The love affair between Australians and Bali is undeniable. Over the last 10 years, the number of Australians travelling to Indonesia grew by 416% to over 1.2 million trips in the last financial year! While Reality TV shows such as What Really Happens in Bali highlights the destination as a cheap party town, on my recent trip (my first time to Bali), I discovered a spiritual connection with Bali’s culture and their more sophisticated offerings.
The bulk of our time was spent at luxury resort Banyan Tree Ungasan, located at the southern tip of Bali near Uluwatu. It was Zen‘s turn this year to plan our wedding anniversary celebrations (cannot believe it has been a year since Tanjong Jara) and to be honest, I’m not quite sure how to top this next year — we spent some time at Six Senses Yao Noi after Bali, but more on that later! Up until now, I’ve never felt drawn to Bali but after this trip, I simply can’t wait to return; so if you’re the same, I feel like I’m going to change your mind by the end of this blog post!
Breakfast is a leisure activity that I normally don’t get the pleasure of enjoying during the hustle of everyday life. On holidays, it’s always such a treat to be able to sleep in and start the morning strong with a long multi-course breakfast. At hotels and resorts in particular, I find that the standard set by breakfast is often reflective of the entire experience, and breakfast everyday at Banyan Tree Ungasan was a splendid curation that I looked forward to. The dilemma begun at the pastry table with freshly baked doughnuts, breads and pastries fighting for my attention. I never passed the cold salads station without adding a few slides of shaved jamon to my plate.
The Indonesian station featured a rotation of a variety of traditional rice, noodles, stir-fries and curries, with all the necessary condiments including sambal ulek, saur kelapa (grated coconut), abon ayam (shredded chicken), fried shallots, kacang goreng (fried peanut), kacang mentik (fried soya bean), ikan teri (anchovy) and various types of krupuk (deep fried crackers).
With a surprising number of Chinese and Korean tourists at the resort, there were also dishes such as Hainanese chicken rice, Korean japchae and honeydew juice to suit all tastes. I was particularly fond of the noodle soups which included a Malaysian/Singaporean inspired fish ball bee hoon and even a Vietnamese pho!
The made-to-order menu was where things got real. Luxury ingredients such as scallops, foie gras, caviar and truffle made casual appearances alongside essential breakfast fixtures. The foie gras congee was surprisingly well balanced, with the lightness of the tofu and wakame complementing the richness of the foie gras. Breakfast was included as part of our package so you could look at it as all-you-can-eat foie gras 😉
Good food didn’t end at breakfast. For such a luxurious resort, we expected astronomical in-room dining prices (I even suggested we pack instant noodles prior to departure!) but we were pleasantly surprised by the affordability (not by Bali street standards but in comparison to Sydney dining prices), quality and service at Banyan Tree Ungasan! Given how exquisite our villa was, I really didn’t want to leave anyway, so we took advantage of in-villa dining on numerous occasions.
On our first night, we ordered a quintessential Indonesian feast comprising of sate campur (Rp 120,000), a mixed assortment of char-grilled satay skewers featuring prawn, squid, fish, chicken, beef and pork; a cucumber & jicama salad (Rp 75,000), bound with the creaminess of a kaffir lime infused coconut cream and accentuated with panko crumbed coconut prawns; gai hor bai toey (Rp 80,000) which are fried chicken bites wrapped with fragrant pandanus leaves; gerang asem sai laut (Rp 90,000), a tantalising spicy and sour seafood soup with carambol (star fruit) and the nasi goreng (Rp 150,000) which totaled Rp 623,150, equivalent to approximately $62 AUD.
On another day, the secluded bliss of our glistening private pool was simply too gorgeous to depart so we called upon room service again. That is the beauty of luxury resorts — while enjoying the idyllic peacefulness of our villa-mansion, we knew that everything we could need, was just a phone call away. That lazy afternoon, surrounded by the humming of birds and the sapphire hue of our private pool, we savoured a hearty spaghetti bolognese (Rp 130,000 – approx $13 AUD) that was almost as good as my rendition of Neil Perry’s spag bol recipe, and a juicy classic beef burger with perfectly crisp French fries (Rp 190,000 – approx $19 AUD).
One of the highlights of in-villa dining, was the bebek betutu (Rp 750,000) dinner set which requires at least 24 hours advance booking. That in itself is a tell-tale sign of a good bebek betutu as it requires a fair devotion of time to prepare the dish properly.
