I share a hot tub with Madeleine Albright’s security detail, within shouting distance of an albino water buffalo. Albino buffalo are roughly the color of Northern Europeans after a day in the sun. You, no doubt, are envious. (Of me, not of the buffalo.) Ah, but this is a typical experience for me, as a top competitor in one of the world’s most harrowing sports.
I know, I know: The decade of the extreme sport is coming to a close, and we are all a bit bored with buff I-bankers hanging from bridges by rubber thongs. Still, in the interest of closing the era in style, I’d like to describe my mastery of the last and most demanding of these events. I call it “millionairing.” Millionairing involves touring the world’s exotic locales, sleeping and eating only at the most vaunted five-star hotels, while – and here’s where it gets scary – maintaining the budget of a publishing intern. In November, I decide to go millionairing in Southeast Asia.
The currency crisis of fifteen months before has been credited with an eruption of good local buys, but many think these are restricted to the mid-priced hotels and backpacker bungalows; conventional wisdom maintains that wild values are not to be found at the five-star properties. If you want a bargain, you’ll have to settle for a squat toilet, and malaria.
Sorry, but I don’t believe it. I intend to spend a few days in the finest hotels in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and Bali. I first investigate one of the world’s most lavish colonial hotels – the Peninsula (011-852-2920-2888), in Hong Kong.
I fly Cathay Pacific. Next to Singapore Airlines, this carrier is widely regarded as Asia’s most luxurious. And in the wake of the economic crisis, it has been offering spectacular discounts. If you fly economy, you can sign up over the Internet for the All Asia Pass: $999 round trip, including 31 days of hopping about in Asia (www. cathay-usa.com).
Mightier Than the Pen
I am picked up at the new airport by a sleek, almost noiseless Rolls-Royce. Millionairing devotees will be pleased to note that this ride – 90 bucks American – is hardly necessary. The new hypermodern Airport Express train can be faster, and it’s just under $8.
The lobby of the Pen is justly famous: The limestone floor has been polished to a glasslike state. (Rollerblading is, unfortunately, discouraged.) The bronze fu dog guarding the elevators – a feng shui requirement – was sculpted by pop heart specialist Jim Dine.
I am met by a phalanx of devoted hotel employees, including May, who shows me to my room. May is typical of the unbelievable staff you find at hotels in this part of the world: When I turn up in the lobby over a month later, she remembers my name. She demonstrates the fax machine hidden beneath the burl desktop and informs me that there is a television in my bathroom, so that I “won’t be boring.”
My hexagonal bathroom is clad in marble, buff, and sea green. Angled mirrors multiply images to infinity. Soap reclines in tin boxes. My room features a padded wall behind the bed (should I go mad in my sleep) and elegant Chinese detailing: black lacquered lamps, rattan furniture, twin vases lit like a museum display.
My little chamber is a “superior” room – the lowest category – and the rack rate is U.S. $377 (quoted rates don’t include tax). The Pen has very few merely superior rooms; book this class, and you stand a good chance of being upgraded. For the first time in history, this room has been discounted, although nobody will admit to it. The discount is hidden in a new $338 “no frills” package. I do some digging and discover that the no-frills label is a decoy. You don’t miss out on a single frill. It’s simply that the Peninsula is embarrassed about dropping the price.
Should You Leave Your Exquisite Hotel Room
One place you’ll save, if you’re savvy, is on food. You’ll want to dine at Felix, the most dramatic restaurant at the Pen. The design is Philippe Starck at his most inspired; the special elevator makes you feel as if you’re riding up inside the trunk of a baobab tree. If you are millionairing, investigate the early-bird special: From 6 to 7 p.m., the restaurant offers a three-course prix fixe menu at $32 (less than the price of most entrées at eight o’clock), including sea bass marinated in ginger and a stellar tirami su.
The finest detail at Felix is the row of freestanding urinals in the men’s room. They stand, like expensive vases, in front of a floor-to-ceiling picture window with one of the most spectacular views in the city. It’s hard to decide whether you’re being a voyeur or an exhibitionist.
