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The Lush Life in Indonesia

You have just arrived at your resort from the airport and are escorted into a private villa. Not bothering to unpack, you ease into the personal plunge pool and surface to a sweeping view of sea, palms, and cascading bougainvillea. A beautiful young woman in a sarong and pressed white shirt arrives with a platter of papaya and mango, garnished with a freshly plucked orchid. As the sun sets, the lovely strains of gam-elan music mix with the sound of lapping waves.

Wishful fantasy?Not at all. Whether by the sea, a river, or a terraced rice field, it's a scene that's played out hundreds of times a day at any of Amanresorts' seven Southeast Asia properties and at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay (from which the above scene was lifted; I can attest to its accuracy).

After a recent visit to Indonesia's two newest high-end resorts—the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan and Amanjiwo, on the island of Java—I've concluded that these luxury hideaways earn their stars by trafficking in illusion. They serve up Shangri-las that exist only in the Western imagination: not Bali but Bali H'ai, a Hollywood oasis. While most chain hotels trade on the comfort and security of the familiar, Amanresorts and Four Seasons capitalize on the fact that you're someplace very different from home. They build in untrammeled settings, and actually give you farmers working the rice paddies, fishermen hauling their nets, and villagers bathing in the river—all just off your private terrace. Asia's infamous stray dogs?Dirt?Noise?Outside the resort walls. It's not faked so much as well edited, costumed, and choreographed.

Most people's vision of paradise is a private one. At Amanjiwo, the newest of the Amanresorts, I not only had the inspired 40-meter swimming pool to myself each morning, but I was made to feel as if all of Central Java existed solely for my edification and pleasure.

Amanjiwo is built at the foot of the towering, jagged Menoreh Hills, about an hour north of the ancient royal city of Jogjakarta and at the edge of the vast Kedu Plain. The resort's design might be considered arrogant, for its domed buildings and circular layout echo those of Borobudur, the world's largest Buddhist monument. It only takes one morning waking up to the spectacular view of the monument, though, to realize that it's homage—not arrogance—behind Amanjiwo's plan. You can see Borobudur from the main building, which houses an open-air bar and restaurant, and from all of the 35 freestanding, domed suites.

The guest quarters are light-filled and spacious, with king-size beds on terrazzo platforms (comfort level: a perfect 10), outdoor baths, and thatched-roof lounging pavilions that practically insist on afternoon naps (I succumbed daily). Fourteen have pools that are decidedly larger than "plunge" but smaller than "lap." Aman groupies will have no problem finding their way around in the dark: it's all the creation of expat American designer Ed Tuttle, also responsible for Bali's Amankila, Amanpuri in Phuket, Thailand, and Bangkok's Sukhothai Hotel.

Granted, there are the expected rough edges of any new (and hand-built) hotel. Privacy is a problem, which could be solved with more plantings and a better system to announce approaching staff. And some design elements need rethinking: bizarrely, the lighting and air-conditioning controls are below pillow level in the middle of the headboard, so you must climb onto the bed and dig down to reach them. But all is easily forgiven and forgotten. During my morning swims, I alternated views with each lap: first the Menoreh Hills, then Borobudur and the Kedu Plain. The only sounds were the distant screeches of wild monkeys and the tapping of hooves as horses and buggies (the local transportation) labored up and down the hillside roads. Most of the other guests I met—youthful, thin, tan, and lured by Indonesia's promise of adventure and luxury in equal measure—had tacked one night at Amanjiwo on to a longer trip to Bali. All departed with regret. I found four days not nearly enough time. There are reputed to be two tennis courts, for example, but I never saw them. I was too busy exploring, thanks to Amanjiwo's management, which goes to imaginative lengths to introduce guests to life outside the resort walls. There are village tours by bicycle, horseback, and horse-drawn cart; private visits to artisans and craftspeople; hikes into the hills; shadow-puppet dramas and trance dances.

