Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Bali Trip 2014: Borneo, Brunei & Some Ending Thoughts on this Trip

BORNEO, INDONESIA, 
BRUNEI 
& SOME ENDING THOUGHTS ON THIS TRIP
Did you know that Malaysia has 13 states?  Borneo is an island with 2 of those states.  There are just under 500,000 people in Borneo with 60% of those inhabitants religiously identified as Christians and 40% identified as Muslims in this Muslim country.
Malaysia is more modern and successful than Indonesia.  Our port, Kota Kinabalu (KK)
had malls, decent transportation and it was clean.  There were street markets with handicrafts.  Unfortunately, most of those handicrafts were factory made rather than made by locals.  The local handicrafts were poorly made so leave KK of your must do shopping list.
We met our guide and drove 90 minutes to Mount Kinabalu, also known as the “shy mountain” to visit Kinabalu Park.  Kinabalu Park is Malaysia's first World Heritage site.  It offers a variety of botanicals including 1,200 species of orchids.  It is a birding paradise with 325 species of birds.  After our visit, we had lunch at a local hotel and then were dropped off at one of KK's malls.  The mall was just like any mall USA so we left.
Brunei
Our next stop in our journey was a visit to Brunei.  Brunei shares the same land mass island as Borneo but that is where their connection ends.  Brunei, is so much more wealthy than Borneo.  Their roads are in good shape and their population is better educated.  Actually, their education is free as is their medical care and pensions.  What surprised me was how quiet their
Bandar Seri Begawan
main city of
Bandar Seri Begawan was.  No blaring music, no horns sounding – everything seemed controlled.  Because Brunei is a Muslim country, alcohol is prohibited.  Their traffic patterns are measured.  This is where the Sultan of Brunei rules and has absolute control.  He is one of the richest people in the world. 

Brunei is not tourism driven – they just don't need our tourist dollars.  This country is so wealthy due to its vast oil and gas reserves.  There isn't much to see here as a result.  All visitors visit Kampung Ayer which is their water villages.  These
Kampung Ayer
are a collection of 42 villages with 30,000 people living in homes built on stilts in the Brunei River.  The poorest looking house is surprisingly large and is likely to house modern household amenities.  The government is trying to move the inhabitants to land but the locals are resisting the move.

We drove past the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque which is considered to be the most beautiful mosque in South Asia.  It's huge dome made of gold, marble minarets and lagoon were quite dramatic.  As crazy as this seems, the Mosque is not the most opulent building in the city.  The Sultan's Palace, Istana Nurul Iman wins.  It has 1,788 rooms.  We also visited the Royal Regalia Gallery which is used as an introduction to the six centuries of Brunei Monarchy.  It houses a collection of Royal artifacts and gifts from all over the world along with a photo gallery of all the major players in the family.
Looking for something else to see?  Well, there are markets and malls but that's it.  Our full day tour ended after an early lunch.  Would I visit Brunei or suggest that you visit?  No, I really wouldn't. 

My Ending Thoughts of this Trip...

With this in mind, I can now say that after cruising over 35 times, unfortunately, this has been the least interesting itinerary that I've ever experienced.  Other cruise lines visit this place in the world but I just don't get it.  Out of a scale of 0-10, this itinerary is a 2 but that is only due to Bali.  Again, Central Java was interesting but the commute to Borobudur Temple doesn't warrant this being a port to stop at.  Central Java needs to be done independent of a cruise.

Our Crystal Cruise experience has been stellar and I want to mention that the ship experience has been at 9.5 out of 10.

Our cruise ends in Singapore.  If I find anything interesting, I'll blog about it.  If not, thank you for reading my blog for this vacation.  I am always available for answer your questions.

Also, exclusive to Protravel, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and Crystal Cruises is offering a wonderful promotion until the end of the week!!


Please contact me if you would like information.  
I will be available from March 13th forward.

