Houses rule

A rice field re­treat and a beach pad in Bali

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

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

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