Bali sugar

From exertion to relaxation, Ed Cummings checks out the Indonesian island’s sweet and diverse offerings.

From exertion to relaxation, Ed Cummings checks out the Indonesian island’s sweet and diverse offerings.

The night is darkest just before the dawn. Put differently, things can only get better. You’ve done the hard part. It’s downhill from here.

These are the standard consolations of the miserable. At least, these are what I mutter to myself as I climb up Mount Batur, in the northeast of Bali, in the dead of night. I say mutter, but really by this point my speech has become a kind of anguished sweaty gasping, the sound of a fish that has been hauled onto dry land – and then made to walk up Mount Batur.

The walk was advertised as suitable for beginners, or those of average fitness. It has been startling to discover where I sit in relation to ‘average’.

We woke in our Ubud hotel at 2.30am, dragged ourselves sadly out through the outrageous luxury of the Ritz-Carlton Mandapa Reserve, sat in a car for half an hour, met our guides and set off on foot up the volcano.

Along the flatter lower slopes, the mood was surprisingly chipper, but as the incline grew the jokes died off, replaced by sweaty fatigue. In the dim pre-dawn I kept asking myself why was I doing this. I looked at the guides, men who did this every morning and who weren’t remotely short of breath, with resentment.

Yet as the blood pumped I felt the endorphins spread slowly around my body, like smoke through a forest. By the time we reached the summit and were handed cups of tea and cake from some unseen backpack, I was grinning. Monkeys clamoured for crumbs. Teenagers warmed their hands on vents of volcanic steam.

The guides and I talked about the Premier League and whether Arsenal needed another striker. The island lay rolled out beneath us in the gloom, shrouded in thick mist. We waited for the mist to clear and reveal the sunrise. The mist grew thicker.

It wasn’t the only time Bali was confounding. Few destinations are an easier sell. From teenagers lumbering island to island under their backpacks like tortoises, to honeymooning yuppies, hippy families and grey-haired golfers, Bali is all things to all tourists.

But by offering something for everyone, the island embodies a litany of contradictions: sex and spirituality, white beaches and steamy jungle, wild clubs and vegan yoga, ramshackle hostels and luxurious hotels.

We began our tour in the south, at the Ritz-Carlton’s Nusa Dua beach resort, a dramatic white metal and glass hotel overlooking glorious, sweeping beach. The surf-friendly breakers might give you the wrong idea: this is not a spot for Australians on a long weekend.

The challenge for the hotels here is to maintain impeccable international standards of comfort while somehow remaining uniquely of their place. Along this stretch of coast there is plenty of competition: a St Regis, a Marriott, a Kempinski. With increased capacity comes increased construction work and more traffic on already crowded roads.

Ultimately, visitors seeking a fuller experience of Bali find themselves drawn to the lush interior, where Bali’s more mystical qualities are strongly felt.

Temples lurk around every corner. Incense smoke curls into nostrils from street vendors.

The Ritz-Carlton Mandapa Reserve takes this atmosphere and distils it into a remarkable space. From the entrance the land plunges away, so the hotel lies beneath you like an emerald basin as you arrive. Rooms and villas surround a paddy field, while beyond them snakes a brown river. As rice farmers make their way around, the overall effect is spectacular.

We eat a picnic lunch in the middle of all this and are served tea and sandwiches. You want to ironically Instagram it all, but somehow you can’t. The sights, the smells and the wall of noise emerging from the jungle here inland make it all unmistakably Balinese.

Even in these rarefied quarters, however, surprises lurk. In the spa, I am beaten, scrubbed, rubbed and dried. But only after one particularly heavy night on the lychee martinis do I actually nod off.

For those wanting to explore, the usual array of tours, performances, boat rides and blessings are available.

A massage from a local blind healer has an unexpected effect on me. Perhaps it’s the strangeness of the situation: lying still as the healer’s assistant guides her to my soft, office-trained body. For such a small woman the healer’s grip is unbelievably strong. She zeroes in to the spaces between my toes and the backs of my calves, where I didn’t even know I was so tense.

It hurts – and not in a “that’s fine” way but in a grimace and tense way.

The speed with which she finds the sensitive areas, apparently different from person to person, awakens some lumbering sense in my brain: the suspicion that perhaps some knowledge can’t be gleaned from Google.

The realisation of which leads me to sign up for the volcano trek, the sweaty dawn hike without a visible dawn. By all accounts it should have been a frustrating morning, but as the jungle came back to life and we sat down to the picnic breakfast waiting for us, I could hardly have been happier.

A little exertion followed by a lot of relaxation in luxurious surroundings – the perfect combination.