In this day and age, there's really only one way to do Bali, especially if travelling en masse. Hire a villa. Private estates with resident staff, swimming pools, home-cooked food and transport on tap are all the rage on the Island of the Gods. Which is hardly surprising given the ease of living in privileged bubbles where, for once in your life, you get to put your feet up and have someone else do all the work.
Hotels are ideal for short stays (and they're also booming on the island right now), but for longer-term luxury it's hard to beat villa living. For the same price or less than they'd pay for a resort room, ordinary Australian families are living it up like landed gentry in exclusive holiday homes. A Balinese villa is an affordable fantasy.
There's no official definition of what constitutes a villa, but privacy and pools are paramount. Staff is also a given, with everyone from cook and driver to security and spa therapist at your beck and call. And of course there must be frangipanis to perfume the night air and dutifully drop blossoms onto groomed lawns so guests can swoon at the sheer gorgeousness of their surroundings while briefly allowing themselves to dream of a life where they could wake to such wonders every day.
But not all villas are created equal. There are opulent private affairs, and there are some highly desirable hotel versions, and then there are the cheap, cookie-cutter compounds masquerading as villas that have colonised large swathes of Seminyak and the south-west coast.
Not all villas are tasteful, either. We found our fair share of gaudy extravagance and characterless concrete monoliths at the more exclusive end of the scale. One spectacular perch on the escarpment of the Bukit Peninsula featured a home cinema with pirated new-release films and a cellar stocked with Burgundy's finest, but that wasn't enough to make up for the vulgar interior decorating.
We prefer our villas to have an authentic Balinese feel, daring design, or a dream location. Preferably all of the above. After combing through dozens of architectural options in alluring settings, we've come up with this catalogue of exceptional digs. All of them 100 per cent dedicated to the pursuit of carefree, indulgent holidays.
THE ADDRESS BOOK
More premium villas will organise express airport arrivals for guests; transfers between airport and villa are usually standard. Rates often include daily breakfasts and chauffeured transport for eight (consecutive) hours a day, excluding petrol. Many villa managers will discuss preferred menus with guests pre-arrival, with food and drinks provided at cost plus a 15 to 20 per cent service charge to cover shopping and preparation. Check whether the quoted rate includes taxes - if not, figure on paying an extra 15 to 21 per cent. Babysitters, spa treatments, cultural excursions and almost anything else sir or madam desires can be arranged with villa managers directly.
Location, location Celebrity setting on the Bukit Peninsula above the famous surf breaks of Impossibles Beach and Bingin.
Selling points Private cliff-front pile of lawns, gardens, bushland and pools with arresting views along the sweep of southern coastline to Dreamland and Balangan beaches. Gym and tennis court on site; WiFi, barbecue and Bose sound system; children's play area and TV room. The two-bedroom guest wing has its own pool. Chef Made is a dab hand at Japanese cuisine. A path just outside the property leads down to Impossibles Beach for safe swimming and lazy lunches at the local warung.
Staff size 17, including five housekeepers and 24-hour security.
Perfect for Two families holidaying together, bridal parties, surfie mates.
Max pax 10.
GT loves Apart from the killer views and glorious grounds? The patina of the property. The now 11-year-old Bayuh Sabbha's antique-filled pavilions, weathered and full of character, blend beautifully with the natural environment. You may not want to go home. (Villa manager Cok Gede Putra Wahudi says guests stay an average of 10 nights, "and when they leave, sometimes with crying".)
What you'll pay From $1700 a night plus taxes.
Contact Book via Marketing Villas.
Location, location Lembongan Island, a sun-drenched strip of white sand beaches, crystal waters and upscale accommodation 25 minutes by fast ferry from Sanur beach.
