Luxury Is Local: A Review of Amanjiwo in Indonesia

Borobudur, Indonesia, has been high on my list of sites to visit for some years — and so has the Amanjiwo hotel.
Even if you haven’t heard of the Aman brand, you’ve probably seen it on social media, as everyone from the Kardashians to Diane Kruger has stayed at their properties and raved about it. Aman is a high-end hotel chain focused on understated luxury and socially conscious experiences in unique locations. It has 34 properties around the world in places like Paro, Bhutan; Siem Reap, Cambodia; Marrakech, Morocco; and even Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The Indonesian properties are some of the oldest and most iconic hotels in the Aman collection. They do cost a small fortune to stay at, and with the 4th Night Free benefit significantly devaluing in September (Aman properties will probably not be eligible), I decided to bite the bullet on a four-night stay.

In This Post

Booking
Aman does not sell its rooms through online travel agencies, but they are part of the Virtuoso program, which includes a host of benefits like free breakfast, late checkout and $100 hotel credit when you book through eligible travel agents. They are also part of Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program, where you can get additional benefits.
I leveraged Citi Prestige’s benefit for a fourth night free on this stay with a rate called “Undiscovered Indonesia” that came out to $580 a night for a garden suite. It did include breakfast and airport transfers, although Aman doesn’t have any sort of loyalty program, so I didn’t earn anything besides 6,681 ThankYou points on this stay (thanks to 3x points from Citi Prestige for hotel spending). The property was by no means a value option.

Location
The resort is about 30 miles outside Yogyakarta on the fringes of Borobudur, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the island of Java. The landscape around the hotel was nothing short of stunning, and the hotel was fully integrated with the village around it, Magelang. Mount Merapi loomed in the distance, with lush, rolling hills and terraced rice paddies coming up all the way to the pool. At breakfast poolside one morning, we watched local roosters peck their way around the property gardens, likely having escaped from the nearby village.
Borobudur itself was under 2 miles away and could be seen in the distance from the lobby of the hotel. The village catered more to Indonesian tourists than foreigners, so there was a host of street food and local digs outside the park. That being said, the remoteness was part of the allure of Amanjiwo.
Check-in
Immediately after we hopped off our flight in Yogyakarta International Airport (JOG), an Aman contractor was waiting in a van on the tarmac, ready for our arrival. We descended the plane to find him waiting with our names on a board.

He escorted us to the Concordia Lounge, where another attendant grabbed our bag tags and told us to wait and enjoy any refreshments. He retrieved our bags, loaded them in the car and collected us when it was all good to go. Talk about VIP service!
The Aman van was stocked with chilled still water, sparkling water and snacks for the 90-minute ride to Amanjiwo. We had initially planned to visit Prambanan, a ninth-century Hindu site closer to the airport, though our flight was delayed, and with the sun rapidly setting, our driver suggested postponing our visit for another day.

Upon arrival at the hotel around 7pm, we were showered with flowers from some of the hotel staff and directed to take a seat in the lobby, where we were offered absolutely delicious home-brewed ginger beer and chilled watermelon.

The team reviewed our itinerary for our stay, and the manager swung by to welcome us. The rooms usually don’t have TVs, but I’d asked for one in our room to watch a soccer match that night, which he mentioned was all set up. He also stuck around to banter about Liverpool FC with me. The staff also mentioned some of the free amenities, like daily tea and yoga, gave us literature on the resort and escorted us to Room 7, one of the best garden suites of the 36 rooms on site, with direct views of Borobudur in the distance.
Room
Heading down the majestic staircase from the lobby, we found our room to be the first to the left of the main walkway. It sat on the highest level, affording breathtaking views of both the valley and the Borobudur skyline.

The hotel is arranged in two concentric semicircles around the main rotunda.

Each suite has its own entrance (with doorbell) that opened up to the terrace.

I feel I can’t overemphasize how spectacular the views of the surrounding hills and Borobudur itself were from our terrace.

The room was elegantly appointed and spacious and felt very Asian its design, thanks to the art on the walls, the wood accents and the Japanese-inspired lighting. The king bed was low to the ground and surrounded by pillars that accentuated the royal aesthetic of the property.

