Castaway Chic

Marlowe is a Malibu-based freelance writer

For the last five years, my husband and I have been the unwitting victims of shameless tempting, deftly administered by a pair of well-traveled East Coast friends. This couple, Barry and Karen, are prototypic examples of an elite, hopelessly addicted coterie known as "Aman junkies." And if you have no idea what I'm referring to, you're not alone.

Boomer-age professionals drawn to extravagant vacation destinations (and who can afford to take at least two per year), Karen and Barry loved to regale us with tales of their trips to the luxury Aman Resorts of Indonesia. Each time we conversed by phone, Barry would twist the knife a little deeper:

"You'll never experience Indonesia properly until you've stayed at an Aman," he gushed. "And just wait until you've been to the one we just 'discovered'--Amanwana on Moyo Island. It's a private nature reserve, and you stay in these fantastic teak-floored tents in the jungle, and swim in a sacred waterfall, and you eat giant prawns that are caught right before your eyes, and . . . "

That was enough. We'd long been planning a trip to Australia and Asia, and stopping at a couple of these resorts sounded like it might be a justifiable add-on. "Well," my husband said, as we began to chart our itinerary and reality reared its ugly head, "let me put it to you this way: You can have a month on the Great Barrier Reef or a week in the Amans." I went for the gold, of course.

This smallish group of up-market resorts, which began with the Amanpuri on Thailand's Phuket Island, was started by publisher and hotel developer Adrian Zecha, and now includes a dozen distinctive properties ranging from a chateau in France to a Somerset Maugham-style fantasy in Myanmar (Burma). There are four in Indonesia with others scattered in Bora Bora, the Philippines, Malaysia and Australia.

Yet many frequent travelers with the means to stay there have never heard of the Aman Resorts, possibly because they don't deign to advertise in the U.S. and rarely abroad. Nevertheless, word-of-mouth seems to generate a constant flow of globe-trotting guests. And according to one Aman staffer we spoke with on Bali, there's even a healthy smattering of "average" visitors who stay in moderate-priced hotels elsewhere on the isle and save for a couple of nights at an Aman "for the memories," he said.

All it takes is money. At the Amanwana on Moyo Island, it costs $500 a night to sleep in a tent. But not just any tent: These are bigger and more luxurious than some folks' homes. They throw in gourmet meals, transfers from the island of Sumbawa by ritzy yacht and the most assiduous service imaginable.

One of Indonesia's 13,677 islands, Moyo is a mere speck on the map, a pristine little isle that floats in the Flores Sea just south of the equator, far removed from the tourist beaches of Bali about 80 miles east. Amanwana's exclusive 20-tent "camp" is set in jungle by the sand on the southwest part of the island. Only about 25 by 6 miles, Moyo has been a protected nature reserve since 1976. The Aman chain was granted special permission by the Indonesian government to construct the resort, providing they ensured that the island's ecosystem remained unharmed. ("Not a single tree here was felled to build the Amanwana," boasts the hotel's brochure.)

Amanwana was catapulted into the limelight shortly after it opened in 1993, when Princess Di chose it for a brief vacation with two girlfriends, three bodyguards, and several sets of Louis Vuitton luggage. Far from the prying lenses of the paparazzi, she reportedly spent three days trekking the forest trails, swimming in the secluded waterfall and sunbathing topless in front of her tent. "She was amazingly polite, just one of the guests," the assistant manager told me. "She'd come to the dining room for her meals and chat with us all the time."

Along with our two-night stay last May on Moyo Island, we also spent a night in each of Aman's three Bali hotels. (In typical Aman-junkie logic, I figured that since we'd come all that way, why not try them all?) Each property is stunning in its own way: Amanusa, near Nusa Dua Beach, is like staying in a palace from "The Last Emperor"; Amandari is designed like a walled Balinese village overlooking a terraced rice field and gorge near the artists' town of Ubud; and Amankila is a series of elegant pavilions and lotus-filled ponds perched on an ocean cliff high above Bali's remote, less-traveled East Coast and the Lombok Strait.

But the ultimate escapist fantasy is Amanwana--an Eden-like refuge on an almost deserted isle. True, we would probably require some sort of 12-step program to wean us from this pampering at the end, but whoever said you can get too much of a good thing had never been to Moyo.