Selling points An idyllic and easy escape from Bali. This just-completed retreat has an elevated sea frontage and eye-watering views over the strait to Bali. The four bedrooms and airy living areas hover directly above the water. Elegant interiors feature recycled Surabaya teak, ironwood flooring, blinding white bedding and beaten silver basins in bathrooms. The pool, a sexy 17-metre, horizon-edged number above the beach path, is book-ended by pavilions: a sharply modern concrete one custom-made for sunset drinks and a more traditional bale with oversized daybed for four. Both capture refreshing zephyrs and turquoise scenery. Guests can hitch a ride on the villa's skippered outrigger to the reef to surf, or to the point to frolic with giant manta rays.
Staff size Three.
Perfect for Glamorous castaways, well-heeled waxheads.
Max pax Eight people.
GT loves What don't we love? This place is so cool that tourists often drop in thinking it's some sleek new bar or restaurant with knockout views. "We have met some of the nicest people that way," says owner Tony Unmack.
What you'll pay $1350 a night, plus taxes.
Alila Villas Uluwatu
Location, location This resort's 64 villas are terraced along a cliff 100 metres above the Indian Ocean on the Bukit Peninsula.
Selling points An elegant, private and very pampered resort whose ridge-top position is almost as stunning as its modernist Indonesian architecture. Villas are stone sanctuaries with cabanas and water features, ranging from frangipani-fringed plunge pools in one-bedroom villas to lengthy cliff-edge infinity pools in the squeal-icious three-bedroom numbers. There is also a fab 50-metre main pool - hemmed by the very good Warung and Cire restaurants - and an ethereal spa. Stay tuned for more two-bedroom pool villas on the hillside and four residential spa villas to be built by 2015, as well as 60 new cliff-front suites.
Staff size 380, including butlers to all villas.
Perfect for Loved-up couples, fabulous families, design junkies.
Max pax 145.
GT loves The striking design fusing stone and timber into elegant architectural geometry, set against lush green gardens and blinding blue sea and sky. Definitely one of our favourite properties on the island.
What you'll pay $700 per night plus taxes for a one-bedroom pool villa.
Location, location In Canggu on the island's south-west coast, close by Echo Beach. Seminyak is seven kilometres away, which, depending on the time of day, can be a doddle or a drama in traffic.
Selling points A handsome property entered through an open-sided wantilan with sightlines down a sloping hillside to 30-metre pool, rice paddies and dense forest on the property's border. Five bedrooms in pavilions staggered down the slope, with lily ponds and indoor/outdoor bathrooms.
Staff size 11.
Perfect for Family groups. Guests get free membership to the nearby Canggu Club with its sporting facilities, bars and eateries and activities for children.
Max pax 10, plus bunk room for five youngsters.
GT loves The rice paddies planted within the 7000-square-metre compound, purely for aesthetics.
What you'll pay From $1070 per night plus taxes.
Contact Book through Marketing Villas.
Location, location Seseh, a black-sand beach between Cemagi and Canggu, about 30 minutes' drive north of Seminyak.
Selling points This dark and sexy five-bedroom villa (owned by a Spanish model and a fashion designer) is a welcome relief from the alang-alang thatched roofs and pale interiors of typical Bali abodes. Mahatma blends vertical gardens in walls of volcanic stone with black terrazzo, vintage Sino objets and the obligatory giant Buddha. The five bedrooms, three in the main duplex pavilion and one each in pavilions either side of the 18-metre pool, are similar except for the views - the two masters have direct ocean outlooks. The compact grounds are flanked by coconut grove and sea, and feature emerald lawns and a poolside lounge perfect for evening cocktails and alfresco dining.
Staff size Nine, including senior and junior butlers.
Perfect for Special-occasion celebrations and family getaways.
Max pax 10.
GT loves The firepit at the poolside lounge for long, lazy evenings beneath the stars; the dazzling Asian artefacts that lend unique character to this classy crash-pad.
What you'll pay $710 a night plus taxes. Bargain.
Contact Bookings through Marketing Villas.
Jimbaran Puri Bali
Location, location On Jimbaran beach, between the barbecue fish shacks and the Bukit.
