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Bali Base Camp

Susan Kurosawa | The Australian | April 10, 2010 | Original Article

HOLIDAY villas in Bali are proliferating like toadstools after rain. They are to be found down sleeve-slim alleys barely broad enough for a car, shoulder-to-shoulder in ranks beside and behind the beach strips, overlooking paddy fields and rivers, on the outskirts of the hill town of Ubud and tucked into villages around Tanah Lot on the west coast and along the cliffs of Uluwatu on the island's southwest tip.

Whether the market is becoming oversupplied is a debatable point, but what is certain is that Australian visitors are once again the Indonesian holiday isle's biggest market and the most enthusiastic fans of the self-contained villa concept.

When Swiss-born Roger Haumueller and his tour operator partners opened Space at Bali villas in Seminyak last year, they weren't sure where most of their guests would hail from.

Since the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005 and the resultant slowdown in Australian visitor figures, markets such as Taiwan and South Korea have grown, but with those economies collapsing, Haumueller says, "The Aussies are here, enjoying barbecues in the villa gardens and travelling with families or couples as house parties."

It's easy to see the appeal; Space at Bali is a well-named concept, with six 600sq m two-bedroom villas in a garden compound wedged off Jalan Drupadi, one of the arteries that feeds into Seminyak's popular Jalan Laksmana (better known as Jalan Oberoi) and to the lively shopping parades of Jalan Raya Seminyak and Jalan Legian.

Each thatched villa has a pair of mirror-image double bedrooms with french doors on to the flowering garden, tons of storage space, flat-screen televisions and semi-outdoor bathrooms, which makes bath-taking a treat as geckoes chirrup from the walls and heliconias, palms and banana trees stand an arm's length from the tub.

There are single couches that easily convert to children's beds and, when several villas are rented together, monumental Javanese wooden gates can be left open so families and friends can use the interconnected spaces. The lovely green-tiled pool within each villa's high walls is bigger than the villa average (about 12m long, to my eye) and surrounded by trimmed lawn and tropical bushes in which tiny finches dart about. There's a thatched poolside bale with day bed and cargo of cushions and, in the main villa building, a rather odd upstairs lounging area and a much more practical downstairs living room with dining table, sofas and a kitchen hidden behind a circular wall with Moroccan-style latticed windows.

Morocco, you ask? And a kitchen? There's no holiday in cooking and Space at Bali provides each villa with a butler who prepares and serves breakfast to order, plus any meals you'd like to have "at home". The lovely Dewi is my butler for three days and the North African latticed nooks enable her to look through from the kitchen and tell when guests are ready to eat or the table needs clearing. So that part of the Moroccan theme works, but the hanging metal lights, keyhole-shaped doors and low cushioned seats are less successful, simply because we are not in Marrakech and Balinese design surely is more appropriate. But this is a niggling point given that every other element has been so well considered and the comfort factor at Space at Bali is very high indeed.

This is, in fact, the perfect base camp from which to explore the lower west coast of the island, the tourist strip that stretches north of Ngurah Rai airport through Kuta and Legian to fashionable Seminyak. Space at Bali offers tours further north and inland, too, to the rock temple of Tanah Lot or up to Ubud for river excursions, art galleries and more shopping. Guests can hire a villa car or van and driver and every outing, from a lift to the shops to a full-day tour, feels like a privileged affair orchestrated by the affable manager of the villas, Wayan Tana, who oversees 28 staff.

My driver is Gede ("If you forget it, just think of g'day, mate"), whose English is excellent, his sense of humour tack-sharp and his ability to park his four-wheel-drive in a spot that looks barely big enough for a pram is astonishing. I couldn't imagine a better escort for exploring Seminyak.

