Review: Conrad Bali is Stepping Up Its Game

Holidaymakers bound for Indonesia’s Island of the Gods can look forward to a crop of immersive new guest experiences at this renovated Nusa Dua retreat.

A bird’s-eye view of Conrad Bali. (All photos courtesy of the resort unless otherwise credited)

Late on a Monday afternoon, as I stroll along a quiet golden-sand beach with a group of travelers, I can’t quite believe I awoke in frenetic Jakarta just that morning. We’re on our way to Infinity — the sea-facing wedding chapel at Conrad Bali — for a sound-healing session at sundown. Flaming torches light the pathway over a reflective pool. Attendants pour herbal tea into small clay cups. Inside the building’s candlelit interior, vividly hued rangoli symbolizing the seven chakras are flanked by ruddy brown mattresses. Kevin Girard, the resort’s gregarious Torontonian general manager, chooses the one next to mine. “Promise you’ll hit me if I snore,” he whispers. Several minutes later, when we’re not even halfway through a series of breathing exercises, Girard is already fast asleep.

I’ve had some experience with Tibetan singing bowls, but this is something else. No two sessions are alike — the Balinese healers respond to each group’s collective aura, improvising with an impressive range of musical instruments at their disposal. The result is a closed-eye concert that leaves much to the imagination. Over the next hour, the wedding chapel is filled with the sounds of a bamboo flute, a bronze handpan and gong, deeply resonant bells, and wooden percussion like birds twittering in a forest. At one point we are bathed in the low, sonorous growl of a didgeridoo. Then it shifts to sitar-like strings and a doumbek for a Middle Eastern-inspired episode, complete with chanting reminiscent of Islamic tradition, before giving way to the soothing chords of a Chinese guzheng. Eventually, when a grizzled healer blows on a conch shell, we’re instructed to open our eyes and the wellness ritual comes to a close.

Christened “The Art of Sound Therapy,” this is just one of several brand-new guest experiences at the Conrad Bali. In fact, the 18-year-old resort looks better than ever thanks to a recent renovation of its public spaces and 353 guest rooms and suites. Returning travelers will find brighter accommodations with pops of blue and green inspired by the ocean; the ground-floor Lagoon Access suites have been extended into their pool terraces. Bath products from Byredo’s Mojave Ghost collection, packaged in large bottles that can biodegrade in two years, are now being rolled out across Conrad properties across the globe.

Inside a remodeled Lagoon Access Suite at Conrad Bali.

Sunbeds beside the resort’s main pool.

The Conrad has also doubled down on its commitment to showcase local flavors, whether it’s boozy homemade coconut ice cream infused with arak, Bali’s moonshine, or cocktails that use gin from artisan producer Spice Islands Distilling Co., based just up the coast near Keramas Beach. Next-level gimlets and G&Ts are ideal for washing down a hearty assortment of satay and local specialties such as ayam betutu and Balinese rujak: the latter describes shredded young mango, sliced star fruit, pineapple, and jícama tossed in a sour-spicy-umami sauce. Expect to see all these treats during a Barefoot Beach Barbecue, when guests sit at a low table on a bamboo-woven mat right on the sand.

After breakfast the next morning, I join a 90-minute Olfactory Experience led by Seminyak-based L’Atelier Parfums & Créations, which has been running perfume-making workshops on Bali since 2009. Its Martinique-born founder Nora Gasparini is there to oversee the session, and I’m struck by her infectious enthusiasm for local herbs, spices, and other raw materials. “We have guests who discover that many of their favorite ingredients come from Indonesia, so making a custom scent here in Bali is very meaningful for them,” she says. Gasparini later reveals that Indonesia is in fact the world’s top producer of patchouli for the perfume industry.

