It’s hard to imagine that a poor student in Java would one day dream up a collection of luxury hotels that house some of the most priceless art pieces in Indonesia. However, that’s exactly what Anhar Setjadibrata, the owner of boutique hotel chain Tugu Hotels, and Indonesia’s largest art collection, achieved.
Known by many as the ‘Renaissance Man’, Setjadibrata’s passion for art ignited in 1972, when he was 25 years old. Due to the political turmoil in Indonesia at that time, Setjadibrata was unable to complete the final exam of his medical degree, and was forced to look for work in another profession. He was hired by a pharmaceutical company as a consultant, a role which sent him to various locations across Indonesia to visit doctors and nurses in small villages. While exploring Java, Bali, Nusa Tenggara, West Timor, Kalimantan, and Borneo, Setjadibrata gained a thirst for bygone times. He became enthralled by his country’s colourful history and began collecting artifacts from the villages he visited. He found that the people of the villages were naively disposing of ancient relics in favour of modern objects. And so, to hold true to the saying, ‘one man's trash is another man's treasure,’, Setjadibrata began adding pieces of Indonesia’s past to his trove.
Fast-forward 17 years, with a new career—this time in law—under his belt, and a chest overflowing with treasure, Setjadibrata decided he could no longer keep to himself the antiquities and vast knowledge he had acquired through his life. Instead, he wanted to share his treasures with the world, so that locals and visitors could learn about Indonesia’s ancestry. In 1989, Setjadibrata made that wish a reality and built Tugu Malang, Indonesia’s first boutique museum hotel in East Java. The historical masterpiece was well-embraced and celebrated by the country, winning a national award in architectural excellence. Since then, three more hotels have been built; one more in East Java, one in Bali and one in Lombok.
Hotel Tugu Bali, located in Canggu, Bali’s surfer haven, is a living, breathing museum. It invites us to tread further than peering lustfully at an artifact enclosed in a glass box. Sure, we can still choose to do just that, with relics from the 12th century and beyond on display in every corner, but the real magic happens when the heirlooms that surround us interplay with the cuisine, live performances, decor and service on offer, asking us to participate fully in an old world of rajas and ratus (kings and queens).
The property is designed like a village, with individual buildings that connect via a network of pathways. It certainly pays homage to traditional Bali with thatch roofing, use of bamboo, wood and intricate ornaments, however, it also has eclectic notes. Meandering the property, a diverse set of styles can be found within the various spaces, yet these differences flow seamlessly between one another.
Japan meets China at restaurant Ji at Bale Sutra. The ground floor of the restaurant is a red-walled room that houses the ruins of a 300-year-old Kangxi period temple that was rescued by Setjadibrata in Java and brought to Bali to be reconstructed. The temple takes us back in time through carvings of mythological creatures, artifacts, portraits of Balinese monarchs and original Chinese paintings from the Quing Dynasty. Meanwhile the fare on offer is inspired by robatayaki (the art of grilling), a centuries old Japanese cooking tradition. If it’s history we have come for, then here, we can quite literally dine in a piece of it. This time-stalled environment changes colours when we head upstairs to the second level; Ji Terrace by the sea is rustic with a vibrant new-age punch. Contemporary tropical asian characteristics are at play here, with modern mosaics, lush plants and brightly painted kitsch-like statues of gods hanging on the walls. The third floor is a little more subtle, allowing its easy-breezy alfresco vibes to do the talking and presenting a 180-degree view of the Indian Ocean.
If we are after something a little more theatrical, we can head over to the dimly lit, rouge-hued and romantically-charged Wantilan Agung (Grand Ceremonial House). Here, the ceiling, high like the heavens, rises above us, supported by giant wooden columns, while a raised central platform sits below it. A 4.5 metre Garuda statue, carved from a 120-year-old tree trunk sits on the platform, watching over all who pass through the airy pavilion. The space is finished with sheer red and white drapery that wavers in the sea breeze.
For sensory relief, wander north from the pavilion, past an azure pool surrounded by tropical vegetation; there’s a lawn of perfect green with a freestanding deck on stilts that overlooks Canggu beach. It’s simple, laid-back and the best place for beachside cocktails and afternoon tea. It’s also the place where sunset dreams come true.
When the day winds down, we can retire to one of the hotel’s 21 villas; choose one with a private plunge pool, a sunken bath, a private spa or a dining pavilion. No matter what we select, there is a story to be found within each feather palm thatched dwelling; from the love story of a famous Belgian artist to the Javanese art deco movement of the 20th century, the past whispers in our ears seductively.
Expect dining experiences that take taste buds on an unexpected journey. In the mornings, enjoy a modern selection of power bowls from Ji restaurant; a favourite being the Magic Potion Power Breakfast Bowl. Made up of raw cocoa, banana, strawberries, mango, granola and chia seeds, it’s a fresh start to the day and a celebration of local produce. Palates longing for more traditional flavours can take delight in the best Nasi Goreng on the island. Served alongside bean sprouts, spinach, green bean, rempeyek (homemade Javanese rice crackers), and peanut sauce, it’s a tongue-tantalising affair.
Seafood enthusiasts who’d like to indulge in the best local catch can partake in the Full Moon Barbecue. The fishermen of Canggu go on night trips in the Indian Ocean and bring back a bountiful selection of lobsters, fish, king prawns, crabs and squid. A lunchtime event on the lawn is a good way to enjoy the ocean's harvest.
In between lunch and dinner, peckish people will be glad to hear about the complimentary sunset high tea that’s served up daily. Balinese delicacies like cakes wrapped in banana leaves, dumplings and fried bananas are beautifully presented. These are complemented by rich coffee from Sumatra, Sulawesi and Java and tea grown at various altitudes across the country.
For dinner, there’s an ample selection of Emperor-style fare; the menu from Wantilan Agung is an expression of authenticity and love. It caters to those who have an appetite for dining like the monarchs who once ruled Indonesia. Dishes like bebek betutu (roast duck in banana) that is cooked for 12 plus hours, guling celeng (tender roasted suckling pig) and sate udung sereh (grilled prawn on lemongrass) are worth a try. We can add drama to these flavours on Thursday evening when the platform at Wantilan Agung comes to life with Balinese dancers that mesmerize us with highly precise and stylised angular movement of eyes, fingers and necks.
Meanwhile, a more casual form of cuisine awaits at Ji Terrace by the Sea; the menu arrives on a Japanese fan and is a modern translation of Japanese and Asian dishes. Try the grilled salmon with eggplant, sticky asian chicken and rice or tiger prawns with rice noodles. Finish off with a melted chocolate ball that the staff literally melt at the table to reveal a hidden dessert, or be subtly delighted by a young coconut creme brulee that surprises with textures of coconut flesh within it.
At Tugu Bali, it’s all about choice. No matter where or what we order, we are encouraged to enjoy it in a setting of our choosing: whether that is a luxurious picnic bed on the lawn or at the beach, on a terrace surrounded by candles, sitting at a dining table made of marble from the 19th century in the hotel’s private Balinese museum, or by a romantic lotus pond, surrounded by nature’s sounds and scents.
Suffice to say if we’d like to experience traditional serenity within Bali’s multi-sensory bustle, we can certainly escape to Hotel Tugu Bali; a place that stitches enchanting stories of Bali’s rich history with a world-class luxury experience.