By ELLEN WHYTE
"Is this for me?" The immigration man laughs while holding up the stack of rupiah stuffed in my passport. In some places, this would be the start of a long police interview and ending in fines or even jail. But this is Bali.
The guys lounging behind the next counter are giggling away. "If it's dollars," advises one, "take it!"
But my man hands the money back and stamps my passport with an impressively large seal. Two minutes later, I'm whisked away to my hotel.
You've heard about Bali. It's a tropical paradise with impossibly white beaches, surfing waves, gorgeous temples and a rich culture. It's had some ups and downs in recent years, and plenty of competition from other hot spots, but today Bali is booming.
Bali has the reputation of being a trendsetter. Think iconic spa resorts and beach parties. Now the island has a new groove: the private villa experience.
Imagine this: you're lounging around your own swimming pool set on a beautifully manicured lawn in a private garden filled with tropical plants and sweet-scented blooms. Your butler is cooking your garlic-crusted, pan-fried snapper while you munch on avocado and seared tuna canapes. It's not an unattainable dream either. Private villa holidays are the latest fad.
"I love Bali so I built a villa for myself as a holiday home," says Steve Michie, the New Zealand-born owner of Serene Villas in Seminyak. "But you know how it is. I lent it to a few friends who talked to some of their friends, and before I knew it I couldn't get any time to myself there. So I built a second one, a third and suddenly we had eight."
Steve's two decades of hospitality experience from working with groups such as Hard Rock Hotel and Club Med paid off in spades. Serene Villas is the epitome of quiet luxury.
"It starts with space," says villa manager Wayan Gawe. "When you stay at a hotel, you have one room, or maybe two if you have kids, and you share amenities like the pool, restaurant and housekeeping. With the villa experience, you have your own chef, garden and pool."
Indoor/outdoor bathrooms combine modern conveniences like hairdryers and electric shaver outlets with the traditional huge fluffy bath towels - and outside spa-like showers and baths. If it weren't for the pool, this could be the prime attraction all by itself.
What's interesting is that the cost for a two-bedroom villa is pretty much the same as staying in a quality resort hotel. A two-bedroom Serene Villa with private pool, chef, gardener and maid starts at about US$250. While hotels in busy Kuta charge around US$60. Four-star hotels in nearby Nusa Dua and Ubud charge about US$120. Five-star hotels cost more, some charging US$280 a night for one room.
Taking it easy: Serene Villas offer privacy and truly a rich experience at an affordable price.
Honeymoon couples may choose to nest for the duration, coming up for air only when the Serenity dream dinner is served. If shopping, temple-hopping, and partying at the local clubs isn't your scene, there's the beach, surfing, and paragliding, just a stone's throw away. Travel half an hour and you're in white water rafting and elephant-ride country.
"If you've got older kids who want to do their own thing, they can stay behind and swim, play games and watch TV or DVDs while the parents go shopping or for a spa treatment," says Steve. "We've got cable, wireless access, and film libraries. If they're small ones, we've got babysitting services too."
The villa experience is particularly suited to private bathing and family parties. Halal food is provided by Chef Muhammad Dicky.
Six new Moroccan-style, three-bedroom pavilions with stretch pools can comfortably fit a family water polo contest.
"They're fabulous for parties," Steve enthuses. "Your chef will prepare a seafood barbeque, steamboat banquet, traditional Bali feast with lamb sate, baked chicken and fish with sambal or whatever strikes your fancy. All you have to do is enjoy yourself."
And when you're skinny dipping at midnight in your own pool under a black velvet sky dotted with stars, the exhortation isn't hard to follow.
The trip was sponsored by Serene Villas.
How to get there
Flights take approximately two hours and 40 minutes. There are flights to Denpasar, Bali several times a day from all international airports in Malaysia. Check your favourite carrier for details.
Malaysian passport holders do not require a visa and do not pay an entry fee. However, there is an exit fee of R15,000 that must be paid in Rupiah on departure.
22 Jl Drupadi, (Gang Serene) Seminyak, Bali
Reservations: +62 361 730 899 ext 0 (Daily)
Tel: +62 361 730 899 (10 Lines)
Fax: +62 361 733 100
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Emergency Call : (+62) 8133 840 992