Spread before each of us is a dizzying array of small bottles (I count 43 in all) containing individual perfume notes diluted on sugar cane alcohol. These have been arranged on three tiers, which correspond to the olfactory structure every balanced scent should have. A short questionnaire about our personality and lifestyle preferences helps us narrow down our choices to two suggested lists of ingredients. I take whiffs of vanilla-like pandan and tobacco’s comforting aroma, and recoil at the fecal, nose-wrinkling musk of a palm civet, known here in Indonesia as luwak. Varying the combinations of chosen notes results in three very different perfumes, all of them pleasing to the nose. I’m told my first creation — a woody, leathery scent with a minty hit of rosemary — smells much like a commercial cologne. Could I have uncovered a hidden talent, or is it merely beginner’s luck? Well, if this career in travel journalism doesn’t work out …

Bottled perfume notes on display during the Olfactory Experience by L’Atelier.

L’Atelier showcases Indonesian ingredients through its perfume-making workshops.

Another highlight is Conrad Bali’s Purnama Rituals, which started out during the pandemic as an internal initiative to raise morale and build solidarity among staff members. Centered on a traditional ceremony held every full moon at the Sari Sedana Temple on the northern edge of the resort, the monthly event was recently extended to hotel guests. If anything, it gives visitors the chance to immerse themselves in Balinese spirituality, with prayers typically preceded by a class in making canang sari offerings.

Of course, the experience isn’t all serious and reverential. An alfresco Purnama Celebration Dinner awaits on the terrace at Eight Degrees South, the resort’s seafood-centric beachfront restaurant. The venue recently relaunched its menus under new chef de cuisine Arief Wibowo, whose creations reflect the diversity of Indonesia’s regional cuisines: expect sweet potato croquettes stuffed with rendang, butter-poached lobster in a piquant red sauce inspired by Padang-style sambal balado, chargrilled Spanish mackerel with a Manadonese woku spice blend and pickled baby vegetables.

Before the meal ends, each of us are handed a pen and a sticky note. We’re instructed to write down all the negative things we want to release, which will be burned in a bonfire on the beach. A staff member explains the meaning of the full moon in Balinese culture — it marks a day of cleansing and a brand-new start — as our group lies stretched out on sun loungers. Then, one by one, my dinner companions step forward to drop their pieces of paper into the flames. A Balinese high priest stands by to deliver melukat with sprinklings of holy water. I choose to sit out the ritual, being perfectly content to savor the ocean breeze and the luminous moon above the wind-whipped Indian Ocean.

Guests participating in the Purnama Rituals first learn to make canang sari offerings.

A hotel staff member explains the meaning of the full moon in Balinese culture.

Conrad guests taking part in an after-dinner full moon meditation.

UNESCO-protected rice terraces outside the village of Jatiluwih. (Photo: James Louie)

Morning calm at Lake Beratan. (Photo: James Louie)

The main pagoda-like meru at the lakeside temple of Ulun Danu Beratan. (Photo: James Louie)

The moon still hangs in the southern skies at dawn, when we find ourselves cruising down the Bali Mandara Toll Road in a 1960s vintage jeep, as the sun rises over the hulking cone of Mount Agung. We’re venturing into the Bedugul area in Bali’s north-central highlands, with a brief stop to take in the UNESCO-listed Jatiluwih rice terraces. Most of today will be spent on what the Conrad calls its Forest Bathing and Speakeasy Foraging expedition.

The “speakeasy” part alludes to the fact that we’ve been granted special access to an area usually off-limits to tourism. This, we’re told, is made possible by close partnerships with local travel operators and grassroots environmental groups. At a jetty on the shores of Lake Beratan, we meet Audria Evelinn, founder of the organic Little Spoon Farm, and Ramidin (aka Ram), a Bedugul-born conservationist who knows his neck of the woods better than anyone else. Not for nothing does Ram call himself an “anak hutan,” or child of the forest. As we paddle across Lake Beratan in a traditional jukung outrigger boat, his passion for protecting his home turf comes to the fore. I learn about the interconnectedness of the local ecosystem, and how he’s encouraging a wider adoption of organic farming. He tells me the pesticides and chemicals that drain into the lake inevitably end up in rice paddies downstream.

