Just when you think the road cannot get any steeper or any narrower, and when the beach
at Lovina seems a light year away, a modest sign on the right of the road shows that you have arrived at the Damai, a superb little resort nestled high in the hills of North Bali.
I had stayed at this place on a couple of previous visits to Indonesia, and my arrival this time was an exercise in excellent staff relations:
- Ah! Mr Christopher! Welcome back!
- Let me take your bag!
- Good to see you again!
It had been two years since I visited the Damai (thedamai.com) yet it felt like coming home as I had the refreshing cold towel, welcome drink, sign-your-life-away credit card authorisation slip, and a cheery chat with Jean François, the General Manager who, like me, had lived in Thailand for some time and who, like me, had experienced the madness of just one Songkran or Thai New Year, before making plans to avoid all others. I have lived in Thailand for eight years and have never joined in the boozy, rowdy, destructive water hosing, water tossing, water drenching that Songkran has become – so very far from its kind and gentle origins as a way of honouring parents and elders and of making merit for the new year.
I had reserved a studio pool villa for this visit – and whether it was because I was a return visitor or because the day was my birthday, or because it was a low time in the tourist season, I was delighted to find that I had been upgraded to an enormous Pool Villa, which, according to the resort’s website, is almost 200 square metres (bigger than my apartment in Chiang Mai!) including a large and private swimming pool ideal for getting an all-over tan or for a late night skinny dip, a huge outdoor sala, and very spacious rooms inside.
I did not see the butler mentioned on the hotel’s website but as I had only a backpack and a couple of changes of clothes, there would not have been much for him to press and no silver-backed toiletries to lay out in the huge bathroom – with its even larger outdoor shower with its exquisite local Balinese Neneq shampoos, conditioners and bath lotions: possibly the juiciest and smoothest and softest hotel toiletries I have ever encountered. I want some to have on toast tomorrow! Possibly with sliced and char-grilled banana as a side serving.
Although I had no butler this time, I had asked for a late-lunch sandwich to be delivered to my room. The waiter arrived, asked where I wanted it to be served, and when I pointed to a low coffee table in the sitting room, smiled at me when I removed a tray of flowers and books and indicated that he could pop the sandwich down just there …
It was not until later that night I discovered that there was no glass top to the table … and that having removed the tray of flowers I had asked the waiter to place my sandwich in mid-air … No wonder he smiled … but with true Jeeves-like manners, he did not tell me what an absolute ass I was!
Pass the buggy
It is quite a walk from reception to the pool villas, going down steep stairs past the lovely (smaller) garden villas I had stayed in on my previous visits, but there is also a golf buggy service for those who want it – or those who, like me after a gin and tonic or two, might find it easier to use than negotiating mossy pathways through the organic gardens with neatly labelled herb gardens growing rosemary, several types of mint, oregano and aloe vera.
I wonder if Vera Lynn – now apparently Dame Vera Lynn, the Forces’ Sweetheart during World War II – ever had to endure feeble jokes such as mine: “Hallo Vera!” but I doubt it. Was aloe vera popular in 1945? Cannot quite imagine GI Joe or Welsh Daffyd Jones using aloe vera to smooth their skin after a hard day at the pool or on the beaches of Dunkirk.
The Damai has (I think) about eight Garden Villas, and about five or six Pool Villas of different sizes. The Garden Villas are comfortable and attractive … but the Pool Villas, judging by mine, are superb.
I like books and old wall hangings: the villa had both. In fact, there were several display cases packed with books on Indonesian culture and novels in English, Swedish, German and French, as well as antique Balinese theatrical masks. A pair of old spears flanked the double doorway into the sitting room, and a superb and very faded piece of antique fabric was framed and hung in the sitting room. Floors – wide hardwood planks – were covered by lovely shabby old kilim rugs and split-bamboo mats. The walls, sideboards and bookcases displayed other antique figurines and masks, and the huge four-poster bed (gauzy curtains supported by massive recycled timbers) was big enough for a party.
I shared my pool with a variety of welcome visitors.
Unfortunately none of them was young, lithe, well-built and good looking – but they were good entertainment just the same.
There was a cheeky little wading bird that was, perhaps, a Greater Painter Snipe, who paddled about my pool, preening himself and then sneaking off into the undergrowth with the leftover bits of a traditional Balinese desert delivered to my room during evening turn-down service. The tiny swooping birds – swallows? Sparrows? Something elses? – swooped and dipped and dived but never settled for more than a few seconds, but the small lizard – greyish green with a brilliant yellow-red slash on its side slowly snooped about hoovering up crumbs left by the birds and trying – in vain – to catch any of the electric-blue dragon flies that engaged in mid-air mating above my pool.
And I am reminded of the old school-boy howler stating with pubescent ignorance and enthusiasm that in the Middle Ages people lived in mud huts with rough mating on the floor.
Heliconias and Elephant Ears
And then there were the snails with shells shaped like dollops of brown palm sugar that crawled along the walls of the sala and the luxuriant plants of the gardens around my pool. Palm trees, deep pink frangipanis, fishbone ferns, scarlet and yellow-lipped crab-claw Heliconias and great elephant ear leaves with ribs and veins like a diagram on a cardiovascular surgeon’s chart.
I dragged myself away from the pool to shower and dress for dinner in the restaurant overlooking the main hotel pool … and all the way down to the Bali Sea. There was a good menu of Indonesian and Western and other Asian goodies, and while my local freshwater lobster tempura was a little over-sauced and not crisp, the sucking pig and the mango pancakes were wonderful.
On a previous visit I had been embarrassed by the arrival of a cup cake with a fluttering birthday candle … but on this occasion it was surprisingly fun to see a huge confection of fruit and tarts and candles and whirly pastry whizzibangs arrive with waiters singing to me and shaking my elderly and increasingly decrepit hand. I blew out the candles (puff puff),(would hate to have emphysema),(puff puff), ate the watermelon the candles had been shoved into, and called the waiter to ask him to share my dessert with his colleagues.
Dinner, a slow swim, a bit of television, a few pages of Peter Carey’s brilliant and fanciful 1985 novel Illywhacker, a deep sleep under the four-poster guarded during the nigh by numerous Balinese gods and goddesses whose masks and statues were scattered through the room … and suddenly it was time for YOGA.
Each Sunday and Wednesday the Damai has free yoga classes on the lawn in front of the spa or at the spa. Miss Eka took me – and one other person – through an hour of stretches, salutes to the sun, cobras and assorted asanas. I was worried at one point when she told the small class that “We will now all breed together” until I realised I had misheard her instruction for coordinated breathing exercises. After sixty minutes I was not sure if I was totally r e l a x e d … or totally hyped up and ready for breakfast and the excellent coffee served with the meal of eggs and scarlet dragon fruits and pale insipid passion fruits and early-morning Edam cheeses.
After a late check-out I headed back to Bali au Naturel and passed a small village where they were preparing for a funeral (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ngaben). There was a huge gold and white construction – presumably destined to carry the body – as well as a gamelan orchestra to make sweet music as the body went on its way.
I do hope there is sweet music and cheering crowds and smoking men and smiling kids and beautiful women in elaborate sarongs and blouses when – in due course – my body is piled into a gilt and white thingo and led off to a sweet and smoky end, but whether or nay this happens, I will recall fondly my day at the Damai.
- Journey: April 2016
- Text © Christopher Hall 2016
- Photographs Christopher Hall and Internet sources
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