Love at Second Sighting

When I arrived at the Alila Villas Soori in November, I noticed a number of improvements compared with my first visit about six months earlier. The drive from the airport seemed shorter (just under an hour) due to what felt like a better, smoother road and for some reason, the pool seemed bigger. I don’t have an explanation for the latter observation but for the first one the reason was obvious: On this visit I came with my girlfriend. She helped me to see the property with fresh eyes and with that new perspective came a simple but overdue awakening. Alila Villas Soori is meant to be experienced with a loved one. I know that seems rather obvious but having reviewed so many hotels and villas on my own (which is part of my job as a journalist, after all) I kind of took the amenities for granted. On this trip, I learned to appreciate how gracious and professional the staff is and how much they make every visit so pleasant.

The self-confessed spa junkie that is my girlfriend, Rahmah, lavished high praise on Spa Alila, particularly the staff who did not leave her alone while her mask was hardening on her face. I really have no idea why this is important but as with all great hotels, it is the little things that count. She raved about the “ultimate lifting facial” and pointed out that the products used at Spa Alila were of the best quality, in particular, Babor. She said only the best places used it because of the price and that it made all the difference. She was impressed by the lighting and how it differed in each room. Tailoring the lighting helped set the perfect mood at each different treatment stage, she said, allowing her to ease into the Bali state of mind.

Pak Nengah was my first “hands-on” experience at the Alila, although it took place at the Alila Manggis, where I first visited in 2004. It was called the Serai back then but this property on Bali’s east coast is as charming as ever. Pak Nengah, a traditional healer, proceeded to tell me that my condition was “kurang normal,” or not entirely normal. What that meant was not exactly clear but instead of asking I decided to let him take a jab at correcting the problem. He proceeded to work my limbs with his large, able hands, while sharing bits of local wisdom on how to make adjustments for a sedentary life. The massage was not exactly relaxing but I must confess to having felt better afterwards, though still concerned about what life in Jakarta was doing to my overall well-being.

On this trip to the Alila Manggis, I opted for more activity than leisure and must admit it was the right choice. We started out with a journey into the glistening waters of Candi Dasa in the hopes of catching some fish. As we cruised up and down the coast in our catamaran, I had forgotten how beautiful this side of Bali was and how my mother still talks about it ten years after she visited. It didn’t bother me that we came up empty-handed, though our hosts managed to reel in a few small fish. It was enough to take in the stunning blue water and the coastline dotted with multimillion-dollar villas and the venerable Amankila just down the coast. With waters so calm it felt more like being on a lake. On my return visit I definitely plan to do some diving.

Back on land, it was time to jump into the next activity. I love most types of Indonesian food and Balinese is no exception. Unfortunately, I’ve never learned how to make “Indonesian” food, though I do consider myself a decent cook. Part of the reason for my lack of diligence is the preparation time involved in cooking local dishes. I’m also not sure my wrist could handle the mortar and pestle used so frequently to make sambals. Thus it was reassuring to know that our Balinese cooking class would be less about the tedium of cleaning veggies and skinning chickens and more about how to combine the ingredients, which, happily, were mostly prepared and laid out in advance.

I realize the gentleman’s approach to cooking may defeat the purpose for some but we spent a solid two hours with Chef Wayan as we learned to make some well-known and much loved Balinese dishes. From cumi cumi bumbu Bali (braised squid filled with chopped prawns) and kare tahu dan tempeh (curry with tofu and tempe with baby corn and long beans) to sate ayam (chicken satay) and sayur daun singkong (cassava leaf braised in coconut milk). Wayan was also kind enough to teach us how to make sambal matah, a fresh Balinese sambal that I have long enjoyed but never had a clue how to make. After a couple of hours in a lovely open kitchen in the outdoor restaurant we were ready to sample our hard work and the results did not disappoint. Whether or not I will ever put in the time to revisit the creations in my own kitchen remains to be seen but the ever-patient chef was kind enough to give us copies of the recipes just in case.

The four days we had at the two Alila properties went by much too fast but we were there long enough to get a taste of how each has reached a standard that makes it hard to accept anything less. The rooms at the Alila Villas Soori are a honeymooner’s dream and the food at the Alila Manggis is exceptional, and not just the Balinese cuisine. The bubur ayam was some of the best porridge I have ever had and the rack of lamb was some of the juiciest I’ve ever tasted. Both left us longing for more and my thanks to the staff who helped make the trip one to remember.

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