A huge pearl moon is rising in the mauve evening sky as Dennis and I lie on our terrace. Wayan Linggen and Ibu Sunerti, our masseur and masseuse, scatter petals of frangipani and tuberose over our bodies. The scent of a tender incense drifts from bowls of flowers they've brought as offerings for the spirits.
The opening prayers finished, Wayan and Ibu place our heads facedown in the clefts of the tables over small vases of orchids, nasturtiums, and hibiscus set on the dark ironwood floor. The Ayung River roars through a gorge far below.
It is the best massage I've ever had.
Cocooned in linen kimonos, we are led back to our room. We collapse on the bed, a massive four-poster of black bamboo, netted in silky white gauze. Ferri, our butler, knocks and enters with a china tea service on a silver tray. "To restore you," he says quietly, pouring steaming cups of a ginger, lime, and honey tea.
It is the most wonderful tea I've ever tasted.
Dennis often chides me for using too many superlatives, but he agrees that Begawan Giri Estate, a few miles north of Ubud, deserves every one of them.
Although I've never met Bradley Gardner, the owner of this astonishing place, I'm sure he's an obsessive, because nothing like this could exist without monomaniacal dedication. Indeed, before they built the resort, Gardner and his wife, Debbie—both of whom are English—spent several years in a makeshift bamboo house on Begawan Giri mountain, on an escarpment overlooking the Ayung. There the Gardners planned the estate's five villas, or residences (22 rooms total), which clasp the mountainside. Each has an Indonesian name; ours is Tejasuara.
We squander the first morning of our long weekend having breakfast on our balcony, cantilevered over our private mountain, where, if we turn our heads just slightly, we're captivated by the terraces of rice paddies, green as grasshoppers. Martin Jones, the amiable general manager, drops by to see whether we'd like a tour. We explain that we're so relaxed we couldn't crawl a city block; he promises a lazy pace.
Designed by Yew Kuan Cheon, a young Malaysian, each residence has a pool, a television room-cum-library, and an open-walled living and dining space. Cheon incorporated rare woods—teak, merbau, bamboo, coconut wood—in every aspect of construction. Colossal telephone poles of silk-smooth ironwood (so hard it feels petrified) act as the principal sustaining beams.
The Gardners decorated the guest rooms and public spaces with art, crafts, and antiques gathered on their travels. Dennis, an abstract painter, admits he is drunk on what he calls the visual juice of the place.
"Even the most luxurious hotels have a repetitive motif," he says. "Chairs, tables, lamps, bathroom fixtures are usually identical, and they numb your eyes. Here you pay attention to every shape, every detail."
One starry indigo night, we're at dinner on a promontory just a short walk up the mountain. Lightning bugs dart among the nine tables, each graced with a unique flower bouquet and antique linens.
We're joined by the chef, David King. He has cooked with Alice Waters and Michel Rostang, and dazzled at Stars in San Francisco and Sydney's Darley Street Thai. When he's not in the kitchen, King roams the grounds, nibbling at leaves and roots and berries. Earlier, I saw him on a walk and he handed me a crushed leaf. "It's clove," he exclaimed. "Imagine what one can do with this!" King plans to grow his own produce on the estate and to raise fish and fowl.
I order the chicken-and-coconut salad and am delighted with the subtle, mysterious spices. Dennis is pleased with his fish stew. "I don't like anything formulaic," says King, echoing the Gardner doctrine. "Whatever people want, I hope to make different, better. Ah, here's your dessert."
On a silver platter is a still life of eight unrecognizable fruits—mangosteen, breadfruit, jackfruit, rambutan, salak, sapodilla, kaliasem, and water apples. This chef is clearly aware that some things need no improvement.
If you're looking for typical resort or spa activities, you won't find many at Begawan. Of course there are the sublime massages, and the hotel can organize shopping, sightseeing, and rafting excursions, as well as golf, tennis, and horseback riding. But what Begawan does have is miles of ravishing walks. Gardner terraced the entire 30-acre mountain stone by stone, and planted more than 2,500 rare trees. (More than 50 gardeners tend to the estate.) To walk all the trails takes five hours of strenuous hiking.
One rain-clean morning, Ferri, still our butler and now our friend, dressed in an immaculate white Nehru jacket and a dark flowered sarong, leads us down what seems like hundreds of stone steps. We brush past violet thunbergia, firecracker hibiscus, fragrant sandat, voluptuous banana flowers, and spidery ferns to arrive at an enchanted space.
