While many resorts are sequestered from their surroundings, Mandapa is fully connected to the life and culture of the island.

By Max Anderson
December 06, 2015
Mandapa Bali
Credit: Martin Westlake

Luxury resorts are like theater companies, stage-managing the untidy business of life to create moments of magic. The road to the hill town of Ubud is typically Balinese, a thoroughfare of color and chaos full of chickens, kids flying kites, and stalls selling fuel. But you leave it all behind when you turn down a quiet lane and reach the stone entrance of Mandapa, the newest Ritz-Carlton Reserve. Like a scrim, it gives away nothing of what’s to come.

After walking through the entrance, I found myself on a platform with daybeds and onyx pools, perched on the rim of a plunging valley. I had to look past my shoes to see the rest of the property, an array of gracious buildings and gardens, descending 325 feet to the Ayung River.

“It’s like the Lost Valley of Luxe,” I exclaimed.

“We think of it more as a village,” replied the general manager, Ana Henriques. Mandapa has only 60 rooms, she explained—35 suites nestled into the hillside and 25 pool villas down in the valley. “In between are the rice terraces and the temple,” she added. “Just like a Balinese village.”

I admit, this sounded like one of those ersatz creations designed to give guests a feeling of cultural connection. But, as I was to learn, the philosophy went deeper than that.

Mandapa Bali
Credit: Martin Westlake

All in the Family

On September 5, Mandapa opened in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali. Ten miles inland, the town is a safe distance from the infamous resort strips of Kuta Beach and Nusa Dua, but it’s no longer the remote paradise that captivated bohemian European artists and writers in the 1930s. And it’s certainly no stranger to high-end tourism—at least six resorts in Ubud call themselves “five-star.”

The beauty of the region, however, is undiminished. Jungle grows thickly on fertile volcanic soils, artists’ communities still flourish, and the emerald rice terraces clinging to the steep hillsides are still one of the world’s must-see landscapes. The heart of Mandapa is its three acres of rice fields and adjacent century-old Hindu temple.

This is all that remains of the 24 acres previously farmed by a neighboring village of 30 families. Several years ago, a group of Jakarta-based investors bought the land to develop a resort. Villagers insisted that any development would employ people from their families, and that they would continue to own the temple. The investors forged a partnership with Marriott International, which felt the village stipula- tions could work well within the precepts of its new brand, Ritz-Carlton Reserve, a portfolio of small resorts (none has more than 100 rooms) designed to fit in seamlessly with local culture and landscapes.

“The villagers have complete access to the temple, which has been with them for three generations,” Henriques said. “Every day, they come to make their offerings. We also invite them to help with the rice harvest.”

The rice terraces—which include a traditional barn on stilts—are usually being worked by one or two villagers who are now employed by Ritz-Carlton. It raised a question, which I put to Jack Widagdo, the resort’s head of sales: “If they’ve sold their lands to a resort developer....”

“Why are they not retired on a beach in Jamaica, right?” He laughed. “It’s because they can’t just walk away from their land. Their association goes too deep.”

Guests can learn about this association through some literal immersion: spending a few hours ankle-deep in the irrigated rice paddies. Made Warnata, the Ubud-born recreation manager, gave me a sarong, a laborer’s scarf (“To wipe the sweat!”), and a handful of rice seedlings. As frogs swam around our toes and swifts flew over our heads, we poked the seedlings into the velvety mud, using a Balinese technique that has been practiced since the ninth century.

Mandapa Bali
Credit: Martin Westlake

The Art of Place

Mandapa’s terrain is steep (butlers are always on hand to provide buggy rides) and the lobby and other buildings at the top of the valley are imposing. Yet the resort’s use of thatch, volcanic basalts, and teak creates a sense of intimacy. The suites in the upper levels are generous—imperial, almost—with deep bathtubs set before views of the valley. The lower villas are lush, private, and sensual. Mine was a retreat of dark timbers built on the edge of the Ayung. At night the jade-colored pool was lit up; its stillness, emphasized by a few floating frangipani blossoms, contrasted with the energetic river below a sheer cliff face covered with jungle vines—also lit in spectacular fashion.

Mandapa’s riverside restaurant, Kubu, incorporates a recently devised Balinese building technique. The striking structure is made almost entirely out of bamboo, from the supports and the shingles to the teardrop-shaped wicker “cocoons” in which meals are served. The style, pioneered in Ubud, is a fusion of environmental architecture and high art. A two-story bamboo balé, or pavilion, called Green Camp, is the starting place for natural activities for kids, like making a bamboo raft, mountain hiking, and looking at the stars.

Life Cycles

The name Ubud derives from ubad, the Balinese word for medicine, a reference to the region’s long tradition of healing. Mandapa has embraced this history by employing local practitioners to offer wellness treatments. I scheduled a session with Ketut Mursi, a blind healer who is said to divine illness with her fingers and cure it with reflexology and massage. My rational side was skeptical—then baffled when she relieved a pinched nerve in my shoulder. As I was leaving the spa, I glanced down at the river and realized just how close authentic village life was: there was a naked man bathing in the Ayung. When I mentioned it, Henriques didn’t bat an eye. “It happens often,” she said. “The men will bathe after working in the fields. This is their river and this is their ritual. We are the ones who need to adapt—they shouldn’t have to change their procedures just because we have a hotel here.” Suites from $750.