A rice field retreat and a beach pad in Bali
Seven friends, seven days for some and comings-and-goings for others, and three birthdays. We can take no chances with our accommodation. As on past Bali group trips, our villa operator of choice is Elite Havens.
The birthday people, including me, are mad March hares, which is rather fortunate as this is a low-season month on the Indonesian holiday isle. While there’s the prospect of showers interfering with afternoon cocktails on the lawn, the trade-off is lower tariffs so we upgrade to properties with extra bedrooms and bigger pools.
In the past we’ve stayed with Elite Havens in the heart of happening Seminyak but now it’s time to try the Canggu beachside hub, with one property facing rural scenery, and the second by the sea.
First birthday bolthole is Villa Mana at the village of Babakan near Canggu, a six-bedroom, two-storey house that presents a plain face to the busy street but beyond the double doors opens to a courtyard, water feature and monumental stone colonnade.
Soon revealed is the T-shaped living space with 3.7mhigh ceilings and dark polished concrete floors, 17m-long pool tiled in dark green and, beyond, illuminated for our mid-evening arrival, a terraced rice field gleaming in eerie green light.
Then out hops a plump white rabbit (the owner’s pet) to enhance the Alice in Wonderland fantasy. We may be down the rabbit hole but what a fantastical place, even more beautiful early next morning, the 180-degree country panorama bathed in gauzy light.
Villa manager Made Purnamayasa oversees breakfast and we meet all the team, including chef Putu who rustles up egg-topped nasi goreng with his “secret” ingredient and, for the evening meal, a spread of beef rendang, green mango salad, gado gado and mie goreng. Anything looks possible in his industrial-sized, gadgety kitchen and guests can help themselves to tea and espresso coffee around the clock.
By day, the pool lacks shade but is the loveliest imaginable, with a water cascade and borders of gnarled old frangipani trees. The stepped gardens are all bananas and bougainvillea, with pigeons cooing and bats swooping; the air feels full of chlorophyll.
Upstairs terraces draped with tumbling greenery all but overhang the water. Big lime-green pool floats make for lazy sun beds while there are hammocks, loungers and even a tucked-tight little cabana with bright aquamarine cushions on the side of a slope.
We don’t do much except ponder the reflections of palm trees on the surface of the pool, gather to toast the sensational sunsets and play whimsical games such as spot the bunny. A row of bicycles stands to attention, seemingly mocking our inactivity.
There are vases everywhere of heliconia, tuberose and white orchids. Three of the four downstairs bedrooms have semi-open rock-walled bathrooms with huge tubs and are screened with tropical foliage while the ensuites of the two upstairs master bedrooms are the size of bachelor pads and as gleaming as operating theatres. Design details include padded silk walls, contemporary batik and ikat textiles, colourful rugs and sliding screen doors.
The second villa, a 3km drive seawards to Nelayan Beach, is Arnalaya Beach House, which sleeps up to 18, so we are punching above our size, but that total includes flexible arrangements for children (the gym can be converted to a twin sleeping chamber) so the more realistic capacity is five double bedrooms across the main threestorey residence and a side annexe, all with wooden decks and floor-to-ceiling windows.
This pad is seriously chic, more flooded with light than Villa Mana, and with interiors that feel almost Japanese in their sparseness and regard for unadorned surfaces and linear layout. Japan meets Java, we decide. Design group Studio Daminato was responsible for the look — beds are canopied in gauzy white, there are no announcing colours, just soothing white, caramel and creamy pastels, from flowers, loose-covered sofas and bed throws to terrazzo bathrooms.
Tables and chairs are of pale teak and rattan, lighting is courtesy of lanterns and candles in big glass holders. There’s a 20m saltwater pool with a bordering hedge that offers privacy from the shore beyond. The name, in Sanskrit, means rhythm of the waves, and that is indeed the soundtrack here; with a 35m beach frontage, this has to be one of Bali’s best-located villas, and it’s a 10-minute walk along the sand for a sunset surf or seafood barbecue at madly busy Echo Beach.
The idle option at both villas is dining in and the kitchen teams need advance notice of what you’d like to eat. There are menus, or just go freestyle, but guests are only charged for ingredients purchased (receipts are provided but a cash float in US currency needs to be paid up front) plus a 20 per cent service fee.
We stock up on soft drinks, open our duty-free spirits and make sure the pineapple bowl is topped up for foamy, fresh juices around the clock.
At Arnalaya, the indoor dining room, as breezy and delightful as it is, feels too formal so we flop on cushioned lounges in the raised pool bale at all hours listening to the surge of the surf beyond. The concierge service at both villas suggests shops, dining and side-trips but that requires putting on shoes, and we are lazier than intended.
Did I mention Villa Mana has a lawned football patch with goal posts and rooftop office and entertainment space or that Arnalaya features a championship Plexipave tennis court (the owner is a former pro) and a ball machine? But such sportiness at the latter is balanced by a games room and on-site spa for which therapists can be booked for massages and facials.
Villa Mana’s curtains of greenery and woodland-like bathrooms give the illusion of being somewhere forested and unreachable. Arnalaya’s gardens are trimmed as a golf course, albeit with tricky obstacles of palm trees; statues of Ganesha are garlanded daily with marigolds, gamelan music plays from mysterious sources.
At both villas, staff waft in loose tops and trousers, more effortlessly elegant than our lot, all wild hair and crumpled sarongs.
On our departure day from Arnalaya, I ask operations managers Eka Wibawo and villa manager Oka Juniantara if their staff could assemble for a photograph on the lawn. I expect about half a dozen team members to arrive but they just keep appearing until I realise I will need to switch my iPhone camera to panorama mode. There are the two chefs, Eric and Nyoman, and six butlers, plus security guards and gardeners, and still we are missing who knows how many housekeepers and kitchen hands plus the two on-call spa therapists.
There are enough people here to run a boutique hotel. And maybe that is the point, because villa rentals of this size and level of hands-on attention do have the infrastructure of hotels but you don’t have to share the premises with unknown guests.
We secretive seven have bags of space, privacy when needed, and conviviality at mealtimes and in the pool. Does it rain on our parade? Yes, a little, but as the youngest member of the party points out, you get wet swimming anyway.
We pretend both villas are our own holiday homes and feel resentful as we depart that new guests will sleep in our beds, chat with our chefs in our kitchens. But will they have more fun? We doubt that.
The eldest birthday person in our group, who has turned a Big Zero midway through our stay and had a minor crisis at the thought, has forgotten all about this ageing malarkey and now can’t wait for an auspicious Bigger Zero reunion at a Bali villa.
The countdown is on.
Open lounge area, Villa Mana, main; villa staff quietly at work, above left; Arnalaya Beach House, above and below