The linens felt luxurious, and the bed was really comfy. There was only one international outlet on the right side of the bed, though, and another one really needed to be added to the other side.
There was a small chaise lounge at one side of the room, which was the perfect place to escape the blazing Javanese sunshine. Local artwork and pottery dotted different areas.

The refrigerator was stocked with some drinks, all of which cost additional money (besides the water and sparkling water), along with a small counter that had an ice bucket that was always full of fresh ice and a lime. There was no tea kettle or coffeemaker in the room, which was disappointing — the additional cost and wait for a morning cup of tea seemed unnecessary.

At the other end of the room was a built-in desk with hotel details, a map and even watercolors, which was something I’d never seen stocked in a hotel room.

At the back of the room were two identical closets on both sides.

The hotel offered two free hats and a bag, which was useful when hitting the pool or nearby temples.

The little touches were what set the room apart, though. Wherever you could ever want a water bottle, lotion, a bathrobe or cotton swab, it was available.

At the very back of the room was an outdoor bathtub, always stocked with a fresh candle, and a serene setting to wind down the day.

The shower was the one low point. It had a frankly terrible shower head for a hotel of this caliber, didn’t have good pressure and didn’t have any middle-ground temperature — the water would either stay cool or burning hot. The Aman toiletries were nonetheless amazing.

The room overall was an oasis. It was really nice have tons of both indoor and outdoor lounge space, beautiful toiletries and views for days. The Wi-Fi only worked about 50% of the time in our room, and was fast enough to stream content. It always worked in the lobby if you needed it, but it felt good to unplug while it was down.
Amenities
Walking around the property made you feel like you were visiting a Javanese temple. Ed Tuttle, the architect of Amanjiwo, wanted the property to be a nod to the nearby Borobudur complex, and he did an incredible job. The corridors and common areas of the hotel always framed incredible vistas.

The pool was at the lowest level of the hotel and blended almost seamlessly into the rice paddies of the valley, where farmers tilled their fields daily just yards away.

You could even see Mount Merbabu in the distance from the pool!

Pictures don’t really do the area justice, but I can assure you it was phenomenal. Whenever you grabbed a lounger, the pool attendant came by to sweep any leaves off, lay down towels and bring over ice water. You never felt obligated to buy anything.
Yoga was held on the side of the pool closer to the rice paddies and was never more than four people. The pool also always had many loungers open, which was one of the benefits of staying at a smaller resort. The pool club was just on the other side of the pool and was open for breakfast and lunch, serving a more health-conscious menu than the main restaurant.

The gym was in a similar space to our villa, which was frankly awkward and disappointing for a health-focused resort. The space was tiny, and you would think management would at least remove the bedposts, or better yet renovate the space sometime in the property’s 20-plus-year history.

In addition, there was no actual spa, and treatments took place in your room. There was a library at the very front of the hotel, which was full of historical books about the area and was a nice refuge from the heat.

A visit to Amanjiwo is inevitably coupled with visits to Borobudur and Prambanan, both UNESCO sites from ninth-century Buddhist and Hindu civilizations, respectively. Amanjiwo also prides itself on offering unique cultural experiences that are a perk of staying at its hotels.
Borobudur was 2 miles away from the hotel, and management suggested a sunset visit rather than the generally more popular sunrise visit. The site was nowhere near as crowded as Angkor Wat, and the sunset tour from Amanjiwo let guests stay at the site one hour past the closing time at 5pm, which meant you can watch the sun descend behind Borobudur almost completely alone. The views were out of this world, and the site became incredibly peaceful. During our visit, there were probably fewer than 10 visitors still at the temple at that point.

The guide employed by the hotel was mediocre and didn’t seem to offer more than the official guides at other sites we’d visited around Asia. We also really had to pry information out of him, which was disappointing considering the price. The perk of staying after hours, though, was surreal.

The last excursion that we took was a tour of Prambanan on our way to the airport at the tail end of our stay. The hotel arranged a driver and hired an official guide directly from the park’s office. The benefit of going through the hotel was twofold: peace of mind, and they claimed to hire the most experienced guides. I actually ended up liking our guide for this tour much better than the hotel’s own guide at Borobudur. Prambanan itself was beautiful and, again, surprisingly empty.

