Capella Ubud Is Redefining the Luxury-Resort Experience

Channel explorers from a different era, find Zen in unlikely places, oh, and tone those glutes in Bali. By Jeninne Lee-St. John. Photographed by Stephan Kotas.

Apr 5, 2019

Whether or not Capella Ubud is for you depends on whether or not pratfalling into a cow patty could be your idea of a hilarious time. During a “get acclimated” walk through the farming hamlet adjacent to the resort property, our guide, Arya, suggests we might want to feed an adorable calf in a little hollow. Faster than I can say moo, my friend Alisa steps forward o a rice terrace, loses her balance and is knee-deep in dung. Arya is racing to help her up but I’m doubled over with laughter—and soon so are they. Farming is optional at the jungle-nestled Capella Ubud, but when your guide knows all the neighbors of both the two- and four-legged varieties, your best bet is to just dive in to these organic experiences no matter where they lead. Not to worry, laundry is included.

Another brainchild of Bill Bensley, this historical-fantasy resort that opened last summer on the outskirts of Keliki village 20 minutes from downtown Ubud takes as its inspiration the European settlers of the 1800s; the 23 tents are themed on members of an old-world expedition party—the Baker’s Tent and the Cartographer’s Tent, for example. Floors are made of dimpled teak in Central Java, doors and headboards are hand-carved masterworks, umbrellas are tasseled silk saffron, tubs are copper, and toilets are antler-topped thrones. As soon we arrive, I get social media anxiety anticipating all the photogenic everything everywhere: the striped Cistern in the valley, for one, ringed by tall U-shaped pipes gushing water into the pool, is industrial steampunk that manages to look of the place.

But the hotel is much more than skin-deep beautiful. There’s a feeling of magic that pervades the property— and overrides any protestations from one’s, say, calves, from repeatedly hiking up from one’s farthest-flung tent. Capella Ubud is super green (no trees were harmed nor irrigation channels diverted in the building of this resort), intensely local, spiritually grounded, endearingly personable, and a little bit weird. In the pre-dawn, your private sherpas will get you up and down Mount Batur with smiles, safety and lots of selfies; come dusk, head for cocktail hour in the Officers’ Tent, a custom-wallpapered Wes Anderson set adorned by Edison-era bulbs, leather arm chairs and carved deer heads, in which general manager Simon Dornan and executive chef Matt McCool have an on-going billiards competition. Where else can you follow up an eight-course chef’s-table tasting menu with s’mores at a camp re to the background of black-and-white Indonesian movies? Where else does slipping in a cow patty count as a luxury experience?

By now it should be clear that Capella Ubud is not your average luxe life of leisure. It’s built into a cliff, so even if you’re rooming higher on the grounds, you’ve got to walk uphill a bit to reach any of the facilities. If, like I am, you’re down below, in the Temple Tent, ostensibly so you can hear the dulcet sound of the Wos River and get a better sense of how enmeshed the resort is in its community—smile and wave at the local residents bringing offerings to the altar in the valley from which this room takes its name—but possibly because your friends at Capella are gas-lighting you, it’s a literal hike to anywhere else on the property. I start counting how many steps up it takes to get to breakfast and keep losing track around 300. I’m not complaining; I don’t need to go to the gym all week. Toss in a trek to the top of an active volcano and my fitness needs are sorted.

It does require a fair amount of willpower to say yes to a 3 a.m. wake-up call, but I had been wanting to hike Mount Batur, one of Bali’s four sacred peaks, for years, and during a stay at a resort inspired by expedition parties seemed like an apropos time. Capella minimizes the hardship: our SUV is filled with blankets and pillows for the hour ride, and they’re one of a handful of hotels with a license to drive all the way to the foot of the trail. It’s not just the smugness inherent in line-skipping that’s such a perk of getting this head start; when you’re hiking to a summit 1,717 meters above sea level, every step matters, and when you’re trying to get there by sunrise, so does every extra minute of sleep. So, after a quick pit-stop at the base where everyone else has to leave their cars and minivans, we keep driving up a long twisting road, passing all the less fortunate souls forced to start hiking before the actual hike begins.

