Beyond the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon in beautiful Bali
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The tiny Indonesian paradise of Bali has survived bombings, earthquakes, volcanoes and colonisers.
But there has been another threat to its idyllic existence in recent years, that of the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon.
The self-help memoir, penned by Elizabeth Gilbert in 2006, inspired millions of women all over the world and has led plenty to the spotless beaches of Bali in the hope of landing their own Javier Bardem (the romantic lead in the film adaptation of the book, also starring Julia Roberts).
Film factor: The movie of Eat, Pray, Love, starring Julia Roberts, inspired millions of women to seek their own happiness through travel
When the book and film were released, they sparked such a flurry of articles from lonely ladies ‘of a certain age’ emulating Gilbert and travelling to Italy for food, India to an ashram and Bali for balance (and Javier), that I wondered if the destinations had survived the onslaught.
Like Gilbert, who went looking for balance and found love, I went to Bali searching for one thing and finding another. What I was looking for, however, was the calm peaceful serenity of an Indonesian paradise I’d heard so much about.
What I found was something altogether more frenetic. Visiting some parts of this tiny island felt like I’d joined a tour of a Universal Studios film set. Had any of Bali’s character survived a tourist invasion of this magnitude?
Nowhere has felt the pressure more than the hill town of Ubud, where I begin my tour. Since the Dutch left the island in 1949, this inland hippy hangout has been on the map of travellers in search of enlightenment and, if you want to find a healer, practice yoga, watch a traditional dance, eat international food or buy a dubious piece of art, this is where you come. If you want to see the real Bali, don’t.
It is impossible to ignore the Eat Pray Love pilgrims in Ubud. Solo female travellers in their forties and fifties, wearing sun-proof clothing (hats, T-shirts, Thai fisherman’s trousers) and seen cycling Dutch-style gearless bikes up impossibly steep hills.
They gather in their hundreds, take coach tours to locations featured in the novel, visit healers, take classes, have therapies. To call Eat, Pray, Love an ‘industry’ is not an exaggeration.
I forego the over-commercialised corners of Bali and check in to the independent Alila Villas, in Uluwatu, on the southern tip of the island. Perched high above the pounding waves on a limestone plateau, the hotel’s architect – Singaporean company WOHA – have won myriad awards.
Serentiy: The Uluwatu hotel is a luxurious escape from more frenzied parts of the island
I can see why, Alila Uluwatu is incredibly impressive, but equally so are the efforts the hotel’s environmental policies – it was created using local materials that benefit local communities, conserves and recycles water, uses salt water in its pools and purifies tap water to cut down on bottles.
Villas with private pools, personal butlers and exquisite views make it very tempting not to leave, but I book one of the hotel’s journeys – ‘to Adventure’ – a half day long walk though the local alleys and neighbourhoods (called, rather off-puttingly, ‘gangs’) of this local Pecatu area.
Our guided trek begins at the hilltop at the back of the hotel and we made our way through farms, tiny hamlets and stopped at authentic local warungs (local cafes) for tea.
Two hours in, we reach a cliff top where we can survey the spectacular (and deserted) Nyang-Nyang beach stretching out 100 metres below.
After a hairy climb down the cliff (this walk is definitely only for the fit and agile), we walk alongside the crashing surf of the Indian Ocean, our only companions a washed up shipwreck and the occasional nesting seabird.
Settling down in the shadow of a rocky outcrop, a portion of Nasi Goreng – a traditional spicy rice dish – wrapped up in a coconut leaf is served for lunch before we have time to cool off in the surf. We hadn’t seen another soul the entire morning.
An hour (and a 600 step climb) later, refreshed and somewhat reinvigorated, our journey continues on to Uluwatu Temple (Pura Uluwatu) – the most famous temple on the southern tip of the island.
Sat squarely on a steep cliff approximately 100 metres above the roaring ocean waves and made partially of white coral, the temple is dedicated to the spirits of the sea. With steep headlands on either side and thousands of cheeky sacred monkeys running wild and primed to steal your sunglasses, Uluwatu temple is a sight to behold.
On top of the world: Nicole (centre) and her friends enjoy the lookout on their half-day trek
Almost as wonderful, however, is returning to Alila six hours later, and rinsing off in my outdoor shower. The journey to adventure hasn’t yet ended, enlivened, I head to the bar at sunset to lounge in a bronze cabana hanging over the edge of the cliff and drink champagne. Adventure indeed.
The next day I head off to Alila Villas Soori, Uluwatu’s sister property on the wild western side of the island. It’s the only luxury hotel for miles on this undiscovered coast and the drive between the properties takes an hour and a half – winding through the bustling tourist resort of Seminyak before reaching vast expanses of rice terraces.
Before there was the likes of you and I – tourists – this crop was Bali’s lifeblood. Now, rice is mainly grown to allow the Balinese to be in some way self-sufficient.
