Scotland on Sunday travel - A tale of two islands highlights the contrasts
‘Aw mate, that’s where we Aussies go for a cheap getaway,” a friend had taunted when I announced I’d be visiting Bali.
British Summer Time had officially started, it was still snowing and I could forgive a little sledging from a sun-starved – and evidently envious – exile from Down Under.
Assuring him this would be no budget break, I batted straight back with boasts about beach-front villas and bespoke butler service.
As it turned out, my own five-star experience of the Indonesian island, renowned for its palm-fringed beaches, historic temples and sensational surf, was both exquisite and exotic.
A two-centre holiday, also taking in Singapore, we were staying at St Regis Resorts and Hotels, an ultra-luxury brand with more than 40 properties in some of the world’s most sought after locations.
Our trip started in Nusa Dua, an upmarket enclave which lies on the southern tip of Bali, a short drive from Denpasar international airport and home to the island’s most exclusive hotels.
The resort’s design is inspired by the Balinese concept of Nyegara Gunung – a term describing the sacred journey that all of life takes from the mountain to the sea – and its VIP guestbook features glowing endorsements from the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Cristiano Ronaldo.
As we were led to our one-bedroom lagoon villa (by our butler, of course), it wasn’t difficult to see why.
A two-minute stroll from the white sandy beach, and discreetly screened by lush tropical gardens, it had its own pool and gazebo, with private access to an expansive, but tranquil, saltwater lagoon.
For those keen to get a different perspective on their holiday destination, the early morning beach yoga is a must. Watching the sun rise over the Indian Ocean from the downward-facing dog position proved both physically challenging and spiritually rewarding. It’s certainly worth setting an alarm for, especially when followed by a soothing massage in the St Regis Remede Spa.
Eager to visit the resort’s highly reputed Indonesian and European fine-dining restaurants, we resisted the urge to fill up every morning with the international breakfast/brunch buffet, featuring a show-stopping lobster omelette.
With so much on offer on site, including a nightly fire ritual, our only excursion took us to the 11th century Uluwatu Temple, occupying a spectacular cliff-top position with breathtaking views.
After donning the obligatory sarong and sash, it’s a chance to immerse yourself in the Hindu culture that sets Bali apart from much of the rest of predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Still used as a place of worship, it is one of six key temples believed to be Bali’s spiritual pillars.
It’s also home to a colony of incredibly streetwise macaques. Apparently there to guard the temple from evil spirits, they are quick to rob you of designer sunglasses and iPhones – only returning them if you happen to have food to trade.
The temple is a real draw at dusk, when crowds seek out the best vantage points to see it framed by the setting sun.
Retreating from the monkey mafia, we headed back to the resort, stopping off at the Bukit Sari gardens and gift shop, where tourists have a chance to sample the area’s famous Luwak coffee.
Eaten then excreted by discerning civets (only tempted by the tastiest and freshest morsels), the coffee beans go through a gentle process of fermentation in the animal’s gut, resulting in its exceptionally smooth taste and high price tag.
Another feature of the garden is its reconstruction of a traditional Balinese home, giving an insight into rural life away from the tourist areas.
From our minibus, we caught a glimpse of the beautiful, if crowded, beach at Padang Padang, a magnet for surfers, where the roadside shops and bars show a clear Australian influence.
In a previous life as a party animal, I may have been drawn to the busy resort of Kuta, popular for its pulsating night life and responsible for much of the bad press Bali has received in recent years.
But this trip was all about rest, relaxation and barefoot elegance and it didn’t disappoint.
Singapore – only a two-and-half-hour flight from Bali – provided the antithesis to the laid-back lifestyle we had enjoyed at our beach hideaway.
Itself an island of contrasts, the towering financial district is an imposing backdrop to beautiful colonial buildings and stunning gardens.
Located at the crossroads of the posh shopping and embassy districts, the St Regis Singapore is renowned for its private art collection and is a perfect base to explore the vibrant island state.
We found it to be within easy walking distance of Singapore Botanic Gardens – the city’s first Unesco world heritage site, home to the National Orchid Garden and now the world’s most visited botanic gardens.
Setting off from the hotel in the opposite direction, we passed along Orchard Road – where many of the world’s top designer brands have their flagship stores – before taking a taxi to the Marina Bay area.
Ironically, a tropical downpour forced us to seek shelter in the dome of the man-made cloud forest at Gardens by the Bay, a state-of-the-art nature park occupying 250 acres of reclaimed land.
A showpiece of horticultural artistry and conservation, this has become one of Asia’s foremost garden destinations and family attractions.
The influence of Sir Stamford Raffles, who founded modern Singapore in 1819 as a trading post of the British East India Company, can be seen throughout the city, in its museums, statues and colonial architecture. Alternatively, you can enjoy his legacy with a Singapore Sling, the signature cocktail of the iconic Raffles Hotel. While the hotel is currently closed for refurbishment – reopening later this year – drinks can still be enjoyed in a pop-up Long Bar and gift shop just around the corner.
Eating has to be high on the itinerary in Singapore, a melting pot of Asian culture and cuisine and famous for its chilli crab.
The St Regis’s restaurants – offering Italian, Cantonese and French-inspired menus – cater perfectly for its international clientele, but guests are also encouraged to enjoy authentic local food with a seven-stop foodie tour of the Peranakan neighbourhood of Katong.
An area settled by early Chinese immigrants who inter-married with Malay and Indonesian women, the district is famous for its eclectic architecture and food, which is spicy, aromatic and homely.
Our guide was keen to share her passion for traditional delicacies such as chicken and rice and durian pastries. The latter are certainly an acquired taste and it’s not difficult to see why the pungent smelling durian fruit is banned on public transport.
It seemed only fitting to celebrate the end of a memorable holiday with another cocktail – this time a Bloody Mary, a drink created in the bar of the original St Regis hotel in New York in the 1930s.
Our trip had been a tale of two islands; distinctly different, but equally awe-inspiring.
B&B at the St Regis Bali starts at around £295 per room, per night, based on two sharing. The rate for a Lagoon Villa for two was £660 per night. Double rooms at the St Regis Singapore, with breakfast, start at £189, www.stregisbali.com www.stregissingapore.com. For details of all St Regis Resorts and Hotels visit www.starwoodhotels.com
Singapore Airlines operates regular direct flights between Heathrow and Singapore’s Changi airport. We took onward flights to Bali with regional airline Silk Air, www.singaporeair.com, www.silkair.com