In Bali, if you’re outside when the torrential, tropical rains start, there’s little you can do to avoid getting soaked. Or so I thought, until I was hiking in the Ayung Valley, near Ubud, when the heavens opened, and my guide, Eca, chopped down a banana leaf to use it as an umbrella. It was surprisingly effective.
Eca was guiding me down through the belly of the Ayung Valley, the tangle of luscious green that ends with a wide, fast-flowing river. The trek is one of the many activities offered at the Amandari hotel, where I was staying, which is set high up on the valley’s hillside.
We walked past the hotel’s vegetable gardens, a seventh-century river temple, fuschia frangipani plants and palm sugar trees, which have strong, fibrous husks used to make the roofs, Eca told me, of countless local temples, which stood tall like black, straggly haired giants in nearly every village I visited.
“Thirty years ago, you wouldn’t be able to pass a local without them asking to take a photograph with you”. Today, the Balinese are less phased by the tourist masses. Nearly everybody I came into contact with was resolutely welcoming and didn’t seem too jaded by it all (Bali recorded 13.7 million overseas tourists in 2017).
Ironically, we didn’t see many others on the hike, save for a farmer and a group of men from a local village trying to fix a blocked irrigation channel. The leader was in swimming trunks and a wooly hat, holding a clipboard: the scene was not unlike something out of a Wes Anderson film.
The markers of tourism became more obvious once we started the ascent up the other side: we walked past a building site, set to become a huge new resort, and then on past the tall, cylindrical Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan, with its lotus pond seemingly suspended in mid-air (the Obamas’ choice for a family holiday here, I was told). Shrieks from people on the valley swings, placed on terraces above us, added to the chorus of rainfall, birds and cicadas.
It’s a marked shift which Amandari has witnessed first hand. When it opened 30 years ago, it was one of the first luxury hotels in the area, and was the first to install an infinity pool in Ubud (its view is now ever-so-slightly blotted by the curved roof of the nearby Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve).
It set a trend: pools like these are now the trademark statement at most of the area’s hotels, and each is more Instagrammable than the last: The Hanging Gardens of Ubud have made a name for themselves because of their two-tiered masterpiece, and Capella Ubud, one of the most recent luxury openings, has placed seemingly floating, jungle-engulfed private pools in all of its villas.
Amandari was the second property in Adrian Zecha’s new hotel stable when it opened in 1989 (the first was Thailand’s Amanpuri which opened the year before). The formula - staggering architecture, effortless service and a barefoot but glossy luxury in locations less well-travelled - was visionary.
The current portofolio stands at 34 properties in 21 locations, with openings planned for Kyoto (November 2019), New York, Mexico (both 2020), Bangkok (2022) and Saudi Arabia (2023).
Though it’s surrounded by bucolic hills, rice terraces and jungle, Ubud itself is a traffic-clogged tapestry of scooters, temples, centuries-old banyan trees and Michelin-starred restaurants. But perhaps the best symbol of modern Ubud is ‘Starbakso’, a restaurant that’s pun name combines the American coffee chain and the popular dumpling soup, usually found as street food (there is also a Starbucks in the centre of town).
Amandari remains a sanctuary from all that. It was modelled, by Australian architect Peter Muller, on a traditional village, a series of alang-alang thatch-roof villas and pavilions dotted around the lily pond-filled grounds. A seventh-century stone tiger takes pride of place near reception, and if you’re lucky, you might catch a religious ceremony going on.
When guests check-in, they’re greeted with canang sari (a daily offering of colourful flowers in Hindu religion) from little girls from the school next door, who attend dance classes provided for free by the hotel.
It’s this type of support of local custom which has also made Aman a pioneer in the industry. Activities include visiting a local healer at his home or an evening blessing by the village priest on the night of a full moon - typical of the sort of spiritual enlightenment many visitors to Bali are looking for.
Similarly, presents might include a colourful painted cockerel made by a child from a local orphanage, or, when you leave (for the airport, or to Aman’s sister coastal property), chunky homemade brownies containing cocoa harvested by a local farmer.
If Amandari was born in Bali’s cultural heartland, then Amankila, which opened in 1992, was born out of the sea, both literally and figuratively. It lies an hour-and-a-half east of its sister, overlooking the Lombok Strait.
As you approach the property, on a steep, winding path, the palm-studded coastline slowly comes into view. The design, by architect Ed Tuttle, is inspired by the nearby Ujung palace which seemingly floats on water. Tuttle (who also designed Amanpuri), along with Jean-Michel Gathy of Denniston and Kerry Hill, are known as the holy trio of architects responsible for the Aman’s now signature architectural style.
An open porte-cochère - all blonde stone and columns - leads down to a series of terraced infinity pools, which reference nearby rice paddies, overlooking the endless blue. Villas, set across a series of walkways, are decked out with coconut wood wall panels and four-poster beds, and mother-of-pearl inlay on table tops and taps.
Steps lead down the cliff edge to the beach club, though staff can call one of the doorless Toyotas to take you down and, more importantly, back up. Those wanting a postcard-perfect spot will notice that the beach view is punctuated by cargo ships and ferries en route to Lombok and the Gilis, a contextual reminder not only of the fact that this is a working port, but also of the powerful easterly Trade Winds which ramp up every afternoon.
Activities, of course, are centred around water. Guests can book the Aman XII, a 40-foot traditional ‘junkung’ boat which takes you snorkelling in the Blue Lagoon: I spotted eels, eagle rays and iridescent angel fish so colourful they looked like they were kitted out in Roberto Cavalli. Seasoned surfers can also be brought to intermediate-to-advanced spots which are less popular than the surfer beaches on the Bukit Peninsula.
Though it’s a few years away from its 30th birthday, maintenance work has been happening at Amankila. It’s just built three new infinity pools in existing villas and its spa - operated out of an existing suite - may not be as grand as the newly restored one at Amanpuri (which offers medical and Ayurvedic treatments, amongst others), but its menu is being replenished and treatments can also now be taken in one of the pool suites.
New activities also include a Wellness Within retreat (which includes visiting local healers and learning about medicinal plants), and a cookery course with a visit to a local market with the chef. A private cinema will also launch in November, in part of what is now the hotel’s library.
In that same decadent, wood-panelled library, there’s an album with photographs of the construction and launch party of the hotel. It looks exactly the same, right down to the chic cane-backed chairs in the poolside restaurant, the linen staff uniforms and the silver-toned parasols by the pools that look like large versions of those that adorn retro cocktails (Amandari’s are the same, but in mint green).