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With Bali's Denpasar Ngurah Rai International Airport as the starting point, the journey takes approximately three hours, including a one-hour, 20-minute flight to Sumbawa, the sprawling island closest to Moyo, then a boat trip on the Amanwana's luxury cruiser, the Aman XV.

From the moment we were welcomed on board, the subtle pampering by the boat's amiable, white-uniformed crew signaled pleasures to come. As the bubbly was uncorked with a resounding pop, warm goat cheese crostini, smoked salmon canapes and roast turkey finger sandwiches were circulated on silver trays. "I feel just like Thurston Howell III," joked a fellow passenger from Texas to his young wife, "and you're Lovey," he said, referring to the snobby "Gilligan's Island" characters.

Ours seemed a reservedly friendly group: a chic, middle-aged Australian couple in linen shorts, Cartier watches and Gucci sandals; a pair of French lovers wrapped tightly round each other; two other American couples in their 30s, a trio of very tanned Germans; an Indonesian-born photographer who'd done many coffee-table books; and a brittle Englishwoman traveling solo. At the helm was Gde (pronounced Gee-day), who, when pressed, confided he'd also steered Princess Di, Fergie, musician-producer Peter Gabriel, model Elle Macpherson, Ursula Andress and Paris fashion designer Kenzo across these waters.

Deck-side, eager gazes tilted toward the approaching thick-forested Moyo Island. As the shore came into focus, a pair of waving figures--the manager's wife and her assistant--stood on the dock for our arrival. As we pulled in, their cheerful voices rang out, "Welcome to the jungle!"

At first, the camp seemed the welcome antithesis of other five-star Indonesian resorts: no swimming pool or Jacuzzi, no loud jet-ski engines or nightly high-octane cocktail parties on the beach. Save for the Amanwana's few vehicles--two vans and three Jeeps for side trips to the waterfall, bat cave and trekking--no cars or motorbikes exist on the isle. Only the squeals of monkeys and exotic birds high in the trees break the tranquil air. The tents lend a Hemingway-esque touch, all constructed with the same spacious design, air-conditioning, mini-bar, writing desk, comfy couches and romantic net-curtained king-size beds. (This netting is more than a mood-setter. Although there is currently no malaria on Bali, Sumbawa or Moyo, mosquitoes can still interrupt a good night's sleep.)

Since the Amans' aim is to indulge the escapist in all of us, there are no daily routines nor set mealtimes to abide by. All they ask is that you respect the peace and privacy of your fellow castaways. Within this indulgent milieu, you can abdicate reality and check your worries at the door.

Diversions such as deep-sea fishing, scuba diving and "environmental excursions" are there for the choosing. During our first afternoon, I sea-kayaked, took a spin on a catamaran and made a visit to "Turtle Street," the name of a favorite snorkel and scuba spot where sea turtles, octopus, lion fish and moray eels are regularly sighted. (My mate, Brian, meanwhile, preferred "sunbathing" in the shade of a banyan tree, limbs limp as noodles, paperback novel strategically placed over face.)

Since Amanwana Bay is also a marine reserve (all the waters around Moyo remain untouched by commercial fishing, so angler-guests often haul in tuna, Spanish mackerel, barracuda, sailfish and young black marlin), the sea is a veritable underwater amusement park. With an average water temperature of 79 degrees, Moyo is fortuitously protected from hurricanes by the sheltering island of Sumbawa and--unlike some coral wastelands I've explored in Tahiti, Bermuda and Hawaii--life beneath this sea is extremely rich. After counting 40 types of coral I'd never seen before, even in photos, I gave up.

Amanwana also comes with its own resident naturalist, Barry Lees. Born and raised in the Northern Territories of Australia's Queensland, he looks like the original " 'Crocodile' Dundee," bushman's hat and all. An expert on eco-friendly travel destinations, he was first consulted by the Aman group when they were searching for an Indonesian island on which to create Amanwana. Armed with little more than a compass, machete and a pair of binoculars to assist him, Lees mapped, charted and documented every species of plant and animal life he came across. And along the way, he "discovered" one of the island's best-kept secrets: the waterfall.

"Nature at its finest" is how he describes this series of cascading limestone pools located deep in the heart of a dense tropical forest in the center of the isle. Spring-fed and loaded with minerals, its jade-colored waters are pure enough to drink.

