Calm amid the chaos
Arrayed in white linen, the Italian hotel manager glides between tables, chatting while the DJ eases us into the evening with a loungy beat.
A photographer snaps the poolside model, garnished in jewels and tiny bikini, and staff watch on as small children splash in the toddlers' pool, which is awash with a coloured light display.
We're in Kuta. Yes, Kuta. The much-maligned Balinese home of tie-dye T-shirts, cornrow braids and misspelt tattoos. But stay with me. The Sheraton Kuta Bali is a little haven amid the insane traffic and moped touts, right across the road from the iconic Kuta Beach.
The open-air foyer is capped by a massive faux grass-weave roof and looks over the ocean. Each of the 203 rooms, suites and the penthouse has a balcony, with 64 rooms interconnecting and kitted out for travelling families.
Now two years old, the hotel is still in a state of evolution that defies its location, from the handpainted plates of its Bene rooftop Italian trattoria to the low-key Sunday sunset pool parties and newest addition, the kids' club.
I'm a novice at this kids' club thing. In the past, I've used nannies with Small Girl, timing it with her naps to slip out for a few hours of grown-up time. There have been good times, there have been tears.
"We decided to open a kids' club because we were hit with a massive number of families last holidays," says the hotel's general manager and father-of-three, Dario Orsini. "Parents are travelling with kids much earlier than they used to. And we just didn't expect people would bring their kids to Kuta."
The sparkling new Play@Sheraton Kids Club opens with a pretty dance by a local Balinese ballet class, and we admire the unblemished sand pit, slides and the paddling pool outside. Inside, the little dancing girls all leap onto the computers to play a pink, fluffy game, the boys tear up to the mezzanine level to bond with the PlayStation 3. My child, through some genetic programming glitch, merely stands in front of a three-storey doll's house, gasping in shock and awe.
In a clever piece of marketing, the kids' club is free to hotel guests but also to anyone spending more than $35 in the hotel's Shine spa. See what they did there?
With my new freedom, I take the hotel's advice and, an hour later, erupt from the hotel's spa with all nails newly painted an extremely perky orange called "A Roll in the Hague" . It is a test drive, it is a revelation.
General manager Dario's three beautiful children have been instrumental in the hotel's many kid-friendly initiatives, including the kids' buffet. One section of the restaurant is set with low children's tables, unbreakable crockery, plastic cups and pint-sized cutlery beside the kids' buffet, where they can pick up their own breakfast cereal, noodles, a pastry or the cutest little ducklings made from balls of mashed potato.
I do mention to the (possibly childless) food and beverage manager that a little fruit or some cheese could be squeezed between the chocolate donuts, but Small Child seems perfectly happy with the selection. In keeping with the local expat tradition for elaborate Sunday lunches, the main restaurant, Feast, runs a Market Brunch.
What I love best is not the free-pour drinks package (although that's pretty good) nor the fact that a nanny whisks your kids away to the kids' area to make bracelets and drawings so you can eat, unencumbered (also exceptionally good). No, I love the strong Indonesian bias on the buffet.
Yes, you can have your sushi, your curry, your fruit platters and your dim sum. But there's also a flame grill on the terrace, overlooking busy Jalan Pantai Kuta to the beach, where your hand-picked monster prawn or local whole fish is grilled before your hungry eyes.
At another little trolley, an aged woman makes rujak, the classic Indonesian salad of papaya, cucumber and sweet potato, tossed in a salty-sweet, chili palm sugar dressing, and the bebek rica-rica, a fiery duck curry, is the best I've tasted.
The dessert display groans with sweetly coloured ice-creams and petite fours, sharing the limelight with cantik manis (literally, "beautiful dessert"), a pink banana and tapioca slice arranged beside green dadar gulung rolls and klepon, little balls filled with liquid palm sugar that has my Indonesian colleague reminiscing of her childhood.
The next day, I want to experiment to see if that happy-kids-club thing wasn't a fluke. Small Child runs toward said club. Looking good.
I run toward spa. Even better. The masseuse slaving over my densely knotted shoulders nods knowingly when I mention my young daughter ("Ah, picking her up all the time," she diagnoses sympathetically as she drives a thumb beneath my shoulder blade, making it stick up like a chicken's wing. It feels surprisingly good.)
It's also at this hands-free time that I discover another hotel secret: walk out the front entrance and you literally walk into Zara, in the Beachwalk shopping mall, which shares the same block of real estate. Zara and Top Shop not your thing? OK, head for Armani, the surfware shops, slick cafes.
If you're in the market for exceptional local fashion, make a beeline for Satu, which showcases Bali's best labels including Natasha Gan's floaty dresses, chic, monochromatic pants suits from Uluwatu Lace and bags by Jakata-based Soe.Hoe.
I also pop in to the beautiful Museum Kain, Bali's first cloth ("kain") museum, well curated with excellent interactive displays on the history of Indonesian fabric design.
It's our last day, and Small Girl has spent every waking minute either talking about or dancing around the kids' club. I have to pry her out to check out.
At the reception, the three-year-old drops to the floor and turns on a spectacular tantrum. People turn to stare, disapprovingly as her howls echo throughout vast lobby.
"Noooo! I want to go to kids' club! I don't want to go home!"
Dario, the general manager, passes us with a small smile: he knows I'll be back.
The writer was a guest of Sheraton Kuta Bali.
STAYING THERE The Play@Sheraton family package includes breakfast, kids' club, a play pack, kid's manicure, free-flow bottle for juice or milk and all kids' meals from $240 a room, a night (two-night minimum) for two adults and two kids under 12. Sunday's Market Brunch costs from $28 for adults, $14 for children, and is open to non-guests. A Shine Spa signature massage costs from $41 for an hour. See sheratonbalikuta.com
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- Sydney Morning Herald