Lovely sun-filled days, babi guling (suckling pig) for lunch and rain on cue in the afternoons signalling gin o’clock… We had been in Ubud, in the heart of Bali, for three days and everything had been perfect. Does life get any better?
Despite suffering from a serious case of Paradise Syndrome already, half-way through our trip we have a hot date to review Villa Sungai for Smith. ‘Poor fellow,’ I hear you say! Having bagged a slew of awards as a top villa over a decade, this luxe retreat in Cepaka village near the west coast has a great rep. I can be a fussy sod, though, and places that are out of place often fail in my book, especially if they make you feel like you’re in a Disneyfied version of the country you’re visiting. Reading up on Sungai, however, I’m completely intrigued.
It feels a bit weird being picked up in a people-carrier with a Sungai crest on it, but all is forgiven as we weave through some of Bali's most lively, rural roads. We arrive 30 minutes later at the villa and are greeted by eight members of staff bearing welcome flowers for us to wear behind our ears. The entrance is quite unassuming, but as we descend three mysterious flights of stairs I get that feeling of anticipation usually reserved for the ‘reveal’ on extreme makeover shows. We all walk through the double doors into the villa and coo with wonder.
Miss Smith, our seven-year-old, is especially overcome by the vista of the outrageous pool backed by lush green jungle, tropical foliage plunging to the river below. My emotions can best be described as ‘overwhelmed’.
Very rock 'n' roll in an Asian glam way, the covered living area is huge. Cool marble flooring stretches throughout the amazing dining space which boasts a giant day-bed. Villa Sungai has the knack of being everyone's cup of tea. It's not overly garish or overflowing with gadgets, and it could work equally well for a hedonistic bash or relaxing downtime. But this does not stop me from imagining myself doing a Keith Moon for a couple of days – although I’ll probably stop short of driving a Rolls-Royce into the pool, as the Who’s drummer was wont to do. Let the party/family holiday commence!
You are in the jungle. The natural sounds and rhythms remind you of this, constantly murmuring and chattering in the background over the subtle lilt of the flowing river below. You have the sensation of sailing on the canopy of green which engulfs you and with every sip of gin I feel Villa Sungai tighten its luxurious grip. My Paradise Syndrome symptoms are now reaching a critical level.
Slick service is something we all enjoy, and expect when you’re paying a premium for it, and this is where Villa Sungai comes into its own. The villa has about 14 staff in total, yet I never see more than one or two of the team at a time. Used bath towels magically disappear; cool water is replaced by invisible fairies. The level of service is very high but not fussy or overbearing, never bombarding you with offers of coffee or nibbles. It's all there for the taking but they let you get on with it at your own pace. The well-stocked fridge is testament to this relaxed attitude, with all alcohol charged at cost price.
A quick catnap is in order while our driver picks up our guests from Ubud, expected for a tasting dinner on the second night. On waking before the evening kicks off, we’re surprised to see the living area has been transformed into an exclusive restaurant-style space, with white linen draped between pillars and our own mini gamelan orchestra. Dining at Villa Sungai is pretty delicious even when you’re not entertaining, as you pre-order whatever you want from the staff so they can pick it up fresh from the market each morning. Everything is cooked to perfection, as befits this bespoke sanctuary.
You don't just open a villa and automatically have the standard of service and womb-like comfort found at Sungai. It feels like it has been earned through being completely uncompromising when it comes to quality, even over the smallest details, teamed with having the good taste to pare the experience back to simple luxury. We conclude that the villa is a result of years of fine-tuning and responding to guests’ feedback. On leaving, we all wish Villa Sungai a fond farewell, as if it is an old friend that we hope to see again. In future, Paradise Syndrome will have a lot to live up to…