It felt like a celebratory affair when our door well rung. Two waiters dressed in the traditional Balinese attire waltzed in with a humongous tray between their shoulders. In minutes, our wooden dining table was draped in a plush white table cloth and crowned with a wedding-like bouquet centrepiece. They begun to unload the tray, one by one, individually packed garnishes and side dishes were laid out across the kitchenette.
Suspense built as the outer leaves were unwrapped from the duck parcel. Layers of coconut bark and banana leaves peeled back to reveal a whole duck, smothered in the most exquisite spice paste. The villa was suddenly filled with a lingering aroma of turmeric, galangal, lemongrass and chilli.
The entire duck was quickly deboned with the prime cuts of the duck breast and leg separated and the rest, pulled apart into tender shreds for easy eating. We dived in as though we’d been starving all day and even devoured the accompanying side dishes of steamed rice, the most flavourful banana tree trunk & duck soup and lawar, a green bean salad, which could have easily fed four people.
We were advised to call reception when we were done so they could send someone to clean up and serve dessert. Yep, we felt like Indonesian royalty!
Our villa was one of 59 one-bedroom villas at Banyan Tree Ungasan — they are available with a garden view, sea view or ocean view. There are also 11 two-bedroom villas and 3 spectacular three-bedroom Presidential villas (subject to availability, you can attend tours of the Presidential villas – photos below!).
The contemporary Balinese theme flows naturally throughout the enormous resort, from the stunning architecture, to the beautifully landscaped gardens. I cannot emphasize how well designed this resort is. Our 1 Bedroom Villa with Garden Views spanned a massive 403sqm and was open yet private. There were so many break-out areas to relax in, each space radiated with just as much tranquility and luxury as the next. It was a true sanctuary.
We quickly got used to the daily rotation of aromatherapy oils and incense, as well as having not one but two showers (an indoor one and an outdoor one!) plus our very own 10-metre infinity pool, private jetpool, and Balinese bale complete with personal daybed.
There were many memorable moments by the pool — we swam morning and night. In the mornings, it was invigorating to wake up and slip straight into the cool calming waters and by night, we felt at one with nature as we gazed at the stars twinkling above.
One thing that I really appreciated was access to the free high-speed wireless internet, in the villa and throughout the resort. Despite having internet and access to my emails, it did not require much discipline to switch off and actually relax — but it was a relief to know that I could jump online and address any business emergencies if I needed to!
But really, how am I supposed to go back to normal life after this?
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, a tour of the Presidential Villa gave us a taste of the ultra-luxe high life. One night in the Presidential Villa will set you back around $10,000 USD and comes with your own 24 hour butler service!
The three-bedroom Presidential Villa is set across 680sqm and can sleep up to 10 comfortably. It includes an expansive 25-metre infinity pool, a multi-purpose entertainment room (which includes your own karaoke bar, home cinema and pool table), your own fitness quarters, and all the amenities as seen in our villa, only bigger and better!
Here’s to dreaming of a Presidential life —
Resort facilities and restaurants
The standard amenities that you would expect at a luxury resort are all available at Banyan Tree Ungasan — lobby, function rooms, business centre, spa, swimming pools, gallery, library and a kids club — to top it, because they can, there’s also a private beach.
In addition to in-villa dining, there are four dining facilities: Tamarind for healthy eating, Bambu for Balinese, Ju-Ma-Na restaurant & bar for fine dining and the Pool Bar for everything else.
The Pool Bar was our go-to for lunch when we felt like we needed some outside human interaction. Surrounded by the inviting sea breeze, perfect manicured gardens and bursts of colour from frangipani trees and bougainvillea plants, diners can opt to dine from the wicker lounges, day beds or dining tables.
I often opted to start with the the non-alcoholic ginger mojito (Rp 105,000) which was subtly punctuated with the sharpness of ginger and freshness of mint; I continued to have many of these throughout our stay, as did Zen with his many Bintangs (Rp 87,000).
We also almost always polished off the bread basket. Containing one of each item, we quickly lost track of how many pieces we’d actually eaten in the excitement of trying new flavours. The caramelised onion focaccia and the black rice bread roll were favourites.
The menu at the Pool Bar contains international delights and everything we tried was executed to perfection. The chicken tikka (Rp 105,000 – approx $10.50 AUD) contained two skewers of tender marinated chicken with pieces of onion and capsicum studded between. Blistered with delicious charred marks, it went down a treat with the housemade naan bread, mango chutney and cucumber yoghurt raita.