But we were discussing food. Many of the top hotels, in fact, have quietly introduced cheap menus. The Kowloon Shangri-la (011-852-2721-2111) has a Japanese restaurant favored by expats from Tokyo, and a prix fixe lunch of multiple tiny courses is less than $12. At the same hotel, the Shang Palace has been heralded as the top Cantonese dining room in Hong Kong (and, therefore, the world). The set lunch is also under 12 bucks and features shark’s-fin soup, three kinds of dim sum, greens with oyster sauce, a noodle or rice dish, and dessert.
Hip, not particularly pricey restaurants cluster in SoHo (“South of Hollywood Road”), which has eclipsed Lan Kwai Fang as the hot spot. I have drinks at the Pavilion and dine at Manchu Bistro on Elgin Street; you might also want to check out Two Sardines, the Bayou (for Cajun food), and the Staunton Bar and Cafe.
I have a shirt made at Rashmi Custom Tailor (011-2311-5362). The tailor wants $47, but I’ve been in training for this moment: $39, and yes, I want the superior Egyptian cotton. Later I find a place that will do shirts for $26, but the quality doesn’t thrill me. My new shirt is the finest I’ve owned. I feel almost airbrushed. If I’d ordered from one of the famous Hong Kong tailors – say, Ascot Chang in the Pen – prices would’ve started at $65, but the end product might have turned me into a thing of rare beauty.
I leave the Peninsula with regret, but not much – I’m about to stay at a property widely considered the most exquisite hotel in the world. Bangkok is the city of superlative hotels, and the very finest, according to the major travel magazines, is the legendary Oriental (011-662-236-0400). All my life I’ve wanted to spend a few nights in the Oriental in Bangkok.
And for the rest of my life, I’ll wonder why.
The Oriental, like Raffles, in Singapore, trades heavily on its literary reputation. A young Joseph Conrad stayed here, as did Somerset Maugham; a whole section has been named “The Author’s Lounge.” Most New Yorkers, however, have lived in close proximity to famous ghosts. I occupied a brownstone on 10th Street, upstairs from the shade of Marcel Duchamp; a few doors away slept the translucent Mark Twain. If you want to impress a New Yorker, you’ll have to promise more than an encounter with the dead. And frankly, the Oriental doesn’t offer much more than this. My “superior” room ($250, down from $270) is dim and kind of ugly: The traditional Thai detailing merely serves to darken and depress. The bathroom is large enough, but the fluorescent fixtures don’t quite compete with the Peninsula’s “mood light.” The lobby – much photographed – lies beneath dramatic ornamental bells and may be marginally more authentic than most, but I’m not sleeping in the lobby.
The most elegant sector of the Oriental is the spa, a one-minute boat ride across the Chao Phya river. If the entire hotel had been designed with such attention to detail, I’d understand the fuss. Each massage room, lined in dark wood, features a glorious private shower with a gigantic showerhead that emulates a monsoon. The massage itself is nicely brutal, rivaling the Swedish massage I received at the new Clarins spa in the Pen. A 60-minute massage is $38; four years ago it was $48.
But you don’t have to stay at the hotel to experience this; the Oriental’s spa is open to hoi polloi. You might stay at a hotel right beside the spa, just opened by – you guessed it – the Peninsula Group. The standard of finish at the Bangkok Peninsula is similar to the Hong Kong Pen – the bathrooms are precisely the same – but the lobby and public spaces are less luminous. (Thai architecture in general favors darkness.) All rooms have river views, and the view itself is preferable to the one from the other direction: It’s like seeing Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights. Many have expressed reservations about this hotel – it’s considered to be on the “wrong” side – but I disagree. Crossing the river never loses its thrill. Ah, and the price. This year, you can take advantage of various packages concocted to celebrate its opening – a “superior” room is down from $240 to $175.
The wily millionairist will stay at the new Pen, get rubbed down at the Oriental spa, and have lunch at the Oriental’s Thai buffet next door at the Sala Rim Naam – a truly spectacular spread, and a fantastic bargain at $12.
