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A modern nirvana

Ubud, hotel Begawan Giri, Spa La Source, Banana Wrap massage in Bali. © Alamy Ubud, hotel Begawan Giri, Spa La Source, Banana Wrap massage in Bali.

Sue Williams lies back in the world's spa capital.

I'm walking along a path through thick jungle, with sunlight glinting through the lace of the lush greenery, and the warm air heavy with the buzz of insects, the croaking of frogs and the chattering of monkeys.

To my right, there's a waterfall gushing down the rockface; to my left I can see the turquoise splash of a river below. There's not another person in sight.

But suddenly, a stranger glides out of nowhere to block my path. My heart skips a beat. What now? Who are they? What do they want with me?

I don't have to wait long to find out. "Welcome," she says, smiling. "Can I offer you a chilled towel?"

She reaches out and guides me to a little timber pavilion I hadn't noticed before, half-hidden in the bush, all billowing white gauze curtains in the gentle breeze. Obediently, I follow. If only every stranger you encountered in a forest was merely waylaying you for a 75-minute massage with organic essential oils, then Little Red Riding Hood would have had absolutely nothing to fear.

But Ubud, in the mountains of Bali, recently voted one of the top three cities in Asia by Conde Nast Traveller, is a little like that. With its name originating from the word Ubad, meaning medicine, it's said to have more spas per square metre than any other city on earth.

"We have easily over 100 different spas, and we're not that big a city!" says Cristy Davinki of the Bali Tourism Board, in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

Those spas are also quite possibly the most varied in the world too, ranging from little make-shift rooms in local houses and cafes on the backstreets, all the way to the COMO Shambhala Estate, the winner of the Destination Spa of the Year in the World Spa and Wellness industry awards and recently named the best spa in the world by readers of Conde Nast Traveller.

It's here, on the 9.3 hectares of jungle-covered riverbank, that I'm led to that isolated pavilion looking down on the water, to have a signature house massage in what feels like the middle of absolutely nowhere. The only sounds are the soft splash of the river, the rustling of leaves and ferns and the calls of birds, insects and monkeys.

Afterwards, sitting wrapped in a towel with a cup of hot ginger tea, surveying the scene, it is hard not to conclude this is indeed paradise on earth.

But Ubud's spa industry is nothing if not ripe with contrast. A few days before, I'd been wandering around the chaotic city centre of Ubud, 35 kilometres north east of the international airport, full of market traders hawking their wares, spruikers for cafes and restaurants and motorbikes and cars all jostling for position amid the roadworks on the main thoroughfare.

Just a few minutes later, however, I'd slipped down a laneway to a small private spa called Zen.

There, the doors were closed, the fan was put on and I was cleansed, peeled, exfoliated, scrubbed, massaged and steamed before being plastered with 50 slices of cucumber stuck down with honey.

For that's the joy of Ubud. Round every corner from either the frenetic development of the city or the ricefields past the conurbation, there is a spa to escape into.

Some are simply stunning. The COMO Shambhala Estate's are in both those pavilions by the river, and also in a treatment centre by an outdoor hydrotherapy area much closer to the villas.

"A lot of people come here for our wellness programs, including Ayurveda, acupuncture and nutrition, as well as for the spa treatments," says general manager Paul Linder. "They're looking for a modern nirvana."

Among the most popular treatments here are the deep tissue massage, the hot riverstone massage, the Indian head massage, reflexology and a signature bath treatment.

It's a similar story at the other COMO property on the other side of town, Uma by COMO. Much more a regular hotel resort, albeit exquisitely designed, it also has a stunning spa building, set over water, with a wide-ranging menu of treatments. After sampling a few of its specialities, I almost get to know the water a little too well. Completely blissed out, I almost walk - to the horror of the staff - straight into the resort's fish pond.

Aside from all the luxury hotels having their signature spas, the diversity of the locally run spas and the kind of therapies they offer is bewildering.

Nearly all provide traditional Balinese massage, a gentle technique of kneading and stretching muscles to relax the body and improve blood circulation, usually with aromatherapy oils. Many also provide a selection of scrubs - with salt, coffee, orange peel or various spices - and baths, in milk, in mud or in warm water delicately scented and softened with rose petals strewn across the surface.

Then there are facials, hand and foot treatments, waxing, ear candling, a cream bath - a particularly wonderful hair wash, steam and blow dry together with a long scalp massage - reflexology and numerous Ayurvedic therapies, all involving some kind of warm oil being dribbled over you.

Naturally, the quality varies wildly, often in accordance with price. One spa in the centre of Ubud proudly boasts air conditioning; the Balinese translation seems to be a small battery-operated fan positioned somewhere near the customer's head. And for every spa that has soft, soothing, chill-out music, there's another that has the masseuses tapping their toes to blaring Asian pop hits.

There are plenty of quirky treatments available, too, using ingredients such as chocolate and fish.

But even with the more mainstream treatments, when they're good, they're usually excellent. At the Putri Bali Spa one day, I had a Javanese Lulur treatment: a one-hour traditional massage with aromatherapy oils, a turmeric and Javanese lulur scrub to exfoliate, then yoghurt smeared all over my body. I finished off with a bath covered in exotic flowers. Lying there after the hour and three-quarters experience, I felt in seventh heaven - surely life could never get better than this?

Then the door opened and the masseuse walked back in, carrying a tray of sweet ginger tea and biscuits. So, yes, it could.

The writer was a guest of COMO hotels.



Airlines including Qantas and Garuda fly to Denpasar, Bali. From Denpasar, most hotels provide a pick-up service to Ubud, but there are also taxis costing about rupia 150,000 ($14) or bemos - shared minibuses - with a fare about rupia 8000.


Uma by COMO rates start at $US270 ($300) a night including breakfast, yoga and guided walks. COMO Shambhala Estate from $US600 a night, including a treatment or yoga or tour. Both also have a range of special packages.




A dry brush, a salt scrub, a revitalising bath and nurturing massage using blended aromatherapy oils. Two hours, $US209 ($235) at the COMO Shambhala Estate.


A locally developed stress-beating specialty: an invigorating massage that increases blood circulation, with a transfer of energy between practitioner and client. 90 minutes, rupia 730,000 ($70), Uma by COMO.


A Balinese massage, green-tea body scrub, yoghurt and honey wash, flower bath, facial, cream bath, manicure and pedicure. Five hours, rupia 460,000, Putri Bali Spa, Jalan Raya. Sanggingan


Footbath, body steam, Balinese massage, chocolate body scrub, chocolate body mask, moisturiser, flower bath. Two hours, $60. Bali Ratu Spa, Jalan Raya Pengosekan.


Fish nibble on your feet to chew off the dead skin. 15-30 minutes, $6-$10. Cafe Kendi, Jalan Bisma No.45.

Como Shambhala Estate

Como Shambhala Estate
© Provided by The Age
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