Bali is a way of life and Bulgari Hotels & Resorts has embraced it down to the minutest detail.
One of my favourite destinations for a ‘me only’ holiday was Bali. The first time I touched base with this island town (about 15 years ago) I knew I would be back again. There were barely any cars, plenty of beautiful architecture to gawk at, the north-south divide was marked by the colour of the sand in black and white, and the general laid-back nature of the inhabitants who walked in their colourful sarongs to watch local entertainment (generally a ballet from the Balinese version of the Ramayana or the Mahabharata) held almost every evening in the Hindu temples. I went back a couple of times and then life interrupted the ritual. But I knew I would be back again for that aching feeling of lost love as you walk the shorelines.
So this time when I was invited to the Bulgari Resort as part of its celebration of Chef Luca Fantin’s (two Michelin stars) opening of the second edition of his Italian restaurant, Il Ristorante, it was more than the grandeur of the property that I was looking forward to.
The drive from the airport to the Bulgari resort was nothing like I remembered though. The cityscape was lined with fashion outlets, cafes (one of which had a board saying ‘free wifi so that you don’t have to talk to each other’), art galleries and western tourists complete in their breezy resort wear (not a missed trend, mind you) had relegated the Balinese women, who once crisscrossed the bylanes accessorised with jasmine flowers in their braid, to tiny souvenir stores selling overpriced baskets and dream catchers. The Bali I knew had grown up.
As I looked at one of the temples being renovated, my rather perceptive chauffeur (who thankfully was a local from Ubud, the northern part where the sand is black) asked, “Not your first time here eh? A lot has changed. Have you watched that movie Eat, Pray, Love? It was shot in Bali you know? Everybody wants to be here now.” Clearly! The pride in his voice overpowered my disappointment. Bali was my little secret, or so I liked to believe. Now, it belongs to Julia Roberts.
As we drove up the resort, I watched two young souls promising each other eternal happiness as they exchanged vows against the backdrop of the Indian Ocean. We waved at the newly-weds who couldn’t care two hoots, as they climbed on to their buggy to be driven to their honeymoon villa to discover life and love.
Love was still in the air. There is hope.
But then it would only be naive to expect anything less when Italian seduction and Balinese romanticism merge atop a cliff 150 metres above sea level. The dull idea of a typical beach resort goes right out the window of your private villa (or five-bedroom mansion, if you please) that overlooks the expanse of a not-so-silent part of the ocean. Just as you are skinny-dipping in your pool secretly looking forward to dinner with the charming Chef Luca, you feel that pinching ache somewhere in between your heart and stomach that reminds you of that love. The waves lashing against the rocky underbelly of the beach below help silence that unintended sigh off the air.
That moment, at the Bulgari Hotels and Resorts, I had reclaimed my Bali.
The young Italian chef Luca, who has to receive two Michelin stars rather quickly in his career, plans to reclaim the old Bali and give it back to its people. As he says, “My agenda is to create a restaurant that is not for the tourists who come to the resort or to the city and drop by for a meal. I want the locals to come up here and make my restaurant here a part of their going-out routine.” Ambitious? May be. But that seems to be Luca’s style indeed.
For one, he insists on bringing in as much local produce into his kitchen as possible, which at the moment is clearly a challenge. “It is certainly an effort. The quality I need is not available at the moment. So, I am reaching out to the farmers directly to find ways to improve the quality of the ingredients.” And when he doesn’t get what he wants the chef does what any cook does: use what is best at hand. In Luca’s case, he turns it into something exotic. The Consistenze di cocco, one of his famous desserts, is made with milk at the original Il Ristorante - Luca Fantin at the Bulgari Ginza Tower in Tokyo. But when Luca’s search for good milk in Bali met with disappointment, he replaced milk entirely and used locally produced coconut milk instead. But he isn’t experimenting with beef yet. Luca laughs and says, “It is very important to get the ingredients right but I can’t experiment with a steak if the quality of beef is not good. I am only a chef not a magician. So, his beef comes from Australia,” though he does approve of the Balinese tuna.
It may well be a while before you can expect a world-class Wagyu from Bali, but for the time being Luca is happy creating his own Chef’s garden for his herbs and tomatoes. The showpiece is his bee farm. Yes, our pasta maker is an avid beekeeper too. And it is not just for the honey. The entire resort is dedicated to saving the humble bee which has bumbled into the ‘about to be extinct’ zone. So, save the bee is quite the buzzword here. The entire bee business is about Indonesia itself, which is one of the few countries in the world that is a natural home to a variety of bee species. The honey from each species is different in colour and taste, kind of like wine. There is sweet honey, some that is more acidic, yet some that is thicker in consistency... all of which goes to Luca’s kitchen.
The bee project that the resort initiated was at first an idea to create honey for its restaurants. But then one day, when it was time to collect honey from a ripe hive, they realised there were no professional honey collectors anymore in Bali. They were told there were no honey collectors because there was no honey to be collected in Bali, which got the Bulgari gang thinking. Which is when the bee-farm began, now it helps Luca experiment with his dishes using various types of honey right from his garden and gives the locals a source of income.
In its own way, the resort is working on the concept of responsible luxury and giving back to nature, much of which all of us take for granted, while respecting the rather strong Balinese culture. When architects Antonio Citterio Patricia Viel and Partners planned the resort’s layout and overall design they evidently incorporated the culture and natural elements of the location. It is built and furnished using hand-cut volcanic stones, rich exotic woods and refined fabrics. Natural lava and Palimanan stone are used for the garden and interior walls, refined bangkiray hardwood in the villas, natural green sukabumi stone to clad outdoor showers, plunge and swimming pools. Balinese antiques and exotic art pieces are placed subtly through the entire resort. Furniture and decorative details, such as stemware, flatware, ceramics and woven fabrics, were designed and produced in Bali by a team of local artists and designers in collaboration with the resort’s architects. Luca’s kitchen too is an extension of this idea: playing classic Italian cuisine with traditional Indonesian ingredients.
All of which makes an incredible mission. But if you really want the story to be a memory, all you have to do is take a stroll around the resort. Let the world move in slow motion while that tiny singed corner in your heart aches a bit harder. Be warned: you will get lost. But life has its own way of finding the path, just the way love does. Here too, you shall. If not, hail a buggy and drive into the comfort of your villa, the spa or the brand outlet... whatever be your therapy.
Ask me, Ms Roberts spent an awful lot of time crisscrossing the world to eat, pray and love. My suggestion, it may burn a hole in your pocket but if you are looking for anything similar, you will find it up on this cliff in Uluwatu in Bali.