Amankila : Peace in the hills

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Bali. That word has such an energizing effect on many. There’s the wonder, excitement and total curiosity as to why so many relish the idea of going there. It’ll be my first time in Indonesia and what a way to do it! Here’s what happened.

Good signs start off the whole experience. The mundane stuff of checking in, getting cleared by immigration and all that jazz was taken care of by this guy sent to wait for me as I made my way to the baggage conveyor. My worries went “poof!” when he told me he’d take care of the luggage and immigration concerns. As soon as my luggage was out, so were we.

Another good sign was the driver who took me to Amankila (“peaceful hill”). He not only spoke very good English but also knew current world events, regional politics and his native culture. Nothing beats an hour and a half ride than someone who can talk intelligently without trying too hard.

Amankila is deceptively quiet and you don’t get the usual horde of people you encounter when you’re in most hotels, five-star though they may be. There are but 33 suites and oh, how interesting these abodes are. There seems to be so much space, owing to the fact that the suite is easily one big room. There’s a door dividing the bed area from where you do your private stuff. When that door is open, and I do suggest you keep it that way often, you get this whole sense of flowing space. I don’t know but it seems to help you breathe more easily.

There’s a bathtub with a window right next to it. Don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t something for the exhibitionist but is simply a good way to pamper yourself. With the window open, you get a good view of your surroundings, which includes the sea and Amankila’s seemingly endless supply of flora.

You can shut out the whole world though through some blinds or the wooden shutters, which gives the room a rustic feel, but in a very good way.

Nine suites have their own swimming pools but I wasn’t fortunate enough to get one of those. Regardless, the room I had was enough to make me one very happy camper.

The food

Rule number one when you’re on assignment: Don’t eat when you haven’t even snapped one photo of the food! I missed lunch and went straight to work, taking shots of my room before I messed anything up forgetting that humans do have needs and not addressing them adequately has its drawbacks.

As a result, when I was given the sampler for dinner, a host of tasting portions of various dishes, I immediately dug in and was knocked off my seat (Well, you know what I mean.) Only when I was already munching away did my brain – now a bit more nourished – start telling me that part of the whole assignment I had was to not only talk about the food but to take photos of it as well. Good thing the chef was a nice young Kiwi who told me that he could easily whip up the same thing again the next day for lunch (no complaints here!) so that I could shoot things more comfortably. Whew! So for now, my assignment was just to enjoy the food and traipse off to slumberland. When I did see the sampler again, I was even more enthralled with the food’s colors coming out brilliantly because of the sunlight. Having restaurants with one side completely open does have its advantages.

My diet was thrown out the proverbial window with the Gado-gado (green veggies with a sweet but spicy peanut sauce, bean curd salad and boiled egg), Perkedel Jagung (prawn and corn fritters with chilli, shallots, beans and cucumber salad), Martabak (savory pastry filled with minced beef served with pickled cucumber), Sate Campur (beef, chicken, prawn and fish sate served with peanut sauce), Bebek Bukakak (grilled duck in spicy coconut sauce) and Gulai Ikan Pedas (Indonesian seafood curry with fish, prawn and lobster). How’s that for lunch? Throw in Tuna Tartar and you really got something to write home to the folks about.

For dinner, I decided to treat myself to some lounging so I asked that food be brought to my room so I could listen to the waters carve the beach sand and stones into shapes that only a few centuries will reveal. Here was Gulai Jawa, hot lamb curry with chili, coriander, tomato and coconut and a personal favorite: Tempe Manis, fried bean cake with sweet soy. This last one was just a delight. There was a definite spiciness to it but with enough sweetness to sufficiently confuse your tongue as to whether this wasn’t part of dessert.

The Beach

There are some things to be made clear about the beach: There is absolutely no one there except the guests and staff. It’s absolutely stunning and being there gives you a sense of total privacy. It is made up of volcanic sand and thus, has shades that range from gray to black. White sand fans may not be so happy but take this into account: The grains are so fine that it’s such a pleasure to walk along the beach and feel the waters caressing and tickling your toes, feet and legs. Do take note of high tide because the waters can be quite formidable; not enough for surfing but they do mean crash when people describe the water as “crashing on the beach”. It may not be such a good idea to have children play close to the water as the rampaging waves may scare them.

They can, however, play in the sand. This is something that shouldn’t be missed in a beach like this especially if there’s hardly anyone around to compete with.

In the three days I was there, I was usually alone at the beach except for the staff. It seemed odd that people weren’t coming down the hill  to make their way to the beach until I realized that people were busy enjoying the three main pools — the definite trademark of Amankila and one of the primary subject matters of its photos. Just looking at them makes even non-swimmers want to take a dip. It’s breathtaking when you first come into the welcome area and you look down to see the pools.

These three seem to take you deeper, step-by-step, into the Amankila experience culminating with the very special fourth “pool” – the sea itself. It’s quite amusing to notice that the pools’ colors transition very smoothly into that of the ocean. Just amazing.

Is there anything for the non-swimmer? The sound of waves crashing on to the beach does have a very calming and soothing effect on almost anyone and this seems very easily the main idea why, even in your room, you are given what I consider an aural massage. It’s not really surprising that many guests come back and stay for weeks or even months. General Manager Tracy Atherton explains: Guests needn’t compete for space at all. Even with full occupancy, the area is so expansive that it’s unlikely that guests bump into each other unless they want to. There are lounge chairs and huts along the beach and pools aplenty that a person can take any one and comfortably sleep the day away.

The People

The people are all so welcoming and friendly that you don’t get that “I’m just greeting you because it’s my job” feeling. Regardless of the fact that you may be there just a few days, you still get a very genuine feeling of welcome each and every time you encounter any of the staff.

Tracy points out that most people in Amankila have been there since the beginning, something echoed by Aman Resorts Regional Manager Morty Brown. The people are well taken care of by the management and this results in a very happy set of working people who have a greater than usual community spirit and camaraderie. What this really translates into is staff members who come to work ready to serve and make their guests even more content.

One good indicator of this is when a guest goes on a bike ride through the nearby village. Many of those working in Amankila are from there and the villagers welcome the guests in pretty much the same way as the staff.

Perhaps one thing that makes this a special experience is not only the level of service that’s given to you but also the genuine sharing that happens. Though Indonesia itself is the biggest Muslim country in the world, Bali is, surprisingly, predominantly Hindu. This is the main reason for flowers being offered in various shrines and locations around the area. This is the simplest offering one can make to the gods and this accompanies prayer as a sign of gratitude for blessings already given. It’s then quite a kick to be given flowers just when you first come in and during the afternoons when you’re walking around or having tea or coffee.

Just the restfulness of it all

One thing you notice immediately about Amankila is that (surprise!) there aren’t any televisions in the rooms and public places except for the library. This underscores the resort’s commitment to give its guests a peaceful, restful stay. If you really want one though, it can be made available. I personally didn’t want the distraction from all the sun, sea, surf and scenery, so I stayed away from the TV. No regrets. There was an iPod-based sound system in the room and that was enough.

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