Food and Beverage
One of the other experiences that Amanjiwo had been offering for years was dinner at Pak Bilal’s. The Bilal family are coconut sugar farmers, and it’s now Pak’s son who cooks for guests in a traditional Javanese home near the hotel. They work closely with the hotel to cater a menu for you based on your dietary preferences and tastes.

The experience was incredible, from the atmospheric, candlelit setting to the live Javanese gamelan music to the food cooked fresh in front of us over open flames and served on banana leaves. We could hear the clock in the next room and the baby wailing in the next hut, which brought village life a little closer to us as we sat in a traditional hut eating food traditionally served for feasts for special occasions. It struck that perfect balance between being culturally authentic and luxurious.

 
Afternoon tea at the hotel was served between 4pm and 5pm. A local auntie made gingery, lemongrass-lime tea and also served pastries. I was feeling under the weather one day, and the tea went a long way to making me feel better.

At the same time, local girls danced to traditional Javanese music, which was done in a tasteful setting that felt much more authentic than, say, a Hawaiian hula show.

Considering the remote nature of the hotel, there were not tons of dining options around the hotel, so most guests ended up eating most of their meals on site. Breakfast was included in our rate and served in the main restaurant near the lobby or the pool club. The pool club had a more health-conscious menu, with a wide variety of vegan and vegetarian options — think egg-white omelets, tofu scrambles and chia puddings, whereas the main restaurant had more traditional western and Indonesian options.
Guests could also have breakfast in their rooms or on their terraces at no extra charge. If breakfast was included in your rate, then they essentially allowed you to order as much as you liked from the menu, which sure beat a breakfast buffet. The tofu noodle soup and dragonfruit smoothie bowl were my favorites from the pool-club menu.

At the main restaurant, the ricotta pancakes were decadent, the perfect dessert-for-breakfast.

Enjoying breakfast in the comfort of our own terrace was also a nice way to ease into the day.

There were a few flops. The hash browns tasted like boiled potatoes, the avocado toast was extremely bland and not served with all of the garnishes listed on the menu, and all of the bread was underwhelming. Nonetheless, breakfast was always extremely relaxing — we easily spent two hours chatting, nibbling on food, sipping fresh juice and breathing in the tropical breeze daily.
After a large breakfast, we usually skipped lunch, but we did enjoy dinner at the lobby restaurant a few times. One night, locals from the village came by to perform a beautiful traditional Javanese dance. We had the grilled snapper and satay, which was the perfect accompaniment to the entertainment.

Food prices were relatively reasonable for a luxury hotel — generally within the $20 to $40 for a main and $15 to $20 for cocktails and midrange wines. This might seem pricey, but duties on alcohol in Indonesia are over 100%.
The other thing I liked was that there was no additional charge to dine in your room. Overall, I found the Indonesian food to be sublime, while the western food was hit or miss.
Service
I’m sure the Aman group could recruit top hospitality talent from around the world, but they have made a decision to embrace the local community, which is admirable. Many of the employees we encountered had been working at the hotel for 10 to 20 years and were proud of it. They seem to genuinely care about their guests and go out of their way to take care of them. The hotel also had tons of little touches to make our stay memorable. Every night, there was a new turndown gift on our bed, which made it fun to come home at night.

