In Bali, Leigh-Ann Pow is held in sway by a trio of properties, each of which encapsulate the concept of luxury at its best.
The hotel car carrying us to Alila Manggis sits in bumper to bumper traffic, nudging ahead slowly as the rain pelts down outside the windows.
The driver apologises for the inconvenience in that typical Balinese way of wanting everything to be just right, but we are cool and dry and not in a hurry to get anywhere in particular.
The time affords me the chance to take in the frenzy of activity that characterises the streetscape in Bali, with what seems like hundreds of whining scooters dodging in and out of the trucks and cars. Through the windows, a muffled cacophony of horns beep incessantly, the symphony of the developing world.
All this noise and colour and activity is as foreign to me as if I was looking on the surface of Mars after spending the last few days cosseted away in the five-star surrounds of Alila’s new Seminyak property, where the air is scented with the sweet perfume of frangipani and sea salt and your every whim is catered to with a broad Balinese smile.
But I love the contrast of it all; seeing the real Bali and some of its staggering 4.2 million inhabitants is as much a privilege as staying in the lovely properties I have come here to visit, making me appreciate the experiences I am being given access to all the more because they do not exist in a bubble.
Once we eventually clear the gridlock and pick up speed, I see another side of the island again: architecturally underwhelming concrete buildings and advertising billboards give way to low rise wooden houses and intermittent swathes of green.
Stopping at traffic lights I look out at tiny roadside stores, with chickens scratching in the dirt under large woven rattan cloches out the front and clusters of men reclining and smoking on raised wooden platforms, taking respite from the dense tropical heat (the rain has finally stopped and the re-emerging sun is converting the moisture on the ground into the kind of humidity you can almost touch).
Our final destination is Manggis, a quiet spot on the east coast of the island far removed from the traffic we have just broken free of and the bar scene of Kuta that so many people imagine when they think of the island.
As we pass through a village, past a Hindu temple (upwards of 80 per cent of the population are Hindu) with worshippers coming and going, the lilting sound of gamelan music can be heard.
Climbing up a hill, the driver suddenly stops realising he has driven past the entrance to Alila Manggis, shrouded as it is in lush vegetation. With a streamlined design by Kerry Hill Architects, Manggis is made up of a cluster of buildings overlooking a wide lawn and the ocean beyond.
Walking into the open-sided reception area, we are greeted with cool drinks. The quiet of the surroundings is almost intoxicating, punctuated only by the gurgle of water from a nearby fountain and birdsong.
Water plays a large part in the layout of the resort. The restaurant pavilion, again open on all sides, is surrounded by water and greenery, and when we are shown to our room we descend stairs and tiptoe across stepping stones set in a shallow pool. Through the luxe minimal interior of our room, the resort’s wide pool can be seen, surrounded by palms trees and a lush lawn.
As the sun sets, the resort is lit by candles that throw a warm haze over the creamy walls and soften the sharp architectural lines. A duo of smiling musicians sit behind a large bamboo instrument tapping out a mesmerising tune that can be heard as we eat dinner from the traditional menu served here.
The next day we are wrapped in traditional sarong before taking the 10-minute trip to the walled traditional village of Tenganan, where the Bali Aga, the indigenous population of the island, still adhere to centuries-old traditions (although now they do it under the watchful gaze of tourists who flock here); a strict code still isolates the village and marriage outside of its confines is frowned upon.
Manggis affords a tantalising glimpse into the compelling traditions of Bali and its people, and is the perfect contrast having spent our first few days holed up in Alila’s newest property on the island: Alila Seminyak. A haven of chic, the Seminyak property is bigger than Manggis but no less welcoming and accommodating.
Executed in tactile natural materials, with whitewashed walls throughout and a lovely flow of buildings punctuated with deep blue pools (there are three in total), the resort seems completely natural within its surroundings in spite of its relative newness (the still growing gardens are the only hint). The service also belies its age: the gracious staff and faultless execution of their assigned tasks is of a standard that usually comes from many years of fine-tuning.
Seminyak has become something of a hotspot in the last few years as ex-pat Australians set up shop, creating boutiques and restaurants and bars that cater perfectly to the travellers who flock here. Alila allows you to dip into the buzz of the surrounding area if you want to – a shopping trip into town in the back of a vintage yellow VW combi van is irresistible – but you don’t feel like you are missing out on anything if you don’t.
The restaurant in the resort is brilliant, a sprawling inside–outside space with deep banquets and an open kitchen through which you can see an army of kitchen staff whipping up dishes such as a complexly flavoured red rice nasi goreng and a fresh, tangy larb salad, both of which I became addicted to (the ice teas on the menu are almost too good too); breads and pastries and desserts are made in an impeccable glassed-in pastry kitchen. The custom of providing a little tray table on which to place your bag and phone when you sit down is totally endearing and becomes my new benchmark of luxury.
While the design and attitude throughout Alila Seminyak is chic and modern (there are no gamelan here), there is still a place for the traditional; the resort was built around a tiny 35-year-old Hindu temple that is now positioned between the restaurant and Beach Bar, and where locals still come to make offerings in the early morning cool.
While Manggis allows for immersion in the culture of the island, and Seminyak ticks the box for those wanting a best of both worlds escape, the third Alila property I visit is geared towards total seclusion: Alila Villas Uluwatu is perched at the top of sheer limestone cliff, looking out to the endless horizon beyond.
Here the sea breeze is allowed to permeate every corner of the open buildings that make up the resort’s hub, where the serene lobby, the restaurants, the infinity pool and the much Instagrammed Sunset Cabana are spread out wide among gardens and still ponds.
The villas are a riot of clean lines and luxe touches: open-air showers, huge day beds overlooking your own private plunge pools and cabana, and a bathroom stocked with signature his and hers Alila products.
There is nowhere to go from here, no villages to visit or shopping to do, but Uluwatu is not the sort of place you leave readily. Rather it is real edge-of-the-Earth total immersion stuff, another variation on the concept of escape that Alila seems to do so well.
As we head back into the frenzy of the streets, we are given one last look into the dichotomy of Bali, where noise and tradition and solitude meld in perfect balance.
How to get there
Jetstar flies to Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport, more popularly known as Denpasar Airport, daily from most Australian capital cities.
Prices start from $159 one way.
While you’re there…
Mister Zimi is filled with island-perfect pieces in strong patterns and colours.
Bali Boat Shed’s hyper-coloured exterior is almost as compelling as the easy breezy his and hers pieces within.
By The Sea’s cute shops house endless-summer pieces with a preppy vibe.
Inside its arresting exterior, The Junction serves funky and fresh during the day and fine dining at night.
Potato Head Beach Club has restaurants, bars and infinity pool. The exterior is worth seeing alone.
Char Char Bar & Grill’s tiered seating is the ultimate place to perch.
Words by Leigh-Ann Pow, photography by Annette O’brien