You can tell it’s going to be a good holiday when check-in comes with a foot scrub and a mini-massage. As soon as you arrive at Spa Village Resort Tembok, you are ushered to a seat in the large open lobby where one of the highly-skilled therapists will scrub your travel-weary feet with black sand from the hotel’s beach and massage in flight knots from your shoulders, neck and back. It’s the perfect way to arrive after a flight and a long transfer (around three hours) and I can’t imagine why every resort doesn’t do it.
The resort itself is tiny, a few hundred metres across at its widest point with only 31 rooms, and is completely surrounded on three sides by towering jungle. The fourth side faces onto a deserted beach and every room has a constant soundtrack of crashing waves. I stayed in one of the two private one-bedroom villas tucked away to the side of the main resort. The villas are simple and spacious with high woven ceilings and teak walls, and they are the only rooms in the resort with a television (though I restrained myself and didn’t turn it on). Both villas have a private courtyard, plunge pool and sala (day bed) that face out towards the beach and it’s almost possible to forget that you are part of a resort.
Balinese villas at Spa Village Resort
Before you arrive a representative from the resort will contact you to help plan an itinerary from the near-bewildering 50 activities available. Guests can choose between four paths – balance, creativity, vigour or Spa Academy – to structure their stay, though I sampled a little of everything. Yoga, meditation, tai chi, weaving, woodwork classes and many more are scheduled throughout the day and guests are welcome to join in with any of them.
I joined a weaving class by the pool and there was much giggling among the young Balinese girls as they attempted to teach me to make a delicate crane from strips of dried leaves or to weave a canang, one of the traditional Balinese baskets filled with flowers that can be seen everywhere as offerings. They made it look easy and, with a few deft turns of the wrist, had completed their basket while I was still floundering with a few strips of increasingly crumpled banana leaf. The resort runs a visiting artist program and during my stay, a British painter was running watercolour classes.
I managed to paint a passable pair of frangipanis, which are now displayed proudly on my fridge. I had seen the yoga swing session on the vast timetable in my room and, as a keen yoga-goer at home, was eager to try it. Set up on the grass in front of the beach it resembled a large medieval torture device and I had yet to see it in action.
After a demonstration and brimming with confidence I climbed aboard, only to be quickly disabused of any notion that I am reasonably strong and flexible. Yoga swing is hard, really hard. After half an hour of increasingly feeble poses, I hobbled away, grateful that I had a massage to look forward to in the afternoon. The regular yoga classes, run during my stay by a visiting British instructor, were some of the best I have ever been to and after only a few days I felt long and lean and full of energy. Classes are held outside, either on the grass or in the lobby depending on the weather, so be mindful of the heat. It was relatively cool during my stay but after an hour of yoga everyone was hot and sticky, and in the dry season I imagine every class would become Bikram. Spa Village’s signature experience is stargazing, which they encourage every guest to try.
You relax on a large inflatable mattress set up in the pool, listening to specially selected meditation music on an iPod and looking up at the stars. Unfortunately, it was overcast on the night I did it, but an electrical storm rolling in from the ocean made for equally spectacular viewing. The stargazing was more soothing than I had expected and I had to work hard to keep myself from falling asleep and rolling off the mattress into the water. Meals were the highlight of each day at Spa Village, more akin to a fine-dining restaurant than a health retreat.
Guests arrive at the Wantilan Restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner each day, are seated at one of the beautifully laid tables and presented with a menu in a smart wooden cover. While you peruse the day’s choices a cold towel and an amuse bouche are brought out. There are at least 10 dishes on offer at each meal with entrees, soups, vegetarian options, main courses and even dessert, and the menu changes daily. All bread, pastries and cakes are made in house, along with the delicious homemade ice cream.
Each dish was beautifully presented and very tasty – the standouts of my stay were a fresh tuna tartare and a stir-fry with crispy prawns fried in the shell (heads and all). Alcohol, soft drinks and coffee are available, though most people abstain, and I limited drinks to a fresh juice at breakfast, gallons of water throughout the day and green tea. The food felt incredibly indulgent for a health retreat and I was afraid I might actually put on weight over the few days, but the small portions meant that I definitely left with a flatter stomach than when I arrived.
I spoke with the head chef who told me that the menu is based around what is available in the local area. Fishermen bring what they have caught each day, meat or poultry are from local farmers and fruit, vegetables and herbs come from the resort’s own garden or are purchased from the local village. Everything is fresh and seasonal and very little is imported. The resort is in a very remote part of Bali with few tourists, so the chef feels a responsibility to support the local economy as much as possible.
This policy extends to the spa as well and many of the therapists are locals who have been trained at the resort and have been seconded to other YTL properties around Asia to develop their skills. Depending on what accommodation package you choose there are a number of spa treatments included. Every guest has the signature pengantet melukat treatment, based on a traditional Balinese pre-wedding ritual performed by the mothers of the bride and groom three days before the ceremony. This centuries-old technique is designed to cleanse the mind, body and spirit before the new couple begin their lives together. It’s a lovely idea and my therapist Iluh seemed a little disappointed when I told her I was single.
A Balinese massage is followed by a boreh body scrub using traditional roots and spices like galangalal, turmeric, ginger and cloves, before being wrapped in warm towels and left to bake. Fresh milk is then applied to the skin before finishing off in a floral bath. No commercially made products are used in the spa and all scrubs and oils are mixed from fresh ingredients shortly before your treatment. Also, try the campur-campur, a traditional Malaysian treatment used in all YTL Hotels Spa Villages. After a massage, a hot steam pouch filled with lemon grass and pandan leaves is rubbed over the body leaving the skin feeling fresh and revitalised and smelling deliciously like dumplings. If you are travelling with a partner or friend you can choose the Spa Academy path and learn some of the techniques.
Six-night Spa Academy packages include five days of instruction that cover the philosophy of Balinese healing, training in Balinese massage and boreh and an introduction to herbal remedies. I had learned from the staff that most guests stay at the resort for two weeks, and some for much longer, so I was sad to leave after only four nights. It is very easy to adapt to the sedate pace of life at Spa Village and I could happily have spent weeks rising early for yoga, eating delicious meals and having my worries gently pummelled away with fragrant spices. And I could probably get pretty good at weaving those cranes.
Weaving tiny cranes from banana leaves