The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bali Trip 2014: Makassar, Indonesia & Our Days @ Sea on Crystal Symphony

MAKASSAR, INDONESIA 
AND 
OUR DAYS AT SEA ON CRYSTAL SYMPHONY

I hope that you read my blogs to see what I like and don't like as well as to get insights into travel!  You are about to read about a port that I really disliked as well as a surprise to me.
Makassar, Indonesia

Makassar, Indonesia is a retched place on earth.  It is a port that Crystal Cruises should never stop at.  Makassar is the fourth largest city in Indonesia with over 1.3 million people.  It is as poverty stricken as our first port, Surabaya.  The only thing to experience here requires a ninety minute drive down terrible, littered roads to see a waterfall that was supposed to house hundreds of different butterflies.  We arrived to see a tiny waterfall, people selling mounted butterflies and a one room butterfly museum again with mounted butterflies.  The hundreds of different butterflies are no longer present near the waterfall because people have captured and killed them to be mounted and sold.  This is Makassar.
Batik textiles

Descriptions of Makassar said that the best Indonesian batik textiles would be found here but they were not.  Stores sold polyester copies and nothing else.  We were supposed to spend a full day touring Makassar and have lunch but after 4 hours we ended our journey early to escape back to the ship.  In retrospect, I would not recommend an itinerary that includes Indonesia.  Both Bali and Central Java are a must see in your lifetime but both should be seen on land as a pre or post cruise experience.

Wine Tasting on the Cruise
The next two days on the Crystal Harmony were “at sea” days.  Normally, I really don't care for back to back at sea days.  But here was my surprise ... I relaxed!!  The pace slowed down, I read my books.  I enjoyed getting to meet new friends.  Lunch was a simple salad outdoors with my favorite cocktail.  We enjoyed two wine tastings sponsored by Patz and Hall and SilverOak Wineries and had a chance to spend some time with Roo and Tim Duncan from Silver Oak.  Sometimes, I find it hard to just relax but I did for these past 2 days and really enjoyed myself.  

The service on Crystal is really what stands out.  They remember your name and what you like.  The staff makes eye contact and engages.  I had a wonderful experience that I would like to share with you.

St. Germain
I love a very simple drink made from mixing sparkling water, fresh ruby red grapefruit juice and a liqueur called St. Germain which is an elder flower liqueur.  After ordering it a few times and describing the recipe proportions, the waiter asked me what the drink was called.  I didn't know and he said that he would spend the next day or so coming up with a name.  An hour later, the same waiter returned with a piece of paper for me to look at.  The paper was titled "St. Marks" with the drink recipe listed.  He said that all of the bar staff would know the drink by name so I didn't have to describe it again.  How's that for engaging!

Tomorrow, we are off to Borneo, Malaysia followed by Brunei and Singapore.


Stay tuned!

The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

BALI Trip 2014: Crystal Cruise UPDATE, Surabaya, Semarang (Borobudur) & Amanjiwo

CRYSTAL CRUISE UPDATE
SURABAYA
SEMARANG (BOROBUDUR) 
AMANJIWO

Crystal Symphony

Crystal Symphony Bedroom
We are now on the Crystal Symphony.  It's amazing how well the cruise is run.  All of the common areas are updated and spotless.  I love their new colors!  The staterooms have wonderful bathroom amenities (Aveda) and the bed linens are really comfortable.  Crystal now is offering a "pillow menu" which is helpful for those with allergies.

Crystal Symphony Bedroom
Our first stop was in Surabaya, Indonesia in Eastern Java.  The first impression was that almost all of the women were wearing Arabic scarves while the men were in t-shirts and shorts.  This differed dramatically from Bali because most of the Balinese people are Hindu.  The next impression was that this is a port that should be missed.  Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia.  It is such a poor city.  There were so many litter filled shanty towns with people hanging around doing nothing.  The only thing to see was a pretty museum 90 minutes from the port called Pendopo Agung Trowulan.  This is where the Majaphit Palace was and it housed artifacts but the artifacts were not dated so it really was pretty meaningless.  The best part of Surabaya was returning to the Crystal Cruise to leave.  Blunt but true.
Borobudur Temple

Our second port was Semarang in Central Java.  BTW: Java and Bali are both islands in Indonesia.  While Surabaya was a city of absolute poverty, it seemed as though Semarang was more developed.  People were at work.  There was less litter and more industry.  The homes seemed more established and less shanty town.  The challenge of Semarang is that there was one highlight to visit and it was located three (yes, three) hours away.  There is only one road to access Borobudur Temple in each direction and it actually took three and a half hours to return.  The countryside is quite pretty.  It has hills, rice paddies and volcanic mountains – some with steam coming from them.
Amanjiwo

