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Booming Bali

March 11, 2014

Bali is booming in the best and most bizarre ways. Jeninne Lee-St. John tumbles down the rabbit hole to an island where every day isn’t any other day. Photographed by Nikola Kostic

Published on Mar 10, 2014

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I was in a giant Sno-Cone machine. Shaved ice made of pure oxygenated water fell into a mini-Matterhorn in the middle of the room. Staring through each rhythmic plop of packed frozen crystals to the neon-illuminated walls beyond, my eyes glazed over from the mind-melding cycle of colors. Shocking pink. Sunburnt orange. Lemon. Chlorophyll green. Cobalt blue. Purple plum. Shocking pink. Sunburnt orange...

Things were getting trippy. Maybe that’s what drove me to voluntarily rub handfuls of snow on my bare skin, impervious to the cold. Maybe that’s why the spa attendant kept peeking around the corner to check on me, because what non-Russian would subject herself to the ice room for so long, especially sans vodka?

Chlorophyll green. Cobalt blue. Purple plum. After two go-rounds through the computer controlled steam room, sauna and this ice room, I blinked hard a few times, squeezed my eyes shut, hoisted my goose-bumped self off the bench and out of the color carousel into a steaming shower in the tricked-out Wellness Suite of the spanking new Mulia Spa, then down for an Around the World four-hand massage and crystal face-rub by two gentle masters, and off into a week of new ideas, technologies and services sharing in common that particular brand of over-the-top for which Bali is beloved.

In an endless march of Mad-tea parties, rose-petal baths and camel rides, I was Alice following the White Rabbit through what the ever-growing legion of visitors—an estimated 3.15 million this year, up about 10 percent from 2012—can expect from next-wave Bali. It would be easy to disdain the pace of development on Indonesia’s resort capital, if only because the notions of “tropical vacation” and “traffic” seem so irreconcilable. But thanks to APEC’s decision to hold its annual summit here last month, the government has even made headway on that front, this year having opened US$230 million worth of new road works to ensure swifter passage between all the new resorts in the southern peninsula and all the hotspots up in Seminyak. And thanks to some visionary developers, those new rooms, the resorts they’re wrapped up in, and their spas on the side are cooler, greener, better serviced and, yes, trippier than ever. On today’s Island of the Gods, it’s more fun and ever more bizarre to worship at the altars of healing and hedonism—sometimes in the same place.

If it’s possible to trudge and bounce at the same time, that’s what I’m doing. Across the sands. Under a blazing sun. Atop this crazy, crooked-toothed camel.

One guide runs ahead every so often to snap photos of me, and the other silently leads the camel down the beach. Correction: the camels down the beach, two camels, attached via roped nose rings. We’ve got four camel-top seats for one passenger. Why? “We don’t know,” says the photo-taking guide. “Camels don’t want to walk straight if not in a line. No camel behind, camel walks over here, over there, over here.” Oh wait. Is the question, Why am I on a camel at all? The cliff-side castle that is the Grand Nikko Bali punctuates the drama of its positioning with a waterslide, a glass wedding chapel and a complimentary-cocktails club lounge capitalizing on the eastward  ocean view, and shoreline rides on four camels imported from Australia—to which their forebears were imported from Central Asia—making the curious creatures both doubly displaced and perfectly located in this wacky Wonderland. There’s actually a fifth camel, an extra curiosity since he gets to chew cud all day, tethered only to the tree that shades him. When he shoots us an enigmatic Cheshire Cat grin, the guide wags his finger, “That one is naughty camel. No good camel!”

I take that for the warning it is, and retire post-trek to my sea-view villa on high, from which I can keep an eye on that no good camel at a distance. Grand Nikko’s 19 pool villas, which opened in July, are painted a purposefully distressed earthy maroon that precisely matches the high wildflowers that landscape this section of the resort. That level of thoughtfulness is rendered unsurprising when I get to know my butlers, especially Eka, who talks smack about American football with me using sports knowledge gleaned from his hospitality-internship year at State College, Pennsylvania, and draws me, unrequested, a precision-arrayed flower-petal bath one night he realizes I’m under the weather.

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