It’s cold in the pre-dawn. Alisa and I are bundled up in layers of athletic gear, sweaters and parkas, and our butler-guides, Arya and Sundana, have put headlamps over our knit hats. The trail is steep, but lined, luckily, with branches and shrubs to grasp for leverage. If I start to even consider feeling winded, I look at the three happy superhero guides, the pair from the hotel and a local tour guide, watching out for us. They’re tasked with carrying a massive picnic basket, a first-aid kit, extra gear, lots of water, our backpacks when they become awkward… plus making sure we don’t fall off the mountain. The rest point is about two-thirds of the way up, but, Arya warns us, less than halfway in terms of exertion. Indeed, no longer solid ground, the new trail is loose volcanic dirt. It feels like quicksand and requires all my core strength not to lose my balance with each step. The occasional glance backwards reveals a twinkling daisy chain of flashlights snaking from far down in the valley. I wonder if the folks at the way bottom will possibly make it up by sunrise.

And then, when my glutes are about ready to call it, we’re at the summit. The guys beeline it to their perfect spot on the ridgeline and make quick work of spreading out a big gingham blanket and unpacking tiffin boxes of breakfast sandwiches, fresh pastries and fruit. They pour us coffee, wrap throws around our shoulders, and go off for their own repast. As the sky starts to lighten, the ridge becomes more crowded and everyone who passes by wearing not enough clothes, carrying not enough sustenance and lacking their own butler, to say nothing of three, looks at our five-star oasis longingly. I offer a sandwich to a particularly pitiful Frenchman.

Thanks to thick haze, there isn’t much of a sunrise; think more a blurry clementine hiding in hollandaise sauce. But that’s beside the point. We made it to the top with time to spare, bonded with our guide buddies, and, giddy from over exhaustion, all five of us basically skip down the other, less steep, side of the mountain back to our car, pristine Lake Batur shimmering in the distance.

Some people go to Ubud For the yoga. I go for the shamans. Capella has their own in house, Pak Budi, and in one of the spa tents under a wall covered by a Bill Bensley– original painting of a Balinese offering basket, he floats his hands over me conducting an energy-healing session that rebalances my chi flow and somehow alleviates the nausea and stomach cramps that had hit me in the middle of the night. Alisa, meanwhile, had arrived at the resort with a chronic pain that after two sessions with Budi seems to be working its way out of her system.

We find another kind of soulful rejuvenation at the Keliki Arts School. The intricate style of drawing and painting looks ancient but was only developed in the 1970s. The imagery generally depicts idyllic scenes of traditional Balinese life or mythology. Keliki artists once anchored the economy here, until tourism plummeted after the 2002 terrorist bombings.

I Wayan Gama opened a free school within his placid family compound to keep the tradition alive, and so when we visit one afternoon, about 10 boys (girls are welcome, but we are told they prefer dancing lessons) are hunched over low tables, concentrating on their original works, which might take a few weeks to complete depending on the size. The school sells the pictures, starting from US$15 and going much higher, and gives the proceeds entirely to the young artists. Art supplies are paid for with donations from visitors and hotels. It didn’t seem conceivable that a trip to an artists’ school would take the five hours Capella had blocked off on our itinerary—until we got there and tried being artists. The drawings are so small, detailed, often symmetrical, you’d think they were based on stencils. We keep I Wayan Gama and his cousin I Wayan Ariana until well past sunset, teaching us about stroke order and proportionality, interrupted every so often by real pupils seeking advice on their progress.

Alisa and I finally leave, more for their sake than for ours. The practice was meditative and, on the shaded veranda in their family home, we felt a part of the community. I’m pretty sure that is the primary purpose of every detail we encounter during this stay at this hotel—a Balinese deep-dive. In the guest tents, the tree-shaded outdoor showers and private pools make for nature-immersion water ablutions, and there are no TVs because they would drown out the nightly soundtrack of the jungle-animal squawks from the treetops. I love it, and falling asleep each evening I wish I had a bedside wildlife curator to tell me who was making every noise. I guess next time I’ll check in to the Naturalist’s Tent.

capellahotels.com; doubles from US$838 inclusive of daily breakfast, nightly cocktails and canapes, in-room minibar, smart phone for data and international calls, certain activities, and, for stays of two nights or more, roundtrip transfers from Denpasar airport (two hours). The omakase restaurant, Api Jiwa, is open to the public, with chef Matt curating an 80-percent locally sourced eight- to 10-course menu based on guest preferences; US$90 per person.

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