Let me set the stage.
The heat of the sun licks my toes as, for a brief sec, I look up from my copy of Gabby Bernstein’s The Universe Has Your Back –– long enough to spot a Blue-eared kingfisher settling on the edge of the infinity pool overlooking fields of verdant rice paddies. I lament the fact that my Canon is still packed somewhere inside the villa, but only for a moment…
After all, my room ninja has just dropped off my third (#nojudgement) Butterfly Pea Martini poolside and our couples massage is booked for 5 PM.
There are so many benefits of becoming a travel advisor. The thrill you get when you see your clients return from their holiday..relaxed…toting sun-dappled skin, indelible memories etched in their conscience. Almost nothing can compare to the altruistic and blissful feeling one gets from helping others. Being confident in the knowledge that you played a small part in changing their lives…Ahhhhhh…..
Or coming in close second…. FREE travel!!!!
Of course, I love helping others. But let me tell you, soaking in a frangipani infused, sunken outdoor tub in the shade of palm fronds and eucalyptus leaves under the guise of getting “first hand” (insert air quotes for full effect) experience so that I can come back and sell the 7-star luxury property myself – well let’s just say…I guess if somebody has to do it. 🙋♀️
And let me interject ever so briefly to comment that not all travel in this industry is free. But if you are good at what you do, there are perks to be had. Nothing beats word of mouth advertising and hotels and experienced tour operators know this. Staying in some of the most luxurious places in the world is definitely one of the many benefits I’ve enjoyed over the years.
In this week’s post, I decided to write about my most favourite hotel stay to date. And I do so with much pride, appreciation and gratitude, but also to call out one of the many advantages of working in the travel industry in case you’ve ever wondered if you might be a good fit for this biz.
I am an “Aman Junkie.” Ever heard of that?
The Amandari, Bali.
My love affair with the Aman brand of hotels began a few years ago on my second visit to Bali.
To add some context, my first time to Bali was back when I was backpacking on a shoestring in my early 20s.
It was circa 1990, and I was living the highlife on a $10/day budget. I arrived in Bali thinking I was going to splurge and get myself a single room – not a dorm — for $4 a night. At that point, I’d been averaging a buck fifty in some questionable hostels. But when I reached Ubud, I was feeling a bit beaten up and $4 for a single room with a private bath seemed impossibly decadent. What could go wrong?
I still chuckle every time I think back…
I had awoken for my habitual 4 AM potty break when I saw it. There, in the middle of the floor, circling the drain was a scorpion. You gotta remember, I grew up in farmland Southern Ontario, where crickets were my biggest fear. And granted, I did not own a wealth of knowledge about scorpions but I knew enough to know that being stung by one, wasn’t a good thing. I decided to cross my legs and hold it.
Great plan right? But when I woke in the morning, eyeballs swimming in the back of my head…I walked into the bathroom and it was GONE!
That should have been a good thing except for WTF did it go? What if it jumped out from under the toilet seat. Crap. (pun intended) I tell ya…that’s what you get for 4 bucks a night.
Fast forward 30 years and there I am – standing in the atrium of the Amandari about to check-in. Fresh mint watermelon julep in hand, tropical breeze blowing gently through my hair, the smell of wild orchids tickling my nostrils and not a scorpion in sight. Oh, sometimes it’s nice to be grown up.
The Amandari is part of the world-renowned Aman hotel group founded by Adrian Zecka who built his first property, on the Pansea Bay, off the southern coast of Thailand as a family getaway. That flagship property is called the Amanpuri. Zecka was originally a travel magazine publisher who dabbled in hotels. But after building the Amanpuri, he got serious and began his quest to rule the luxury boutique hotel market. He’s long since departed from the brand but his legacy still permeates throughout the 32 properties within the chain.
The Amandari was actually his second hotel build. You know how Jerry Seinfeld cautions that “Once you go, First Class, you can never go coach?” I was spoiled by the experience – no question. Nothing to date has come close to my stay at the Amandari and I’ll tell you why.
