A French couple bought a villa in Bali in 2011 without ever having stepped foot on the island and spent 2 years turning it into a private compound. Take a look inside.

A French couple bought a villa in Bali in 2011 without ever having stepped foot on the island and spent 2 years turning it into a private compound. Take a look inside.

Buying a home sight unseen on the other side of the world could be an unsettling move for some people. But for French restaurateurs Thierry Bourdoncle and Ariane de Senneville, it seemed like a perfectly good idea. When a friend called them in 2011 to say the property next to her home in Bali was for sale, they didn’t need to know any more. They bought it.

“It’s a simple story,” Senneville told Insider. “We wanted a place where we could spend time with family and friends.” 

The couple splits their time between France and the US. They own more than 30 restaurants between the two countries, including the famous 200-year-old Sénéquier café in St Tropez.

What they didn’t realize until they arrived in Bali was that they had purchased an oasis. Close to the surf breaks of Canggu’s Echo Beach and surrounded by rice paddy fields, they had accidentally stumbled upon a true hideaway.

“When I stepped into the villa, I couldn’t hear a sound,” said Senneville.  

Bourdoncle and Senneville named the home Villa Zelie, after their youngest daughter — and they completely changed the look and feel of the home.

What started out as a five-bedroom villa became a free-flowing village with ten pavilions. Villas that serve as bedrooms are scattered around the edge of the property, and a living pavilion and dining pavilion lie behind a swimming pool, which is surrounded by palm trees and lily ponds. 

Exterior shot of the master bedroom

Exterior shot of the master bedroom villa.

Courtesy of Villa Zelie


Not another French villa

When the couple first saw the property, it had a main pavilion with two gladaks, or villas.

Bourdoncle and Senneville were clear about their vision from the get-go: They wanted to expand the property to fit their blended family of five, but they didn’t want to change the light, airy atmosphere of the home.

Senneville was also determined not to build a French home in Bali. “We wanted it look authentic,” she told Insider. “I wanted it to look like a Balinese home.” They sought out local artisans, bought more land next door to their home, and hired Balinese architect Cipta Bali Architect to lead on design.

“Our challenge was to add more gladaks to the site and maintain the feel of a home being in the middle of a forest,” Made Sucipta Rokana, Principal Architect for Cipta Bali Architect told Insider.

the garden is well manicured and includes a pool

Close to the famed surf breaks of Canggu’s Echo Beach and surrounded by rice paddy fields, they had accidentally stumbled upon a true hideaway.

Courtesy of Villa Zelie


Cipta Bali Architect built five new gladaks within the expanded grounds.

From there, the challenge was to “create an elegant building in terms of architectural aesthetics, while using old teak wood,” Rokana said. 

The result is a masterclass in bringing the outdoors indoors. Rokana designed open living and dining pavilions. Each gladak features a private terrace and an outdoor bathroom. There’s also a two-floor massage bale, where people can climb the wooden stairs to the second floor to enjoy a massage with a view of the sea.

They even placed another dining table and chairs in the shallow end of the 20-meter pool so people can keep their feet cool while they eat lunch or play cards. 

the bathrooms open up to the outdoors and include free standing tubs and natural wood accents

Each gladak features a private terrace and an outdoor bathroom.

Courtesy of Villa Zelie


Volcanic-rock bathtubs and repurposed doors

It took six months to build Villa Zelie. Senneville spent another 18 months completing the interiors while Bourdoncle perfected the garden.

“For two months I never went to the beach or the swimming pool. I was always on my scooter visiting local craftspeople and looking for finds in antique shops,” said Senneville. 

Each piece of furniture in the villa is either an antique or handmade. The couple shipped 200-year-old carved wooden joglos (vaulted roofs) from Java to take center stage in each gladak. Wooden birds hang from the pool pavilion ceiling. The bathtubs are hewn from black volcanic rock. An old wooden door is now a table for the pool villa, and a 19th-century safe is the centerpiece of the main bedroom.

The heavy wooden headboard of the master bedroom is actually an old safe.

The heavy wooden headboard of the master bedroom is actually an old safe.

Courtesy of Villa Zelie


Senneville admits the attention to details caused delays, but one piece she was happy to wait for was the oversized handmade table in the dining pavilion.

“We wanted to bring the family together,” said Senneville.  

Before the couple started construction, a local Hindu priest visited the land to make sure it was free of unwanted spirits. Once they had completed the build, the Hindu priest returned to carry out a Melaspas ceremony, which is of utmost importance to Balinese Hindus. 

The purification ceremony involves reciting prayers, burning incense, and making offerings of flowers and fruit. The Balinese believe the ceremony takes all the objects that have been cut down and brings them back to life.

“You have to have your temple in the house and it’s important to leave offerings at the temple every day,” said Senneville. “If you don’t do this a Balinese person won’t want to enter your house.”

The interior of the master bedroom features creamy linens and antique furnishings.

The interior of the master bedroom features creamy linens and antique furnishings.

Courtesy of Villa Zelie


The work isn’t over

The average five-bedroom villa costs around USD$761,000 in Canggu, according to real estate agency Bali Home IMMO Property, but the couple knows they will never own the land. Foreigners are able to buy a 25- to 30-year lease, which they can extend, but the land will always belong to the Balinese.

Senneville declined to share how much they paid for the home but said they spent as much on renovations as they did on the original villa purchase.

“I have no regrets,” said Senneville. “It’s a very special place for me. From the moment I stepped through the door, I knew that I wanted to spend every holiday here.”

The couple finished building the home in 2013, but they’ve had to work hard to hold on to this tropical hideaway, not least because of the humidity on the island. “It’s a lot of maintenance,” said Senneville. “I replace the wooden floors every two years and I have to treat the wood to keep termites at bay.”

the massage villa is decorated with white curtains and features an ornate wooden ceiling

Welcome to the massage bale, where people can climb the wooden stairs to the second floor to enjoy a massage with a view of the sea.

Courtesy of Villa Zelie


Senneville and Bourdoncle spend up to a month during the summer at the villa and also escape the European winter there in January. They started renting Villa Zelie to guests in 2018, and it now goes for $1,220 a night. 

Californian realtor Mey Saelee stayed at the villa in 2019 along with nine family members. She said she loved the wooden buildings of Villa Zelie and the tropical surroundings. “In the evening we could hear the croaks of the frogs and the clicks of the cicadas,” she told Insider.

The villa’s layout was also perfect for their large party, she said: “We loved how the family could hang out in the communal areas, then retreat to the individual gladaks at the rear for privacy.”

the massage bale by the pool

“For two months I never went to the beach or the swimming pool. I was always on my scooter visiting local craftspeople and looking for finds in antique shops,” said Senneville.

Courtesy of Villa Zelie


As for Senneville, one of her favorite memories was when friends visited them while the villa was still under construction. “We lived like hippies,” said Senneville. “We would sit in the empty garden and make plans.” 

Senneville said the terraced garden, which took just as long as the house to create, has also become a place of memories. “When we celebrate a special moment at the villa, or a friend comes to stay, I tag a tree with their name,” said Senneville. “It’s a good vibes house.”

the swimming pool is surrounded by leafy trees.

The swimming pool is surrounded by leafy trees.

Courtesy of Villa Zelie


Editor’s note: If you’re an APAC-based freelancer who wants to write stories like this one about real estate and design, email me your pitches at lbatarags@insider.com.

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