Bali has had the lot: Inhabited since Paleolithic times, there have been Hindu gods, European colonists, traders, tourists, terrorists, George W. Bush and Julia Roberts. Now it has a W.
Bali, one of Indonesia’s estimated 18,000 islands, has seen all manner of beings. Inhabited since Paleolithic times, there have been Hindu gods, European colonists, traders, tourists, terrorists, George W. Bush, Julia Roberts and now even a W.
Starwood Hotels and Resorts’ innovative W brand made a daring departure from the cookie-cutter mould of international hotel chains when it opened its first property in New York in 1998. The style was glamorously provocative. Furniture was edgy; appliances high-tech; even traditional hotel services were given flirtier, capitalised names. The concierge became “Whatever Whenever”; guest rooms, “Wow” and “Wonderful”; the humble pool was renamed the “WET” area.
There are 41 W hotels and resorts scattered around the world, including Bali’s, which opened in March this year. “We target the trendsetters,” W’s global brand leader, Eva Ziegler, says. “W offers something completely different; we are what is hippest, fastest, coolest.”
The W Retreat and Spa Bali is no exception. Overlooking a strip of sand at Seminyak, the fashionable northern neighbour of Kuta Beach, the W is big, brazen and dripping in bling. Finished in silver and granite, with splashes of fuchsia, lilac and gold, the lobby looks more like a space-age airport terminal than a beach resort. “Talent” (aka staff) are smartly dressed in charcoal grey and buzz around while beautiful boarders thumb their mobile devices.
At a glance, the hotel could be anywhere in the world. There are elements of Bali incorporated in the design but they are so subtle, the talent would need to point them out. The fuchsia is designed to mimic Bali’s vibrant sunsets; the gold-lined terrazzo floor resembles lotus leaves; the henna prints on the lobby ceiling pay homage to the island’s Hindu traditions.
The lower-category rooms fan out above the lobby, each with views over the multi-level WET area and Indian Ocean from their balconies. The more expensive rooms are in a different corner of the property; these gated villas have a private pool and ample living space. None are cheap; the base category rooms cost from $US423.50 ($397.40) for a garden view without breakfast (add $US60 for this), jumping to $US6100 for the two-bedroom “Extreme Wow” suite.
Designer Ed Ng, of Hong Kong-based AB Concept, sourced as many of the building products as he could from Bali and Java, employing local craftsmen for the finer touches. In the kitchen, Alaskan-born chef Jack Yoss works with an organic farmer in the central Balinese district of Bedugul to grow temperate and heirloom vegetables, drastically reducing the kitchen’s fresh-food imports.
On the other hand, this W serves only imported bottled water and at steeply inflated prices – about 85,000 rupiah ($9.30) for a 500-millilitre bottle of Fiji Water. And the hotel claims eco-merit for building on an existing resort, but fails to mention that resort was razed.
During my stay, a visiting DJ plays for a beach party until 4am with music so loud, it rattles the windows of my room. But W isn’t banking on people coming to Asia’s new party playground to relax or necessarily to sleep. “Bali is already a renowned destination, like St Tropez, for example,” Ziegler says.
Seminyak, of course, began its transformation years ago. Resembling downtown Ibiza more than Bali, there are swanky bars and “lifestyle venues”, such as the newly opened Potato Head Beach Club, and eccentric shops with perplexing names, such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and The Prisoners of St Petersburg.
According to Thai consultancy firm C9 Hotelworks, more than 3 million overseas visitors arrived at Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport last year, 11 per cent more than in 2009. But rising tourist numbers have had side-effects. The streets are clogged with traffic – it takes me more than an hour to drive 10 kilometres from the airport to Seminyak – aggressive touts stalk the tourist strips, there are serious water shortages and frequent outbreaks of rabies, legionnaire’s disease and dengue fever. Add a flashy, boisterous, party-hard hotel brand to the mix and, for some long-time Bali fans, the island has changed beyond recognition.
On my last day in Bali, I take a drive along the south coast, past the posh hotels, bogan bars and skimpy clothes shops of Kuta and Seminyak and into the countryside, past lime-green rice terraces and snow-white beaches lined with palms.
It’s the festival of Galungan, a Balinese Hindu event honouring the victory of good over evil. Penjors – bamboo poles adorned with coconut leaves and flowers – line the roads and Balinese residents swarm each village temple. They kneel before statues of demigods, offering eternal devotion to Bali and the universe.
It’s profound, sacred, beautiful and there are no tourists for miles.
What Ketut did next
Much of Bali’s recent buzz can be attributed to last year’s Eat Pray Love, a true, but largely manufactured, story of the spiritual “quest” of New Yorker Liz Gilbert, played by Julia Roberts.
In the film the island is portrayed as an idyllic paradise marinated in tradition and culture, with gorgeous landscapes, amiable locals and gregarious parties with bohemian expats. Gilbert goes to Bali to fulfil the prophecy of fortune-teller Ketut Liyer, who told her on a previous visit she would come back and teach him English.
I’m intrigued to know what happened to Liyer, so I join one of the W Retreat’s “insider tours” to the town of Ubud to see him.
Before the movie, Liyer was a medicine man who made a living performing temple ceremonies in exchange for donations. At the age of 95, he has embarked on a new career path, reading tourist’s palms, ears and eyes.
For this, Liyer charges 250,000 rupiah ($28) a person for a session of 15-20 minutes. The service is so popular there are often queues.
Liyer conducts his readings on the porch of a small shrine in his traditional courtyard house. He is a spritely man for his age, dressed in a batik dhoti and T-shirt, with few teeth and a warm, gentle manner.
One by one the women in our group present the fortune-teller their outstretched hands. “You are very smart, very pretty,” he says to the first. “You will be very wealthy, have long life, loving husband,” which sounds fantastic, until he repeats the same words to the second woman, and then to the third.
I’m not sure who to feel most sorry for, the gullible tourists paying to hear a well-rehearsed line, or Ketut Liyer for spending his latter years dishing out drivel to any star-struck tourist with enough cash to listen.
The W Retreat and Spa Bali has double rooms from $US423.50; Jl. Petitenget, Seminyak; see whotels.com/baliseminyak
If you tire of the razzmatazz of Kuta or Seminyak, drive to the far north-west tip of Bali. Set in a 382-hectare reserve, the recently refurbished, 22-room Menjangan resort hugs a coastline of unspoiled beaches and mangrove forests. Its beach villas are spacious cottages with terrazzo floors, outdoor bathrooms and balconies overlooking the ocean. Here, you will feel like you have the place to yourself. Doubles from $US181, including breakfast; see themenjangan.com