Gardner has captured three streams that converge at the foot of the mountain and molded them with huge stones into mystical black pools. Orchids climb the trees; the sun dapples the giant leaves; the sky is pure blue. Dennis and I speak in whispers as Ferri discreetly leaves us to do as we wish, and, later, to stretch onto the two antique wooden chaises. We linger well into the afternoon.
The next morning, we go exploring in one of the estate's jeeps. Harry, today's winsome butler, accompanies us as guide and translator.
As we drive, we fall in love with the thatched-roof "relax huts" we see, built on teak stilts plunked in the middle of the rice fields, where one can snooze or hang out when work becomes burdensome. Dennis detects a hut for sale and we walk over to check it out. After speaking to the owner, Harry reports that the price is $1,200; he can easily arrange to have it shipped. Another reason to stay a few more days: we need time to figure out how to implant the hut into our lives. Alas, we have no country property; the courtyard of our apartment building, though spacious, isn't aesthetically suitable; and the spirits of the hut would be abysmally unhappy buried in self-storage. We thank Harry for all his work and sadly decline.
Day after day we rise early and go off in a jeep to scour the countryside with Harry or Ferri. We are taken on the back roads to Tabanan, to be entranced yet again by the glorious emerald of rice paddies. When we crave temples embedded with soft green mosses, erotic to the touch, we go to Candidasa and Amlapura in the east. After roaming the gardens at the ancient Water Palace, we lie down on the coral rims of its black pools to inhale the sweet air and dreamily watch the clouds billow and orange poppies unfurl in the sunlight.
On our last day, we climb into the jeep one more time and drive past roadside temples, relax huts, and slender, graceful women carrying bowls of fruit on their heads. Ferri shifts into low gear as we turn onto the rocky road that leads back to Begawan Giri. A lemon twist of a moon is rising; warm cashews await us on our doorstep; our masseur and masseuse are standing by; white gardenias float in bowls by our bed.
We came for a long weekend, but we stayed for 12 days.
Begawan Giri Estate, 62-361/978-888, fax 62-361/978-889; rooms start at $475 per night (plus 21 percent tax), including breakfast. Even though Indonesia is experiencing a monetary crisis, there are no discounts at the top hotels. "We're making double the profit," admitted one hotelier. "People are willing to pay our rates, but the goods and services that we provide cost us half what they used to." You're advised not to tip; because the staff was so genuinely friendly and helpful, however, we gave generously.
Begawan's recipe for ginger, lime, and honey tea makes just one large cup, so you might prefer to double or triple it. I know I do.
2-3 oz. fresh unskinned gingerroot
3 limes, juiced
1-3 tbsp. honey
1 bag English breakfast tea
Vigorously hand-grate the gingerroot, then strain the milky fluid into a large mug. Add lime juice. Steep tea bag in a cup of hot water for one minute. Add tea to ginger-and-lime mixture and stir well. Add honey to taste.
When we first arrived on Bali, Dennis and I had bought a couple of sarongs in Kuta. The experience was so unpleasant—we'd been bugged by every shopkeeper to buy, buy, buy—that we avoided all stores from then on.
Until, that is, we found Candidasa "supermarket." Hidden behind the foodstuffs is fashion bliss: hundreds of sarongs in fabulous patterns, beautiful fabrics—the most expensive about $12. Supermarkets like this are plentiful in Bali. About a tenth the size of a 7-Eleven, they usually have a front window decorated with soap, soft drinks, and cans, and a few baskets of sandals by the door.
The town of Ubud is filled with treasures. After an hour of inspecting goods, Dennis veers off for a Heineken while I stock up on mother-of-pearl caviar spoons and servers ($3-$5), banana-leaf-covered photograph albums ($15), and mahogany chopsticks inlaid with pearl ($2 a pair) at Saka Graha (Jl. Raya; 62-361/975-510). Casa Lina Homewears (Jl. Raya; 62-361/973-282) has the most interesting place mats and napkins, in vibrant plaids and prints, for a dollar or two each. Linen sheet sets are priced up to $100; soft cotton ones are less. Much of the jewelry at Treasures (Jl. Raya; 62-361/976-697), farther up the main street, is in the style of Reinstein/Ross; I found it a little expensive, if still far cheaper than its American counterpart. The silversmiths that line Ubud's streets carry more interesting pieces, even if you have to dig around.
In the gift shop at the Four Seasons Resort at Sayan (62-361/977-577), I bought a gold-and-silver ring with an indeterminate stone ($75) and a bracelet of South Sea pearls that resemble gold nuggets ($80). The resort stocks the best-edited merchandise I've seen—vases, clothes, rugs, antiques, jewelry. Even Dennis is impressed.