Jimbaran hugs the south-western coast of Bali like the island’s forlorn, forgotten offspring. Its modest size makes it easily overlooked compared to the gleaming cliffside resorts of neighboring Uluwatu, yet its quintessentially local feel is exactly what makes it so enticing. A far cry from the oppressive touting and conspicuous consumption on display in Seminyak, it offers little in the way of bespoke cocktails, vintage bicycle-bedecked artisanal coffee shops or designer-label boutiques. You’ll barely even find the chi-chi beachside cafés and rural villas that are increasingly strewn across up-and-coming coastal village Canggu. And Kuta? This area has as much appeal to a beer-swilling teen night-clubber as the Sahara would to a holidaymaking Eskimo.
It’s a far more traditional industry, fishing, that predominates here: indeed, Jimbaran remains better known for its seafood restaurants than its ample beachfront or the more recent resort developments. The Jimbaran Fish Market (Jln Pantai Kedongangan, Jimbaran Beach, Bukit Peninsula), Bali’s second-largest, should feature prominently on the must-see list of any self-respecting pescetarian, or any visitor seeking insights into the island’s community life. And quite apart from its cultural cachet, it’s something of a sensory assault — all the more so if you drop by at around 7.30am, just after the morning catch has been hauled in and set up for sale.
You’ll find all the familiar edible ocean dwellers here — giant tuna strung up high on hooks, salmon, fifty shades of snapper — and a broad selection of multi-hued tropical favorites including rainbow runner, trevally and an alarmingly high number of sharks. Even if you don’t make a purchase, vendors are happy to pose for photos alongside their displays; incurable selfie addicts, meanwhile, will relish the chance for a mouth-agape photo-op next to these finned wonders who in death wear a look of permanent disgruntlement, as if astonished that a net-slinging boatman could have the sheer audacity to pluck them from their casual morning swim and onto dry land.
Farther into the market, there’s ample opportunity to part with your wallet-cluttering rupiah on retail therapy with an even more distinctively local flavor. The dried fruit and herbs so prevalent in Balinese cuisine dangle in plastic bags at a number of stalls; the island’s infamously hard-hitting coffee is readily available, including the kopi luwak, or civet-cat coffee, that’s beloved of curiosity-seeking caffeine addicts (and equally loathed by animal-rights campaigners); while at another stall, a young lady assembles leaves, tobacco and flowers, and arranges them into immaculate canang sari, the palm-leaf basket offerings of gratitude that adorn temples, outdoor shrines and households throughout the island.
All told, despite the arrival of a raft of big-name hotels here since the 1990s — Ayana (Jimbaran Karang Mas Estate, Jln Karang Mas Sejahtera, Jimbaran; +62 361 702 222; ayanaresort.com), InterContinental (Jln Raya Uluwatu No. 45, Jimbaran; +62 361 701 888; bali.intercontinental.com) Four Seasons (Jln Kawasan Bukit Permai, Jimbaran; +62 361 701 010; www.fourseasons.com/jimbaranbay) and, recently, Le Méridien (Jln Bukit Permai, Jimbaran; +62 361 846 6888; www.lemeridianbalijimbaran.com) — Jimbaran has in fact made its homespun charm and traditional life its selling point.
I pulled into a courtyard for an ATM stop and instantly struck up a conversation with five cheery teenage girls clad in eye-catchingly bright kebaya (blouse), kamen (sarong) and selendang (cummerbund), who wanted nothing more than to know my name and country of origin, and immediately consented when I asked to photograph them. It’s hard to imagine such a relaxed, spontaneous encounter taking place in most South-East Asian cities. Though fleeting and inconsequential, the experience remained in my mind for some time afterwards, filling me with nostalgia for friendships casually initiated in innocent days of childhood.
That quality of discreet, unspoiled harmony, so refreshingly different from neighboring districts with their self-consciously faddish stylings, also means that — perhaps in a good way — there’s not an awful lot to actually do here. Jimbaran nightlife, such as it is, centers on the fabulous seafront playgrounds under the aegis of the Four Seasons and Ayana — Sundara and the ultra-swish Rock Bar, respectively — and given the area’s close proximity to the new international airport, perhaps it’s little surprise these major resorts have made this serene coastal stretch their Balinese sanctuary. On closer inspection, what makes their presence feel more significant is the way they’ve integrated Jimbaran’s organic, live-off-the-land lifestyle into their modus operandi — and in the case of Rimba (Karang Mas Estate, Jln Karang Mas Sejahtera, Jimbaran; +62 361 846 8468; rimbajimbaran.com), Ayana’s recently completed art-hotel offshoot, even its name (if you hadn’t already guessed from the extensive sylvan approach, in Bahasa, rimba means “forest”).
