If there could be a greater treat for the spirit than swinging gently in a hammock taking in the fragrant scents and exotic sounds of a warm Balinese night, it could only be having a clutch of wellness gurus waiting in the wings to tend to mind and body when a new day dawns.
Rural Bali is a healer’s dream of peace, stillness and beauty — think shimmering rice paddies, silent stone temples and exquisite little offerings of carved fruit and flowers set in trays outside every doorway.
The celebration of life and nature which pervades the island’s interior must explain why so many health retreats are making their home around Ubud, at the jungle-surrounded centre of a beautiful island whose rich Hindu culture is concentrated in settlements far away from the crowded coast.
No question that Bali has some spectacular beaches and a few lovely seaside hostelries — as well as a few unlovely ones for the package tour crowd. But the coastal resorts themselves — largely eschewed by the natives, who associate the sea with evil spirits — can be bland, leaving those who come with high expectations of the ultimate exotic destination wondering what all the fuss was about.
The interior, on the other hand, remains true to island traditions and has everything the traveller could require except the sand.
At the fore of rural delights are hotels to suit every pocket built in the Balinese vernacular style. This means pavilions open to the elements in which to eat and relax, outside showers allowing a sublime communion with nature during ablutions, and beautiful infinity swimming pools overlooking the palms, paddies and banana trees.
Ubud itself fields a lively town centre packed with shops and galleries and a wealth of cultural opportunities, from museums and dance performances to cooking and painting lessons.
It’s a rich mix, particularly for those lucky enough to hit the island on one of the many auspicious days when the Balinese drop everything to prepare huge, multi-tiered offerings of fruit and cakes, which they carry gracefully on their heads to temple. One memory which still haunts this traveller is being lulled to sleep in a four-poster by the sweet sounds of a distant ceremony far below in the ravine.
Those who want the romance of these far pavilions — plus modern comforts like big-screen television and a state of the art spa — will love Como Shambhala, an island relative of the chic Metropolitan Hotel on London’s Park Lane. That hotel has its own Como Shambhala spa, but owner Christina Ong intends the Bali property on the beautiful Begawan Giri Estate to be the flagship of her spa portfolio, and has aimed to create the most comprehensive “wellness centre” in the world.
So every guest gets an exhaustive consultation and prescription for improving their lifestyle from a resident ayurvedic doctor or the western dietitian, not to mention guides who lead yoga, walking and biking tours, and a bevy of therapists to deliver a wide range of treatments.
Although the traditional Balinese restaurant is very handsome with its dark carved wood, it is best savoured over breakfast, leaving lunch and dinner to be enjoyed in the airier healthy-eating pavilion where the fusion food and freshly-prepared juices are quite spectacular. In fact juice is a spectacular event anywhere on Bali, where even bananas and avocadoes are succulent enough to be pressed.
Como Shambhala offers smaller suites for those who come in search of wellness with slightly thinner wallets. But for those who crave luxury, there are villas on the edge of the jungle with huge indoor-outdoor bathrooms, separate dressing-rooms, private pools and the all-important verandah — that outdoor room in which to enjoy the Balinese night which always seems so sensuous, exciting and alive.
However, there is no point in opting for a secluded health retreat unless mind and body makeovers are seriously on the agenda. For culture vultures more interested in exploring island life than their own psyche, Como’s Uma Ubud resort is a less pricey, more informal (and more centrally-situated) offering.
Uma offers pretty, if rather less traditional, accommodation, and a spectacular yoga pavilion as well as its own spa treatment rooms. There’s a good pool, too, but its best asset is its good location in Champuan, a little suburb of Ubud comprising a strip of galleries and funky restaurants.
Next door to the hotel stands the Neka Museum, where several pavilions tell the story of Balinese art, and also showcase the work of ex-pat artist Arie Smit, who was instrumental in developing the work of local painters. A morning here is delightfully followed by lunch at Naughty Nuri’s Warung, much patronised by ex-pats and locals alike — the fresh-tuna fest every Thursday is a major event. Also worth a visit is the nearby Lotus Cafe, named for the spectacular water-lily pool in the back.
An afternoon might be spent browsing the shirts, silver jewellery and hand-made bags in the boutiques lining Monkey Forest Road, followed by a sortie into the forest itself for those who can stand being frisked for food by persistent little simians. Dinner could be taken in one of many eclectic little places in the centre of town where Italian food predominates, after a highly professional dance performance. Different dances are on offer each night, from the delicate Legong to the macho Kecak, and on Saturdays the enchanting swaying kulit, or shadow-puppet theatre. All these are performed to the hypnotic accompaniment of the gamelan, an orchestra of xylophones, gongs and cymbals whose sound resonates in the memory forever.
Given that Ubud has a whole clutch of museums and galleries, including the charming, sprawling Agung Rai, old hands just chill out, feeling little inclination to tour. However, first-time visitors will probably want to follow a well-trodden path, consisting of a morning performance of the barong (a dance featuring a spectacular manmade dragon), followed by a trip to the volcano at Mount Kintamani, which is invariably shrouded in mist.
As well as a clutch of temples dotted around the interior, the tourist-besieged temples at Uluwatu and Tanah Lot enjoy spectacular seaside settings and are best viewed in silhouette at sunset. Either way, it’s best to tour privately with a reputable local company like Tour East, and restrict sightseeing to four-hour chunks
As far as shopping goes, men’s colourful batik shirts and high-quality woven place mats and boxes are ubiquitous and cheap as chips. Leather shadow puppets are less so but worth seeking out. Art collectors and souvenir hunters will want to visit the wood-carving village of Mas, near Ubud, for some really spectacular masks and figures; the gallery of Ida Tagus Tilem is recommended for quality work. The old tribal village of Tenganan on the east side of the island is also worth a visit to see the wonderful woven ikat cloth.
But the converted will want to rush back to enjoy the frangipani-scented Balinese night in the peace and solitude of their own private space. While party people play away on the coast, the secret, still nightlife is, for aficionadoes of Bali’s interior, the greatest gift of this very special island.
The Flight Centre (0870 499 0042; www.flightcentre.co.uk) offers London-Bali flights from £665 return. Three-night programmes at Como Shambhala Estate at Begawan Giri (00 62 361 978 888; cse.como.bz) from around £550 per person plus tax, including airport transfers, meals, consultations, treatments and activities. Rooms at Uma Ubud 00 62 361 972 448; www.uma.como.bz) from around £125 double, with breakfast plus tax. Tour East (00 62 361 23 77 82)offers cars with English-speaking driver-guides for around £45 per half-day