Another alternative, if you don’t mind staying somewhere a bit removed from the river, is the Sukhothai Hotel (011-662-287-0222). Insiders have long preferred the Sukhothai to its more hyped brethren. Part of the reason is the design – vaguely Asian, but not so specific that you could easily guess what part of Asia you’re in. It’s all very lovely: a sophisticated business hotel in teak and granite, served up with a dash of Asian fusion. The building’s exterior is nothing to get excited about, but the best rooms open onto an interior court, planted to resemble a rice paddy. The unbelievably expansive bathrooms have teak floors and oversize bathtubs. This hotel caters mostly to men in suits – the location is handy to the city center, if less dramatic than the river bank. But I would happily stay there as a tourist. A superior room is $230; suites start at $320.
If you like the Thai statuary that punctuates the public spaces, you can visit the Fine Arts shop, just off the lobby. The shop is one of the few places you can feel safe buying antiques in Bangkok. The Fine Arts has the ambience of a museum and offers authenticated pieces from $350 to $450,000. The savings – 40 to 60 percent – are substantial in the wake of the currency crisis. Most important – since Bangkok is lousy with forgeries – this shop stands firmly behind its merchandise; if you take a three-ton Buddha home and have it carbon-dated, you won’t be unpleasantly surprised (and if you are, Fine Arts will take it back).
You’re wondering about that albino water buffalo. Was I lying? Did I indeed enjoy a schvitz with Dame Albright’s goons? Patience – we’re getting there.
If you’re going to travel to northern Thailand, you don’t have many choices when it comes to superior hotels. In fact, you have one – the Regent Chiang Mai (011-6653-298-181), in Chiang Mai. This area has traditionally appealed mostly to backpackers en route to the Golden Triangle, where they smoke opium with village headmen before being shot by Burmese renegades. The Regent offers a somewhat different experience.
I have never, in more than a decade of travel writing, encountered a hotel as lavishly landscaped as the Regent Chiang Mai. The hotel has managed to re-create a vast rice field, complete with farmers, pavilions (in which you will sleep), and highly convincing water buffalo. One of these buffalo is a nice pink albino.
Madeleine Albright never makes it to the Regent; Saddam Hussein has other plans for her. Her advance personnel, however, have already staked the place out, and I have an engaging conversation with them over beer in the open-air Jacuzzi. They aren’t actually goons, by the way – they’re nice, intelligent, clean-cut guys (who could probably take you out with a single blow to the solar plexus).
If I were secretary of State, I would choose the Regent. I would certainly choose it over Saddam. The two-story pavilions open onto covered patios where you can eat breakfast. (Specify a room in the upper story; you’ll get a high peaked ceiling and better light.) The food is ordinary, and pricey; the spa, however, is charming. As is the tennis pro. And there’s an infinity pool! Also known as a “knife-edge pool,” this feature tends to turn up at high-end hotels in Southeast Asia. The sidewalls extend only to the surface of the water, which flows over the edge, so that the pool appears to be contained by nothing but air pressure, and the water seems to flow off into the sky.
Chiang Mai itself is a bit sleepy relative to Bangkok (hell, so is New York a bit sleepy), but it’s worth a couple days. You don’t have to remain at the mercy of the Regent’s cuisine; much cheaper – and often better – restaurants can be found in the ancient town. Check out the Gallery, whose candlelit patio overlooks the river, or the pedestrian-looking Arun Rai, which serves the most authentic northern Thai cuisine. The exciting night market rivals Bangkok’s floating markets for bargains in Thai crafts.
The Regent is by no means cheap, but various packages can reduce the overall cost. The Hideaway Package gives you a fourth night free if you pay for the first three. Rooms range from $320 to $365.
If you want a real bargain, purchase one of the residences built on the property; they were going for $880,000 before the baht fell, and now can be had for $600,000. (And perhaps less. Haggle.)
My next stop is the island of Phuket, which has been pretty thoroughly deracinated by tourists but where you’ll find a couple of Thailand’s most exotic hotels. Phuket is not the place to go millionairing these days: Tourists scared off by the violence in Djakarta have chosen it as a substitute for Bali, so occupancy at the major hotels has increased. (Bali, by the way, is far from Djakarta, and ludicrously safe.)
The most celebrated property in Phuket completely thwarts my competitive efforts: There are no discounts to be had at Amanpuri (011-6676-324-333). None. The Aman people, who run the most exclusive small hotels in the world, generally don’t have trouble filling their bouquet of rooms, and they want you to pay through the nose.
