Secret Hotels of Bali

The island is home to some of the world's most famous resorts: Aman this, Four Seasons that. When it comes down to friendliness, however, they can't compare with these seven intimate gems.

By Brian Keeley, Tuesday, Apr 18, 2006, 12:08 PM

One of the rooms at Rumah Cantik (Amanda Marsalis)

UBUD

Ulun Ubud Resort & Spa
In an open-air workshop just to the west of Ubud, Bali's cultural capital, a young woodcarver is contemplating his latest work--a goddess slowly emerging from a twisted tree trunk. Satisfied at last, he marks the wood and begins carving again. The craftsman's boss is Gus Tu, son of a noted local woodcarver and owner of the Ulun Ubud, which sits next to the workshop. The artistic heritage is obvious as you meander down the paths and steep steps linking the hotel's 22 thatched cottages: Each nook and cranny holds a statue or a carving--a Hindu warrior here, a head of the Buddha there, and everywhere countless carved frogs, fish, shrimp, and crabs. The rooms are simple but comfortable, with bathrooms that could do with a little updating and wide balconies that overlook a lush river valley. The hotel has a reasonable restaurant serving Balinese and Western dishes, and there's a free shuttle if you're inclined to sample some of Ubud's many restaurants. If you take breakfast on your balcony, you may hear the distant chink-chink-chink of iron on stone. Look down toward the river and you'll see that along its banks, local craftspeople are cutting stone to make new carvings, some of which may well show up on the hotel's rambling grounds. 011-62/361-975-024, ulunubud.com, from $75 year-round, breakfast included.

Nirvana Pension & Gallery
I Nyoman Suradnya is a little worried about tourism in Bali: "The relation between Balinese and tourists is too much business," says the artist. At their homestay in Ubud, Suradnya and his wife, Ni Wayan Rai Rupini, who owns several jewelry and crafts shops, are trying to turn tourists into guests. In their family compound, which Suradnya designed, it's hard to say where the home ends and the hotel begins--reflecting, in good part, Suradnya's belief in maintaining the three harmonies essential for a human: harmony with one's god, harmony with other humans, and harmony with the natural world. The rooms blend seamlessly with a stone shrine and Suradnya's open-sided studio, and plants, trees, and songbirds pepper the grounds. There are just four rooms in the homestay ("I want to leave time for my art," explains Suradnya) in two small pavilions. Each room has attractive wood carvings painted in bold reds, greens, and golds; its own bathroom; and a balcony or terrace. For many guests, though, the real attraction is Suradnya. While he's a gifted painter, he specializes in teaching batik, a traditional Indonesian method of patterning fabric using wax and dyes. Suradnya describes the careful processes involved as "meditation in action"--a way to focus on what you're doing in the here and now. As he speaks, his adorable granddaughter jumps up behind him and rings a bell. "We ring that bell to call people to lunch," he says with a grin. "It's how we invite them to come back to the present." 011-62/361-975-415, nirvanaku.com, from $22 year-round.

MUNDUK

Puri Lumbung Cottages
The village of Munduk is a world away from the beaches that draw most tourists to Bali. Life moves at a different pace: Farmers lay out cloves and cocoa beans along the road to dry in the sun, village dogs meander about, and the sound of chanting drifts in on the evening breeze. To introduce visitors to his world, I Nyoman Bagiarta set up the Puri Lumbung Cottages in a garden bursting with guava, lime, papaya, pineapple, and other tropical fruits. In 12 of the 17 cottages, the top floor was converted from an old lumbung--a rice granary of wood and bamboo, with a thatched roof (Bagiarta has substituted shingles). Inside, there's room for a bed, and not much more. But there's also a balcony, and a bathroom on the lower floor, so the cottages don't feel cramped. The hotel doesn't have a pool, but there's plenty to do, including trekking, participating in music and dance classes, and taking part in a reforestation project. In the evening, you can dine in the hotel's restaurant, which serves good food, including timbungan be siap (a chicken soup with cassava leaves and shallots), and offers great views of the surrounding hills. Bagiarta, though, wants to do more than just host visitors. He believes his hotel can also help his community by bringing in jobs and acting as a template for other hotels owned and run by Balinese. He's succeeded: Already the hotel has inspired a number of locals to open their own homestays. "If people copy, OK," he says with a smile. 011-62/362-92-810, purilumbung.com, from $75.

LOVINA

Rumah Cantik
In northern Bali, Lovina is a miniature version of the hugely popular resort towns that lie along the island's south coast. So it might seem surprising that just 300 yards or so from the area's main drag is a place of peace and quiet. The Rumah Cantik--a homestay with four rooms in a flower-filled garden--was built by Made Kantra and Jette Stampe, a Balinese-Danish couple, and its eclectic design reflects its owners' diverse backgrounds. On the outside of the two pavilions housing the guest rooms, European-style pillars support a Balinese roof with upturned eaves. Inside, the mix of influences continues in the generous guest rooms: The beds are done up with romantic canopies, while the other furniture has a hint of Japanese simplicity. The large bathrooms have floors and walls made of layers of gray stones. In the garden, the feel is Balinese, with a large bale, or open-sided living room, surrounded by a small fish pond. On sunny afternoons, reflections from the water dance on the bale's ceiling. There isn't a lot to do: no pool, no TV, and--apart from breakfast and light snacks--no restaurant. Then again, nothing may be exactly what you crave. The homestay can be a little hard to find; if you tend to have difficulty navigating, Kantra and Stampe will meet you on the main road. 011-62/362-42-159, lovinacantik.com, from $65.

