It was the first thing to catch our eye. A dramatic 15-foot-high Garuda (sun bird king) towered above a Balinese dance stage in the lobby of the Hotel Tugu Bali.
(No doubt the Garuda also caught the attention of super-model Kate Moss and popular Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto, who’ve been spotted at the hotel.)
“It was carved from a 120-year-old tree,” Lucienne told us. She’s the daughter of Anhar Setjadibrata, who owns Hotel Tugu Bali.
Lucienne literally stumbled over the wooden statue’s head one day while walking around a village with her father.
Carved by an Indonesian master carver, the Garuda had been left outside as too massive to fit any home, and over the years, had slowly sunk into the earth and almost disappeared.
Hotel Tugu Bali: There’s beauty here
We’d read the laments about Bali.
“It’s not like it was 15 years ago.”
“It’s over-crowded and over-developed.”
“The traffic is terrible.”
That may all be true in the tourist hot-spots. But scratch beneath the surface, and you discover enough beauty in the country’s Balinese dance, art and temple culture, not to mention the kindness of the people, to fill a lifetime with joy.
Perhaps it helped that we were fortunate enough to stay at beautiful five-star hotels like Hotel Tugu Bali – where we felt like we’d walked into a living story book on Indonesian art and culture.
Rooms and suites:
Tugu Bali has 22 different suites, clustered in thatched roof bungalows.
We stayed in a delightful “Rejang Suite” on the second floor, with dark timber interiors, hanging light fixtures that resembled bird cages and a carved four-poster bed.
An enclosed porch with wood-paneled windows looked out over palm trees to the crashing surf (very Hemingway – we could imagine he’d be right at home clacking away on his old typewriter here).
When we arrived, the sunken beaten silver tub in the corner of our suite was filled with water, its surface covered by big floating orange blossoms.
Full of Indonesian treasures
At the hotel, one crimson-themed guest villa (which you can visit when not occupied) is dedicated to the passionate love story between Belgian painter Adrien Le Mayeur (who came to Bali in 1932) and the model of his paintings, Balinese dancer Ni Polok.
It showcases the artist’s original carved furniture.
The small piece that started Lucienne’s father, Anhar, on a life-long mission of cultural preservation is also displayed in the hotel lobby – a 16th-century stone bowl from which ancient priests sprinkled healing holy water on sick villagers.
Saddened by what he perceived as forgetting the past, Anhar was inspired to save Indonesia’s “lost” artistic pieces and built a group of boutique Tugu Hotels to house his collection – Tugu Bali is one of these hotels.
Indeed, Tugu Bali is so chock-full of treasures that it possesses one of the largest and finest private collections of Indonesian art and cultural artifacts in south-east Asia.
You could relax on the bleached sunbeds the hotel maintains on a small patch of semi-private black sand beach outside the walls of the hotel property.
But the water-spout-fed pool, surrounded by ferns and lush gardens, is more inviting. It was lovely to doze off here while being serenaded by birdsong.
Feasts fit for royalty
Dining is a bespoke experience at Hotel Tugu Bali – you can eat in the garden, by the pool, at the beach or in a nook overlooking a lotus pond.
But the most romantic and elaborate dinners are served in the Bale Sutra.
Meaning “Palace of Harmony,” this dining room is in a 1706 Chinese (Kang Xi period) temple painstakingly reconstructed in a wing of the hotel.
Perhaps book the Imperial Chinese dinner?
You’re seated at an antique dining table covered with 18th century gold thread-emroidered Chinese silk, illuminated by rows of red candles.
Dishes of crab, Peking roast duck and steamed fish with ginger are presented on Ming-style tableware and lavish antique silver.
Or choose the royal ceremonial feast of the Majapahit Kingdom, and a procession of costumed staff, playing drums and musical instruments, leads you into the dining temple.
We saw a couple, accompanied by singing and dancing “soldiers” and Balinese “maidens,” being led to the blood-red dining room for their private, multi-course feast.
Definitely something to consider if you’re celebrating an anniversary or other special occasion!
Photos 2, 4 and 7 are © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Remaining photos are courtesy Hotel Tugu Bali.