Amanpuri does have its extraordinary features. If you approach at night, the dramatic lighting reflects off the burnished wood to create a quasi-religious effect. It has a lovely library, and a 24-hour business center. During the day, however, you notice the unsightly maze of elevated concrete walkways and the undeniable tininess of the property. The Italian restaurant hardly holds its own with Il Mulino, and the beach is unimpressive. Though someone is eternally replenishing the ice water in your insulated glass, it would be nice to have a beach-side bar. The architecture is mostly winning – a riff on traditional Thai building customs, including walls and windows that slope inward as they rise – and the entire resort is oriented toward the View: a dramatic drop off a rocky precipice. Ordinary pavilions start at $480 and can rise to $1,070 during high season. And almost nothing is included: no meals, no significant activities, nothing. Still, among the things not included is a fleet of vessels – little ones, big ones – that you can charter to take you to the stunning inlets and natural formations nearby, such as Phangnga Bay (where a very peculiar carrot-shaped island was featured in The Man With the Golden Gun).
Another resort, a short distance away, thrills me as much – for considerably less money. The Banyan Tree (011-6676-324-374), part of a constellation of high-end hotels, offers most of the charms of Amanpuri and has recently won all sorts of awards in the spa community. Check out www.banyantree.com for discounts: A garden villa is as low as $170; and the Garden Villa is as lovely as an Amanroom, even if the resort itself is laid out like a luxe suburb. The dramatic open lobby, minimal and vast, is almost as impressive as the jewellike Aman. The beach itself is superior, and the spa features a bizarre swimming pool that twists in a labyrinth of forking lanes. Massages are given in the open air, in covered pavilions – very nice until someone begins mowing the lawn a few feet away.
The restaurants at the Banyan Tree – Thai, Italian, and seafood – are terrific. If you really want to save money, however, a superb café is located in the mall five minutes away by shuttle: the Albatross Cafe and Pub, where a Western breakfast or Thai lunch can be had for about $3.
My last stop in Thailand is on Koh Samui, very recently a backpacker island but quickly becoming the next Phuket. The most swish hotel is Le Royal Meridien Baan Taling Ngam (011-6677-423-019-22), built into a cliff face in a remote part of the southeast shore and offering panoramic views of the water below. The beach is drab, but the infinity pool is impressive, its multisided, idiosyncratic form perching over a steep landscape. The Lom Talay restaurant is open at the sides, with a view into the Gulf of Thailand, and the Thai cuisine is superb, if not cheap: There’s no reason to spend $30 on a Thai meal in Koh Samui, where local restaurants cost a third of that.
In rainy season, the hotel puts a laser-disc player in each room and offers a library of serious films. If it’s not raining, take one of the day trips. They’ll speed you in a boat to Ang Thong Marine Park, where you can snorkel in the archipelago as they prepare your barbecue lunch on the beach (half-day: $35). The Baan Taling Naam remains your best choice if you want five-star service in Koh Samui: You can still bargain, especially in the off-season. November, for instance, can get quite rainy; a $300 room can be had for $200.
Yes, You Do Want to Go to Malaysia
If Thailand, where it’s almost impossible to find high-end bargains, is the killer hill in the millionairing Tour de France, Malaysia is the bunny slope. It’s generally considered unsafe – a fiction fostered by CNN, who would have you believe there are riots in the streets of Kuala Lumpur – so things look up as soon as I cross the border.
Consider the Datai (011-604-263-5112), on the island of Langkawi. Every little detail from the handrails to the wall sconces has been designed to within an inch of its life, with excellent taste. Each deluxe room contains a king-size bed, a daybed, and a huge bathing-and-dressing area finished in local marble and balau. The beach is glorious, the spa the most inventive I’ve yet experienced: They cure me for an hour like a piece of smoked meat, rubbing me and cleaning me and wrapping me up with deep-heating spices before massaging my body into a blissful coma. The service here rivals that of the best Thai hotels – no mean feat in Malaysia. The Datai is as perfect and urbane as you might wish, yet it’s still very much a jungle property: Monkeys threaten to trash your room should you leave the balcony doors open, and the world’s longest snake – the reticulated python, a personal favorite – lounges somewhere in the rain forest behind you. Here it is absolutely crucial to take one of the scheduled treks, not simply for the terrain, which includes plants that curl up shyly when you touch them, but for the guide, a truly knowledgeable banker turned ecologist.
