Art of discovery
A luxury hotel is turning the spotlight on Bali's hidden crafts scene, writes Jing Zhang
Clockwise from top: A painting by Balinese artist I Ketut Soki, a stone carver in Batubulan, a painter in Ubud, details of a wood carving from Mas, and worshippers in the sacred waters of the Tirta Empul Temple (below right).
"Tirta Empul Temple has been here since the 10th century," says our guide, as we step into the clear spring waters of the temple baths. "The spring has flowed ever since."
We dip cupped hands, then entire head, under the sweet-smelling water flowing into the pool during an ancient self-purification ceremony. Colourful petals from religious offerings float on the surface just as they must have done for the centuries that this ritual has been performed. We are encircled by the temple walls, intricately carved altars tower above. Locals are blessed by a priest with holy water.
Next we drive to Ubud, the arts capital of Bali. After a delicious French-influenced haute cuisine meal at Bridges, we meet with local artist I Ketut Soki at his home courtyard-cum-studio where flowers and the occasional palm tree frame the sky. Soki smiles a toothy smile and explains how his intricate painting style marries traditional Balinese art with vibrant colours taught to him by his Dutch mentor Arie Smit. Several large pieces are stacked, drying against a wall.
"It depends on my mood," the artist says nonchalantly when asked about how long a big piece takes to finish. "If I'm in a good mood, it's quicker."
Bali continues to lure a steady flow of travellers seeking paradise, but five-star resort Conrad - already a luxurious mainstay of Nusa Dua - this month launched a boutique initiative of tours for guests staying in its suites.
Nusa Dua hangs on the southern end of the Indonesian island, together with Uluwatu and Jimbaran. Initially developed as a "designated tourist area" with manicured promenades and gated streets not found in other areas, roads are being improved for next year's Apec summit.
While some come for the surf, others want to see its hidden gems. Access to temples and a blossoming arts scene is growing in demand. "We wanted to do something authentic," says the Conrad's general manager, Jean-Sébastien Kling, "and get it right".
The programmes provide a creative introduction to the island coupled with the creature comforts you'd expect from a luxury hotel. Access to artisans, from the famed stone carvers of Batubulan, or the wood carvers of Mas, to the painters of Ubud, is hard to come by for the average traveller. The tours are aimed at culturally minded couples and honeymooners.
The tours take you to hidden gems such as the 11th-century Gunung Kawi Temple, built by the Udayana royal family. Meetings with artists and jewellers, such as visiting the workshop of John Hardy, can also be arranged. The delight of side-stepping the tourist traps feels very special indeed.
While most properties along the Nusa Dua beachfront cut into only a narrow slice of the waterfront, the Conrad main building is set along a sprawling 350-metre stretch of beach. Luxurious dark wood is combined with clean contemporary designs, while the courtyards, pavilions and thatched beach bales are distinctly Balinese. The palm-lined main entrance opens onto a huge lobby, and a distracting view of a 33-metre pool and lagoon, flanked by deckchairs and muslin-draped beach bales. Azure, the pool bar serving killer cocktails, takes central spot below. There is the famed beachfront chapel for weddings, the award-winning Jiwa Spa, a tennis court, yoga stations and 24-hour gym. In August the resort finished renovating its 300 guestrooms and 50 private suites, each with its own private balcony or terrace. The exclusive Conrad Suites are nestled among frangipani tress, each with a private entrance and pool. conradbali.com