Friday, May 25, 2007

Serene highness in Sumbawa

The jakarta
May, 25, 2007

Slip on your sandals, slap on the sunscreen and get ready to camp it up in a refined rustic retreat at Amanwana, the exclusive getaway where you-know-who stayed way back when. But don't forget your credit card, writes Bruce Emond.

It did not take long for me to experience a couple of up-close and-personal encounters with wildlife at Amanwana.

As I settled into my tent room fronting the shore, a tiny lizard scampered out of the resort's adventure guidebook and scurried across my desk.

After years of living in Jakarta, where the furtive cicak rules the roost even in the highest apartment buildings, it was a none too alarming encounter.

The second was not so benign: Heading off to explore all the luxury resort has to offer, I came face-to-face with the glowering presence of a male monkey, his gaze fixed on the tempting fruit basket inside my room.

Although I managed to give him the slip, resorting to tossing him an apple as a peace offering, it was quickly clear to me why Amanwana is a favored back-to-nature retreat for the well-heeled wishing to escape the stresses of the concrete jungle.

Aman Resorts founder Adrian Zecha has called it a "campsite", but it bears no resemblance to the rickety tent and basic outdoor plumbing of a traditional hike through the woods.

Draped along a sheltered, pristine stretch of Moyo Island off Sumbawa, West Nusa Tenggara, the resort, in its quiet, elegant way, lives up to its name of "peaceful forest". You will not find pulsating music blaring from a shoreside disco or drunk-off their faces holidaymakers sprawled on the beach. And while there is a spa nestled in a cove up the shore, Amanwana's guests are spared cooing entreaties of, "massage, mister?".

The ills of urban living also have yet to reach the area: The sky is clear, there is no disagreeable roar of engines and the only litter is the scat of wild animals along the trails.

With sumptuously appointed, spacious tents replete with AC and hot water shower but without the distraction of TV, it is an ultraexclusive, ultrapricey immersion in nature for those want both the creatures and creature comforts close at hand.

That natural experience begins when one of Amanwana's fleet of vessels docks at the jetty leading to the luxury resort.

In a daily 3 p.m. ritual, general manager Ian White scoops up a handful of bread from a small basket and tosses it into the sea, inviting newly arrived guests to follow suit. And the fish, the amphibious version of Pavlov's dogs at the sound of their master's bell, gather on cue in a florid show of color visible through the crystal-clear water.

The Aman concept is that guests are treated as if they were in a home, albeit a very luxurious and selective one, and thus adrenaline junkies and tchotchke-adoring princesses would feel singularly out of place. For it is not luxury or five-star in the jaded, conventional sense: There is no opulently decorated ersatz Versace lobby, smotheringly plush carpets or garish accoutrements that some of us define as taste.

Its pool -- but why swim in a pool when that stunning turquoise sea lies only a few steps away? -- is of the simple 1.4-meter plunge variety.

By day, the sparse sounds are of the drone of motorboats and, occasionally, a fight between peeved members of the monkey troupes that have also set up camp in the area. When night shrouds the resort, and little stirs except for the rustle of leaves outside and the to-and-fro lapping of waves on the coral beach, you can hear yourself think.

Tapping into that inner voice can be a disquieting experience for some. White remembers one couple who gave the resort and their tent the once-over, and decided then and there that a heaping dose of serenity was not what they were looking for.

"They said it was beautiful and everything, but it was just not for them," he said.

* * * *

Moyo, about a 90-minute boat trip from the sleepy town of Sumbawa Besar on the northern coast of Sumbawa, covers 36,000 hectares, of which a third is a national park. The hotel, opened in 1993, stands on 35 hectares of the 165 controlled by the Aman Group.

Guests (they have included, most famously, the late Princess Diana) are ferried from Sumbawa in one of the Aman's luxury boats. The jetty leads past the plunge pool, open-air shower, dive shop and nurse's station along a trail to the cluster of buildings. Here lies the reception, library, boutique and the breeze-fanned restaurant overlooking the shore.

The sandy trail continues to the canvas-covered rooms -- built as tents to accommodate the regulation banning permanent hotels within a national park. To the left, hugging the shore, are the beach tents, where I stayed, while a few meters back are the jungle rooms.