Okay, so how much is this going to set you back? Well, the Datai quotes in Malaysian ringgit, among the world’s most battered currencies – once 2.4 to the dollar, the ringgit is now 3.8 – and a deluxe room that went for $435 a couple of years ago is $275. None of the Malaysian resorts I visit, by the way, has raised its rates to counteract the absurd bargain the rooms have now become. Yet.
But if you really want a jungle experience – à la Sheena, the Queen of – you really should consider Pangkor Laut (011-605-699-1100), which occupies its own private island. Some of the pavilions stand on stilts off the beach; mine is nestled next to the rain forest, with giant hornbills calling in the morning and macaques playing on my roof. The service here is refreshingly lax, to complement the environment.
I particularly like Uncle Lim’s Kitchen. The roof looks like an oversize wooden umbrella, and the dining-room floor wraps around a huge boulder. The food is Malaysian-Chinese fare, with Thai and Indian influences.
I spend the morning hiking though the jungle, and the afternoon reading beside the infinity pool, where a peacock strolls among the sunbathers. Pangkor Laut has something unquantifiable – hominess. I just like the place. There’s a real scene around the bar at night, in contrast to anything I experienced at the high-end properties in Thailand. The rates have not gone up: a room on stilts (the most desirable standard room) is $275. It would have been more than $400.
And You Might Prefer Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur gets a bad rap. It’s never been considered much of a tourist destination, and most recently it’s been likened to Kent State on a bad day. Truth is, you may witness a quiet demonstration. But you certainly won’t feel threatened, especially if you stay at the magisterial Carcosa Seri Negara (011-603-282-1888), a pair of mansions quietly ensconced in the middle of a great park. This hotel is run by the Aman group, although it’s quite a departure from the New Agey Amanresorts: It’s a stately colonial property with absurdly high ceilings and rooms large enough to play Frisbee in. The Carcosa is a Gothic mansion; the Seri Negara, next door, is more Victorian folly. Only the swimming pool is disappointing – I’ve seen larger plunge pools – but even this seems appropriate for a property with these sorts of pretensions: It’s hard to see the queen (who stayed here recently) getting much of a frisson from an infinity pool. You should put in at least one night in K.L. if you’re off to the jungles: Huge rooms here start at $280 (down from $400).
Penang, She Sang
Penang, like Phuket in Thailand, is a backpacker island that recently caught the eye of developers, with predictably dire results. Still, bits of Penang have yet to be ruined, and the island, unlike Phuket, remains a place of cultural significance: a largely Chinese spot in the midst of a Malay nation.
The Shangri-la’s Rasa Sayang (011-604-881-1811) is the top resort, and a couple of decades ago it was the place in Malaysia. It was, however, built in the seventies, which means you don’t get an infinity pool; you get a free-form pool, in the shape of an amoeba. Still, if you don’t mind that your hotel matches your bell-bottoms, the Rasa Sayang is a great bargain. For the price of an ordinary room at the Datai, you can get a vast suite in Penang ($286). Rasa Sayang occupies fifteen acres on Batu Ferringhi, the nicest beach in Penang – two and a half miles long and now clogged with resorts, but if you like the carnival atmosphere of hawkers and Jet-Skis, you’ll get a kick out of it. An alternative is the more sedate and generic Shangri-la in George Town; it’s a business hotel, a good half-hour from the beach, but it’s the finest hotel in the colonial capital, which is a destination in its own right. The standard (“superior”) room at the Shangri-la is $143 for a double, but you should be able to bargain.
Bali, like Malaysia, is being shunned for all the wrong reasons. A lone traveler is in considerably more danger on the Upper East Side. Bali is a Hindu island parked in the middle of a Muslim nation, and its politics are continents removed. You won’t find a more pacific people.
But I am here for a very shallow reason. I just want to find a brilliant hotel, cheap. And, if I may say so, I succeed in virtuosic ways.