The ambience of the Amandari
The Amandari is just outside the quiet and artsy village of Ubud, Bali – a haven known for its succulent rainforests, hibiscus and colourful songbirds. You might better know it as the “Love” in Elizabeth Gilbert’s monster best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love.” The area is actually called the Island of the Gods and there is no confusion in how the holiday locale got its sobriquet.
Designed by Australian architect Peter Muller, the property sits on an escarpment atop the Ayung River Gorge. The only thing surrounding it are rice paddies and farms that dot the landscape. The sound of Javan Kingfishers is the soundtrack as you walk the grounds.
Built in the style of a small Balinese village, Amandari stays true to the company’s brand. With only 30 villas, it’s small in scale. It’s private. Those 30 villas are tucked behind stone walls that stretch across 9 acres of Balinese land. As you meander through the stone walkways, you may never see another soul. Even when the hotel is fully booked, it offers sanctuary to the biggest celebrity’s need for privacy. The downside of course…you could be sleeping next to Bruno Mars and you’d never know it. Anonymity and privacy are protected at all costs. The decor could be described as minimalistic and tasteful. Each resort maintains the local feel of its surroundings. Many 5 star hotels try to replicate western expectations producing cookie-cutter hotels. Have one too many drinks on any given night, and you might not know what country you are in the next morning. But Amandari maintains the elegant stylings of the Balinese culture.
The Amandari service
It’s unprecedented. I’ve made a career teaching the value of delivering exceptional customer satisfaction. I know what it looks like. While it’s easy to offer, so few companies get it right. And because it’s such a rare thing, it stands out like a red poppy in a field of yellow when you are in its presence.
Here’s how a stay at the Amandari breaks down. From the moment you check-in, it feels like every staff member has received a dossier on you. You pass them on the walkway and it’s “Salamat Pagi Ms. Molzan”. I’ve stayed at some hotels where I was lucky to get a nod or a smile from any hotel staff member, nevermind knowing my full name and how to pronounce it. Speaking of which, you’ll never see a housekeeping cart anywhere, ever. I don’t know how they clean things. Yet the entire paradise was kept immaculate. The villas are spread out but not once did I ever see anyone with a broom, window cleaner or a toilet paper roll.
In fact, my husband and I started to endearingly refer to the hotel staff as Aman ninjas. Spotting them became our game.
Many five star hotels offer daily upkeep as well as a turndown service with maybe a chocolate on your pillow. With the Amandari, at times it felt like there was an imaginary person living with us. Listen, I’m not the tidiest of travellers. I admit it. Nor is my husband. I remember grabbing a banana and leaving the peel on the table before hopping into the shower. When I emerged…poof, banana peel – gone. I’ve been married to my husband long enough to know…no way in hell did he pick up that peel and dispose of it. But out of curiosity and to calm my mind, I did ask him. “What did you do with my banana peel,” I questioned. The look of pure ignorance told me it was one of the ninjas.
There is indeed a turndown service. Each night, a little gift is left on your pillow along with a story that details one of the local folklore tales. I still keep my carved myna bird as a reminder of the incredible experience we had. There is also a ninja who lights the candles surrounding the infinity pool just in case you might want to sit outside and watch the stars.
The other thing that sets the Aman properties apart from the majority of its competitors is the idea that there is no garish exchange of money. You don’t pay for things as you use them. That’s not necessarily a novelty, as many hotels will put things on your room tab, but at the Aman — you don’t sign for anything either. No bill is ever presented. No one is ever chasing you down. No one is asking for your room number at breakfast or when you are by the pool and ordering your 4th pina colada. You see, at any Aman property, the staff know you. Like pixie dust, it’s magically added to your final bill.
Inside the Amandari villas
Our room, if you can call it that, was the Ayung suite pool villa. (Insert every superlative imaginable here) Picture a villa where you are flanked by fields and valleys of rice paddies as far as the eye can see. And on the terrace, your own private infinity pool overlooking the Balinese countryside. It’s a two-story villa with a master bath that’s bigger than most NYC apartments. His and her vanities, not just two sinks but two separate vanities. The downside, I found it a little difficult to blame dear hubby for creating havoc when it was clearly ME. I mean….it did seem a shame to allow such a large amount of space to go to waste….was my thinking. There was a separate toilet area, separate rainforest shower (as you might expect) but the piece de resistance…
the sunken jacuzzi outdoor marble tub. I’m not a big bathtub type of person but there was no way I was missing out on using that! And did I mention the infinity pool?
