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.