MENTION Kuta and images of backpackers' hostels and the stretch of great surfing beach in Bali come to mind. All that is still there for the budget conscious travellers who want to rough it out. But the area is now getting a more upmarket feel with the opening of the Sheraton Bali Kuta Resort.
The great thing is that the Sheraton is located in the heart of Kuta beach with the golden sandy stretch and the Indian Ocean just across the road, and the bars, restaurants and pubs all within walking distance.
Already, the resort is popular with families and the slightly older crowd, who may have given Kuta a miss before.
Instead of sticking with the slanted, thatched roofs typical of Balinese architecture, the hotel has opted for a modern look, but retaining some Balinese touch. The hotel rooms and main social areas are elevated and this has advantages.
For one thing, you don't quite see or hear the traffic that goes past the resort. Perched on the rooftop of Bene Italian restaurant, you get clear views of the sunset, which beats having to squeeze with the masses on the beach for an Instagram worthy shot.
The resort makes no bones about cashing in on its prime sunset viewing spot. From 5pm to 7pm nightly, it hosts Sunset Gatherings for hotel guests and the public. For 149,000 rupiah (S$16.50) and you get to sample wine, with canapes, artisanal cheeses and breads or handmade wood-fired pizzas while watching the sun set.
The resort's 203 rooms and suites are spacious with balconies either facing the ocean or its two courtyards. To put it simply, the rooms are nothing short of what you would expect from the Sheraton brand.
What stands out more at this resort are the dining options, and the activities that raise the guest experience.
The Indonesian island getaway is known for its local fare, such as babi guling and bebek betutu, but giving that a miss, and opting for Italian is not a bad idea.
At Bene, executive chef Rossano Renzelli does a mean hand-made pasta, alongside his signature dishes including Spezzatino di maiale, manzo, and e salsiccia con piselli - stewed diced pork, beef and pork sausage with green peas and onion and a classic Risotto ai porcini - Italian rice with porcini mushroom.
If you have a group of 10, opt to dine in the private dining room, where you and your pals can sit around a solid single tree trunk dining table which overlooks the beach.
The resort's other dining option is Feast, its 160-seater restaurant that has live stations, offering buffets three times a day.
The food quality and variety are decent, but the best time to come is on Sundays, from noon to 3pm, when the restaurant holds its weekly Market Brunch, believed to be the first of its kind on the island. The theme is Sip, Savour and Shop. The food menu changes weekly, but you can expect artisanal cheeses and sliced meats, sushi, and seafood barbecue. And if you like the cheese or seafood on the buffet spread, they are also for sale, alongside other fresh produce and pre-made items. It is also at the market brunch that you can get chocolates from the island's only chocolate manufacturer, Pod Chocolate, started by Australian Toby Garritt.
If you are lucky enough, you may get invited to dine at the chef's table. Chef Renzelli will invite 12 guests to dine with him in the pastry room, inside the resort's kitchen. "It will be for open-minded diners," he says. The menu is extensive, but forget dining on fancy tableware. Instead, your jumbo river prawn bouillabaisse is served in a pot, and the veal leg in a shallow metal bowl. Not quite the fine dining experience you would expect, but nevertheless a fun story to share with the other not-so-lucky guests.
If you are the sort who must shop, the resort is next door to the famed Poppies Lane, a row of shops selling local beachwear and apparel and other souvenirs.
Alternatively, head to Beachwalk next door, an open air shopping mall, that looks suspiciously like The Star Vista.
Most of the brands here are what you can find in Singapore, so if you are looking for something that is more local, head to Satu. The multi-label fashion boutique houses some of Bali's best designers, such as lace brand Uluwatu, Niluh Djelantik, a Balinese brand that has gone international, and Erika Peña, a jewellery brand with celebrity fans such as Beyonce and Kim Kardashian.
The resort also ties up with Satu to host a monthly fashion show during afternoon tea sessions.
Dario Orsini, Sheraton Kuta's general manager, describes the resort as "a sanctuary on Kuta, but with a mute button. You still have the beach, shopping and nightlife nearby".
No small change
JUST like how a haircut or a new wardrobe can instantly make a person look more refreshed, a change of interiors in a hotel can also give it an updated look.
The 15-year-old Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan is a prime example of that. "Our one and two-bedroom villas have always been considered unique in the world," says its general manager, Uday Rao. "The 42 villas have been impeccably maintained since the resort was built, but we wanted to evolve the design to ensure their place among the finest villas in Bali."
Japanese designer Koichi Yasuhiro from Design Studio Spin in Tokyo is behind the villas' new interiors, which are now chic and modern, but with a strong reflection of Balinese architectural style, tradition and culture.
Like before, you see only lily ponds on the ground level, which indicates where the villas are. To get to the villa, you have to go down a flight of steps, which ups the anticipation level.
Whereas the rooms previously looked bland and generic, the feel is now much warmer. In place of a bare wall behind the bed, there is now an intricate carved wooden screen featuring a delicate pattern of leaves and birds with an inlay of traditional ikat fabric. The bed now comes with a sheer white canopy that was previously missing. It doesn't sound like much, but with the ambient lights turned on, the bedroom now takes on a much more romantic feel than before. It is no wonder the resort continues to be popular for weddings and honeymoons.
The recent renovation also meant that little touches which were not considered necessary five years ago, are now in place. For example, opening a drawer on the bedside table reveals several types of chargers built into it, so you can have your smartphones and other devices charging away beside you even when you sleep.
The resort prides itself on its larger than large bathrooms, which now have a more tropical feel. Marble has replaced boring beige tiles, giving the bathrooms a luxurious look. Each villa comes with a private plunge pool, but should you wish for a bubble bath, you can do so in the new marble free-standing tub. For a fee, the resort can draw different types of baths.
Jimbaran Bay beauty
Also cashing in on a new look is The Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay. Standing in place of PJ's, the resort's former casual restaurant is now the swanky Sundara.
The beachfront restaurant is also designed by Design Studio Spin, and certainly lives up to its name, meaning "beautiful" in the Sanskrit word. If your idea of a perfect holiday is spending the entire day by the beach, this is the place to be.
Set in two Balinese-style pavilions, the two-storey restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor seating. Regardless of whether you choose to sit downstairs or upstairs, you get panoramic views of Jimbaran Bay and the amazing sunset.
The restaurant is headed by Australian Greg Bunt, who owns three restaurants in Brisbane, and has worked in Hong Kong and Macau. The lunch menu comprises lighter choices such as sushi, salads and wood-fired pizzas.
For dinner, pick from the wide selection of grills, such as lobster, mahi mahi and lamb rack, of which Sundara is known for. The 1kg grain fed 200 days boneless rib eye, which is big enough to share among two to three diners, is worth going off the diet for.
You can start the day with breakfast at the resort's other restaurant Taman Wantilan, or choose to dine in their villas.
Then head to Sundara and spend the morning working a tan on the many day beds, with a cocktail or two in hand. The menu boasts 42 cocktails, such as Smoked Berries, made from Bombay Sapphire, Lagavulin 16-year-old single malt scotch and wild berries; and the innocent-sounding Tea Time, made of Ketel One vodka, peach and tea.
After lunch at Sundara, a dip in the 55m-long infinity lap pool sounds just about right. Or chill on the day bed with a book in hand, before dinner.
"Sundara will become a must-see landmark for all of Bali," says Michael Branham, general manager of Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay. Judging from the many sunseekers spotted at Sundara on a recent visit, Mr Branham is spot on.