Amanjiwo's greatest coup is the private tour of Borobudur at dawn, arranged upon special request. A few guests and I were driven through its gates in darkness and escorted in silence to the top of the ninth-century Buddhist monument in time to see the sun come up. Mist rose off the plains, revealing coconut groves and rice fields and the distant silhouettes of volcanoes. For more than an hour, until the other tourists were allowed in, we had this wonder to ourselves.

When I visited the new Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan, due to open early in 1998, it was still very much a dusty construction site, a bold vision just beginning to reveal itself. But a long tour in the company of the architect, John Heah, and two previous stays at its splendid sister resort at Jimbaran Bay (plus faith in Four Seasons' high standards) allowed me to imagine what was to come.

An hour's drive from Jimbaran Bay, the resort is in Bali's lush highlands, just outside the town of Ubud, a center for Balinese performing and visual arts. Although a magnet for tourists who come to shop for wood carvings and to watch dance and drama performances, the area has maintained its natural beauty while so much of the island has become overdeveloped. The new Four Seasons is also less than five minutes from Amandari, considered the best of the Aman group and the standard-setter in design that's sensitive to its surroundings (the resort almost disappears into the lush landscape).

No wonder Four Seasons wanted a share of this choice location—and a share of its profits. The 17-acre site it selected, deep within the Ayung River valley, is prime. But it is also controversial: the resort's villas practically hang over the sacred Ayung River, where villagers come to perform their daily ablutions, and the actual spot, known as Sayan Terrace, has long been famous for its unspoiled view of Bali's terraced rice paddies. Four Seasons has replanted many of the surrounding rice fields, which farmers will return to cultivate, and it is taking great care to provide villagers with easy access to the river. Guests will essentially be spectators in Balinese domestic rituals. "It will be very low-key," promised the London-based Heah. "We're even growing our own herbs and vegetables. The whole idea is to provide an experience of åliving off the land,' of being part of the Four Seasons commune. We want to attract people who were hippies in the sixties but are now CEO's."

A Four Seasons commune?While the sentiment is sweet, the prices and the look will be anything but. Deliberately avoiding comparison with its celebrated Aman neighbor, Four Seasons has gambled on an audacious design, a statement. At first glance, the main building resembles a huge flying saucer (or, as one local critic remarked, "the mother ship descending"). You approach it over a teak-and-steel footbridge that spans a deep gorge and then leads you across the lotus pond on the building's roof. From there a grand staircase takes you down into the lobby.

Besides the lobby, the three-story main building houses the restaurant, the bar, the spa, and 18 suites, all of which overlook the river and have spacious bedrooms and baths with big terrazzo tubs. The smaller, less expensive two-level terrace suites are, in my opinion, more desirable than the larger deluxe suites. Deeper in the valley, past rice paddies, herb gardens, staghorn ferns, heliconias, banyan trees, and the requisite coconut palms, are 28 one- and two-bedroom villas, each with a private pool and a lotus pond on the roof. Entered by a circular stone staircase, the villas are big and airy, with plenty of outdoor space. When you look at the steep walls of the valley above you, it's like a green waterfall tumbling down. The echoing bird cries can reach symphonic proportions.

All the suites and villas make good use of both teak and bangkerai wood and the local limestone, and will showcase Indonesian arts and crafts, furnishings, and fabrics. There are water features—as designers are so fond of calling them—everywhere, indoors and out. The three-bedroom, two-level Royal Sayan Villa has its own 470-square-foot swimming pool.

The resort's main pool, a bi-level, kidney-shaped expanse, hugs the river; at one end, under the water, is a sacred boulder that villagers would not allow the builders to excavate. Four Seasons has made many other accommodations for its neighbors, including moving a neglected shrine on the property to a location with a better view—in hopes of mollifying the shrine's unhappy spirits, who, it was suggested, were responsible for months of unexplained construction delays and setbacks. Having heard repeated stories of roads blocked, fires set, and dead pigs dumped in the lobbies of hotels that ignored the wishes of Balinese villagers, I for one applaud the resort's flexibility. Just watch where you dive.

