Soulshine, a hip resort in Ubud owned by American muso Michael Franti, makes its case: Let go, have fun, join a painting class at sunset.
There’s an energy at Soulshine that hits you from the first encounter — the big smiles, the sparkling eyes, the ready laughs and the sense of joy that emanates from everyone on the team. The ice-cold cocktails and bliss balls on arrival also add to your sense of pleasure, but there’s something much deeper here and you can’t help but be caught up in the magic.
Tucked away down a narrow drive, Soulshine is an expansive retreat sitting proudly among rice fields and surrounded by towering palm trees. You feel like you could be on a remote and excluded island, not in bustling Ubud, in the heart of Bali.
And as for that upbeat energy? Well, it might have something to do with the owners, American singer-songwriter musician, poet, rapper and activist Michael Franti — whose projects have included The Beatnigs, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead — and his wife Sarah Agah, who was an emergency room nurse and is the co-founder of the non-profit organisation Do It For The Love.
Michael recalls first falling in love with the people, culture and nature of Bali back in 2006, following a tour in Australia.
“Bali is a land of creative geniuses,” he enthuses, “and as a musician I am inspired every time I see people creating great art. The idea of how people connect with one another and live communally really resonated with me, so I decided to buy a little piece of land to build a villa and retire on. I realised, however, that I wouldn’t be there a lot of the time, so I built a five-room yoga retreat with an open rooftop yoga shala overlooking the rice fields and this ended up being the first hotel in Ubud area specifically dedicated to yoga.”
Since then, Soulshine has grown to 33 rooms and is a buzzing retreat that attracts a wonderfully diverse group of guests. On the day we arrive a group of people are dancing on the lawn, serenaded by Emmy-winning singer Toni Childs. They’re there to celebrate the launch of Michelle Gardiner’s book, 55 Faces, telling the stories of women around the globe.
During our stay we meet guests from all around the world, including a pair taking a much-needed break from working in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh.
At Soulshine, Franti explains, the mission is to embody the Balinese philosophy of Tri hita karana — or three ways to happiness: human to nature, human to god and spirit, human to human.
“Everything we have done has been to satisfy this philosophy, from making incredible art that will surprise and delight the senses to committing not to build on more than 50 per cent of our land to protect the natural environment and the 700-year-old rice fields.”
Along with creating a relaxing environment, which includes two large swimming pools, open-air restaurants and bars, including the Togetherness Lounge, the couple’s goal is to ensure people have fun.
“We believe play is an important part of personal growth and healing. A lot of times when you think about retreat settings, you envisage silence and times of deep reflection and letting go. At Soulshine these things are important, but equally important is letting go and having fun — going out on the dancefloor singing and dancing, enjoying great food and laughter, going down a waterslide and letting your soul soar in the sun. We feel you can’t have one without the other and all of those things make the growth cycle complete.”
For guests, the opportunity to let go and have fun is non-stop, if you choose. We join a painting class at sunset on the lawn and, thanks to the flowing drinks and a DJ playing great tunes, the creative juices flow — and I am quietly impressed with my painting. People are dancing around the open fire pit, swimming in the pool, the kitchen has set up stalls serving street food and, well, it’s just a whole lot of fun.
Another day we head off-site, for what has to be one of best bike rides of my life. We cruise along farm tracks, through small villages, around the edges of rice fields, and stop for coffee and coconut pancakes in the cool of a farmer’s kitchen cafe. We visit The House of 1000 Spiders, and pull over to watch the colourfully dressed local women walking in line to the local shrine, offerings piled high on their heads. They laugh and smile as the sound of music echoes across the valley.
Inspired by the delicious food served in the restaurants, we sign up for a cooking class. It starts with a walk around the surrounding fields and gardens where all the fresh herbs and vegetables are grown. Then, with much laughter, we set about creating a feast.
First we learn how to make authentic Balinese sambals and pastes which we use to marinate fish wrapped in banana leaves and mix with chicken which is rolled on to lemongrass skewers. We cook it all over an open fire, and it’s delicious. Halfway through the class, however, Michael’s song Baby Let Your Soulshine comes on the soundsystem and we are pulled up to dance. Yes. It’s a thing. You just can’t say no. And, after Michael explains how it came about, you are glad you did get up and dance in your apron.