The Korean pork ribs (Rp 160,000 – approx $16 AUD) were equally delicious. We generously drizzled a sticky gochujang sauce over the chargrilled ribs, roast potatoes and seasonal vegetables which imparted addictive sweet and spicy notes with plenty of savoury umami.
Having tried a bit of Indian and a bit of Korean, we decided to sample some Italian as well — however, this time, we were lazing on the sun lounges with a view of the infinity pool. There were perfect blue skies, not a touch of Bali’s infamous humidity, not a soul in the pool (except for us later on). Sipping on cocktails and Bintang, the seafood pizza (Rp 150,000 – approx $15 AUD) topped with squid, prawns, mussel, pesto, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese really hit the spot! With everything made from scratch in-house, I’d come with high expectations now, and this did not disappoint.
Another exquisite dining destination within the resort was at their award-winning fine dining restaurant and bar, Ju-Ma-Na which is also open to guests outside of the resort.
As our villa was near the entrance of the resort, we called for a buggy (golf cart) to take us to Ju-Ma-Na which was located at the opposite end. By the way, check out my video at the top of this post if you haven’t done so yet, I had lots of fun filming this trip, you’ll find the buggy ride scene in the middle somewhere.
The open terrace bar at Ju-Ma-Na is the perfect vantage point for admiring the glorious sunset and the harmonious ebb and tide of the Indian Ocean. Bar snacks such as the charcuterie platter (Rp 145,000), prawn bruschetta (Rp 110,000), seared Hotatei scakkio with togarashi butter and truffle mash (Rp 220,000), shisha and cocktails are on offer before settling into the plush confines of the cliff-side restaurant.
The million dollar ocean view fades into pitch black by night so be sure to arrive for pre-dinner drinks early! Or if you have an appetite, book yourself in for the afternoon tea which unfortunately we missed out on (the pool and my book always beckoned!). The Cliff Edge Afternoon Tea menu (Rp 950,000 – appox $95 – for two) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, although when reminded of my whereabouts, I suppose it should be expected to find foie gras, oysters, yellow fin tuna, avruga caviar on the menu.
The restaurant menu on the other hand, is speckled with molecular gastronomy and the cuisine is a fusion of classic French and exotic Japanese. The amuse bouche of breaded oyster flowed beautifully into the starter of ama ebi tartare — a round stack of avocado guacamole topped with a tartare of finely diced raw spot prawns and a layer of avruga caviar with gold leaves. The miso dressing tied all the ingredients together into a heavenly unison. The angus beef tenderloin was unevenly cooked to our desired medium-rare but given it was the first flaw of our entire stay, it was easily forgiven. We ended the night on a high with a delectable mon merveilleaux (mascarpone passion cream, light vanilla chantilly, carrot ginger candy, meringue tuille) and a surprise chocolate cake to celebrate our wedding anniversary! Our package included this three course set menu so while we didn’t get the chance to sample the wider menu, this was a great teaser for us to return!
For a taste of traditional Balinese cuisine, Bambu Restaurant was the place to be. Reminiscing the night we had the bebek betutu, I was excited to see a similar variation of the banana trunk soup on the menu. The jukut ares (Rp 70,000) had such a depth of flavour, it was just as fragrant and complex as I’d remembered. The broth overall was lighter than the duck alternative and the aromatic spices and the soft pork bone was pure comfort.
Of course we ordered the sate campur (Rp 110,000) again, although dining at the restaurant meant they were able to serve it on mini table grills, allowing the satay skewers to retain its heat. The rest of the menu was a bit of a hit and miss — I probably wouldn’t recommend the urab bulung (Rp 60,000) unless you’re really into tasting the sea — the seaweed salad had a similar textural crunch to wood ear mushrooms which I don’t mind but left a lingering fishy odour that wasn’t for me. The bebek sambal bawang (Rp 120,000) of confit duck with shallot sambal, the babi pangang (Rp 150,000) of slow roasted pork with bumbu guling and the stuffed squid (Rp 90,000) with sambal hijau, a green chilli sauce were much more enjoyable!
Arriving at Bali without much exposure to Indonesian cuisine or Balinese cuisine, I’m definitely excited to explore these flavour profiles in greater detail so keep an eye out for some recipes down the track!
