On a bend of the river

Villa Sun­gai in Bali is the per­fect sanc­tu­ary for stressed hol­i­day-mak­ers

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Luxury - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

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

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