Alila rising: The expansion of one of Bali’s best hotel brands
As the boutique brand, Alila Hotels & Resorts, prepares for its Asian expansion, C. James Dale visits its oldest and newest properties in Bali.
The fetching, far-as-the-eye-could-see view wasn’t enough to make me forget my foolish mistake: some mornings, you don’t have to make breakfast the most important meal of the day. Tell you why. I was hanging upside down trying aerial yoga for the first time, suppressing grunts and groans inside a small, open-air pavilion that’s perched on the edge of a cliff, high above the Indian Ocean.
“Inhale,” murmured the instructor, Nyoman Warta. “Listen to the sound of the ocean.”
Nyoman was working me through a series of moves with the assistance of a modified hammock that comes equipped with handles for hands and feet. The whole setup is supposed to, according to Alila Hotels & Resorts, make you “dig deeper into the asanas and hold them for longer”. The former… definitely true. The latter… not so much. Thankfully Nyoman has the patience of someone who’s been at this yoga thing for nearly two decades. I reckoned he must have seen worse. And he wouldn’t complain anyway: he’s got one of the most breathtaking office spaces in Bali.
One of Bali’s best boutique brands
We came to Alila Villas Uluwatu as part of a luxury pilgrimage to experience one of Bali’s best boutique brands. We had a taste a few years ago when we visited the elegant and singular Soori Bali (formerly Alila Villas Soori), which helped us understand the calibre of what this hotel group has to offer. At the time, Alila was building its property in the busy and bustling beach town of Seminyak. So when we planned our return journey, we made the new Alila Seminyak our first stop before heading to the smaller and older Alila Manggis, located on the more secluded east coast, and then finishing up at the flagship property on Bali’s southern tip in Uluwatu.
The Seminyak resort is essentially right in the heart of things: next door to the hip and happening Potato Head beach club (I’m still kicking myself for missing the Grace Jones show by two weeks); down the road from boutiques hawking homewares, clothes, and more; and a short trek from coffee shops that serious java junkies should not miss (we recommend Sisterfields Bali and the Corner House). The hotel itself comprises a cluster of low-rise buildings sitting in a semicircle facing the ocean, where the monster waves that wash ashore can make those searching for a swim wary of venturing in past knee level, a game of chicken we’d watch from the floor-to-ceiling window of our deluxe ocean suite or as we sat reading on our diminutive balcony.
Fewer risks await in the hotel’s three infinity pools, unless you develop a taste for the long list of to-die-for drinks (my weakness was the Spicy Cha Margarita). Late one afternoon, a crowd gathered on the edge of one of the pools before sundown to watch a couple get married at the bar, facing the ocean as they made the vows that would bind them together into the future. Later, over at the restaurant, a singer with a smoky voice set the mood, putting her own spin on songs by classic musicians, from John Lennon to Bob Marley.
“Hope you’re enjoying this wonderful Thursday night at Alila Seminyak,” she purred. “There’s no place you’d rather be I bet.”
Experiencing Bali the Alila way
The predominant religion in Bali is Hinduism, so we decided to immerse ourselves in the faith early one morning and try Alila Seminyak’s ‘Inspirational Bali’ experience. We met Dewi at the hotel’s small temple and she taught us how to make the canang sari (literally “beautiful purpose essence”), the daily offerings people give to a supreme god. They’re small, palm-leaf trays that are handmade (note: dexterity required) and filled with different types of flowers. We then used palm leaf spears to create gebogan or fruit towers. The idea is the faithful take time out of their days to put together these offerings and then leave them at temples or pura.
“Some people may be too busy to make them because of work,” noted Dewi. “So they can buy them in the market.”
If you have kids, it’s an activity worth considering. Our three-year-old daughter was fascinated with the entire process, from the construction of the canang sari to the delivery to the 15th-century Pura Petitenget, where a priest accepted the offerings and then led the melukat, a Balinese prayer meant to purify both body and mind.
Dining at the Chef’s Table
We later rewarded body, mind and senses with a visit to the Chef’s Table, an experience that gives guests a front row seat to the high-energy kitchen and puts them in the capable hands of Chef Vivian. The affable fellow took us step-by-step through a menu he says is designed for “gourmands and drink lovers”, a feast featuring dishes paired with a variety of cocktails. The tuna tartare came with a Yellow Tail Martini (Belvedere vodka, Grand Marnier, pineapple, lemon, red chilli, sugar syrup). The confit barramundi was accompanied by a Bombay Delight (Bombay Sapphire gin, lemon, lemongrass, lemon basil leaves, cucumber, lemongrass syrup). And the glazed beef rib was joined by a rye Old Fashioned (Bulleit rye whiskey, white sugar cube, Angostura bitters, orange bitters, orange peel). As we ate, Chef Vivian filled us in on the process: the beef cooked for 72 hours at 56°C; the fish cooked for 12 hours at 60°C; the garlic cooked for 48 hours at 75°C, turning from white to black.
“From the garlic taste it becomes the prune taste,” he explained. “This is a French-Chinese combo that I brought here.”