Barely seen and heard are the hotel's soft-footed attendants, who move seamlessly between the tents collecting laundry, setting up mosquito nets and pulling down blinds.

If they wish, guests can while away their days on the beach with a good book from the library; there is a selection of English, German and Japanese titles, from novels to travel and art books. Most choose instead to sample the sights of the surrounding jungle or dive sites in the Flores Sea (Tim Simond called the latter "something of a best kept secret ... superb" in 2006's Dive in Style).

"A big selling point for us, as you see on your arrival, is the calm waters, and that you can swim in the ocean ...," White said.

"You can walk in right off the beach, snorkel right off the beach, in a protected marine park, which is hard to find outside of Manado. The dive age starts at 10 years old -- we are very child friendly, so it's great for families."

It's a perfected slice of paradise at a price; the tent is US$750 per night, plus $75 full board, which includes meals and beverages, except alcoholic ones. Excursions and the PADI-accredited dives all cost extra.

And it's one of those places where, if you have to ask about the price or find them obscenely inflated in one of the poorest regions of the country, then you should not be there.

For Indonesia residents, both locals and expatriates, the tent cost is half the standard. White said Indonesia bookings accounted for about 17 percent of guest numbers in 2005, consisting of an equal balance of European/American expats, the Japanese community and Indonesian nationals.

"You are getting exclusive service with the Aman touches," he said of the rates.

"Our staff knows your name, we keep a record of your likes and dislikes, what you like to drink, what your favorite cigar is ...the peace and quiet of Moyo is what people will pay highly for ..."

The secluded setting is ideal for couples; the hotel has designated three "honeymoon beaches" for those who want a romantic hideaway far from prying eyes.

When the resort first opened in the early 1990s, White said, it was more oriented to couples, but that is no longer the case.

"We are very casual, not pretentious ... Our guests range from CEOs of businesses to older retirees ... for children, this provides an experience that they would not normally get."

I spent two nights at the resort; my itinerary included the must-do jaunt to the idyllic waterfall across the bay from the resort; snorkeling off the jetty; the Aman facial and an exerting walk to the deer breeding center along the coast.

The waterfall is reached by taking a speedboat to the fishing village of Labuan Aji, followed by a bone-shaking 20-minute drive in a jeep up an unpaved hill and along a dusty stretch of road fringed by cashew fields. The jeep stops and there is a short trek to reach the first, breathtakingly gorgeous waterfall. It's ideal for pictures, but it is used by the local community for its water needs and is not for guests to swim in.

The waterfall for Amanwana guests is further up the mountain; it was not a too severely demanding trek, even for woefully out-of-shape me. It is no less stunning and tranquil than the first, a magical picture-postcard oasis where shards of light danced invitingly on the pool.

One of my two guides led the way along a huge fallen tree trunk to dive into the clear, cool water. After our swim, I feasted on a jungle platter of fresh young coconut, fruit and slices of banana bread. We stopped off in the village to buy some of the forest honey that Sumbawa is famous for before heading back to the resort, reinvigorated from the trip.

* * * *

Moyo's population of about 3,500, located in Labuan Aji and a couple of other hamlets around the island, earn their living from fishing and farming rice, cashews and honey collected from the local forests.

About a third of the 160 staff at Amanwana is from the island, White said. Most originate from the strongly Islamic region of Bima on Sumbawa; legend has it they fled here during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies in World War II.

The resort has its own water treatment center, with used water processed for reuse in the grounds. Nonrecyclable waste is taken away for disposal in Sumbawa Besar, while "wet" waste is used as compost.

But no island is an island unto itself; even Moyo, with its tiny population and a protected national park since 1976, has suffered the scourge of environmental damage.

Despite its distance from Sumbawa, flotsam and jetsam still washes up on Amanwana's shores, White said.

"Our groundskeeping staff are up early to clear up any litter on the beach. There is no magic in the water to keep it away. The magic is being there to pick it up when it comes in."

There also are more pressing concerns; stark tracts of gray burnished land, forest cleared by fire for farming, line the road to the waterfall. The reefs have also rebounded after suffering from increased water temperatures.

