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Bali’s Grande Dame

The Oberoi, Bali remains a class act in a changing world, writes Katie Truman. Photos: Lucky 8.

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Strolling along Seminyak Beach you’d have to be extremely pre-occupied not to notice the expansive stretch of manicured beachfront lawn and thatched roofed stone pavilions – calmly evoking an idyllic Balinese village – that starkly contrast the ultra-contemporary neighbours.

That, my dear, is iconic The Oberoi, Bali, and way before all the beach clubs, designer boutiques and world-class restaurants sprung-up in Seminyak, from the 1970s, this was the area’s first-ever international property of any kind.

ow inadvertently finding itself smack bang in the middle of Bali’s hippest, most cosmopolitan neighbourhoods and fronting one of the world’s top surfing beaches, Seminyak’s most mature resort still stands secluded in its enchanting green oasis; a Grand Dame that magically preserves the island’s rich history, architecture and spirituality, while offering the highest standards expected from a luxury branded resort.

Like all Grand Dames, this one comes with history. Built by Australian architect Peter Muller in 1972 on the site of an ancient village, the property grew from a private residence to a cluster of sumptuous private villas attracting the world’s wealthy, royalty and famous – anyone from Princess Grace to Salvador Dali – and evolving as Kayu Aya Private Club, pioneering for its refined western comforts blended with Oriental mystique and Balinese tradition.

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Although funds dried-up, land issues ensued and the club disintegrated into a half-abandoned hot mess, Kayu Aya still managed to host two seasons of Full Moon parties in the mid-seventies, still notorious to this day, where musicians jammed and the world’s beautiful people danced to abandon in moonlit beachfront gardens. When the property was auctioned off, Oberoi Hotels & Resorts Group took over the helm, renovating it to sumptuous standards, but still respecting the legacy of Balinese lay-out, design and ambiance. In August 1978, the former Kayu Aya Club was inaugurated as The Oberoi, Bali with 63 rooms and villas, one of Bali’s first-ever luxury beach resorts (the island’s other two upscale properties in the 1970s were Bali Hyatt and Hotel Grand Bali Beach on Sanur Beach).

With its gorgeous private villas – also an island first – The Oberoi, Bali evolved as the luxurious base camp,  where guests got shamelessly  pampered before setting off to explore the relatively unchartered island. Back then, the property was surrounded by rice paddies and utter darkness as there was no electricity (Seminyak translates as, “one oil lamp”) and with scant proper roads, they built Jalan Kaya Ayu – aka Jalan Oberoi (it was the driveway). With Seminyak’s first resort offering an upscale restaurant of any distinction (continually installed with an international chef), patrons craving gourmet dining made a bee-line here.

Over the next three decades, with Muller still in charge, this dame underwent some nips and tucks (as any great beauty may confess) but never succumbed to any full blown, “wind tunnel” facelift. A 1980 upgrade took the total accommodations to 74, adhering to the Oberoi brand boutique trademark, while a decade-long, multi-million dollar upgrade from 1988 saw all rooms, villas and public areas rebuilt (albeit in the same traditional cottage-like buildings with thatched roofs design), with existing facilities renovated and new ones installed.

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Today, the authentic Balinese experience on offer here starts with a frangipani garland placed around the neck and a walk through Monet-esque lotus ponds to an elevated pavilion – The Oberoi’s low-key lobby. Seminyak’s hot spots may now encircle this bucolic sanctuary on all sides – Ku De Ta and Luna2 are neighbours – yet amazingly, apart from the sounds of crashing surf, the silence is deafening.

Accommodations were originally all built as one-bedroom, as back in the day, Bali was foremost considered a romantic island getaway, not somewhere to bring the kids. The 60 Lanai Rooms and 14 Villas today all remain one-bedroom, but families can be accommodated. All stand along a nearly 500-metre stretch of beach, well-spaced apart across the sprawling lawns, offering garden or ocean views and emanating island charm, constructed from local stone and natural materials.

Interiors showcase rich, polished woods and intricate artisanal soft furnishings, but with discerning travellers in mind, all come well-appointed with the latest modern technologies. Opulent, air-conditioned marble bathrooms feature floor-to-ceiling glass windows for plenty of natural sun light and sunken marble tubs (an Oberoi signature) and look out onto a private courtyard.

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The charming Lanai Rooms (check website for rates and specials) are built in clusters of four, each with a private veranda edged with fish ponds but it is the 14 luxury villas which provide the blissful havens of privacy – and larger space, from 200 to 400 – square metres – secluded behind high walls bordering luscious gardens overhung with bougainvillaea and gardenia blossoms.

Each presents a courtyard and elevated bale for al fresco dining, while nine villas offer a full-sized private swimming pool (no plunge pools here!) set upon a large sun terrace. Villas are named after Balinese flowers, a floral theme continues throughout the high-ceilinged interiors, especially in commissioned art works and décor, like hand-carved headboards backing the canopied four-posters.

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The high standard of personalized service and utmost discretion (typically Oberoi style) has made this a long-term favourite for a particular class of guest. In fact, the only baggage this Grand Dame carries is of the Louis Vuitton variety, from a stellar “Who’s Who” guest list of global ambassadors, dignitaries, VIPs and celebs, including Gianni Versace, David Bowie, Henry Kissinger and the President of Chile. And that’s just the ones we know about.

The Oberoi’s exquisite landscaped grounds along a 500-metre beachfront stretch are a stand-out – what other Seminyak resort boasts such a vast expanse of lawn gardens rolling down to the beach? Some of the aged trees, especially the gnarly Banyans, are considered sacred. The resorts’ beachfront, along with neighbouring temple, Pura Petitenget, further northwards, is regarded as one of Bali’s holiest spots, considered a source of great spiritual power.  Which may partly explain why this strip of beach is virtually free from beach hawkers, sun beds and branded umbrellas – the local community strongly respecting this Grand Dame’s eminence; perhaps also, why the endangered sea turtle species, Olive Ridley, crawl ashore May to October each year to lay their eggs. Newborn hatchlings are nurtured at the saltwater turtle sanctuary – The Oberoi emerging as a key player in island turtle conservation – with the baby turtles subsequently released back to the ocean; a magical event that in-house guests are invited to witness. It’s just one aspect of a property that still cares deeply about Bali, its people and traditions. Long may she reign.