Uluwatu Estate: The luxury property in Bali that took 14 years to complete
Asia’s first and only Mandarin Oriental Exclusive Home originated as a simple holiday home paying homage to the natural beauty of Uluwatu in Bali.
When Renee Zecha first set her eyes on a magnificent plot of land in Uluwatu, Bali in 2002, the area had not yet been discovered and developed to the tourist hotspot it is now, filled with trendy cafes, bars, shops and yoga practices that had long been the preserve of Canggu and Seminyak.
“It was mainly a surfer’s paradise, and only for competent surfers at that given the challenging waves and sharp coral ocean floors. Not unlike Kuta and Canggu however, Uluwatu soon began to attract sunbathers, drawn to its many pristine white beaches. And with the release of the film Eat, Pray, Love starring Julia Roberts in 2010, it fast became a mainstream attraction,” commented the investment banker.
The 60,000 sq ft site above Nyang Nyang Beach that Zecha found was quiet and unpopulated – a piece of wild nature perched at the edge of a cliff. Surrounded by lush nature and fronted by a spectacular view of the Indian Ocean, it offered an escape far from the hustle and bustle of her fast-paced work life.
The enamoured Zecha began dreaming up a holiday home where she could escape to with her husband and son, as well as friends who gathered at the island during the European summers. Zecha was already a regular, visiting every three months or so.
The natural setting reminded her of her childhood home in East Java. “Lush tropical gardens and a similar climate evoked memories of those years. It was open living at its best, as was the way with the old-style houses back in the day. We wanted to capture this feeling of harmony [with the land] and natural convergence of the gardens and interiors, which seems the most natural style for tropical living,” said Zecha, who worked with Singapore-based design studio Tristan & Ju on the project.
What both parties did not foresee was a collaboration that would span more than a decade, with construction starting in 2007. “It was meant to be a holiday home but as the project progressed, it made sense to be able to rent it out when Renee and her family are not in Bali. We were already laying the infrastructure comparable to a small hotel, and Renee would already be hiring staff to maintain the property even when she is not there,” explained architect Juliana Chan, who founded the firm together with her husband Tristan Tan in 2012.
They expanded the programme to incorporate eight rentable suite rooms, designed like private villas rather than typical rooms in a big house. A spa, gym, library and pavilions for lounging were added to the brief.
Given the remoteness of the site, much basic groundwork had to be done before building even began. Services such as electricity and water were non-existent, and road conditions were poor. Some new roads even had to be built for proper accessibility. As it was impossible for big trucks and machinery to enter, much of the work had to be done manually or using smaller vehicles and equipment. The lack of building and raw materials on site meant they had to be shipped from East Java, which extended the construction period.
The long, narrow site was also challenging for the layout. While the cliff end offered breath-taking views, it also dipped steeply into a gully near the waters. “The challenge was to plan the spaces, approach and flow such that one can enjoy the journey through the Estate as if visiting an art gallery, and yet avoid the draggy feeling of traversing the sheer length of the site,” said Chan.
To do this, ponds, garden and ample landscaping were interspersed among the low buildings, laced together by sheltered corridors with filigreed shadows of sunlight cast through foliage. The designers also planted three distinctive theatrical moments through the procession that visitors would encounter from the entrance all the way to the cliff edge.
It begins with a grassy courtyard, flanked on two sides by villas and the communal areas along the plot’s long axis. “This centre garden is the first ‘wow’ factor we wanted to achieve. One then walks through the block with the open-plan living, dining and bar before reaching the Bridge Garden, where we try to achieve the second ‘wow’ when guests get a glimpse of how big the Estate is, especially with a view of the gully below,” described Chan.
This Bridge Garden is a landscaped deck hovering above the gully, where large trees stretch skyward, providing shade. From here, one naturally moves on to the third and most dramatic ‘wow’ feature – an infinity pool at the cliff edge, whose waters segue into the ocean’s azure calm in the day, and that is backed by an ombre paintwork of dusty pink, coral and mauve at dusk.
The subtle architecture puts the focus on the natural wonders of the site, which is experienced whether at the pool, in the suites or just meandering about. Landscaped steps let guests mitigate the irregular terrain easily. Given the long and narrow plot, ocean views are rare. Thus, all the suites were designed with their own “attraction” or “internal view” of ponds, gardens or courtyards. Full-height glass windows wash light into the spaces and the abundance of natural materials creates a tranquil atmosphere in harmony with nature.
Solid teakwood and ironwood – chosen for their durability in the tropical climate – clad ceilings and bedroom floors, and are used to make doors, carpentry works and furniture. Terrazzo on the bedroom floors, and pebble wash at the bathrooms and outdoor spaces create seamless transitions between indoor and outdoor spaces. In the communal areas, beige, textured Palimana stone lend offer tactility and calm.
Limestone that was excavated from the site was reused to form external walls, new foundations or levelling for the land. “Since it came from the site, it meant that it could take the relatively harsh weather of Uluwatu. Moreover by re-using it, we saved the effort and cost of bringing in new materials, as well as solved the problem of disposing it from the remote site. It is, in our small way, a form of being responsible designers in terms of sustainable construction,” said Tan on the limestone that was painted a dark grey hue for a more contemporary look.
The project is very much a made-in-Bali product. “The terrazzo bathtubs were moulded, cast in situ and sanded down by the local craftsmen. The privacy screens outside the bedrooms were also hand carved locally,” shared Tan. While five of the suites (Uluwatu, Nyang Nyang, Padang Padang, Suluban and Bingin) were named after the nearby beaches, three (Java, Tosari and Bromo) were christened after places associated with Zecha’s childhood.
Throughout the property, the designers’ eye for detail is impeccable. A homely atmosphere pervades, courtesy of inviting timber furniture and objects that decorate the spaces like in a real home. Some come with interesting tales, such as the pendant lamps at the dining room. “We got to know a local supplier in Bali, who had sourced and salvaged these jars from a shipwreck in East Java. They reflect a piece of Renee’s history. We modernised it by fabricating a brass structural support. It’s our contemporary take on the chandelier,” Chan highlighted.
Zecha shared that many guests are happy just spending time on the property instead of venturing out. Understandably so – it is hard not to be allured by the peace and simple beauty of the Estate that could only be achieve by the tight relationship between the client and designers, strengthened through 14 years of collaboration.
“Their appreciation for the same aesthetic as ours naturally brought us closer together. So rather than a seemingly long-drawn out process of years to complete the home, it was actually a fun and interesting journey, which gave us plenty of time to be able to source for the right materials give finesse to the design without the pressure and constraints of time and a [fixed] completion [date]; we let the process morph naturally into what we can enjoy today,” affirmed Zecha.
The many years of hard work has paid off, as the property was selected as Asia’s first and only Mandarin Oriental Exclusive Home, having met stringent brand standards. These properties are set in desirable locations, and offer the same high standards of design and service found in the brand’s five-star hotels. To date, Uluwatu Estate has seen visitors come from all over the world and leave describing it as “slice of heaven” and a destination that “does something for the soul”.