A cursory glance at Rimba’s grandly conceived lobby reveals a property that has little in common with a standard-issue tourist hotel. All around the sweeping reception space, upcycled timber, retrieved from local shipyards and repainted, stretches up to a lofty ceiling from whose center hangs an ambitious bamboo chandelier.
The foyer opens out onto an infinity “pond” (a word that barely does justice to such a stunning conceit), in which two circular seating lounges jut to the surface, providing beyond-perfect vantage points for the daily swoon of sunset. From the original artworks in guest rooms fashioned from driftwood and the playfully sculpted, rope-feathered ducks, to the spa’s bamboo showers and treatments using galangal, ginger and frangipani, imaginative reminders of human coexistence with the natural world are scattered everywhere. In a fitting declaration of intent, at Rimba’s launch party in 2013 the high priest arrived on a dancing horse for a purification ceremony, in which humans seek to find the balance between god, man and nature.
Creative direction at both Rimba and Ayana is masterminded by the reclusive Kyoto-born craftsman Seiki Torige, 74, who’s best known as one of the world’s most acclaimed glass artists, employing a team of 30 at his studio. His artifacts, made with materials sourced from both Sulawesi and Bali, combine the seemingly innate creative flair of his adoptive island with a typically Japanese meticulousness. “It takes around three to four months to produce an artwork made from glass,” Torige says.
It wasn’t until his mid-50s that the artist turned his back on the frenetic city life of Tokyo. “When I first visited Bali, I was truly impressed by [its] mild nature. That visit sparked my interest to live and work in Bali,” he recalls. As if to emphasize his passion for his surrounds, Torige cites as his favorite works two of the most striking in the entire property: Rimba’s lobby wall and the Rock Bar’s glass-top bar, in which thousands of layers of recycled glass canes sparkle under the sun. “I wanted to create a delicate work to be placed among this wild, beautiful scene,” he says. “My fervent wish is that the glass canes — the fruit of our effort — unite with nature and shine brightly all the time.”
Surrounded by such contented, bucolic calm, it’s easy to forget the troubles that beset the modern world. And though you’d never guess it from seeing the area now, a decade ago this village was the target of militant extremists who launched a simultaneous attack that also rocked Kuta.
One man who’s experienced Jimbaran’s highs and lows at first hand is lifelong resident Wayan Suarnaya (aka Linud), 44, who coined the Sanskrit name for Ayana at the time of the resort’s rebranding in 2009. “It means ‘a place where gods seek refuge’,” he says. “I came across this word while reading Purana, a popular Sanskrit story. I had this image of ‘ayana’ as a utopia for everyone.” Linud now serves as the resort’s cultural ambassador, taking curious guests out on expeditions by bicycle and on foot, and helping them “see, feel and experience life as a Balinese”.
What does he recall of the October 2005 incident? “My house was located just about 200m from the explosion,” Linud recalls. “It was a terrifying and shocking experience for everyone. I remained positive and hopeful — I believe that when bad things happen, good things will always follow. The locals also have a saying, Ruwebineda, which means that the good and bad coexist. Just under six months [later], the tourism industry saw signs of recovery.”
There are some who feel Bali — or at least the idealized, Eat Pray Love take on the island, synonymous with benevolent spirituality and colorful ritual — has been spoiled by tourism, particularly the youth magnets of Seminyak and Kuta. So how does Linud feel about the influx of foreign visitors into his hometown? “In the past, Jimbaran [had] no electricity or water; owning a television was a luxury. The first hotels and resorts were built around 20 years ago, and it’s safe to say that life has changed tremendously for the locals. The landscape has changed by leaps and bounds, and the quality of life has improved with the flourishing economic growth we’re experiencing.”
Seiki Torige, likewise, won’t be leaving his adopted homeland any time soon, having found the perfect idyll in which to forge natural resources into artistic gold. “I love the ocean and longed to live and work by the seaside — that dream was difficult to realise in Japan,” he says. “I decided to settle down in Bali to fulfil that ambition. I’m still very much in love with Bali for its beautiful nature.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Smile magazine.