One of the perks of staying at Banyan Tree Ungasan is access to their remote private cliff-side beach! The buggy will get you past the gates to near the beach, but there’s a steep descend from there via 100+ stairs that you must make on your own. The journey is definitely worth the effort as you’ll be rewarded with an icy bottle of water, the whitest sand, the sound of swelling waves without any squawking beachgoers and perhaps you’ll even meet some of the friendly beach dogs that sleep wherever the shade takes them.
With such glorious facilities, it’s no wonder the resort is a popular choice for destination weddings. During our stay, there was almost always a wedding everyday at the chapel!
My favourite part of all, would undoubtedly be the infinity pools. Yes, the one in our villa as well as the main swimming pool. Where the infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands has the Singapore skyline, the main infinity pool at Banyan Tree Ungasan has the spectacular coastal cliff scenery and a panoramic view of the Indian Ocean.
Ticking off my Bali bucket list in 12 hours
As luxurious as the resort was, I didn’t want to leave Bali without seeing the ‘real Bali’ so we decided to do a day trip on our second last day. Through the recommendations of a dear reader who has since become a good friend, we were referred to Anantha who runs a tour and driver service around Bali.
He picked us up from Banyan Tree Ungasan at 9am on the dot and drove us back at 9pm! We shared some of our researched must-do’s with Anantha and left the itinerary in his very capable hands. As you’re about to see in the photos below, he took into consideration our time constraints whilst accommodating our interests, and we ended up covering a lot in just 12 hours!
Anantha had lots of stories to tell about the Balinese culture and traditions. As we headed towards the direction of Ubud, our conversation flowed naturally as we talked about the cultural significance and history of our surroundings.
One of the first things many don’t realise, is that whilst Indonesia is mostly Islamic, 90% of Balinese are Hindu. The most prominent display of this, is the sheer number of temples and shrines everywhere.
There are three main types of temples in Bali: major temples, village temples and family temples. Little pallets of offerings made from woven palm leaves are placed at temples, shrines and statues all across Bali as part of daily praying rituals. Anantha said that when a home is constructed, the most effort is always put into the family temple which sits at the front of the family residence. He joked that sometimes the family temples would be structures of architectural grandeur, whereas the family home behind it will be a stark contrast of modest simplicity.
Religion plays a key role in the life of the Balinese people – it impacts almost every aspect of their personal and professional life. Anantha went on to explain that when he needed to purchase a new car, despite needing it for the tour operating business, he had to wait a few weeks for an auspicious date. Traditionally, the Balinese are constantly striving for harmonious balance between the good and bad, gods and demons, to prevent chaos.
I loved that each of the villages we passed, specialised in a trade or artisan craft that has been passed down from generation to generation. I was touched by their commitment to preserving these artisan skills which could otherwise be lost in time. There were artists, batik painters, stone carvers, shell crafters, silversmiths, potters, kite makers, furniture manufacturers and more. Their immense pride in developing their skills was evident as we visited some of these villages.
In the village of silversmiths, we stopped at Artika’s, a huge bright orange palace-looking compound dotted with palm trees. Although it was mind boggling to browse dozens of glass cabinets, I eventually spotted the most gorgeous ornamental lapis lazuli silver ring, that was even resized on the spot for me.
Our next stop was Pura Desa and Puseh Batuan Temple which was founded some 1000 years ago! As we emerged from our air-conditioned vehicle, we were ushered to a pergola where we were provided with kain kamben (sarongs) to cover our bare legs. In respect of the holiness and purity of the temple, one cannot enter the temple when menstruating or a year after child birth. It is also respectful to cover up legs and on occasions, shoulders. We signed the guestbook and made a donation (entry is free but a donation helps support the upkeep of the temple) and were off on our way to explore the temple.
Founded in the 10th century (944 isaka, 1020AD), the structure and foundation of the Batuan temple has been restored over the years with some originals ornaments still in tact. You can easily spend an entire day at just one temple — every wall, column, ceiling and pond was intricately detailed with sculpted murals and gold paint. Admired for its grandeur and harmony, it’s hard to capture the mystical serenity of the temple in photos but Anantha made sure we arrived early before it became crowded with tourists so I’m glad we got to experience the temple in all its glory.
Lunch was a no-brainer; for a very long time, I’ve heard about the Balinese speciality of babi guling, roast suckling pig. Ibu Oka is said to be one of the best and was even featured in an episode of No Reservations. If it’s good enough for Anthony Bourdain, it’s good enough for me!
