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Authentic Bali

A private pool pavilion at Bali’s Alila Villas Uluwatu resort, on the Bukit Peninsula.

Photo: Hugh Stewart

Of course Bali’s allure has always been about both spiritual pursuits and sybaritic pleasures—to the point that sybaritic pleasures are reframed as spiritual pursuits. Browse any hotel directory: what we call “lounging by the pool” becomes in Bali “an opportunity to meditate”; a massage becomes a healing ritual; afternoon tea is recast as a ceremony; and a morning hike is nothing less than a pilgrimage. More than ever, the island’s resorts are making a priority of cultural relevance, promising unique entrée into Balinese art and architecture, music and dance, cuisine, traditional medicine, and social and religious life. The best hotels actually come close to providing it, granting guests a room with a view, but also a viewpoint: a compelling vantage on Bali itself. At the Four Seasons Bali at Sayan, near Ubud, one can spend the day with local farmers, learning firsthand about Bali’s ingenious subak irrigation system and even planting rice. The three resorts run by the Komaneka group—owned by the Neka family, whose patriarch founded Ubud’s Neka Art Museum—all showcase eclectic collections of contemporary Balinese art; the latest and most lavish property, Komaneka at Bisma, is a veritable gallery unto itself. These days one can have one’s karma cleansed, learn kite-making and Balinese dance, or be healed by a djamoe medicine man, often without leaving the premises. Along with cold towels and chilled juice, your hotel will bring Bali to you.

It’s easy to be skeptical. Who looks to a hotel for a genuine cultural experience? Travelers have forever wrung their hands over The Authenticity Question, from Kona to Kathmandu—but particularly so in Bali, where tourism and tradition have had a long, strange, symbiotic relationship. (For a most incisive critique, seek out French anthropologist Michel Picard’s 1996 study, Bali: Cultural Tourism and Touristic Culture.) So this is not a novel complaint. But neither is it really a complaint at all. One of the great singularities of this island—and one of the great thrills of traveling here—is the thin line between the sacred and the mundane, between the genuine and the disingenuous. If such a line even exists.

For a look at Bali’s next frontier, we ventured out to the southwestern coast, where Alila Hotels & Resorts opened its newest hotel on the island, the Alila Villas Soori. Set between green rice fields and a black-sand beach, the location is stunning, and if it feels a bit sleepy that’s precisely the intention. Seminyak’s trendy boutiques are just 40 minutes away—gods and traffic willing—yet this corner of Bali is still disarmingly quiet. (There’s a reason why many expats are relocating here.)

The Soori’s trump card is its proximity to Tanah Lot, Bali’s most dramatically situated temple, poised on a rocky headland that becomes an island at high tide. At sunset the site is overrun by tour buses, but Alila guests can easily reach Tanah Lot in the morning before the crowds arrive.

Sparsely populated the southwest may be, but like all of Bali it brims with activity. Biking down one rural lane we came upon an artisan village devoted to the making of terra-cotta roof tiles. The air was suffused with woodsmoke from makeshift kilns; every resident was coated in a layer of fine red dust. The village was inarguably poor, yet each house was surrounded by the most intricately hewn stone wall, protecting the most gracefully realized temple and a shrine whose artfulness was breathtaking.

This is where we have to talk about the sheer sensory overload of Bali. There is simply more stuff per square foot on this island than in the entirety of Hong Kong or Manhattan: carved Garuda statues and ornamental gates, kettle gongs and suling flutes, masks and totems and effigies shaded by parasols and wrapped in checkered poleng cloths. Nearly all of it is beautiful to behold. In the West we keep our art ensconced in museums, our idolatry sequestered in churches; in Bali, devotional arts and crafts are everywhere you look, spilling onto the sidewalk. Even the gutters are strewn with frangipani petals from yesterday’s canang, prayer offerings in banana-leaf baskets.

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