AMED

Blue Moon Villas
Though it's long been popular with divers and snorkelers, Bali's remote northeast coast is still off the beaten track for most visitors. That may change if more hotels follow the example of Blue Moon Villas, a stylish boutique hotel that makes the most of its dramatic coastal setting. Designed by local architect Pak Jaya, it has five rooms in three bright, airy villas, as well as an open-sided lobby/restaurant and a small infinity pool. The rooms all have balconies or terraces, some of which are large enough to double as living rooms. As in many Balinese hotels, the bathrooms are partly open to the outside but completely private. The staff is friendly but less deferential than in the main Balinese resorts--which could be because many of the staff members are related to the hotel's co-owner, Komang John, an engaging local guy who also gave his name to the hotel's restaurant (his brother is one of the chefs). After a dinner of fresh wahoo barbecued over coconut husks, you'll want to sit on your balcony and watch the fishing boats fan out into the ocean. In the morning, if the local roosters wake you in time, you can go out in a fishing boat to watch the sun rise. 011-62/812-362-2597, bluemoonvillas.com, from $60. 

SIDEMEN

Nirarta Centre for Living Awareness
One of the things that first attracted Western visitors to Bali at the beginning of the 20th century was its rich spiritual tradition, which draws on elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism. These days, most visitors pursue physical pleasures, but anyone interested in exploring the inner self might like the Nirarta Centre. Founded by British psychologist Peter Wrycza and his Balinese wife, Dayu Mayuni, the hotel has nine rooms total in five cottages, some of which have two stories. Built of wood and stone with grass or shingle roofs, the spacious cottages--two are octagonal, from a traditional Hindu symbol--are simple but comfortable and offer pretty views of the valley below. The center sits amid rice terraces and has its own extensive vegetable gardens, which supply most of the largely vegetarian food served there in a separate, open-sided restaurant. Nirarta offers a number of coaching and counseling courses. Guests are free to take part in two daily 45-minute meditation sessions in the large meditation hall, also octagonal. Close to the river there's a small massage center with just one massage table. The river itself is what the hotel cheekily calls its "natural Jacuzzi." 011-62/366-24-122, awareness-bali.com, from $30, additional fees for non-meditation courses.

Patal Kikian
In 1963, Ida Ayu Mas Andayani and her family fled their home when Mount Agung erupted. "Stones and rocks fell from the sky," says Andayani. The eruption was Agung's first in 120 years, and while the mountain has been quiet ever since, experts warn that it may erupt again. Andayani will cope with whatever nature throws at her; she's not a lady to be put off for long by a mere volcano. The descendant of an important local family, she has welcomed an impressive list of celebrities to her homestay: Indonesian presidents and international artists and musicians, including Mick Jagger and David Bowie. She began building the three well-spaced villas in 1979, although they look as if they've been around for centuries. The villas are red brick and gray stone, and covered in intricately carved panels depicting scenes from Hindu epics. Fanned by breezes, the villas' wide terraces make for cool and calm outdoor living rooms. Inside, the bathrooms are a bit too functional-looking, but the bedrooms are large and tastefully furnished with antiques and original paintings, many by Andayani's friends. Indeed, she's just the person to ask if you want to know more about the area's famously rich cultural heritage. 011-62/366-23-005, patalkikian@yahoo.com, from $45 (with breakfast) or $75 (three meals a day).

If you're traveling in a group . . . 

On Bali, villas--with their own pool and staff, where you and your friends are the only guests--get much more affordable outside high season (which runs from mid-July to mid-September and over Christmas/New Year's). You can also cut costs by booking last-minute, usually within 10 days of arrival, although such offers are hard to come by in high season. Most management companies insist on a minimum stay of two days in low season and five to ten days in high season; meals generally cost the price of groceries plus a service charge. Ask when booking if prices include taxes (10 percent) and service fees (5 to 11 percent). Some villas worth a look:

Villa Uma
Hidden behind a rice paddy 20 minutes outside Ubud, the two-bedroom Villa Uma has gorgeous valley views, tall windows, high ceilings, and well-chosen furniture. A reception room, a kitchen/dining room, a multitude of terraces and balconies, and a pool and deck all contribute to a sense of spaciousness. Elite Havens, 011-62/361-731-074, elitehavensbali.com, from $300 per night, sleeps two couples.

Sukhavati Retreat
The stunning estate in Bebengan has six villas, each with a bedroom and semi-enclosed bathroom, arranged on broad terraces linked by a dramatic staircase. Traditional Balinese and modern design are integrated in the villas and the other spaces, which include a spa, dining pavilion, and meditation bale. It's more like a hotel than a traditional villa; there's even a restaurant. 011-62/361-742-2928, sukhavatiretreat.com, from $1,200 per night, sleeps six couples (villas can be booked individually, starting from $150).

Villa Jembar Lawang
Jembar Lawang is a two-wing villa in Canggu built around a high-ceilinged, semicircular living room with huge windows. The look is modern but with lots of Balinese and Asian art, and there's a long pool and large garden. When they have outdoor barbecues, the staff lights the garden with candles. Bali Homes Management, 011-62/361-730-668, balihomes.com, from $480 per night, sleeps five couples.

Villa Bali Impian
Jimbaran Hill may not be in the most beautiful part of Bali, but the four-bedroom Impian has a nice relaxed air and is a five-minute drive from the beach. There's a large living room, a bar area with a pool table, and an infinity pool that, following some recent construction in the neighboring lot, no longer sees to infinity. 011-62/361-703-060, balivillas.com, from $650 per night, sleeps three couples and two singles.

Spa Villa Barong
Also located in Jimbaran Hill, Spa Villa Barong was built in a modern manner with plain but attractive dark wood furniture. The living and dining areas are open-sided, and the pool is a good size. The villa offers two free hours of spa treatments a day. 011-62/361-703-060, balivillas.com, from $420 per night, sleeps three couples.