it’s an ideal honeymoon burrow) while Sungai is booked separately by families or friends travelling together.
Close chums who had planned to travel with us have not been able to make it so there’s just my husband and me swanning in bags of space at the large Sungai where we could easily bed-hop a la Goldilocks and try out all the various sleeping quarters across three bedrooms with netted fourposters and an extra covered daybed piled with more cushions and bolsters than an interiordesign catalogue.
Our ensuite bathroom is semioutdoors, complete with rock orchids, cheeping geckos and politely honking frogs; we shower under a vivid blue sky or the dark lid of night and listen to the sounds of village life echoing along the high ridge. Throughout the open-sided and marblefloored villa are large mirrors that reflect traditional carved doorways and tubs of flowers, lush vegetation, aquamarine glassware, serene stone Buddhas and tealights that head housekeeper Trisna places by the pool’s edge at sunset.
All is luminous and untethered, as if we are a satellite hovering above the curving river. There’s an implicit invitation for bare feet and white linen — or, in our case, a holiday uniform of swimsuits that used to fit us and bad straw hats.
What to do? Not a thing, as it transpires. We watch DVDs in our bedroom and read in the pool, floating on our backs; I manage to submerge Alexander McCall Smith’s lady detective from Botswana and Trisna dries her out in the sun. I have a loose button on a shirt; Trisna fixes it, unbidden, and returns the garment crisply folded.
It’s the end of a busy holiday and Sungai becomes a rest home, a recuperative oasis where Trisna and Iluh, who’s in charge of food and beverages, wait on us like nurses, even offering breakfast in bed one morning when it looks as if I have succumbed completely to tropical torpor and can’t raise myself from the pillows, let alone brush my hair. Banana-filled crepes and Vegemite soldier toast between the sheets? It’s Bali, it’s a holiday, so why the heck not.
But if you do want excursions, Little Made — who speaks good English, peppered with amusing Australian slang he has learned from guests — and Wayan are at hand with vehicles to escort you up to, say, the hill station of Ubud, with its craft ateliers, antiques shops and some of the island’s best food at the Alila Ubud resort’s Plantation restaurant, where Dutch-born executive chef Eelke Plasmeijer dishes up fabulous seasonal tasting menus.
Back at Sungai base camp, the roosters are up early and village dogs are asserting their territory; pigs rootle on the far bank amid the faint smell of jasmine temple incense. Two masseuses arrive, offering chilled peppermint tea and a frangipani foot soak; we succumb to their healing hands in Sungai’s small spa room, rubbed with sweet lavender and amber oils and pummelled into such a melted state that I almost fall into the pool on the way to the closest daybed.
And what a pool: a long, 18m ribbon of blue-green with an infinity edge, so it seems to merge with the vegetation, the dragonflies and, this cloudy March, the soft afternoon rain that patterplops for hours and then disappears, leaving everything gleaming, the trees and plants all but purring with content.
Despite the at-home feel of both Sungai villas, all the luxury details are here, from Acqua di Parma toiletries and chilled, tuberose-scented hand-towels to quality bedding.
Eating-in is a treat, with chef Wayan and his helpers turning out delicious meals, including canapes served to you in the pool, if required. I become adept at floating with mango and proscuitto skewers, with Vietnamese ricepaper rolls dipped in tamarind sauce, with little Thai fishcakes that can be swallowed in one pop.
Iluh appears with a Sungai signature cocktail on a tray: vodka, kaffir lime, palm sugar, lemongrass and soda water. It’s cool, sharp and shiny. I could live in this pool, fed three times a day.
There is a much larger menu selection than one would imagine, given the relatively small scale of this operation; dishes range from Indonesian specialties, including suckling pig carved at the table, to steaks, pasta and classic seafood. Leave space for a lemongrass and palm sugar panacotta served with orange and chilli caramel. There’s even a separate children’s menu (stick-’emup satays sound fun) and a range of j ust-baked biscuits on call, including madeleines filled with tangy lemon curd.
Meals can be ordered in advance and you are charged, remarkably, not much more than the cost of ingredients; there’s a full bar and table wines at good prices, including a Two Islands rose from Hatten, the up-andcoming Balinese winery. All dietary demands and sudden whims seem to be accommodated, from midnight cocktails to allergies.
We sleep like babes amid the sour-sweet smell of the surrounding jungle, losing the ability to do anything more complicated than tie our sarongs. Leaving almost requires Trisna and Iluh to prise me out of the pool and make me get dressed.
Little Made drives us to the airport and wants to know when we’ll be back. Make it soon, please.
The inviting swimming pool at Villa Sungai is a ribbon of blue-green that appears to merge with the vegetation
The sea temple of Tanah Lot is perched on its own little island
Little Made, all-round fixer