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Authentic Bali

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

Photo: Hugh Stewart

“We work hard to convince people we’re not just a hippie school in the jungle,” says admissions director Ben Macrory. “That said”—he points to a healing circle with a boulder-size quartz crystal at the center—“we’re also a hippie school in the jungle.”

The Green School has gained a following among Ubud’s expat community, which has always tilted left of center. Liv Gussing’s children were among the first enrollees, and Ben and Blair Ripple, owners of Big Tree Farms, send their daughter there. The Ripples are a remarkable pair: New York and Connecticut natives who moved to Bali 12 years ago, intent on reintroducing sustainable farming to an island that was often turning its back on traditional agricultural ways. I first met the Ripples in 2003, when they were farming a tiny plot on John Hardy’s estate; today, working in cooperation with local farmers around Bali and neighboring Java, they produce 100 different crops, from coffee to sea salt to coconut-palm sugar. (Ferran Adrià and Thomas Keller are among the chefs using Big Tree products.) That Ben and Blair are still in their early thirties is one more reason to admire or hate them, depending on how you feel about your own life trajectory. But they’re as charming as they are attractive, and blessed with contagious enthusiasm. Late one night over too many martinis at the Ubud watering hole Naughty Nuri’s, we listened raptly as Ben outlined plans for an organic chocolate factory—“Wonka-esque” was how he described it—and the revival of Big Tree’s Firefly Dinners, farm-to-table banquets held occasionally in a torchlit jungle outside Ubud. By the end of the night Nilou and I were convinced we could make a go of organic farming ourselves. Bali does that to a person.

Downtown Ubud is still a haven for the drawstring-pants crowd, with the requisite banana-pancake cafés, but if you confined yourself to the town’s perimeter you might imagine every visitor was rich and every hotel was a five-star. The humblest rural lane will lead to some discreetly luxurious, $600-a-night resort—usually disguised to resemble an old Balinese village in its layout and landscaping, its architecture and iconography. The refined-rustic look is so pervasive it’s become the vernacular.

But it was only in the past 20 years that high-end resorts began to convey a convincing sense of “Bali-ness.” The trend arguably started at Amandari, which opened in 1989 along the Ayung River Gorge outside Ubud. Each of the resort’s thatched-roof villas was set in its own stone-walled compound and laid out like a traditional Balinese house. Now as then, pebbled pathways thread past lotus ponds and flower gardens; serpentine rice terraces cascade down the hillside to the river far below. The resort feels as secluded and exclusive as any, yet local residents continually pass through on a public footpath, baskets perched on heads, making their way to the riverbank. While Amandari’s design gracefully fuses indoors and out, there’s also a back-and-forth between the hotel and the village just next door. In 1989 this permeability was a novel idea: no longer was a hotel simply a mansion on the hill, but a part of the community. And the agenda shifted as well, from conjuring a fantasy to accessing reality.

Two decades on, Amandari has some of the best cultural programs of any resort—mainly because it’s been here long enough to cultivate lasting connections. The hotel sponsors a celebrated dance program for local children, who rehearse at Amandari daily after school for twice-weekly performances.

But the highlight for Nilou and me was the cooking class, which began with an early morning trip to a nearby market. The drive out was impossibly pretty, passing mist-shrouded fields that seemed to sparkle in the sunrise, with only a flock of babbling ducks to disturb the stillness. The market was extremely rustic—or, as they say in hotelspeak, “authentic”: a rabbit warren of muddy lanes and primitive stalls piled with chicken heads, snails, and dried fish, attended by toothless women and no shortage of flies.

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