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This excursion was the undisputed highlight of our stay, and as we chugged up the hills in an old open-air Land Rover, Lees pointed out some of his best-loved friends: the black-naped fruit pigeon, the zebra dove, the large-footed megapode bird. Teak and plum trees rose around us, quinine and wild ginger plants lined the path; as he stopped to point out "wood apples" encased in hard nut-like shells (the fruit tastes like sweet peaches), a wild pig ran like heck past us and vanished in the brush. "You get plenty of monkeys, feral dogs and deer coming to drink from the pools as well," he commented, pausing to get a closer look at a fist-size yellow butterfly at rest on a giant fern. "Things grow kind of big around here."

Lees related tales of Sumatran rain forest destruction and the importance of preserving special corners of the world such as Moyo. But my abiding memory of him is the expression of childlike delight as he swan-dived off the falls into the pool below. "Isn't it fantastic?" he laughed, as I surfaced beside him. "This is the real thing, you know. . . ."

That night, after pepes ikan, a spiced snapper steamed in banana leaves, and lobster tail as tender as chicken breast (served at a private table set up for us by the waves, which anyone can request), we retired to a faraway corner of the beach to search for shooting stars. High in the black-velvet heavens, the Southern Cross that had eluded me the night before revealed itself in all its bejeweled glory. As we returned to our tent, we made out the graceful shapes of deer, shyly, silently gathering at the edge of the wood to munch their late suppers. We'd arranged for an Indonesian-style massage before retiring for the night. Given in flickering candlelight, with the sounds of the jungle surrounding us, it was one of the most sensuously relaxing and stress-relieving things I've ever experienced.

During our stay, we noticed a few changes in our fellow guests as well. The rather reserved, middle-aged Aussie couple had reverted to a pair of cooing teens; we caught them strolling arm-in-arm and cuddling among the palms at sunset. With the aid of the hotel's staff, the young French fellow surprised his lady with a well-planned marriage proposal, poetically scribbled on the label of a bottle of Dom Perignon. (She accepted.) The brusque Englishwoman softened up enough to invite everyone to her table for a round of drinks and took to wearing blossoms in her hair.

But even the smooth-running Amanwana operation was not without its occasional pothole on the road to perfection. As our boat pulled into the harbor on Sumbawa, where we were due to catch our flight, a shocking sight awaited us: There was the hotel van resting in the shallow bay as a dozen local boys tried frantically to push it back up on the shore. The driver was nowhere to be found; apparently, he'd taken one look at what he'd done and fled on foot into the woods.

Even this little snafu, however, was handled with true Aman panache: We were kept on board to sip more champagne while an alternate vehicle was found. Surveying the comical scene, I couldn't help noticing a red T-shirt worn by one of the boys furtively trying to rescue the van. It read: "Dream Impossible Dreams."

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GUIDEBOOK

Moyo Island Fantasy

Getting there: Garuda Indonesia is the only airline with direct flights (one stop in Hawaii) from LAX to Bali's Denpasar Airport. Connecting service available on other airlines. Round-trip, advance-purchase air fares start at $1,070, including taxes and fees.

Round-trip air fare to Moyo Island (Amanwana) from Bali via Merpati Airlines is approximately $150. (Reservations and arrangements will be made by Aman Resorts when booking.)

When to go: There are two distinct seasons on Moyo: the moonsoon or wet season, roughly December through March, and the dry season, April through November. Generally speaking, April through October is the best time to visit.

Where to stay: Amanwana, Moyo Island (rates for this resort include all meals); jungle tent $500 per night for a double, beach tent $575. Amandari, located near Ubud, Bali (all-suite accommodations); doubles start at $430. Amanusa, at Nusa Dua Beach, Bali (all suites); doubles start at $430. Amankila, near Candi Dasa, East Bali (all suites); doubles start at $430. For reservations, call the Aman Resorts, telephone (800) 447-7462, fax (212) 644-6840.

Excursions on Moyo: Guided four-hour waterfall trip (includes refreshments), $45 per person. Scuba diving at the isle's best sites, about $35-$60 per person. Guided three-hour "Bat Cave Trek" (includes refreshments), $18 per person. An assortment of massage and beauty treatments, administered in your tent or under the shade of a beach-side tamarind tree, $20-$35 per hour.

For more information: Contact the Indonesia Tourist Promotion Office, 3457 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 104, Los Angeles 90010; tel. (213) 387-2078, fax (213) 380-6111.

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