Serving only babi guling suckling pig, there are now three Ibu Oka restaurants (Jalan Suweta, Ubud +62 0361 2077 490; Jalan Raya Teges, Peliatan, Ubud +62 082 897 005 063; Jalan Tegal Sari, Ubud +62 0361 976 345). A complete meal costs Rp 55,000, approximately $5.50 AUD. That will buy you the ‘spesial’, a plate of nasi, sayur, daging, gorengan, sosis dan kulit (rice, fresh vegetable, pork roll, fried meat, sausage with pork crackling) — it is also available ‘pisah’ meaning separated for Rp 70,000 and includes a bowl of sop babi, a pork soup with potatoes, carrot, beans and pork meat.
Around six pigs are roasted each morning over wood and coconut husk, and even though I thought we had arrived early, the kulit babi panggang (roasted pork crackling, Rp 60,000) was sold out! The disappointment was quickly washed away as I calculated that I could potentially order 10 meals here for the same price of one meal at a luxury resort. There was no denying that the real thing, real street food, was incomparable.
My first taste of the crackling let out an earth-shattering crunch. Thick and crispy, each bite went hand in hand with a mouthful of the local greens, coconut-infused rice and tender pork. The fiery sauce of secret Balinese spices added so much depth, and all the different textures of pork — fried pork, blood sausage, pork soup and roast pork — made the last bite as exciting as the first bite.
As we drove towards the nearby Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (Rp 40,000 entrance fee per person), Anantha warned us of the cheekiness of the monkeys and advised us to empty our pockets and leave behind our sunglasses and handbags. The monkeys have even been known to break off car antennas, causing tour operators much grief! Nowadays, the tour operators take turns to mind each other’s vehicles in the carpark!
There are about 600 Balinese long-tailed monkeys living in the sanctuary. The monkeys are fed a diet of sweet potato three times a day, plus a combination of banana, papaya leaves, corn, cucumber, coconut; and other local fruit. You can buy bananas to lure the monkeys in for a photo but the highlight for me was actually the lush jungle, a rare glimpse of ancient Bali frozen in time.
For a bit of shopping, Ubud Market is filled with Balinese handicrafts and souvenirs. My favourite purchase was a handwoven straw box purse handbag with leather strap.
A short stroll from Ubud Market took us to Ubud Palace, a peaceful compound coexisting amongst the bustling streets of Ubud.
Passing the flocks of tourists at the top of the Tegalalang Rice Terrace, we took a serene walk through the lush emerald green fields. Anantha spoke about the clever design of the subak irrigation system which protects water supply and connects rice fields with the water from springs and canals. We spoke about the ingenuity of the Balinese — ducks for example, are herded into the rice fields prior to harvest so they can eat algae and insect pests as well as fertilize the fields with their droppings. After harvest, the ducks feed on dropped rice grains. I was in awe of the beauty — the landscape, the rice-duck system, all of it.
When Anantha heard that we loved our coffee, he suggested a pit stop at Merta Harum Agroo Plantation. We toured the garden where vanilla bean plants, coffee plants, cocoa plants, rosella plants, ginger and other fruits and spices are turned into exquisite teas and coffees.
Luwak coffee, also known as the world’s most expensive coffee is derived from coffee beans that have been digested by the palm civet and is a popular export from Indonesia. Caught up in the hype of the coffee (which actually tastes amazing by the way!), I was blind-sighted by the cruelty of the ‘farmed’ luwak coffee industry and unfortunately didn’t get a chance to chat to the plantation owners about this. However, I still can’t help but appreciate their genuine affinity with the land.
We arrived at Jimbaran Beach just in time for Bali’s mesmerising sunset. Only here did Bali actually feel like a tourist destination. For as far as the eye could see, the beach was a buzzing orchestra of busy restaurants. Tourists from all over the world were captivated by the mouth-watering aroma of grilled seafood that wafted through the air. Tired from a full day of sightseeing, our sore bodies sunk into the cushioned seats and our feet were relieved to rest in the cold sand.
We dined at JBS, Jimbaran Bay Seafood and went all out! The Komang package (Rp 1,150,000) included a feast of lobser, crab, calamari, clams, fish, king prawns, soup, rice, local greens, fruit and 2 beers!
Banyan Tree Ungasan rejuvenated my burned-out mind but Anantha helped us to fall in love with Bali; we can’t wait to return!
Banyan Tree Ungasan
Jalan Melasti, Banjar Kelod, Ungasan, Bali, Indonesia
Phone: +62 361 3007000
Anantha – our driver / tour guide
Whatsapp: +62 819 9966 8686