The success of the Amanresorts – there are three in Bali, and one on a nearby island – has given rise to a couple of surprisingly congenial clones. At the Chedi (011-62-361-975-963), I encounter the most dramatic infinity pool yet: a slab of unbounded water reaching out across a ravine. The Chedi was designed by Kerry Hill Architects, who also gave us the Sukhothai and the Datai. The detailing is derived equally from Frank Lloyd Wright and shelter-magazine porn. Wood and concrete, with unglazed porcelain accents, blend effortlessly with an absurdly growy landscape.
The standard (“deluxe”) room is $230, and much smaller than the standard room at an Amanresort; it is minimally furnished in coconut wood and midnight blue, with stone floors and terra-cotta planters. But for $390 you can rent one of the four lavish suites: twin pavilions, connected by an outdoor patio where a stone bathtub floats in a private fish pool. All rooms have a dramatic view of the river valley below; and the suites even come with binoculars. Discounts are often available: A good travel agent can get you a suite for $330.
The New Four Seasons Resort at Sayan (011-62-361-977-577), near Ubud, is simply bizarre. The architect, John Heah, has decided to build the inverse of a high-rise: It’s a hotel that descends. An elevated ramp takes you to the entrance at the building’s top, which is a lily pond sitting in a huge suspended bowl – and beneath the pond you wind down into the elliptical hotel itself. The hallways are dark and wet, lined with curving, moss-encrusted walls and shallow pools. This hotel is nothing if not dramatic. Even the villas descend into the landscape: A thatched hut covers a small patio, and you have to climb down a spiral staircase to see the hidden villa itself.
I prefer the standard rooms, the Terrace Suites, off the mossy hallway: They’re smaller, but they’re on two floors, with two-story cathedral windows offering latticed views into the garden. The villas have a new take on the ubiquitous infinity pool: private infinity plunge pools. If you book a standard room (the Terrace Suite), you’ll save a bundle: The villas start at $525; the bi-level suites are $375 and are at least as lavish as the villas at most other properties: They have separate sitting and dining areas, guest toilets, terraces, and museumlike displays of local objects lit in tiny wall openings. None of this constitutes a stellar bargain, especially compared to the Chedi, but the quality of the public spaces is finer, and there’s more to the resort, including a gym and an outdoor Jacuzzi.
Que Serai, Serai
The Serai (62-363-41011), in Candidasa, is the second of the Amanclones I visit, this one cheaper even than the Chedi (and, frankly, that much less luxurious). This property, too, was designed by Kerry Hill. Here, at the firm’s most minimal resort – it’s nominally a four-star – we get to see what they can do in Miesian mode.
The Serai is, for the most part, a success. The pool is just fine, the public spaces predictably gorgeous, and the rooms spare but tasteful. What sets the Serai apart is its culinary mission. The resident manager, Steve Baker, is also the head chef – which ought to give a clue to the priorities here. Baker has set up a garden to grow herbs and raise free-range chickens, and he teaches a serious course in Balinese cooking at the hotel. The restaurant reflects his obsession: He has put together an ambitious fusion menu and is intent upon making the Serai into Bali’s principal culinary destination. A standard room is a joke at $130; the five-day cooking school is $625.
A third property run by GHM, the people who own the Chedi and the Serai, is quite a departure from the intimate Amanfeel. The Legian (011-62-361-730-622), a tall hotel of stacked suites, is on the most spectacular beach in Bali (the civilized portion west of Kuta). If you were planning on living in a hotel for some time, this would be your choice. The rooms are monstrous, and finished to a more luxurious degree than those of the Chedi; you could raise a family in one of these suites. The landscaping is theatrical, if strange: Staircases lead up to tall stone doorways framing the sun; it’s all a bit Druidic. Still, for a five-star experience on the island, the Legian is probably the best deal going: Rooms start at $250.
If you really intend to live in Bali for a bit, however, you might consider renting a villa. Lynley Marston, a well-connected expat, rents private villas to the likes of Oliver Stone, Elle Macpherson, and Eurosociety. These villas have become something of a bargain since the currency crisis: A three-bedroom villa in Seminyak that was $450 would be $350 now. (Call 011-62-361-731-074.) The villas come with a staff (as do all private homes in Bali), so you’ll have your own chef, maid, and gardener. Most are located in the luxury areas of Legian and Sanur.
