In Canggu, an Indonesian Wonderland

By William J. Furney
The Bali Times

CANGGU, North Kuta ~ I half expected a gaggle of high-spirited fairies to fly out in a dusting of glitter from behind a rock. That’s the sort of impression you get of Desa Seni when you first arrive.

Instead I was greeted by Canadian Howard Klein, one of the owners of what translates as the Art Village here in rapidly developing Canggu, just a few minutes north of affluent Seminyak and where homes are springing up on an almost daily basis.

Celebrating a year in business, Desa Seni is unlike any other resort of this wondrous island; it offers, as Howard says, a history of Indonesia in a tranquil setting embalmed with the finest in yoga, one of its many attractions.

Nestled among ricefields and by a back road that is fast becoming a highway from Seminyak and back, Desa Seni comprises 10 antique guesthouses that were purchased elsewhere around the country – mainly in Java – and literally disassembled and reconstructed on site. Many are well over a century old and brimming with antiques ranging from the Dutch colonial era to well before. Some of the houses cost the owners up to Rp300 million (US$32,000) to purchase, Howard said, refusing to divulge the total capital investment.

It’s the very antithesis of the high-end accommodations that are giving a new edge to Bali. Here, you’re transported back to yesteryear – but with the modern-day luxuries of a salted pool and satellite television (and, or course, room service).

Howard, like all the staff bearing a large Frangipani in his left ear, talks animatedly of this languorous resort, telling me that from the initial concept to opening day, it all came together in little over a year.

“We already had a lot of antiques collected, and we bought some more, so the entire process didn’t take that long,” he said.

Desa Seni has recently been featured in Time magazine and Condé Nast Traveler, and with occupancy rates over the past year running at about 50 percent, Howard says he wants to see that increase to nearly full occupancy given the current media momentum.

When the resort was in the planning stages in mid-2005, government officials dealing with zoning and permits “initially didn’t get it,” said Howard of the proposed village resort, but that eventually the penny dropped.

After all, says Howard, “We are in Indonesia trying to support Indonesian History.”

Set on 1 hectare, the village comprises three plots of land owned by three different people. The leases are for 25 years, and are extendable.

Howard first arrived in Bali 15 years ago, from his native Canada, on a quality-control assignment for a Canadian firm that was importing clothing and handicrafts from Bali. When that gig was up, he began exporting similar items by himself.

The idea for Desa Seni grew out of business partner Tom Talucci’s mind, an American of Italian parentage who recently sold two restaurants he owned in Chicago and who had been exporting furniture from Bali.

“Originally we wanted to do a private home, and it just grew into the resort idea,” Howard, 42, said.

With the internet now an everyday utility for most people, travelers are sidestepping travel agents these days and doing their own research and bookings, says Howard.

Many bookings the resort receives come via the internet, he says, and yoga packages are popular. The resort is fully booked during the middle part of next year, said Howard, mostly by yoga groups.

“We have guests who go into Seminyak for a few hours and come back straight away because they can’t handle the traffic. They say, ‘I don’t like it; I want to be here,’”

“I think Bali is becoming more holistic – tourism is becoming more holistic,” says a barefoot Howard, who smokes Marlboro Lights.

Apart from the necessary paying guests, Howard and Tom have thrown open their resort doors to the community, inviting locals in to use the swimming pool and take part in yoga classes. Howard frowns on the prestigious Canggu Club down the street, saying, “I can’t understand why they want to be so exclusive and keep people out.”

Above all, Desa Seni attempts to create for guests a rural village ambiance, and despite the crazed pace of villas springing up all round the area and usurping the verdant ricefields, it does just that. During my trip, men were harvesting rice the old-fashioned way in small fields between guesthouses, and there is also an organic vegetable garden.

It’s a different kind of vacation experience, one you’re not likely to forget in a hurry as strings of fairy-like lights twinkle over this small Indonesian wonderland in the darkening evening sky

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