Selling points This Orient Express-managed property has 19 one-bedroom and three two-bedroom pool villas set back from the beach in botanical gardens. Each walled, 350-square-metre sanctuary has its own pool, daybed pavilion and butler, and is decorated with Balinese artefacts and vintage photos of village and royal life. Sunset cocktails at Puri Bar; feet-in-the-sand dining on the freshest seafood at Nelayan restaurant. The beach is safe for swimming (though sometimes none too clean).
Staff size 184.
Perfect for Couples, honeymooners, young families.
Max pax 134.
GT loves Hammocks slung between palms, the central pool and the three breezy, beachfront spa bures for memorable Balinese massages to the rhythm of lapping waves. Another plus: the resort is just 10 minutes from the international airport.
What you'll pay From $650 plus taxes a night for a one-bedroom pool villa, including buffet breakfast.
Contact Book through orient-express.com.
Location, location In the popular seaside residential area of Batu Belig, just up from the W Retreat & Spa in Seminyak.
Selling points An exceptional place. This gorgeous complex of antique timber structures includes Javanese joglo and gladag houses, a two-storey Sumatran home and a Balinese lumbung or silo, set around lotus and fishponds linked by floating timber walkways. The effect is like stepping into a century-old village, rich in archipelago artefacts such as Papuan headdresses and Sumbawan spirit figures. Interiors are primitive chic - hewn stone vanities, petrified timber, beaten-copper baths - adorned with rich and vivid textiles that lend each house a distinct colour theme. The 21st century is present too in the cinema room and surround sound in public spaces. Guests have direct, private access to Batu Belig beach.
Staff size 17, including barmen for the TV-room and chef's-kitchen bars.
Perfect for Cultural jetsetters; ethnographic adventurers.
Max pax 10 adults and four children.
GT loves Almost everything about the place, except maybe some of the shriller colour schemes. Can be rented in conjunction with its next-door twin, Villa Zelie, for a 20-person party.
What you'll pay From $1170 a night, taxes extra.
Uma by Como
Location, location Ubud.
Selling points The four pool suites at this refined boutique hotel in central Ubud have all the hallmarks of modern-day villas, even if they're not exactly referred to as such. Meandering pathways lined with tropical greenery and carved doorways that open to the suites with their infinity plunge pools and sundecks, Japanese-inspired interiors and emerald> outlooks over the Tjampuhan Valley. Morning walks through the surrounding rice fields and daily yoga classes encourage total disconnection from modern stresses. Ten new pool villas are due to be completed by September.
Staff size 130.
Perfect for Nature-loving sybarites.
Max pax Three per pool suite.
GT loves Kemiri restaurant with its delightful Asian cuisine (and rambutan-blossom honey for breakfast) and the Zen stillness of the Como Shambhala spa.
What you'll pay Pool suites from $500, plus taxes.
Location, location At Cemagi on the south-west coast, beyond Canggu and Seseh. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, backed by paddocks but fronted by magnificent pounding surf. About 35 minutes' drive from Seminyak.
Selling points That view. The property frames it like an amphitheatre so all eyes are drawn to the constantly pounding waves (far too dangerous for swimming, sadly) and an evocative black-stone sea temple on the point. Five bedrooms in four buildings (one of them two-storey) are simply but attractively furnished with teak floors, raised beds, modern paintings and outdoor bathrooms in walled gardens of palm and heliconia. The children's bedroom has twin beds with trundles underneath. The upstairs family room has a billiards table and slightly garish colouring. There's a 20-metre pool in front of the ocean, and a shared tennis court.
Staff size 16.
Perfect for Larger family groups or friends wanting to get away from it all.
Max pax 10 (plus four trundle beds).
GT loves The traditional lumbung stilt house framing the crashing surf - perfect for daydreaming or dramatic oceanfront dining and barbecues.
What you'll pay From $900 a night, plus taxes.
Contact: Book through Marketing Villas.
Pool Villas at W Retreat & Spa
Location, location On the edge of the Seminyak dress circle, just up from Potato Head Beach Club and La Lucciola restaurants.