The Borobudor Temple is a UNESCO site.  It is the largest Buddhist temple in the world.   Have you ever heard of it?  I had not!  Borobudur Temple was discovered in 1814.  It was hidden by volcanic ash for over 800 years.  The stone relief panels, 504 stone Buddha statues and bells are stunning and definitely worth visiting.  If you have an interest, I would suggest visiting Central Java by land rather than spend the horrible three plus hours in each direction getting to the Temple from the port.
Amanjiwo Bedroom
From the top of Borobudur Temple, you can see Amanjiwo, the fourth Aman property that I visited.  We were with dear friends and wanted to treat them to an amazing lunch while I was able to do a site visit of Amanjiwo.  Amanjiwo means “peaceful soul” and rests 15 minutes from the Temple in the Central Java countryside.  It is breathtaking!  From the entrance, you can visually see Borobudur Temple.  From the moment you enter the open air reception, you relax.  All of the surfaces seem golden.  I loved the gold painted Hindu mural in the dining room as we enjoyed our lunch.  Amanjiwo offers a Western menu and a separate Indonesian menu.

Amanjiwo
There are 36 villas on property.  The size of each villa is the same.  The difference between the villas are that some have views of Borobudur Temple and half of the villas have beautiful pools.  I loved the use of Javanese art around the property and learned from Mark, the GM at Amanjiwo that this part of Central Java was an artist paradise.  Amanjiwo can arrange for private appointments with various artist studios located around the valley.  All villas offer the Aman bathroom with dual sinks, closets and an outdoor soaking tub.  Did I mention the use of the beautiful Javanese textiles?  The food is locally sourced and Amanjiwo is proud to work with the local farmers.  Everyday, you can watch local Javanese girls being taught local dances.  I also learned that tours could be arranged by car, bicycle, atop elephants or on horseback!  This amazing resort is serenity on steroids and a wonderfully romantic place in the world to discover.
Crystal Symphony

We have four more ports to visit during our cruise.  Tomorrow, we visit Makassar, Indonesia, followed by Borneo, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore.  
Thank you for taking the time to visit this part of the world with me!
Crystal Symphony Buffet

Stay tuned!

The World is Our Playground!

Mari


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

BALI TRIP 2014: Amanusa - Nusa Dua, Bali

AMANUSA – NUSA DUA, BALI

The final Aman property that we stayed at is in Nusa Dua which is on the Bukit Peninsula 20 minutes from Denpasar Airport and approximately 1 hour from Ubud where Amandari is.  Amanusa means “peaceful isle” and it is located in the Nusa Dua enclave which also has the Bali Golf and Country Club, a brand new St. Regis Resort and a few other resorts.
Amanusa Entry

Amanusa was built 22 years ago.  There are 35 villas, some with private pools.  The views overlooking the Indian Ocean are spectacular as is the property.  When we arrived, I noticed the giant teak sculpture in the entrance area with the Hindu poem, the Ramayana carved into the teak.  It is spectacular!  

The resort offers it's own private beach club.  The water is clear and the sand is soft – what a great way to relax!  There are 9 private bales and the staff is always checking in to see if you want/need anything.  Light meals and drinks are readily available.  The pool on property is absolutely beautiful and serene.  Everywhere you look, you will find carved stone or amazing woodwork.  The bedrooms are quite large and the bathrooms are a big WOW with an outdoor shower, separate indoor shower, soaking tub and dual sinks.
Bedroom

There are two restaurants on property specializing in Asian and Italian cuisine.  The setting in both locations is beautiful and relaxing.  The resort also has a wonderful spa, beautifully stocked boutique, bar and library.

Two areas close to Nusa Dua are Jimbaran and Simanyak both within 30 minutes of the resort.  Simanyak is the larger of the two with more shopping and night life.  The resort staff will help you make arrangements to visit both and help with suggestions for preferred stores and restaurants.
Enjoying the Cabana

You could easily stay 3-4 nights here to help relax and rejuvenate or longer if you are a golfer.  I can understand why people adore Aman properties.  It's the more for more theory.  Yes, your visit will be expensive but if you value service, hotel rooms that offer the most wonderful amenities and a sense of place, Aman is the answer to any “cookie cutter" hotel experience.

The World is Our Playground!

Mari


Friday, February 28, 2014

BALI TRIP: Ubud, Bali Indonesia Part 2

UBUD, BALI INDONESIA
Part 2

Ubud

Ubud.  You know the city in the book/movie, “Eat, Pray,Love”.  Ubud is this bohemian mishmash of art, kitsch, shopping, yoga and spirituality.  The streets are insane with scooters zooming past you.  Watch out where you walk because the “sidewalk” is unsafe and not level.  The sounds, the crowds ... that's Ubud.
Ubud Street Shopping

So, why visit Ubud?  Well, there are a surprising amount of 5 star properties in the surrounding area of Ubud.  Touring includes trekking around a Monkey Forest or visiting an Elephant Safari Park.  There are temples and museums to visit.  A fun thing to do is to watch the local Balinese dance and cultural performances.  There was a dance school at Amandari for children wishing to learn the local dances.