“I was walking around the property and my song came on super-loud through the resort and the staff had organised a choreographed flash mob,” he says. “It just brought tears to my eyes. Not only because I had just lost my father but because we had gone through so much trying to keep afloat during the pandemic.
“We took the time to say: how are we going to keep the lights on, not just in the hotel but in our hearts so that we grow as a team and connect as people, so that when the pandemic is over, we can come back better and stronger? That dance was symbolic to me in how much the whole team had grown over this time.”
For Michael and Sarah, caring for their team is important and it shows. Jack, Devi. . . we get to know them by name and form a bond during our stay.
“Each of us comes from unique backgrounds but as a team we work closely together. One of the mantras we have is ‘Stay Human’ and that’s the one the team most embodies to me. To stay human to me means to be able to see the humanity in someone — to look at someone and see they are trying to be their own authentic selves,” Michael says.
It’s what our team does so well, you can see they have a great love and connection to each other that carries over to how they look after our guests.”
It’s not all high energy at Soulshine, of course. There’s plenty of time to lie in the cabanas by the pool, reading and sipping cold drinks, and there are, of course, daily massages at the spa and yoga sessions.
One evening we join a sound therapy session where we meditate around candles and a flower-shaped mandala made of fresh petals, and are transported by beautiful vibrations. There’s a wonderful sense of letting go and, for some, deep revelations.
The next day, in the cool of the early morning, I sit one-on-one for a reading with a local healer and am in awe of what he reveals. Another day we visit the not-for-profit foundation Bumi Sehat, a local birthing centre set up for displaced and low-income people. Run by the American Robin Lim, it is close to Michael’s heart and he helped raise money for the land the clinic is built on.
“I was given up for adoption at birth so always felt like the landing place of a child into this world is crucial, and every child deserves to be brought into the world in the most gentle and loving way possible. This facility provides a calm, safe sanctuary, so we continue to fundraise each year. Last year our Soulrocker retreat raised enough funds for an ambulance in one of the centres located in Lombok.”
Supporting community is key to Michael and Sara’s vision and most of the retreat’s art is made locally. “I love that it is all created by people who live a stone’s throw from the property — they are all our neighbours and take great pride in craftsmanship. We really left the creation up to the imagination of the artists.
“One of my favourite features is by the Togetherness lounge where there is a giant traditional carving reaching up two storeys and on the inside a spiralling rainbow neon light — it is traditional on the outside and funky and fun on the inside.”
Funky and fun resonates throughout the retreat. Uplifting quotes are painted on the walls, like ‘Life is better with you’; ‘Be who you are’; ‘Nothing more, nothing less’; ‘Let the beauty that you love be the best’; ‘Follow your heart’.
I love that most rooms have a turntable and a selection of vinyl to play. If you are lucky enough to stay in the Sky Suite penthouse (which is Michael and Sara’s space where they are in residence), there is the option of setting up a cocktail bar and having your own private party.
High above the resort made completely with glass, with its own plunge pool, sunbathing deck and outdoor shower, the Sky Suite is certainly next level.
“We wanted to create something really special,” explains Sara. “A sanctuary that felt like you are floating in a bubble above the treeline with the birds. So we built this beautiful glass bedroom that cantilevers off the building. You have the most incredible sunsets over the coconut palms. And I love waking up in the morning and being surrounded by nature on three sides. It is so peaceful, you can’t hear anything.”
“Ultimately, we built Soulshine to be a place of happiness,” adds Michael.
“A place where people could hit the reset button on life, and experience deep change as well as play time. To grow you need to have both — movement and change on the inside and expression of joy on the out.”
After a week of dancing, laughter, adventure and some soul-searching,
I can definitely say they have achieved their goal.
Amanda stayed as a guest of Soulshine. To discover more, visit Soulshinebali.com
Where to rest, recharge and wander across the island holiday destination.
Bali Has Entered A Groundbreaking Eco Era. Here’s Where To Eat, Drink And Stay. Post-pandemic, Bali is blossoming with new sophistication, from restaurants to hotels.
Bulgari Has A Bali Resort. Of Course, It’s Completely Decadent. On a breathtaking cliff edge in Uluwatu, Italian style meets tropical luxury.
A Balinese Bar Empire? Tai Graham Is Building One. Along the way, he’s discovered serendipitous synergies between Māori and Balinese culture.
Bali’s Best Bamboo Eco-Stays. Options for those who don’t want to stay in just any jungle-set villa.