Selling points Party time! South Beach comes to Seminyak in this typically high-energy, high-design W property of lipstick pink and lairy yellow, sprawling across 7.8 hectares of prime Bali beachfront. The 158 hotel rooms in a curving high-rise framing the shoreline have the views; the 79 one-, two- and three-bedroom villas behind are set in private garden compounds. Two-bedroom villas with open living areas, funky furnishings and poolside barbecue are the pick of the pack. The resort offers four bars, nightclub, and two restaurants, all set to a constant soundtrack of pumping tunes.
Staff size: 650.
Perfect for Twenty- and thirty-something party people.
Max pax 514.
GT loves Richard Millar's progressive, exciting cuisine in Fire restaurant (especially the foie gras chawan mushi); the labyrinthine, 1.5-hectare spa, like something out of Barbarella, open 24 hours a day.
What you'll pay One-bedroom villas from $630 a night, plus 21 per cent taxes.
Location, location In Cepaka, a charming, culture-rich village of rice terraces and roosters about 40 minutes' drive north of Seminyak.
Selling points Immaculate country home of five bedrooms fringed by jungle above the rushing Penet River. Stylish and beautifully maintained interiors of cool terrazzo floors, alang-alang roofs, crisp white linen and netted four-poster beds. Bathrooms overlook lush oases of fern and creeper gardens backed by natural rock walls. Three of the five bedrooms occupy a two-storey, colonial-style pavilion of broad verandahs; the upstairs master bedroom captures dynamic jungle scenery. Two discrete pavilions house the remaining two bedrooms, which share an 11-metre pool. The main 15-metre swimming pool, with its bamboo-lined Tiki bar, shimmers above the river.
Staff size 10, with two spa therapists on call.
Perfect for Lazy escapes with friends or family.
Max pax 10.
GT loves The graceful grounds and accommodation, the riverfront spa pavilion, and the spirit walk that runs right through the property, bringing temple ceremonies to Villa Mawar's doorstep twice a year.
What you'll pay From $1350 a night, plus taxes.
Location location Seminyak seafront, just down from the Oberoi.
Selling points It's billed as a "private hotel" but this edgy architectural statement, still looking super-sharp six years on, is really the rock star of Bali villas.
The five-bedroom, exclusive-use property is a self-consciously hip hangout favoured by the jet set. Colour-coded rooms feature bespoke furnishings mixed with designer pieces by Jasper Morrison and Pedrali (and Philippe Starck toilets) to create scenes straight out of an interiors glossy. The 20-metre lap pool, with a mosaic of Marilyn Monroe on the bottom, fronts the Seminyak surf. Precious little darlings are spoiled with an Xbox-equipped playroom, bunk beds and on-site activities coordinator.
Staff size 24, including accomplished in-house chef.
Perfect for Wallpaper and Monocle readers; ultra-fashionable families.
Max pax 10, or eight adults plus five children in the red bunkroom.
GT loves The bold, retro aesthetic of the place - all bright colours, wild patterns and funky typography. And that blue-chip beachfront setting is pretty amazing.
What you'll pay From $2900 per night, plus taxes.
Contact Book through designhotels.com.
Location, location Bang in the urban heart of Seminyak, handy to restaurants, bars, clubs and shopping.
Selling points The property, which was just opening as we were going to print, houses 12 villas built around a centrepiece century-old mango tree and incorporates natural materials such as bamboo and recycled teak. Infinity-edge terrazzo baths, stone walls and floors and direct pool access from master bedrooms. Ironwood partitions slide open to merge two- and one-bedroom villas into a three-bedroom family affair of more than 550 square metres. The on-site spa can sort out stress with a spell of oxygen or magnetic resonance therapy.
Staff size 75, including spa therapists.
Perfect for Eco-minded urbanites.
Max pax 42, plus children.
GT loves The property was still under construction when GT visited but we liked its green ideals and curvaceous, light-filled interiors.
What you'll pay Opening rates from $270 for one-bedroom villa.
Contact Book through Design Hotels.