Bali on a Budget

For a good-value alternative to Bali's high-end resorts, check out the Hotel Tugu Bali. This "museum boutique hotel" is set on a quiet stretch of Canggu Beach, at the edge of rice fields. Its public areas and 25 suites display—- and make practical use of—the Javanese owner's extensive collection of Indonesian antiques and art. Almost everything is from another era: doors, beds (but not the mattresses), chairs, lamps, chests of drawers, even the soap dishes. Staring down at you as you sleep are statues of mythical fanged and winged creatures and faded photographs of the long dead.

At Tugu Bali, you can dine in an 18th-century temple saved from destruction by the hotel owner, who had it dismantled, shipped over from Java, and installed on the grounds. Loving attention has clearly been paid to creating this ornate fantasy, but less thought has gone into the details (good pillows, adequate lighting) than one would expect from a luxury hotel. There is a slight museum-like mustiness to the rooms—this is old stuff, after all—and if you like things just so, it may not be for you. But if you're looking for a lovely hideaway, give it a try: the staff is attentive, the food delicious. Feeling flush?Reserve the Puri Le Mayeur suite, built over a lotus pond, or the Walter Spies Pavilion—both are named after famous expat artists who came to Bali earlier this century.

Souvenir
Shops all over Bali sell pottery, but most has ceramic frogs and lizards crawling over it, a whimsical touch that has caught on with tourists (but not with me). I coveted Amandari's soap dishes—small ceramic saucers with a rough, celadon-like glaze—and even considered sneaking one into my suitcase. The resort's gift shop saved me from that criminal act. It carries the saucers, which I'll use to serve condiments, and matching platters and bowls. The covered jar the hotel uses for Q-Tips?I'm filling it with sugar ($4- $15).
—A.B.

Bali's New Luxuries

  • The spa at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan takes a cue from its river valley surroundings: local herbs, spices, and flowers are used in all treatments, such as oil massages, rice scrubs, and clay body wraps. Try a Lulur Royal, which includes an exfoliation with turmeric, rice powder, and ginger, followed by a yogurt rubdown.

  • Amandari's new health and beauty center is, like the rest of the resort, deceptively understated in appearance but thorough in service. The milk baths and herbal body scrubs are fabulous, but the big draw is the massage therapist, Mr. Ketut. Rumor has it Mick Jagger has tried more than once to hire him away.

  • At 10,000 square feet, the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay's just-opened spa is the biggest in both size and concept. You can polish your body with a scrub-down of fresh coconut, vanilla beans, and coconut milk; absorb organic herb essences in the Aroma Steam Pavilion; or take a rain-shower treatment in the Royal Spa Suite.

On Java, Don't Miss…

  • Visits to Borobudur and Prambanan, two impressive temple complexes. The ninth-century Prambanan, just north of Jogjakarta, is a baroque contrast to Borobudur's stark serenity.
  • A sunset hike to the top of the Menoreh Hills, which rise above Amanjiwo. The hidden world of villages and bamboo forests makes the strenuous, hour-long walk worthwhile.
  • The sprawling market in the village of Muntilan. Search out the basket area, where you'll find woven-reed containers, conical farmer's hats, and rice steamers at local prices.
  • The ayam goreng, chicken in coconut cream, at Suharti (Jalan Laksda Adisucipto, km 7, Jogjakarta; 62-274/375-522). The bird arrives flattened, head attached. "Looks like roadkill," a diner remarked archly before polishing one off.
  • Shopping for handwoven ikat fabric, antique baskets, and wood carvings from all over Indonesia at Borneo Gallery (49 Jalan Tirtodipuran, Jogjakarta; 62-274/375-983). Ask the owner, Rudy Tanjung, to give you a personal tour.
  • The Amanjiwo staff's favorite food stand in the village of Borobudur. There's no name or address; the resort will send you with a driver. The cook prepares nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie goreng (noodles) over charcoal instead of a kerosene fire to enhance the flavor.

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