The most glaring example of a reverse in environmental fortunes is the island's population of deer, the redundantly named rusa deer or Sunda Sambar (cervus timorenis). The 1991 reprint of Bill Dalton's definitive Indonesia travel guide Indonesia Handbook said that sight of landfall on Moyo inevitably included deer frolicking in the hills.

The animals remained common until the late 1990s, and would graze in the late afternoon at Amanwana. Aman Resorts human resources director Asih Wesika remembers being disturbed by a knocking on her door, only to find that the "trespasser" was a deer.

But decimation of the wild population by hunting parties who sailed over from Sumbawa has led to a drastic decline in their numbers (monkeys, wild ox and boar are now the most common mammals here). The deer has been hunted for sport, its antlers taken as a trophy and carcass left behind (on mainland Sumbawa, its meat is used for jerky and the fluid of unborn foals drunk to increase virility).

Visitors today are only likely to "see" a deer on the key holder for their rooms and the wooden figurines in the restaurant. However, for the past six years, the hotel has sponsored a breeding program run by local people.

White and Wesika took me to the site; we climbed up the rocky stairs behind the plunge pool, past the helipad, and embarked on a testing 20-minute walk to the home of Ibu Halimah.

Among locals, she is a wealthy woman, with chickens, goats and cows rambling around the grounds of her simple home. She served us crisp slices of freshly fried breadfruit before leading us to the deer enclosure, which is tended by three members of her family.

I saw a herd of about 15 deer, who tamely fed on the bundles of leaves offered to them. They are descended from 40 animals the resort bought and brought over from Sumbawa (some escaped when a fence broke during the monsoon season). White said the hotel wanted to eventually release 10-12 animals back into the forest, and may set up an enclosure behind Amanwana to allow guests to see them.

On the ride over to Amanwana, I had met one of the crew, pak Ramli, a native of Labuan Aji and a former hunter. He has been with Amanwana since its opening, and his job has provided his family with a better standard of living. He can send his children to school in Sumbawa Besar instead of learning at the tiny schoolhouse in Labuan Aji.

He told me that the example of the hotel and its guests in caring for the environment was one that the islanders could follow.

"Whether they are Japanese or European, they really show their concern for the environment and for protecting the animals. It has really opened my eyes," he said.

* * * *

When my two nights at Amanwana were over, I took the employees' boat back to Sumbawa Besar's port of Badas. It was time to head back to the reality of traffic jams and deadlines.

It was not the usual elegant farewell to Amanwana, but then my trip there was in many ways very different from that of its guests. I had taken the Rp 85,000 bus-ferry from Mataram to Sumbawa Besar, glimpsing the rugged, arid landscape of Sumbawa. I then spent a day in the small town, enjoying becak rides to its few sights and the friendliness of the local people.

In contrast, Amanwana guests fly in on a Cessna to Sumbawa Besar's single landing strip airport on the outskirts of town, are whisked away to meticulously kept Badas harbor and then set off on their pristine jungle adventure.

No chilled mineral water and canap├ęs for us today. My fellow passengers were 20 members of the forestry police, who had been looking into illegal logging on the island, and a solitary hen who, seeming to know a fate worse then death awaited her on Sumbawa, darted frantically through the boat. Me, feeling like a big white lug among the band of manly men in uniform, chose to sit with the steersman.

With a cigarette pursed between his lips and dexterously maneuvering the helm with his feet, he told me of his family's recent addition of a young daughter, and that his wife was an elementary school teacher in Sumbawa Besar.

He had been to Jakarta's Tanjung Priok Seaport once when he worked on a merchant ship. But they had only unloaded their cargo and gone straight back to sea.

"Jakarta must be really something, with all the big buildings and vehicles," the 27-year-old said.

You should see it once, I replied. For a single trip to the urban jungle is probably enough when you have a small corner of paradise to call home.


Bali Hotel said...

Visit Indonesia Year 2008 is a great promotion to broad the richness of Indonesia. Take a few days to the paradise island of Bali and find selection of Bali hotels and villas at special rates.

Delfine said...

Hi.. I'm enquiring about something in Sumba and do not know who
else to ask, so I hope you can help. I'm wondering if sport fishing is
allowed in Sumba? Strictly catch and release. And if so, do you
know any contacts who can help with my enquiry? Any help from you is
greatly appreciated. Thanks so much for your time.


Shared Item