After so much good food, drink, and conversation, we’d really taken a shine to Chef Vivian. So had our daughter, who played hide-and-seek with him as we finished up the flourless chocolate cake dessert. Months since their encounter, she still brings him up from time to time.
On the morning we left, there was a flurry of activity, hotel staff preparing for the wedding of an Indonesian couple. Three hundred guests were due to arrive and occupy the entire resort, the celebration for the nuptials 10 times the one we watched a few days prior. We said our goodbyes and left the busier southwestern coast behind, relocating to the east coast and installing ourselves at the more modest hideaway that is Alila Manggis.
The hotel is located by the sea in the shadow of Mount Agung, the highest point on the island and an active volcano that last erupted in the 1960s. Opened in 2001, Alila Manggis doesn’t have the sparkle of its cousins in Seminyak and Uluwatu, but it oozes charm and a chill vibe. Check out this bird’s eye view of the resort and you’ll get the picture: four two-storey buildings featuring traditional and contemporary Balinese touches (designed by the creative forces at Kerry Hill Architects) face a classic, rectangular pool and beyond that, the sea. Guests were stretched out on loungers reading and tanning, slipping into the water from time to time or heading over to the drink cart that sits on a simple bicycle wheel, open for cocktails at noon and offering tea, coffee and treats at 3pm sharp.
Alila Manggis is one of those places where each day flows languidly into the next, where you could opt for pure relaxation by the pool and in the spa or rise after midnight and hike up Mount Agung to see the sunrise, or maybe just visit the sprawling and sacred temple that sits on its slopes. Others choose to chase the sunrise or sunset in a traditional wooden boat known as a jukung.
Guests gather for meals at Seasalt, an open-air restaurant with traditional (and incredibly flavourful) Indonesian and Balinese dishes, with some Western staples thrown in for less adventurous palates. One night, some strolled down toward the shore for a suckling pig roast, feasting beneath a half moon as clouds covered a scattering of stars. Earlier, local dancers entertained a crowd assembled under coconut trees, the performers moving to the curlicue sounds of a flute, along with the light pang of bamboo instruments and the deep thud of drums. We sat back and sipped cool drinks, watching as the dancers encouraged the shy and not-so-shy among us to join them.
Alila is looking to the future
As lovely as Alila Manggis is, the property is very much part of the hotel group’s past. The future is much, much bigger. Between now and 2019, Alila has at least 16 hotels opening in no less than eight countries, from Indonesia to India, China to the Philippines. It recently entered into a strategic partnership with the San Francisco-based Two Roads Hospitality. It continues to operate Alila Purnama, the luxury phinisi sailing boat that takes 10 or fewer passengers to some of the remote and uninhabited islands of the vast Indonesia archipelago. And, of course, the company’s current crown jewel, Alila Villas Uluwatu, remains a magnet for people from all over the world.
The unique property, about 30 minutes from Ngurah Rai International Airport, has one- to three-bedroom villas that sit on a plateau atop limestone cliffs at the southern tip of Bali. The colours and clean lines found at Alila Seminyak are on grand display here, but the enduring image remains the rectangular pavilions (made of wood from old railway ties and telephone poles) scattered throughout the 14.4-hectare site, with the sunset cabana one of the main draws, especially for the growing number of couples who get married at the hotel. (Out of respect for the majority of guests, management has built another sunset cabana specifically for this burgeoning wedding business.)
Alila Villas Uluwatu has won praise and accolades for its design, landscaping and sustainability efforts. Everything seems as striking as it would have been when the property opened in 2009. Buggies escort guests to the nearly 65 villas, which range in size from nearly 300 square metres to roughly 3000. The sound of water cascading alongside the stairs provided a soothing soundtrack as I walked from our villa to the spa, one of the most relaxing I’ve been to in Asia. After a foot rub with salt and herbs, the therapist asked me to lay on the massage table and wrapped my ears and eyes, muting my senses so I could focus (translation: sleep) as she chased the tension and stress out of my muscles.
When we dined, we found the easy choice was The Warung, which offers traditional Indonesian and Balinese fare on its extensive menu. We’d sit in a small cabana at sunset, as the paragliders sailed overhead, and order items that quickly became favourites, including the minced fish satay on lemongrass (sate lilit ikan), the sate tempe, and the mie goreng sayur. Our main regret in the food and drink department was not being there for the debut of Quila, the hotel’s new, exclusive dining experience that features five tables and bespoke creations by Executive Chef Marc Lorés Panadés.
The to-do list at an Alila resort can be as long or as short as you want, with some guests darting off to the Uluwatu Temple, which we visited a few years back, fitting in a round of golf, or signing up for so-called Journeys by Alila that include beach hopping, cooking classes or trips to off-the-beaten-track temples on Bali’s south coast. And so, you may wonder, why spend part of the morning hanging upside down in the sunset cabana? I certainly asked myself the same question. But as I dangled there, strapped into an aerial yoga hammock and sweating profusely, I realised I was finding the strength to test my limits, Nyoman encouraging me to go deeper into my poses, my stretches and my breathing. It was exactly the kind of challenge I needed, and it turns out it was definitely the right place to take it on, given the etymology of Alila’s name: Sanskrit for “surprise.”