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Castaway Chic

On a remote tropical island near Bali, privacy and pampering in a $500-a-night jungle tent

December 01, 1996|LISA MARLOWE | Marlowe is a Malibu-based freelance writer

MOYO ISLAND, Indonesia — 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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