Three Aman Resorts, Two Turtle Doves …
Each of the three Amans on Bali is quite different from the others, and if you visit all three, you are in a unique position to actually get a discount from the Amanpeople! Don’t underestimate the rarity of this occurrence. Because Bali is hurting, Aman offers the Bali Experience, a seven-night package that includes all three Balinese resorts, airport transfer, and champagne. All this for $3,000 if you don’t require a private pool (the rooms alone would be $3,500 if booked separately); the package with a pool suite is $4,400.
Amandari (011-62-361-975-333), like the Chedi and the Four Seasons Sayan, is near the so-called cultural capital of Ubud; Amankila (011-62-363-41-333) is on the east coast, in Candidasa; and Amanusa (011-62-361-772-333) is in the highly developed and gardened tourist district of Nusa Dua.
A note on Ubud: I say “so-called” cultural capital because this town has unfortunately gone the way of all artists’ colonies. Apparently once an intriguing nexus between East and West, it is now rife with execrable painting – obscene flowers and verdant nudes – and populated by aggressive locals pushing the most mercenary form of cultural encounter.
Amandari is a fine retreat from the sham bohemianism of Ubud. The oldest of the Amanresorts on Bali, it was built by traditional stonemasons using authentic materials and plans, and things grow so quickly here that it has taken on the green patina of a ruin. This is the place that started it all: Amandari pioneered the infinity pool, and theirs is still one of the world’s great tubs. Amandari is most of all a brilliant choice if you want to be alone with someone. The villas are hidden behind a medieval labyrinth of stone walls, and you can expect to stay here for days without encountering your (often famous) neighbors.
Bali – and especially the vicinity of Ubud – offers the world’s most exquisite handcrafted furniture, at low prices. Decorators from L.A. and the Caribbean routinely ship containers full of the stuff around the world. When you visit Ubud, the Amandari folk will give you expert advice regarding shops and what to buy.
Amankila is more social than the walled Amandari, with a whole new take on the unbounded swimming experience: the Cascading Infinity Trough. Three long pools, terraced into a cliff, overflow into each other. Unlike Amandari, which is landlocked, Amankila also has a beach, although it’s a bit of a hike. Just up from the beach, there’s a massage grove: a cluster of trees where you can get traditional Balinese rubdowns. The rooms and public spaces are not to my liking: The fancy arches framing mirrors remind me too much of Indian restaurants. The property is planned in a way reminiscent of Amanpuri: Too much of the resort is taken up by unsightly raised walkways, and everything is oriented toward the View.
On the other hand, Amankila does have its signal features. Two young girls from a local village greet you earnestly with floral offerings; everyone knows your name within minutes; the entire resort smells of frangipani and ylang-ylang (which is what the roof is woven with). I, in fact, develop a slight allergy to my hotel room, but it is worth it. A private boat will take you snorkeling in Blue Lagoon; the underwater life in this part of Bali is worth visiting (full day: $300).
The third Amanresort gets less attention than these two, mostly because it’s associated with Nusa Dua, a famously overdeveloped and inauthentic bit of the island. It is more manicured than either of the other Amans, and it sits beside a vast golf course. The public spaces are truly regal, including a polished floor in the lobby that can hold its own, mirrorwise, with the Hong Kong Pen’s, and an Italian restaurant whose splendid design puts Amanpuri’s to shame. The pool is merely finite, but it is impressively huge and girded by monolithic structures out of some Mayan fantasy. The beach, though a five-minute drive away, is pretty and unpopulated.
Amandari is my favorite, not least because it’s the only Aman with a gym. It would be terrible if you booked the wrong Aman and spent your entire vacation seething with envy; luckily, with the Bali Experience, you don’t have to choose.
Forget the albino buffalo and the Albright posse. This I consider the millionairing equivalent of a quadruple toe loop with a half-gainer: a trio of Amanresorts, occupied on a week of successive evenings, for peanuts. (Well, okay, macadamias.) This is the kind of coup that the sport’s many fans recount over beer toward the bleary hours of dawn. And as I rise to the podium to accept my medal, I would just like to say: I am the king of the world. You like me, you really like me. And no, I don’t see why I should have to submit to a urine test.