Sarah Downs laps up luxury, cocktails and easy-going adventure in Bali's southern coast
Within minutes of arriving in Uluwatu I'm deliciously languid on a St Tropez-style lounger under swaying palms — but I'm not horizontal for long.
Dance music thumps loudly from speakers and there's a flock of bronzed bodies taking selfies against sweeping ocean views. This popular area on Bali's Bukit peninsula, famed for its idyllic surf breaks, dramatic cliffs, and hidden beaches, is drawing new crowds with fashionable beach clubs such as Ulu Cliffhouse.
I order a cocktail from one of the buttoned-up staff (serious Grand Budapest Hotel vibes) and sink deeper into the plump cushioning, pleased my thatched guest bungalow is just steps away if the beach party lifestyle becomes too frantic.
There's also a boutique hotel, The Clubhouse at Ulu, made up of seven suites on the cliffside property, each named after one of the nearby surf breaks. As a guest, you get access to a private members' lounge and the 25m infinity pool-club.
Design-wise it's a decadent, hedonistic hideaway — think four-poster beds, 1950s California-style furnishing, freestanding baths and vintage cocktail bars. The pastel and jewel-toned walls? Instagram gold.
Kids under 12 are not permitted to stay but can tag along with parents to the beach club. Sundays are family-friendly where the music's a little less oomph-oomph. It gets switched off at 10pm other nights.
I indulge myself with in-room services by pinging my assigned host via Whatsapp and a few minutes later bartender, Dedy, arrives to mix me a negroni. In the afternoon I fire off another WhatsApp for a massage — Balinese and satisfyingly firm — which takes place on the end of the bed.
All that sea air builds an appetite and we dine at a restaurant that's won awards for its ocean-led menu. Butterflied red snapper is flame-licked and accompanied with sambal; fresh ceviche is zingy with lime and chilli. Head chef Tim Smith, a Kiwi, has nailed the poolside snack: a juicy lobster roll served with wafer-thin potato chips.
Of course, there's only so much brioche-based relaxing one person can do — or is there? I rise early and descend the hundreds of wooden stairs down to the resort's boulder-studded beach for a dip in the frothy waves. The ocean deck one flight up hosts morning yoga classes and it's also the best seat in the house for canapes and watching the incredible Uluwatu sunset. Just keep count of your margarita intake — the stairs are the only way back up.
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I break the resort bubble with day excursions arranged through the hotel.
First. a surf lesson at Kuta, a touristy beach area usually best avoided but great for gentler surf. Malibu Surf School with its bright blue surfboards and expert, friendly teachers comes highly recommended. With next to no experience I manage to spend time above water, not just choking on white wash below, and ride waves right into shore.
Venturing further afield, we head out to one of the neighbouring postcard-perfect islands. Nusa Lembongan sits southeast of Bali, around 30 minutes by "fast" ferry from Serangan Harbour. It's still charmingly undeveloped in places but pockets of high-end luxury are tucked away.
Located just off Sandy Bay, Mandala, The Bay has the prime waterfront position overlooking the smashing waves at the mesmerising Devil's Tear. Guests choose from five bedrooms, each with their own breezy outdoor bathroom, large open kitchen, master bar, and ocean-view swimming pool. With a team of staff at our beck and call, the only chore was deciding what cocktail to order first.
The islands here are best explored on water and we hop aboard with Twin Island Dive to cruise around Lembongan, Ceningan and Penida, known as the Coral Triangle. I opt for snorkelling and plunge into the warm, crystal clear water to glide above scores of brightly coloured fish. If you want to make the leap to scuba diving, owner Kipp is an encyclopaedia of diving knowledge and has all the gear.
En route back to the villa and we're lucky to observe preparations for a sacred cremation festival called Ngaben, one of the most important events in Balinese culture. The ritual's name comes from the Hindu word ngabuin or ngabu, which means "turn to ash" as families send the deceased to the "next" life.
Our driver tells us how the body will be laid inside a coffin that is eventually burnt. As we whiz past he points out a small but magnificent sarcophagus with gold fabric and paper adornments that flicker in the afternoon light. It is far from a somber occasion. Locals' parade down the street dressed in colourful ceremonial clothing with patterned umbrellas and carrying ornate offerings on their heads. Balinese music plays and the tin drums can be heard from a distance.
I'm sure the blazing fire would have been a spectacular, if spooky, sight and it was a shame to have been one day too early. It's a reminder of the deeply spiritual aspects of Bali's predominantly Hindu population that wait to be discovered behind resort doors.
Back at the resort, I spring into my sea-side hammock with one last mojito and drink it all in.
From Auckland, Emirates fly direct to Bali year round. Return from $899. Surfers can check in their boards for free.