If you are interested in yoga, spa or cooking classes, you will be able to find them in and around Ubud.
Ubud Yoga

Shopping, well there are a few nicer shops – I especially liked Biasa but most of the shops are pretty average.  The better shopping is in Seminyak about one hour south of Ubud.

Jewelry designer, John Hardy and his wife opened The Green School with the proceeds from their jewelry line.  The school's goal is to connect learning with creativity.  The emphasis is on environmental responsibility with scientific knowledge and respect for one's self and the many local cultures.

John Hardy factory in Ubud
We stopped at the John Hardy factory which employees local Balinese people to manufacture their jewelry that is sold at most high end department stores.  The factory is actually a compound.  You need an appointment.  Once we entered the compound, we were escorted by our guide.  You can visit the showroom, factory or enjoy lunch with the staff eating at their communal table.  They have an organic farm within the compound.  There are two levels in the showroom.  The lower level offers current styles without a discount and the upper level offers older styles with a 30% discount off of U.S. Retail prices less the local taxes. BEWARE: the walkway through the compound is composed of large rocks. 
Please wear comfortable walking shoes for your visit. Once inside the showroom, you will be asked to remove your shoes and walk barefoot on bamboo.
Ubud Street Shopping 

My final stop in Bali will be in Nusa Dua at Amanusa.


Stay tuned!

The World is Our Playground!

Mari



Thursday, February 27, 2014

BALI TRIP 2014: Amandari - Ubud, Indonesia Part 1

AMANDARI – UBUD, INDONESIA
Amandari Pool

From Amankila to Amandari, the drive takes you through rice paddies and ends in the Ayung Valley.  There are two ways of getting from Amankila in East Bali to Amandari near Ubud.  The fast route which takes 1.5 hours versus the slow and I mean slow route through the small villages sometimes driving at 15 km which takes 3.5 hours unless you want to see the local culture and the picturesque rice terraces.  My recommendation is take the fast route – we didn't due to a communication disconnect.  In Bali, there are very few traffic laws and signals.  Traffic is hectic and most of the locals drive scooters like in Vietnam.
Young girls learn their dancing and music crafts
early on as a way to honor the Hindu g-ds

Amandari is known as the art center of Bali.  You are in the middle of a living culture where the Hindu g-ds speak and the people offer simple offerings of woven banana leaves, flowers and rice left daily at the temples.  The intent of 24 year old Amandari is that is has been designed true to the look and spirit of a Balinese village.  You will find the surrounding villages house local painters, woodcarvers, jewelers and potters all practicing their traditional crafts.  Dance and music is an art form in this part of the world.  Young girls learn their dancing and music crafts early on as a way to honor the Hindu g-ds.

Amandari means “peaceful spirits” and I can understand why Amandari was named this way.  Amandari is located 10 minutes from central Ubud with complementary shuttles available throughout the day.
open air lobby designed to be a “wantalon”
or village meeting place

When you arrive at Amandari, you immediate are amazed by the open air lobby designed to be a “wantalon” or village meeting place.  You have a sense of where you are from this moment forward.  The pathway that runs through Amandari down to the Valley is sacred and there are 3 modest shrines honoring this on property.
Suite Bedroom Interior View

There are 30 private free standing villas each with a Balinese stone gateway.  Some offer private pools.  We are staying in "Villa 14".  Villa 14 has an enormous bedroom area and it's bathroom is the traditional Aman design of dual sinks, a separate toilet area from the shower all leading outside to the sunken bathtub.  Outside, there is a dining pavilion overlooking the Ayung Valley as well as a private pool and lounge chairs.

There is a restaurant and bar on property as well as a library, fitness center, spa tennis and wonderfully stocked boutique.
Suite Bathroom View

The staff at Amandari can arrange your day with tours ranging from visits to the local villages, markets and Monkey Forest.  Many guests enjoy learning about the flat or terraced rice paddies.  Believe it or not, there is Class II river rafting available down the Ayung River. Temple tours and cultural exchanges can also be arranged.

During our visit, Jeff and I were honored to spend time with Amandari's General Manager, Mr. Siddharth Mehra.  I wanted to understand why people love Bali so much as well as learn more about the Aman culture.  Siddharth was a wealth of insight.