Only when we come ashore do I realize Ram wields a razor-sharp machete. He discerns the call of an imperial pigeon lurking amid the rasamala trees, and notices things no one else does: the heart-shaped leaves of a small Nervilia punctata orchid on the forest floor, then an overgrown megalithic site. Ram pries a round fruit from the branches of a nearby tree, cutting it open to reveal the natural glue inside — a runny off-white liquid that gains a rubbery consistency after a few minutes’ exposure to air. Stopping beside a clump of Balinese rattan, he frowns momentarily. “The population is declining because a lot of people harvest them from the forest to make handicrafts in Ubud.” We pass a fallen dragon fern, so named for its scaly trunk, and discover that an innocuous-looking plant with big, beautiful leaves is in fact the poisonous latang. Ram prods it with a stick and warns us of the unbearable itch. “If you touch it, you can’t sleep for three days.”

Left to right: Amid the rasamala trees; natural glue inside a wild-growing fruit. (Photos: James Louie)

Left to right: Tirta Mampeh Temple; the area’s sacred waterfall. (Photos: James Louie)

A Balinese picnic lunch in an inventive bamboo container. (Photo: James Louie)

Left to right: Bali-born conservationist Ramidin; Tirta Mampeh Temple. (Photos: James Louie)

Under Ram’s expert guidance, our group forages wild cinnamon leaves and nibbles on the unripe fruit of Javanese long pepper, whose soft flavor gives way to a lemony aftertaste that builds and lingers the longer you chew on it. We also sample two kids of edible begonias: one with sour leaves and another whose peeled stalk has rhubarb’s bright pink color and grimace-inducing tartness. Ram shows off his jungle survival skills with a grin: he hacks away at the roots of young lianas to find potable water, using a leaf tied with vines as an improvised funnel. “This,” he proclaims, “is better than anything bottled by Aqua.” He’s right. Only nature itself can impart pure water with such earthy sweetness.

We’re rewarded for our efforts with a picnic lunch in the grassy clearing outside Tirta Mampeh Temple, a small open-air sanctuary by a holy waterfall. Little Spoon Farm has prepared a variety of morsels fitted neatly into a modified bamboo tube: swinging open the lid reveals fried tempeh, lawar with young jackfruit, stir-fried greens, and shredded, spice-rubbed chicken paired with fluffy white rice. I’m glad the rest of the hike requires no bushwhacking on Ram’s part: we descend via the main route Hindu pilgrims use to access the temple (sometimes on their motorbikes) to find our jeeps waiting at the trailhead. By the time we arrive back at the Conrad three hours later, the mud caking my hiking shoes has hardened and my windblown hair is a complete mess. The staff members at the lobby greet us cheerfully; I beat a hasty retreat to my room for a hot shower.

That night, we return to Eight Degrees South for a satisfying four-course dinner to cap off the day’s explorations. Loaves of rustic, oven-fresh bread are quickly placed on the table. The combination of a crispy crust and a soft, pillowy interior proves so addictive I can’t help reaching for seconds and thirds. (A warm piece of bread slathered in coconut butter and anchovy-flecked chili sambal is simply perfection.) We’re served a trio of miniature starters featuring fresh tuna loin, oyster, and crab claw; then two kinds of fish soup served in frosted glass bowls — using snapper and mahi mahi cooked with aromatic ingredients like lemon basil and sour belimbing wuluh. Mains take the form of sous-vide sea bass with mussel in laksa emulsion. For a coconut fiend like myself, dessert truly hits the spot. The versatile fruit is served three ways: as a luscious panna cotta, thinly cut and toasted until crispy, and blended with kaffir lime to make a refreshing sorbet. The wine flows as freely as the conversation, and, after a much-needed reset over the past three days, the prospect of returning to Jakarta’s traffic-choked madness doesn’t seem so daunting after all.; doubles from US$159

Locally sourced seafood stars on the menu at Eight Degrees South.

Eight Degrees South encompasses a series of indoor-outdoor dining areas.

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