Get in the groove: In the past couple of years there has been an explosion of chi-chi restaurants in and around Seminyak with martini lists that outshine the best bars in London or New York, expensive fitouts, moody lighting and clever menus that rove from Thai curries and sashimi to chilli-hot seafood pasta, risotto and local specialties. Ku De Ta continues to hold the crown with its unbeatable seafront locale, garden loungers and food from Australian executive chef Phillip Davenport. It feels like being at the centre of the Asian style universe; there are Japanese tourists in cool cotton yukata gowns, pretty young things from Hong Kong and Singapore in the latest big heels and beach tops, handsome chaps of the kind who look perfectly at ease wearing sunglasses at 10pm and, dear readers, the PLUs. People like us, that is.

I am in an Indian shirt, white pants and thongs because that's as formal as I can bear to be after three days in a swimsuit at Space at Bali. Maybe it's the distraction of Ku De Ta-branded lounge music CDs playing in the hot night and the oh-so dim lighting, but I fit right in, a kind of middle-aged shadow. A plate of delicate oysters from Washington state, a crab linguini, an earl grey martini, back to my make-believe Marrakech for a swim and a sleep. Bali bliss.

Food, wine and funk: While Ku De Ta is a must, it does have strong competition from two new nearby restaurants that open out to planted rice fields. Facing each other on Jalan Petitenget, at Kerobokan at the northern end of Seminyak, the rivalry factor feels almost in-built. Sardine, in an impressive bamboo pavilion, has a more consciously art-directed feel but Metis, owned by the people who ran Kafe Warisan for years, has the better food, an unexpected foie gras menu augmenting the international a la carte, and the bonus of regular deejay evenings and jazz soirees. Both open for lunch and dinner but it's at night that the garden lighting and cocktail vibe elevate the atmosphere; all the tables at Metis have views but Sardine has a front seating area with no ricefield vista so it's worth requesting a terrace table when you book.

The large and sleek Metis also has a gallery of antique pieces, a patisserie and jewellery and accessories boutiques.

Will Meyrick, formerly of Sydney's Longrain, has opened Sarong at 19 Jalan Petitenget, also the talk of new Bali town, with curries, pan-Asian dishes and a tandoor oven. He has assembled his kitchen brigade in an unusual way, hiring "an elderly lady who used to run her own warung" for the Indonesian specialities, an expert in making roti to make sure there is authentic bread to accompany the kormas and biryanis, and a murtabak street vendor who now conjures up these popular Indonesian pancakes in the Sarong kitchens.

The restaurant opens only in the evening and has a fabulously over-the-top decor of big black chandeliers, scores of candles and swagged curtains, but its series of rooms are open on all sides to the scented flowers and chiming frogs of the Balinese night. Meyrick will open a "modern Australian Chinese" restaurant, Porcelain, in the neighbourhood by the end of the year.

From lunch to little cakes: La Lucciola (La Louche to those in the know) on Jalan Petitenget at Seminyak (near The Legian resort) is a bright and breezy thatched pavilion restaurant reached via Kaya Ayu Beach or over a footbridge from the car park. It's very popular for sunset cocktails and dinner but the surf view at lunchtime (or late breakfast), especially from the second-storey tables, is fantastic. A fresh pineapple juice, a salad tossed with salmon and asparagus, a blood orange granita: it's all rather perfect.

A totally different but most enjoyable lunch experience is at Sip at 16a Jalan Raya Seminyak, which is pure French bistro at night with its high slanted mirrors and rows of twinkling wine bottles, but during the day is an oasis of calm amid the shops and Bintang Market brouhaha. The table d'hote menu (perhaps tuna carpaccio, steak frites with green salad and a warm apple tart) is excellent value.

"We don't puree vegetables, the vinegar is not balsamic and nothing is on a bed of something," declares the menu. There are heavy import duties on wine in Indonesia but Sip boasts that its wines are about 20 per cent cheaper than last year and there are very sensibly priced carafes of house drops.

Sip is so good, actually, that both lunch and dinner here are highly recommended.

Afternoon tea is a must at the electic little Biku, which is also a bookshop (look for vintage Rudyard Kipling and reprints of Asian classics in the glass-fronted cases) housed in a 150-year-old building in the lavishly carved and high-ceilinged East Java style. The iced teas (try the Biku Blend, served with mint, starfruit and fresh wild ginger flowers) are divinely cooling, there's all-day breakfast and a good lunch menu, but afternoon refreshments are the highlight; the ribbon sandwiches and date scones with mango jam appear on English tea-party cake-stands.

