Great hotels don’t just happen. The smooth surfaces, seamless service and slick marketing blurbs are designed to make it look that way by hiding the sometimes less tidy processes of keeping them going. But what they also hide is the stories of their making. Behind every great hotel is a story, and sometimes it is a great story.
WHERE TO START?
Once upon a time in Bali, within the lifetimes of many of us, the only hotels were solid Dutch colonial ones and basic but often charming Indonesian ones. Then the government decided that tourism would be good for economic development, so they built a huge ten-story hotel on a graveyard overlooking a beautiful beach. The locals were horrified and the tourists were not impressed either, because they already had plenty of ten-story hotels back home. Some of them could not afford fancy hotels anyway. The surfers stayed in bamboo huts as close to the beaches as possible, while other young travellers headed for the hills in search of art, culture and meetings with the locals. The locals responded by building somewhere for them to stay among the banana and coconut trees in their backyards, simple little bamboo and thatch rooms with verandahs in front and open-air bathrooms behind. The basic form of the modern tropical hotel was born.
At the same time, a more sophisticated cosmopolitan elite of artists, collectors and dealers, had already begun staying along the beautiful beach near the ten-story hotel. Some of them bought land and built little houses, really improved versions of the homestay rooms the locals were building. Their friends came to visit, so they built more houses and in the end it all became known as Tandjung Sari, perhaps the first boutique tropical hotel in the world. By the 1970s it had become a favourite holiday hangout for the rich and famous from all over the world.
One of the permanent residents was a painter called Donald Friend. One of the friends of Friend was an Australian architect named Peter Muller. Together they dreamt of a bigger and grander version of Tanjung Sari on a larger piece of land nearby. It was to be based on the aesthetic scale and flavour of Balinese villages and built of traditional materials by local builders. But for every great hotel, there is at least one that got away. Times change, booms bust, investors back out, land gets sold, friends part ways, and somebody builds something somewhere else instead. But the dreams remain.
In 1973, an international investor of dubious pedigree bought a beautiful piece of land on a quiet estuary, where cattle grazed among tall trees, way out beyond the beach where the young tourists gathered to eat magic mushrooms and watch the sunset. He contacted Peter Muller and asked him to design a house, then another and before long the hotel first dreamt of on another beach years earlier came back to life. They called it Kayu Aya, after the tall trees, and everybody thought they were mad, because it was miles from anywhere. Other investors put in money and they built and landscaped, constructed rooms and pavilions, walls and paths… but great hotels don’t come easy and again things went wrong. By the time the money ran out, the buildings were usable, but the Balinese in whose name the property had been bought took it over by force. The employees had to flee for their lives and valuable materials and equipment were looted. A series of cowboys moved in, renting rooms cheaply to passing travellers and organising wild drug-fuelled parties. Eventually the bank from which most of the money had been borrowed took possession and what was left of the Kayu Aya was auctioned.
Biki Oberoi, head of the famous family-owned chain of hotels in India saw the potential and supported two local bidders and together they secured the property. Peter Muller was called back yet again to fix the mess, and thus began the Oberoi we know today. Most of the employees were from the local community and many of them, or their children, are still there today. One man who used to graze his cattle under the Aya trees is retiring as you read this, after looking after the gardens for nearly forty years.
The present hotel is pretty much as it began, a rambling complex of spacious rooms in walled courtyards, built of local materials that have worn and weathered with time and all set in beautiful parkland. Guests are treated as friends or after a few visits, as family. What makes the Oberoi different, apart from its story, is that it has not lost the qualities that attracted visitors to Bali from the beginning. It is like staying in a Balinese homestay, with even more style.
LIVING THE DREAM AT THE OBEROI.
On a trip to beautiful Bali in June, at the very last minute we were lucky enough to be offered a two-night stay at The Oberoi in Seminyak.
The Oberoi is a hotel that has managed to meet high-end market standards on all fronts, whilst retaining the original qualities of the environment and cultural touchstones that attracted visitors to Bali in the first place.
I did no research on The Oberoi prior to going — this is not unusual for me, as the element of surprise when arriving at a destination is such a joy! This has become a way to travel — to live an experience as it happens and to expect nothing. This assures me that everything I experience whilst travelling unfolds in front of me and my expectations are less about matching the room to website photography, and more about taking it in as I experience it.
Immediately on arrival at the elegant Oberoi, there is a sense that you could do nothing more than immerse yourself in total luxuriousness.
We were greeted by the attentive Balinese staff and lead to our villa — a stroll through beautifully manicured pathways, with palm trees waving their fronds, making shadows dance along the pathways. The smell of the sea air hit us as we passed the beautiful open-air restaurant. The walk to our room revealed in the most nonchalant way that we were in for something incredibly special.
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THE OBEROI:
Peaceful and graceful.
Understated yet elegant.
THE OBEROI STAFF:
Smiling, so attentive and always welcoming.
Clearly such a happy team, well trained and settled — some staff are second generation.
Helpful and engaging.
Couldn’t do enough for you — always with a stunning Balinese smile.
New York Times delivered to our door every morning, along with the local Oberoi newspaper.
– THE OBEROI A MUST EXPERIENCE –
The entrance to our room was nothing less than spectacular. There is always something remarkable about a thoughtful approach to a room, regardless of whether the room is humble or grand. That the designer of these beautiful villas wanted the guests to walk in and feel that their holiday was going to allow them privacy, luxury and a memorable stay was so evident in the experience of the villa slowly revealing itself as we approached.
Our villa was stunning — well appointed and discretely positioned to provide maximum privacy. The bathroom, the bedding, the huge wooden sliding doors on either side of the room, the sunken bath, the robes provided, the fresh fruit delivered daily, this all made our stay extraordinary!
The Oberoi is so incredibly elegant, without a hint of kitsch detailing that so often derails this type of destination. The Oberoi is managed and maintained by staff (at all levels) whom obviously care for the property and the guest experience. The staff were all so obliging — nothing was too much trouble, and remarkably, they always addressed us by our names.
TELEPHONE: +62 (361) 730 361
LOCATION: Just 45 minutes from Ngurah Rai International Airport. The Oberoi, Bali is located on Seminyak beach.
PROPERTY: The Oberoi is an ocean facing beach resort amidst 15 acres of lush tropical gardens. 74 Luxury Villas and Lanai Rooms are dotted along a 450 metre stretch of Seminyak Beach. It offers two restaurants, a bar, outdoor swimming pool overlooking the beach and ocean. Oberoi Spa, fitness centre and a Balinese amphitheatre.