First, why do people love Bali so much? Simply, it is all about the Balinese people and culture. The people are kind, gentle and so friendly. It is in their nature to be so as they follow the Hindu faith and culture.
Spa Treatment Room

Aman fits in well with Bali. Aman's philosophy of being a part of the local community allows the GM to hire local staff, use local artisans, serve products from the local farms and thus become an integral and harmonious part of the local society.

I also learned that Aman properties in Bali, Indonesia want your experience to be seamless.  The Aman properties are Virtuoso properties with programs allowing you access between the properties, upgrades – sometimes at the time of booking, one activity per visit and more. 

For anyone staying in Ubud, I would ask that you consider staying at Amandari.  You will be pleasantly surprised and come away from the experience more insightful and relaxed!
Local Landscape

Tomorrow, we will be leaving Ubud for Amanusa in Bali's Bukit Peninsula.


The World is Our Playground!

Mari

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

BALI TRIP 2014: Amankila - East Bali

AMANKILA – East Bali

Amankila Beach Club

It takes 1.75 hours to get to Amankila from DPS airport.  The drive is not pretty.  In fact, it is a terrible way to be introduced to such a lovely country.  Helpful hint: take a nap!

During our time in Bali, I will be staying at 3 Aman properties.  Amankila, Amandari and Amanusa.  Amankila is located in East Bali.  
View from our Room

Amankila means “peaceful hill”.  This small, quiet resort on a hill with expansive views of the Lombok Strait.  The Lombok Strait connects the Java Sea to the Indian Ocean (“we are not in Kansas/California anymore!”).  Amankila is a Virtuoso property.  The hotel is 22 years old and is immaculately and lovingly cared for by their over 200 staff members.  The hotel is exquisite in it's simplicity.  Upon your arrival, you feel at ease as the open air reception area overlooks the water.  Looking down, you can see Amankila's three-tier, blue tiled pool.  There is a private black sand beach resort with a separate pool at the base of the cliff accessed by the hotel's buggy or a 5 minute walk down the stairs.  The area surrounding the resort is more authentically Balinese.  Each village boasts a mastery of a specific craft such as wood making, jewelry design and of course, Batik. 95% of the residence in East Bali are Hindu.  The general atmosphere is peaceful and friendly.

Three-tier blue tiled pool

There are 34 free standing villas at Amankila.  Some can be made into 2 bedroom villas with a pool.  Each has beautiful views of the Sea.  The rooms are simple and authentic using natural products from the area.  Guests enjoy a sense of place at Amankila.  The king size bed is comfortable. The huge bathroom area is exceptional with separate sinks, shower and tub. The bath amenities are local and I especially loved the cinnamon scented soaps.  Everything is comfortable and spacious.
Balenese Bed

WARNING ... every location on the property is reached by stairs.  A LOT OF STAIRS!  The hotel helps get you from one place to another via their buggy but you must be prepared to take a lot of stairs.  If you have mobility issues, Amankila is not for you.

While on property, the staff will help you organize your day.  They offer a wonderful 2 room spa and a small but efficient fitness center.  Both are located in villas and must be reserved in advance to assure your privacy.  If the spa time that you would like is taken ... no problem, they will send the masseuse to your room.  We did this at sunset and I can't begin to tell you how wonderful the experience was especially when it was time to turn over and look up at the stars from our private veranda (MAGICAL).

For shoppers, Amankila offers a small boutique filled with unique local treasures.  All the non-motorized water activities are available at the Beach Club.  Lessons on wind surfing for example are available.  You can even order a light meal while you relax on one of eight private bales set in the sand.  Amankila offers tea at their wonderful fully stocked library for those who want an escape from the sun at 4:00 pm daily.  For those of you looking for a unique romantic experience, Amankila offers an outrigger which can be reserved for cruising, snorkeling and/or diving.  Private dining and picnicking can also be arranged.
View of the Restaurant

There are two restaurants directly on property.  We enjoyed dinner last night at The Restaurant overlooking the Sea.  There was plenty of food options to choose from ranging from “Mexican style” corn tacos to French style baby chicken with mashed potatoes to local Indonesian specialties.  This morning, we ate at the Terrace Restaurant overlooking the pool.  At both locations, the service was perfection.  Friendly but not intrusive which pretty much covers Aman's philosophy.

My goal with this trip to Bali is to see what "Aman Junkies" see.  Later today, we are venturing up to Ubud, the cultural and artistic center of Bali and will be staying at Amandari.

Stay tuned...


The World is Our Playground!

Mari