Travel review: Alila Manggis Bali
As an Australian, I feel ambivalent about Bali. No doubt, the "island of the gods" is beautiful and its culture is charming, plus it's difficult to dislike a place that has surf every day and an average annual temperature of 28 degrees Celsius.
But if you're staying around the most popular areas of Kuta and Seminyak, and own an accent that identifies you as a native of the land Down Under, you'll find that the reputation of your countrymen precedes you. Locals will drop their Balinese twang in favour of a forced Aussie accent, complete with a "mate" suffix added to the end of every sentence, and assume you're there for a Bintang-beer-fuelled bender at questionable nightspots.
During a recent visit, I can't say I was sad to be leaving this overly built-up part of southern Bali - but luckily there was still one night left on the island for a recharge before returning to Hong Kong.
The place that beckoned was the Alila Manggis, a recently refurbished 18-year-old resort at Buitan, on the southeastern coast of Bali. During the 90-minute drive from the main tourist area, the chaos and clutter of Kuta and its surrounding areas give way to views of emerald-green rice paddies sitting at the feet of thickly forested mountains capped by clouds. The dusty stalls selling Bintang singlets and cheap jewellery are eventually replaced by rustic homes featuring elements of Balinese temple architecture, hiding behind swathes of banana palms, frangipani trees and bright pink bougainvillea.
By this time, you'll pretty much have arrived in gorgeous Buitan, an area known locally as the "soul of Bali", and you'll notice that life moves noticeably slower here. The boutique resort Alila Manggis prides itself on its design as a Balinese-style beach house, as well as the extensive range of activities on offer to guests.
Its 55 superior and deluxe rooms are in three double-storey blocks surrounding a shimmering pool, where you'll probably be spending a lot of time, considering that Bali's notorious erosion has transformed the resort's former beach into a pebble-strewn shadow of its former self. Still, the waves lapping against the front of the resort are about the only sound you'll be hearing at this tranquil resort apart from the twitter of birds, and the silence is almost deafening after the sensory assault that is Seminyak and Kuta.
A lot of thought has been put into blending the resort in with its surroundings, so don't expect to be wowed by an abundance of flashy fittings. Rather, Alila Manggis is an exercise in restrained minimalism, and its comfortable but relatively spartan rooms open directly on to the immaculately maintained grounds surrounding the centrepiece swimming pool.
In a secluded corner of the resort, by the seaside, sits the resort's spa, which the owners are justifiably proud of. There, my companion experienced what she described as one of her "top five massages, ever" - a Balinese-style squeeze that she could also have enjoyed in a thatched beachside cabana.
Despite its relatively small size, the resort offers guests an impressively large range of activities in the surrounding area, if you're willing to pull yourself away from the poolside. We were intrigued by the thought of having our auras read and fortunes told by a local "holy man", but there are also more active options such as downhill cycling and white-water rafting. Free bicycles are available at any time, and complimentary yoga and tai chi classes are held in the gardens.
We weren't disappointed by the local and international choices of food on offer. Our most memorable meal involved a megibung, a communal way of eating that is only found in Bali. Piled high in an arrangement that reminded us of the Lunar New Year dish poon choi were a selection of eastern Balinese favourites such as spicy vegetables, suckling pig, chicken satay and a succulent local chorizo-like sausage. It was wolfed down on a candlelit table set up by the seaside on a lovely starlit night.
"Alila" means "surprise" in Sanskrit, and that's what we received on arriving at the resort. And, particularly if you're Australian, I advise that during your next visit to the island, a direct trip to the "soul of Bali" may be more beneficial than a potentially soul-destroying visit to the island's urban jungles.