Do the folks at Ritz-Carlton know how to make an entrance, or what? Of course, by “entrance”, I mean the lobby, and by “make”, I mean build. Because at the hotel brand’s two properties in Bali – the flagship Ritz-Carlton, Bali and Mandapa, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve – it’s clear that they know that first impressions count.
Both feature welcome pavilions set at the highest point on the property, with most of the landscaping set tens of metres below, allowing guests bird’s eye views of the empire while they wait to check into rooms. And nothing whets the hungry traveller’s appetite for relaxation like lush greenery and big, blue pools, backdropped by the Indian Ocean and the Balinese rainforest respectively.
Stunning scenery is where the similarities end, as I soon find. My first port of call is The Ritz-Carlton Bali, which sits in the resort-laden Nusa Dua district. With its large range of activities and facilities, and sheer number of accommodations – some 300-plus rooms and suites are spread across the property – the resort is a beacon for families.
I’m in a Sawangan Junior Suite with lagoon access, which is among the lower category of rooms, but still offers a sprawling 1,070 square feet of space, including direct access to a pool that’s only shared with two other suites – and given that during my stay no other guests occupy those rooms, I consider it a de facto upgrade to a private pool.
Although my little lagoon is lovely – and larger than you’d typically get in a private pool villa – over a two-night stay I still find myself sometimes lazing by the main pool facility, which overlooks the beach, and spending my last few hours before check-out at the one included in the Club Lounge (the lure of the free snack buffet and constant beverage service was too strong for me to fight). Kids also have their own splashing pond, complete with water slide and other interactive elements, at the children’s playhouse.
It would be a mistake to fritter away your entire time tanning, though – for that, you can stay at any old luxury resort and be perfectly happy. The Ritz-Carlton’s family-oriented activities are geared at exploring local cultural rituals: the Kite Runner experience, for example, is inspired by Bali’s kite festivals, so kids can learn to make traditional kites and then fly them while dressed in traditional costumes (the hotel actually employs a “sarong concierge”, who can take guests on a journey exploring the history and etiquette behind the garment as well).
I may be in touch with my inner child, but I opt instead for a more grown-up pursuit – to rise with the sun and take part in a soul purification ritual, a Hindu cleansing process that takes place at dawn on the beach, and involves a priest that uses holy water to cleanse and pray. It’s typically done as a person enters a new phase of life, to signify a new beginning. I’m not sure if I’ve washed away the sins of heart and mind, but the three-coloured string that’s tied around my wrist does act as a reminder of this solemn and calming ritual, and certainly helps me find Zen when, an hour later, I manage to drop my iPhone into the swimming pool.
Thus begins an unofficial digital detox, which, it turns out, is a blessing in disguise. When I dine at the lovely Bejana, I can actually concentrate on the sublime flavours of Indonesian cuisine, instead of trying to balance my plate in the buffet line while Instagramming a shot of the luscious babi guling, the suckling pig dish for which Bali is famed. When I come to the spa, literally to be polished with pearls, I can kick back in the relaxation area without the hassle of checking my phone the minute I’m finished.
But of course, all good things come to an end. My device safely buried in a bag of Bali’s best long-grain rice, I depart reluctantly for my next stop: Mandapa.
The ride to Ubud, where the second resort is located, takes a couple of hours, but it’s well worth the trek. More intimate and discreet than its family-friendly sister, Mandapa is the third hotel in the Ritz-Carlton’s Reserve brand, which prizes personalised experiences and barefoot luxury – the ilk of resort popularised by Aman in its heyday.
And though I admit being phone-free has been liberating, I feel actual pangs of hurt that I can’t capture every picturesque detail in living colour on my camera – and that’s before I’ve even entered my villa, which is probably one of the most stunning on which my eyes have feasted.
My one-bedroom River Front Pool Villa features a separate stand-alone dining room, and an infinity pool set on the side of a cliff over-looking the Ayung River, so if you swim to the side (or tightrope-walk along the edge, should you dare) you can spot white-water rafters zooming past. They can see you too, so skinny dip at your own peril …
Otherwise, in the early morning and after sunset, it’s so tranquil, there seems little reason to explore the outside world. I do opt – without regrets – for a morning yoga session, a catered picnic in the rice paddy fields, and dinner in the ridiculously delicious and romantic Kubu restaurant, which features nine private cocoons that overlook the river. But when asked to leave the resort on the last morning for a very special “vintage tour”, I politely demur so I can enjoy my accommodations that little bit longer. The tour, it turns out, isn’t your typical group-with-a-guide experience, but a drive through Ubud in an open-top vintage VW buggy, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-style, traversing rice fields and temples. Still, I won’t leave for that, or for a visit to a local luwak farm, or to join the rafting experience I’ve seen (and heard) tourists enjoying.
It goes without saying, then, that I’m even more reluctant to head to the airport for my flight back to Hong Kong. But at least when I land, I’m within driving distance of an electronics repair shop, where I manage to salvage my precious phone. As I click into Whatsapp to start on the 356 messages that pop up the minute I’ve reconnected to the Internet, I think to myself: I’d chuck it back into the water in a second for another few days in Bali.