Four Seasons has a big advantage over competitors when it comes to Bali as it can offer both beach and lush inland settings, two luxury resorts and two completely different experiences. Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan is next to the gorgeous Ayung River, near Ubud, at least 90 minutes drive ‘at one o’clock’ from the airport. It is such a relief to arrive there, in paradise, and the gal was welcomed, as are all guests, with a lucky waist sash, and holy water sprinkled on both hands. Then you walk across a 50-yard wood bridge, high above a ravine: this bridge is a metaphorical ‘spoon’, conceived by architect John Heah as the link to a ‘rice bowl’, the four-floor cylindrical main building – just visible in the image above – that protrudes above lush natural greenery.
This concept was outrageously unique when this was opened in 1998 by owner BS Ong, and it remains a one-off, today, and looks just-new, but still part of the local habitat. Some of the 60 bedrooms are in wings leading off the rice bowl, others are individual villas set into the landscape, but you do not see them. At ground level, each villa seems just like a decorative pool, set with flowering waterlilies. But go down 26 stone steps, by the pool, and you find yourself at the main door of your totally-private villa, with 600 sq ft of indoor, air-conditioned space, an outdoor sala and a 20 x 12 ft pool. I swam, listening to birds and the rushing river, alone with nature.
But there was so much to do here. Spa villas are like separate houses, set into more waterlily pools. The gym looks into undergrowth. There is great food, including, tonight, the weekly Ubud night, which started with half an hour of traditional dancing by local villagers – the performance ended with the rather terrifying Jauk, a monster with long nails who dances his joy and sadness story. Next came the buffet, including babi guling, a six-month suckling pig roasted whole with a thousand spices (some even had space to go on to braised banana with palm sugar syrup and black rice pudding). Because of the three-dimensional lie of the land, buggies are near essential here although I discovered steps, 46 of them, that took me back down to the area of the ‘hidden villas’.
About 15% of guests here are regulars, returning for solitude and complete peace with nature. The Obamas, with some relations, were here in June, staying in villa 11, the 22,000 sq ft Royal Suite that had hosted Julia Roberts when she filmed Eat, Pray, Love here in 2006. The Obamas’ guide, Agus, had taken them rafting – the Secret Service would not allow them to go trekking, as I did. Agus escorted me over rice fields and then through jungle, where he gave a bottle of water to an ancient person, I think female, who lives in a rudimentary shack as she collects and dries wood for locals’ kitchens. We went on, indeed, to a proper family home, a multi-generational compound with communal living but separate sleeping houses. Toothless granny tends the chickens and pigs, and compound residents, while the unseen grandfather apparently was off-campus, looking after cows. A young woman with a toddler sat cross-legged on a platform carefully spooning cooked meat into banana leaves, secured as parcels with twine of some kind of roots (these parcels would later be steamed, over an open fire). And then it was back to reality, to the comforts of my luxury hotel’s villa. SEE MY VILLA, FIRST, THEN A DANCE, THEN A HIKE