the australian: “worth waiting for this zero-waste bali experience”

If I didn’t have a 7am “energy activation” and meditation session the next morning, I could do some damage here.

It’s my first night in Bali, and I’m in a funky neon-lit restaurant contemplating a spoon of cold-smoked coconut labneh with lacto-fermented passionfruit, wafer-thin slices of cucumber, finger lime and pickle dust. It’s paired with a cocktail muddling rosella gin, salak-infused arak and cranberry, and is course two of nine at Tanaman, an eye-popping diner at Seminyak’s Potato Head Desa complex.

The mouthful is complete culinary magic, the work of Australian chef Dominique Hammond. It’s hard to believe that, like everything on her menu, it’s completely plant based, and that her kitchen is 100% zero waste. She turns vegetable scraps into broth, dehydrated papaya seeds into pepper, and compressed and shio koji-tenderised watermelon into “salmon”.

The meal sets the sustainable tone for my stay at Potato Head Desa’s freshly minted Studios ​concept. The timber-lined guest ​cocoons feature a Japanese hinoki wood tub beside the sofa and a modular coffee table that slides open to reveal a cocktail kit replete with bottles of citrus-husk vodka, island spiced rum, kecombrang (ginger flower) arak spirit and every cocktail mixer, aromatic and gadget imaginable, plus a recipe book. I contemplate whether to enjoy my Bali Mule in the tub, which has been thoughtfully filled and scattered with flowers. Or on the bamboo chair by notable British designers Max Lamb and Faye Toogood. Or perhaps on my balcony’s hammock, with views to the Indian Ocean.

The Studios are perched beside the last stretch of undeveloped seafront land in Bali’s Seminyak, a neighbourhood popular with tourists, adjoining the Desa compound’s Suites, crafted from 1.8-million bricks handmade at a local village; and the Beach Club, Bali’s Instagram beacon fashioned from 6600 reclaimed shutters from across the Indonesian archipelago. Indeed, everything in the world of Potato Head comes with a story, even the tropical Brutalist architecture of the Studios’ facade, clad with recycled red bricks inspired by Bali’s traditional Tika calendar for festivals, seasonal harvests and rituals. It’s an ingenious cultural touch by Rem Koolhaas’s architectural firm, OMA.

Guests are greeted upon arrival at the open-air entrance courtyard with a shot of jamu tonic and a reusable water bottle. Plastic is prohibited across Desa, from those checking in through to suppliers delivering goods. Having lived in Indonesia for three years, I recall with trauma the pre-Covid reality of beaches and waterways clogged with rubbish. It sparked action across the island, with grassroots environmental groups such as Sungai Watch establishing catchments on rivers to collect waste and arrest its flow to the ocean. The Sweet Potato Lab team – a group of resort employees focused on reducing the hotel’s carbon footprint – takes plastic from Sungai Watch to transform into functional items big and small, from covetable furniture used in on-site restaurants to jewellery, tissue boxes and lids for guests’ water bottles, each a glorious and unique patchwork of colour.

Near the entrance to the Beach Club, the Sweet Potato Lab hosts daily workshops, where guests and visitors are invited to wander, learn and explore how the team treats the plastic. I also discover how to make candles – the property uses about 1000 a day in recycled wine bottle bases refilled with wax on-site. Drinking glasses are also recycled bottles, their tops lopped off and edges glazed smooth. When I dine at Ijen, another zero-waste restaurant, I drink from disused cider and beer bottles. While meat is absent from Ijen’s menu, sustainable seafood abounds. Every part of the fish is used, right down to the scales, which the chef blends with leftover rice into krupuk (crackers). Used oil from the kitchen is donated to Bali’s Green School, a rainforest academy where nature provides the textbooks, to be transformed into biogas to fuel the school bus.

Pervasive, thought-provoking art also speaks of waste and sustainability, including The Womb, an arch fashioned from bamboo by Nano Uhero, leading to the Beach Club’s DJ booth. And 5000 Lost Soles by Liina Klauss​, an installation of 5000 flip flops salvaged from across the island to highlight the disturbing realities of marine pollution.

Back in the courtyard, a woven sculpture of a naga (dragon) hangs from the roof, playing sounds as people pass. This space is always busy, whether with guests or day visitors; everyone on the island is welcome to join free daily yoga and fitness classes held here. This is also the site of a weekly pop-up market, boasting only brands fitting Potato Head’s sustainable ethos, and is home to Studio Eksotika, a gallery-meets-studio space with cool vinyl records. In the adjoining amphitheatre, talks are presented by Sungai Watch and the Green School.

But the sustainability story is not forced on visitors. Some would choose to just sip cocktails in the pool or at the rooftop bar come sunset. I do just that, and order the Barong Zombie – pineapple, cane juice, pink citrus, jackfruit, island rum, pineapple arak, absinthe –  as the last of the day disappears. It’s hard to say if it’s the drink or the changing colours and paper kites fluttering over the ocean making me feel giddy.

Desa’s other bar, Akademi, sits inside the Suites complex, where a wall is lined with bottles of arak infused with salak, ginger flower, turmeric or rosella. Just sit and sip or sign up for a cocktail-making class. Thankfully, the mixologists do most of the hard work. If I didn’t have a 7am “energy activation” and meditation session the next morning, I could do some damage here.

Kim Herben, the hotel’s head of wellness, has the aura of an angel. I lie back on the rooftop and enjoy a smattering of morning rain on my face as Kim’s soothing voice guides me into a state of meditative bliss. Kim also oversees the menu down one level in the Sanctuary spa, where the menu includes an Indonesian Urut Segar massage with long, soothing strokes. Or a body scrub made from a mix of rice powder, white turmeric, ginger and crushed jasmine flowers. For those who did succumb to last night’s temptations, spa “nurses” can hook you up to IV drips filled with vitamins and electrolytes. But I’ve come for the sound healing session, wherein two practitioners weave an auditory tapestry around me using gongs, bells and wooden flutes, creating moments of vibration and calm. The only consolation of leaving all this magic behind is that my stay has been so enriching, the experience truly sustainable.

Natasha was a guest of Potato Head Desa. The Potato Head Desa complex offers Studios and Suites, both available in five categories. Studios from $324 a night; Suites from $462. The Beach Club is open to non-guests.

Original article by Natasha Dragun. Published on 25 November 2022 (The Australian).

Published on 1 December 2022

BY Desa Potato Head

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