Biku opened in 2008 at 888 Jalan Petitenget; the mismatched chairs, sofas tucked into corners, swiping ceiling fans and jars of fresh flowers on each table create a cheery atmosphere that's as much about relaxing as eating. There's free wireless internet so it's a good spot for some laptop lounging. The owner is the former Jane Gillespie, an Australian who married the princely Tjokorda Raka Kerthyasa of Ubud in 1978; the couple also own the Warwick Ibah Luxury Villas in Ubud and one of their sons is a tea master, hence the list at Biku of dozens of varieties of fine blends, including such China exotics as Phoenix Mountain and Cloud and Mist.

Stop and shop: I would like to take credit for the concept of Bali drive-by shopping, which I perfected in 2006 at the height of the rainy season. It was too wet to walk the streets so I hired a car and driver and off we crawled, parting the water along Jalan Legian and causing waves on the pavements. If I saw something in a shop window that took my fancy, the driver stopped and in I raced, wearing Hello Kitty gumboots from the markets. The weather should never be an impediment for serious shopping.

During this recent Bali trip, I discover new favourite shops using the drive-by method (and thanks to Gede's parking prowess). For faux-Venetian chandeliers and beautiful light fittings, head for Alabaster. There are Swarovski crystal lights and cheaper Chinese imitations; special requests can be made to order.

I buy a six-arm contemporary chandelier with black lampshades and ruby-red beads (very boudoir) for the equivalent of $320. It comes to pieces and is easily portable.

For cute gift and homeware items such as toile-patterned toiletries bags, air fresheners in shiny silk pouches and snowy embroidered bed linen, try Disini at 6-8 Jalan Raya Seminyak; almost next door is Vivacqua, where the beaded purses and handbags, bead-trimmed totes and chunky necklaces are a steal.

Tasmaniac (tas means bag in Bahasa Indonesian, says Gede) at 501 Jalan Raya Seminyak has gorgeous "high-end leather" handbags and wallets that mimic Hermes and Paul Smith, and are of much better quality than found at the markets. Lucy's Batik at 88 Jalan Raya Basangkasa sells soft and utterly beautiful throws, scarfs and shawls.

Jalan Legian and Jalan Raya Seminyak have their fair share of tat shops. Who knew of the existence of such wondrous things as batik-painted didgeridoos and Burberry-print basketballs? There are several shops that sell nothing but bangles.

Little spas proliferate where for about $8 you put your feet in a tank and Turkish garra rufa (or doctor fish) nibble at your toes and heels and vacuum up the dead cells (not for the ticklish); given the excellent exchange rate of the Australian dollar against the rupiah, massages and hand and feet treatments are cheap. Even using the in-house spa service at Space at Bali is inexpensive, with pedicures and manicures, administered by the pool in the relative cool of late afternoon, at about $15 each or one-hour massages for about $25.

Of course, after a late massage one can barely summon the energy for a sunset lemongrass martini or pink squirrel at Ku De Ta or Metis. But from Space at Bali at least it's a short hop from happy inertia to happening action.

Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Space at Bali.

Checklist
Space at Bali's two-bedroom villas are from $US300 to $US400 ($326 to $435) a night, according to the season, including all taxes, transfers, breakfasts and broadband access. Other meals, garden barbecues (about $36 a person; minimum four guests), spa treatments, Indonesian cooking classes, yoga sessions and private touring on request.

Guests can also order meals from nearby restaurants and villa staff will deliver and set up. The villas are about 20 minutes from the airport. More: www.spaceatbali.com

Check Garuda's 2010 Bali on any Budget program for dozens of villa options to suit couples, families and extended houseparties.

More:
www.balionanybudget.com.au
www.kudeta.net
www.sardinebali.com
www.metisbali.com
www.sarongbali.com
www.sip-bali.com
www.bikubali.com
www.alabasterlighting-bali.com

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