September 13 – 16, 2015
In the world of travel, one brand is often alluded as a notch above the field and managed to attract a legion of dedicated fans. I am referring to Aman, “peace” in Sanskrit and often credited as the pioneer of the concept of boutique resort. Adrian Zecha, a Singaporean hotelier, founded the first Aman resort in Phuket in what was initially an attempt to build a vacation home back in the late 1980s. Since then Aman has increased its presence to 20 countries, with a rapid phase of expansion since 2014 after the selling of the resorts to a group headed by the Russian businessman Vladislav Doronin.
Aman has two main philosophies. Architectural wise all Aman resorts follow a minimalist style that accentuates on sourcing indigenous building materials and techniques. In terms of service Aman wants to create an environment of a private residence without standard hospitality practices such as front desk, lobby or bellboys.
Since I was diving in and around Padang Bai, I focused on the resorts in this area, and I ended up splitting five nights between Alila Manggis and Amankila (m. Peaceful Hill). I was excited about the latter – for $3,750 over three nights of pool villa, the Aman Break package I booked was the most I have ever paid for accommodation. I have heard about Aman for a long time, but is it really worth the hype? Specifically, does the 23-year-old Amankila justify the price tag?
Amankila’s cliff-side location offers two distinct advantages. The long winding road leading up to the resort creates some distance from the busy main route while offers a towering vantage point over the surrounding countryside. The ascend generates a sense of anticipation and abruptly, we were there, Amankila’s iconic three-tiered infinity pool in the distance, a sharp turn after we passed through the security checkpoint. Amankila is a sprawling complex. A thatched roof hut constitutes the reception area – think of this as the ground floor. All the suites are located on the cliff above and public areas such as the dining halls and swimming pool below.
Besides the terrific view, Amankila’s rule of inducing a lasting first impression is to have the general manager greets guests upon arrival. While the GM Sandra Watermann was away on this day, I was impressed by a less symbolic but more practical gesture – my check-in was done in my suite without spending a second at the front desk. By the time my credit card was authorized I was already chilling on a daybed next to my private pool.
34 stand-alone suites dot across the upper half of Amankila, with ours, no. 33, being one of the closest to the reception area. Proximity to the lobby doesn’t mean a compromise to privacy as the suite is located at the end of the path and surrounded by trees on three sides and a stone wall to the east. The pool is on the right, taken up 1/4 of the ground, and the rest is a sun lounging area and a thatched roof house.
If you were expecting a glittering interior filled with amazing gadgets, Amankila would surely disappoint. The suite, with an emphasis on space and natural lighting, follows the resort’s unassuming style. Windows facing the northeast and southwest ensure sunlight shines into the room at all time during the day. Three materials stand out – the bamboo on the roof, marble on the walls and floor, and the wooden furniture. The result is a comfortable but slightly incongruous fusion between Western and Balinese styles.
The suite is equally divided into a bedroom and a bathroom. The former has what you would expect – a king-sized bed – and not much else besides a desk. Only gadget available is an iPod plug to a dock with 10,000 classics or dated pop songs.
Perhaps to emphasize Amankila’s superior service and commitment to the privacy of its guests, the washroom, spacious and bright and generally unremarkable, has one curious quirk. Like every other area of the suite, the shower area has a large window that almost touches the floor, but this one doesn’t come with any blind. The management might have total confidence in ensuring no staff or guests would behave inappropriately, but I would like the option of protecting my privacy by closing the blinds myself.
I love the private pool. The suite? No complaint there, but it doesn’t quite match the $1,250 a night price tag.
A basic version of breakfast was included to our room rate, with choices like fresh juices, bread basket, pancake, beghrir, muesli and fruit salad. After trying most of the choices on the first day, we went with banana pancakes and the bread basket the rest of the way. This carb-fest got a little tiring by the third day, but it was enough to last us through the morning dives. We didn’t try the paid-separately a la carte items.
Occasionally we ordered room service. We tried the cheese burger, seafood pizza and Nasi Goreng (Indonesian fried rice). All dishes were hot like they were just out of the stove. We liked the thin-crust pizza and the seafood matched well with the tomato paste.
On our last night we lavished on a pool-side dinner by the second tier of the main pool. The sous chef, a Balinese lady in her late-forties, came to our suite to discuss the menu with us beforehand. We settled on an appetizer of fennel salads with parmesan, grilled tuna, lobsters and scallops with asparagus as our shared main course, and mangosteen, mango and passion fruit sorbet. The seafood was grilled just right and we were dazzled by the ice bowl used to carry the dessert.
Probably Amankila’s weakest aspect. There is a library with a laptop which nobody ever uses, a beach club that requires a 10-minute walk down some steep stairs which nobody ever uses, and a gym with a treadmill and several dumbbells that nobody ever uses. You get the gist – there is a lack of investment on public facilities at Amankila, driven in part by the management’s belief that most guests will be content to relax in their own rooms and take advantage of the service of the excellent room-servicing staff. That’s probably a smart bet – you can hardly seen any guest anywhere.
What the resort does heavily invest in is its iconic triple-tiered pool, which to beat a dead horse is, you guess it, never in use over the four days we were there. This is partially what the exorbitant rate pays for – swimming in an empty infinity pool with multiple staff waiting to wrap a towel around you the moment you get out. It was a cool experience, like the introduction scene to the token hot chick in a Bond movie, but substitute the bikini-clad model with an Asian guy like myself and a little awkwardness starts to creep in.
When Amanjunkies wave about their stays, they almost always focus singularly on Aman’s exceptional unparalleled service. The consensus is Aman provides a level of service that is unlike anywhere else. This goes beyond simply having an attentive and hospitable staff, which is to be expected, but a wholly different approach on client servicing.
Amankila’s service was as good as advertised, and it made Alila Manggis – a respectable resort in its own right – seemed like a self-servicing hostel in comparison. Exaggeration? Consider what Amankila can consistently deliver:
- The above-mentioned check-in procedure.
- All the staff knew who we were, our suite no. and our planned activity for the day.
- We could simply walk away from the table after meals without signing any payment slip.
- Staff was constantly communicating on walkie-talkie. When we left our suite the housekeeping crew was immediately notified. Our suite and pool were tidied up regularly but never once did anyone show up without prompting when we were still inside.
- Food delivered to our suite was hot like it was straight out of the stove.
None of this seems like a big deal, but add together it shows a commitment on Aman’s part to create an atmosphere where guests can genuinely unwind with everything being taken care of. The key thing is not perfection – we did encounter a few minor hiccups, rather it is a sense that the staff will try their best to accommodate our needs.
What’s Amankila’s secret in achieving this? Sandra Waterman, GM of the resort, shared with me two main factors. First, Amankila has a crew of around 200, and the typical staff to guest ratio is 4:1 with the occupancy rate hovers around 30% outside of peak season. Located faraway from the main tourist hubs of Kuta and Semiyak in the remote village of Manggis on the island’s east coast, Amankila also draws a mostly quiet cliente of middle-aged European and the occasional Chinese and Japanese. Secondly most of the staff is born and raised in the surrounding area, which brews a strong sense of collective ownership towards the resort and the jobs it provides.
$1,250 a night is outrageously expensive. Let’s put it this way – that’s more than 3 times Alila Manggis’ rate. Yet after staying at Amankila I felt it was Alila that was overpriced. What Alila offered was passable for what you would expect for that price, but Amankila attained a peerless level of service and relegates the resort’s comfortable but less than stupendous infrastructure as a sidenote.
That’s probably the highest compliment I can give – Amankila is justifiable to charge such high rate, and even though I think of my stay as a once-off experience I will have no hestitation to go back again if I have the cash.