Alila Villas Soori has the same level of extreme luxury as Uluwatu, however, the hotels feel very different – like the landscapes. Whereas Uluwatu is a stone’s throw away from the tourist track, Soori is remote – I journey down a hairy potholed road for a couple of miles before crossing a rickety bridge and continuing the drive along a single unlit track. We don’t see another car for the last 20 minutes of the drive – quite some feat in the traffic hotspot that is Bali.
Soori is a beach-lovers paradise – as long as you don’t mind your sand black and powder fine, like burnt, ashy charcoal studded with silver glitter. A nighttime walk to do a spot of stargazing (a lack of artificial light makes Soori is one of the best spots on the island for looking at the night sky) feels rather discombobulating as the ground beneath my feet mirrors the sky overhead.
Dung delicacy: Famous Kopi Luwak coffee is produced when cat-like civets excrete semi-digested coffee beans – it is an expensive luxury for many
By day, we hop on bikes to explore the Kerambitan and Tabanan area, where it was promised, we would get to be part of village life.
We enjoy a caffeine fix from a cup of Bali’s famous Kopi Luwak coffee. It is one of the world’s most expensive coffees and is, somewhat stomach-churningly, produced when civets (little mammals native to tropical Asia) excrete semi-digested coffee beans.
Then, climbing onto the hotel’s rickety mountain bikes, we cycle out of the hotel and head across rice fields and past farmers hard at work. We are on our way to see a local blacksmith and his family who still produce metalwork for the local community by manually working at a furnace in the stifling 100 degree heat.
With our guide doubling as a translator, we are taken inside the blacksmith’s house and given fresh young coconuts to drink while the local cultures and traditions are explained to us. Most people in Tabanan work in agriculture or in pottery factories, we are told, as tourism hasn’t really reached this area yet. The community support local businesses and enable them to continue producing things in the traditional way.
Alila Villas Soori is very near the famous Tanah Lot temple. Built in the fifteenth century and perched on a huge rock offshore and at sunset, is the stuff postcards are made of. It is well worth the 30-minute taxi transfer.
Not all of Alila’s properties on Bali are hugely luxurious. Alila Manggis on the scruffy eastern side of the island is a four-star property and the difference in accommodation and facilities are marked. Alila Manggis is famed for its cooking school and proximity to the domineering Mount Agung (a lure for serious hikers), but I am keen to experience the verdant rice fields on a trek from the nearby hamlet of Kastala to Tenganan on another of Alila’s ‘journeys’.
A 20-minute drive takes us to the foot of a valley of rice terraces so huge, our guide calls it ‘Bali’s answer to Old Trafford’.
Island escape: Tanah Lot was built in the 15th Century and is still a spectacular sight
Before our eyes, row upon row of bright green rice stalks chase up steep hillsides. The only break from the greenness is a rather rickety bamboo footbridge across a whitewater river. Crossing it, we climb the terrace pathways to the top of the valley where we venture deep into the Balinese jungle.
Papaya, mangosteen and durian grow here, as well as all manner of herbs and spices – cinnamon, vanilla and ginger. Forty five minutes later, we reach the ancient village of Tenganan, a traditional settlement dating back to the 11th century still houses 300 residents, several Balinese buffalo and chickens.
Tenganese people fiercely protect their village and are suspicious of outsiders. Tourists are only permitted at certain times and villagers must marry others from Tenganan.
Because of it’s reluctance to be part of the outside world, the village still practices ancient customs and is now one of the only places left in the world which produces textiles. Each piece takes two years to make and sells for hundreds of pounds.
Like Prince William before us we visit Indigo Art Shop a little wooden hut featuring four looms which has sold pieces to museums in London, New York and Paris, as well as to private collectors (members of the Rolling Stones, Hollywood film executives, editors of Vogue).
In parts, yes, Bali has become a real victim of it’s own success. If you don’t scratch below the surface, sprawling high-rise hotels, fast food restaurants and coach tours are the lasting memories that you could have of Bali.
But that magical essence Elizabeth Gilbert came seeking is still here, it’s just deeply hidden.
It seems to me, that the L in the title of her book about Bali shouldn’t stand for love, it should stand for look. Because that’s all you need to do to really rediscover the heart of this beautiful island.
One-night bed and breakfast at Alila Manggis starts from £95 per night. One-night, room only, at Alila Villas Uluwatu starts from £436 per night in a one-bedroom pool villa. One-night room only at Alila Villas Soori starts from £260 per night in a Beach Pool Villa.
For the latest Alila offers visit www.alilahotels.com/seasonal-offers.
One-night bed and breakfast at Uma Ubud (www.uma.ubud.como.bz) starts from £166.
Netflights.com (www.netflights.com / 0871 703 8000) can offer return flights to Bali from £645 including taxes – based on flights with Malaysia Airlines from London Heathrow for departures August 20 – December 7, 2012.