No shampoo bottles to tuck away in your suitcase as a souvenir. Instead of unnecessary plastic bottles, there are petite pots of creams and potions, lotions and bath salts. It’s all so hedonistic.
In lieu of the souvenir amenities, the Aman presents each guest with a small traditional gift from the region. For us, these were beautifully wrapped Balinese batik sarongs – perfect for lounging around the resort. Perfect as a conversational piece at your next hot tub party back home.
The Amandari spa
I completely justify my decision to get a massage everywhere I go. It’s the thing every good hotel reviewer has to do to give her readers the most precise information possible. As they say…it’s taking one for the team. And as you might expect, the spa at the Amandari did not disappoint. Lily pads and bamboo framed the open massage theatre. There was no Dan Gibson playing in the background. Only the sounds of a rainforest overhead. The only disappointment was that I’d only booked an hour.
The Amandari gym
And just as I commit to checking out the spa facilities to offer a full account of my stay, I always use the gym. In fairness, gyms are pretty important to me when I travel. It’s not essential but if I can get to one, I’m more content. The Amandari does not have a massive gym. But again, with only 30 suites and villas, there’s probably not a huge need for one in the first place. I know I never had to queue to use a machine. In fact, throughout my entire stay, I don’t believe I ever saw anyone but me in the gym.
The Amandari F & B (Food and Beverage)
Breakfast was always a la carte. There are no buffets at any Aman property and it’s a welcome change of pace when you travel as much as I do. Sometimes buffets can be a little overwhelming and monotonous. Eventually, everything starts to taste the same. It’s nice to have a freshly prepared, made just for me, and to perfection, meal to start my day.
I actually cannot remember exactly what I’d ordered for dinner. I recall it being a seafood entree of some sort. What I do remember is that the prices on the room service menu are the same as the prices in the restaurant. And guess what? The ninjas at the Amandari will come and light the candles on your terrace. As they say in Asia, “Same, same.” Eat-in the restaurant or dine with your honey over a romantic candlelit dinner by your pool. You quickly come to appreciate why A-listers, wanting to get away from it all, would gravitate towards a place like this.
Amandari extras, and more extras
Phenomenal service always boils down to exceeding expectations. That can come in the form of a beautiful gift left on your pillow, or a staff member going out of their way without expectation of reward. Maybe it’s your favourite brand of potato chips stocked beside your minibar. Perhaps a book on Balinese architecture procured from the resort library lying on your bedside table. Someone has taken notice of your interest by the accoutrements you’ve packed. These are the things that stand out and call attention to exceptionalism.
What you won’t get at the Amandari
TV! Now for me, the lack of one was an amazing feature. I am not a fan and almost never turn on the TV ever while travelling but I suspect some people might find this odd. What you get instead is a Bose stereo system complete with iPod (at the time) preloaded with soothing tunes. And of course WiFi. When it comes down to it, good music and good conversation are the true essentials for any holiday.
Saying goodbye to the Amandari
You have to know that it was difficult not to shed a tear when it came time to pack to leave. Come to think of it, I think I may have left tread marks from my sandals as my driver and my husband tried to pull me away to our car. It was an indelible experience that will be tough to beat and it’s been almost 7 years of trying.
And as we were about to make our way to our next location, Candidasa, many of the staff come to bid us farewell. I swear, I’m not making this shit up… didn’t they come bearing homemade, fresh out of the oven, chocolate brownies wrapped in bamboo leaves. Snacks for us to enjoy en route to our next locale. Come on….
And this is why I am a proud “Aman Junkie” and most likely will be for life.
Oh…and just putting it out there…if any competing hotel reads this and is up for the challenge to unseat the Amandari from its pedestalled position, please leave a comment below. I’ll check in with my peeps and see how my schedule is looking. You are more than welcome to try.
Do you have a favourite hotel? Leave a comment below. I’d love to check it out too.