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Bali's Natural Retreats

November 25, 2014

Rising above prosaic daily life, and Bali's hectic south, Holly Mcdonald hits the restart button at some of the island's more remote natural retreats. Photographed by Lauryn Ishak.

Published on Nov 25, 2014

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We've wound our way up into the orange-grove laden mountains of Kintamani, passing views of Lake Batur, scenes of traditional rural life and glimpses of volcanic peaks. Shrines are wrapped in black-and-white checked fabrics, shaded by golden umbrellas. Hibiscus flowers wend over stone carvings. Mossy walls shield family compounds with cocks strutting outside. We pass small plantations of cacao, papaya and bananas until the mist of mountains gives way to an ocean panorama.

All of this beauty is why I get so defensive when people insist the crowds of the south mean Bali's best days are over. The interior and the north are the island's retort to those maligners.

I'm juicing, stretching and bird watching my way through three natural-living retreats, which despite occupying varied landscapes—black-sand beach, oceanic protected park, lush hilly interior—collectively encapsulate the gentle spirit of Bali, away from the busy, mercantile south.

The black sand beach of Spa Village Tembok
The black sand beach of Spa Village Tembok.

A three-hour trip to the northeastern tip from the hectic Kuta area has allowed me to relax into the full gamut of the island's geography before arriving at Spa Village Resort, where I'm enrolled in a short version of its "School of Life" program. Like many, I live a relentless march of deadlines and parenting, with little time for reflection and planning for meaningful things—stuck in a routine that's reactive rather than proactive. My time here is a whirl of healthful meals, spa, classes and quiet time to allow me to recalibrate my life, to hit the restart button.

That begins with a black-sand cleansing foot ritual, to rid me of any negativity arising from the earth. Then, for my first treatment, my legs are smothered in red clay and I'm left alone for 10 minutes. All I can do is listen to music, eat my frozen watermelon and sip my ylang-ylang flower water. It's an induction into stillness.

Later, two therapists are filling the bath in my room, so I sit outside on my veranda overlooking a lotus pond to read. But there's not enough light, so I'm left yet again, listening to insects, and voices drifting over the lawn and through the frangipani trees. Sheer torture. But I've mind-melded into my surrounds by the time I step into the bath, a detoxifying blend of volcanic clay, the leaves of various local plants and the essential oils of neem, piper betle, turmeric, tea tree, citronella and patchouli. I am becalmed, centered and en route to a more healthful me.

Spurred on by the thought of seeing a sunrise over black sands scattered with local jukung (outrigger fishing boats), I pull myself out of bed for an early morning swim. As much as I've been trying to abandon my phone, I've got to break my moratorium to Instagram this dusty rose sunrise. From the beachside, infinity-edged pool, the horizon seems liquid as the day slowly asserts itself.

Infinity pool, Spa Village
Spa Village's infinity pool.

I attend a class to learn the basics of pencak silat, an ancient Balinese martial art; I practice swing yoga, swaying in a hammock-like contraption by the sea. Both classes are such hard-core sessions, so focused on learning precise moves and postures, so far removed from even the strict routine of my usual Bikram yoga—that I feel like I've had a good physical as well as mental workout. Using a mortar and pestle, I pound fresh galangal, cloves and soaked rice to make a headily aromatic body scrub. It's about body and earth: back to the basics of life.

Throughout my stay, I'm sipping herbal teas from a flask I've been instructed to carry with me at all times, or staff members are chasing me down to hand me freshly shucked yellow coconuts, the kind used in Bali's many ceremonies, reputed to have greater health-giving properties than your standard young green coconut. It's hydration on hyperdrive.

On my final morning, the hotel arranges a visit to a local white-bearded Balinese healer at his home. The massage session, on a simple mattress behind a privacy sheet hanging from the roof, is intuitive and strong; the healer, Ketut, eventually gives me a diagnosis. "Your chakras are all alive." It's a welcome surprise, since I usually feel like I'm playing catch-up. The subtext seems to be: "Get ahead of life. What are you waiting for?"

Lulur Body Scrub
A traditional lulur body scrub

THE GUIDE IS PATIENT IN DIRECTING OUR  binoculars to the right spot. It takes a moment but finally we see them: two endangered Bali starlings perched at the top of a tree. We can see their drooping, distinctive white crests, the blue patches around their eyes and their black-tipped wings.

They are stunning. While estimates vary, only around 100 remain in the wild and these were likely released from captivity as part of the resort's breeding program. I no longer resent getting up at 5:30 a.m. to go bird watching.

West Bali National Park in the island's far northwest makes for a different kind of back-to-nature getaway. I'm staying at The Menjangan, seaside in the park, where aside from bird watching, horseback riding, diving, snorkeling, hiking and just beachside chilling are on offer.

Snorkeling at The Menjangan
Snorkeling at The Menjangan.

Getting here has taken me through an under-touristed part of Bali. Thanks to its proximity to Java, around the western port of Gilimanuk and across Bali's flat northern coast, there's more of a Muslim influence here than elsewhere on the island: curved domes of mosques grace the main road every now and again; I pass cycling school boys wearing embroidered skullcaps, and catch the wafting strains of a haunting call to prayer.

From the resort, my snorkeling trip to nearby Menjangan Island, a highlight of the national park, begins with a 30-minute boat drive during which we spot a pod of dolphins jumping in the distance. Once in the water, our guide points out a massive pink stonefish crouched in the sands meters below. The soft corals of brilliant blues, greens and pinks plus the array of fish are astounding. At one point, I spy three distinct schools of fish, each on top of the other: swirling silver trevally, yellow and white angelfish, and another electric-blue type of fish. It's like a swimming rainbow.

At our next stop, we follow a massive drop-off along its edge with another dense coral garden and again loads of life. The sun comes out from behind a cloud and crepuscular rays light up the scene, fish glistening. There are trumpet fish, sea anemones, large grouper and parrotfish mauling the harder coral. It's a thrilling bombardment of the natural kind; the silence of the water is a meditation in its own right, allowing for contemplation without any distractions.

Back on board, we devour our lunch of pepes ikan, or fish steamed in banana leaves, before zipping back for a reflexology session in the mangrove-set spa, where I drift off listening to lapping waters and chirping birds.

Sunsets are lazy affairs here; I take a lounger for happy hour, sipping on a rosella margarita and watching frolicking deer. "Menjangan" means deer in Indonesian and the park is home to Javan rusa and Indian muntjac (barking) species. A single jukung bobbing offshore makes for a perfect photo, the low tide shows the mangrove roots in their gnarled glory, and Java's volcanoes glow pink-purple.

I'm staying at a lodge off the beach, a few minutes away by the resort's safari minibus. After dark, I clamber up to sit on the roof, spotlights ablaze to highlight any wildlife. During the day I see wild chickens, monkeys and more deer, but this evening I spot only frogs and insects. They may not be the most glamorous critters, but they bring the night to life with their humming stridulations and baritone harmonies.

A Beach villa at The Menjangan
A Beach villa at The Menjangan.

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