Housekeeping was absolutely incredible. When you visited a restaurant or head out for an excursion, the staff called housekeeping to go into your room. Basically every time you left your room, it got serviced — yet you never actually saw any staff. It was like magic.
On the other hand, there were communication issues with the phone operators at the hotel whenever we called in from our rooms, which resulted in issues with food orders and tour requests. Similarly, not all of the servers in the restaurants spoke fluent English, so communicating food requests or asking questions about menu items was difficult in some instances. In addition, our tour guide for Borobudur was knowledgeable but only shared information when we asked him rather than proactively giving us a tour, which was disappointing because that was the main attraction of the entire property.
The other quirk of Aman properties is that you never sign for anything at the hotels. Staff know the exact room you are staying in, and it’s supposed to contribute to the experience of feeling like you are at home rather than a hotel, though I can imagine this might be irritating for some. When checking out, our bill was perfect and did not have any errors on it, although it would have been good to know the markups on a few items beforehand.
Overall Impression
We really enjoyed our visit to Amanjiwo, but four nights was probably too much for us. The grounds of the property are stunning, and it is the perfect place to completely zone out of the world and see some beautiful sites. But there aren’t too many restaurants, shops or areas to even go for a walk in the evening, which made us a little stir-crazy by our last night.
We did love the Aman experience — the attention to detail, the infusion of local culture and the general warmth created by the staff, which is much different than other luxury brands like the Ritz or Four Seasons. That being said, management does need to make a few improvements to the aging property: The showerheads need to be replaced, and a property like this should really have a standalone spa, a better gym and stronger multilingual skills at some positions.
I doubt we will return to Borobudur, but if you’re making the trip and looking for an ultraluxe property to treat yourself at for a few days, look no further.
All photos by the author.

High/Low Travel Strategy: Mixing Luxury and Budget Travel on the Same Trip

While my favorite way to maximize travel is through points and miles, my husband and I have come up with a few other tricks over the years to find that elusive balance between my love of budget travel and his taste for the finer things. Our go-to technique for a vacation with the right mix of off-the-beaten path adventure mixed with pure luxury and true downtime is our “high/low” technique.
Much like pairing an Ikea mirror with an Eames chair in your living room, mixing high-end travel with lower-cost experiences in the same trip can work well. It also has helped us tame our children’s unrealistic expectations around travel.
On a boat we rented for $15 in rural Vietnam
High/Low in Practice
Our budget for accommodations during a recent weeklong vacation in Vietnam was an average of $350 per night. This was on the higher end, but it turned out to channel us toward hotels that we found didn’t cater to families. Instead we chose to look for somewhere in the $75–$100 per night range for four nights followed by somewhere in the $500–750 range for the next three nights. We also tried to find a third or fourth night for free through select hotels in Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts (FHR) program. FHR is available to holders of certain Amex cards, such as The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum® Card from American Express. 
We loved exploring Hoi An’s food markets.
Tips for the Lower End
The key to the “low” end of the stay is to realize that while it may cost less, it isn’t actually less enjoyable because it is culturally rich. During the “low,” we do lots of sightseeing and driving, eat at local restaurants or cook and keep costs relatively low by engaging in the local economy rather than staying insulated within a resort economy. Our family is able to see areas we wouldn’t normally get to enjoy if we were only sheltered at luxury hotels and resorts. It is also a great time to do purposeful travel. Plus we often travel with our two young kids and want an Airbnb or family-run hotel for reasons beyond budget.
Make sure you’re using the best credit cards to book an Airbnb. We sometimes are able to book our “low” accommodations through Hotels.com/Venture and use my Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card for 10x the points on the room stay, then use it toward our 10th night free with Hotels.com, which is effectively a 20% return.
You can also choose a lower-category points hotel for your stay. A large welcome bonus, such as the one offered by the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card that earns you 100,000 points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening, could get you several nights at a Category 1–4 Marriott redemption.

Tips for the Higher End
When we head over to the “high” end, we enter pure resort mode — we don’t have to worry about driving or where to go for lunch because everything is right there. We often do not leave the grounds because we’ve already explored and just want to stay put. We like to book the luxury piece at the end of the stay and utilize early check-in and late check-out to really stretch the stay (FHR benefits and elite status are great for this).
This can be a fantastic time to use a high-end redemption to bring down costs and use the savings for extras such as cooking classes or a spa experience.
During a 10-day trip to Bali, for example, we spent five nights in a low-cost villa and then did a five-night redemption at The Ritz-Carlton, Bali (Category 6, from 50,000 Marriott points), taking full advantage of its incredible kids club and inexpensive babysitting.
Here are many different ways to stay with your family in Bali using points.
Our one-bedroom villa at Four Season Resort The Nam Hai.
Riding on the sleeper train between our high- and low-cost stays in Vietnam.
Lower End: Rural Vietnam
In Vietnam, our lower end stay was in the Bong Lai Valley at Phong Nha Farmstay for $85 per night, including breakfast. It was essentially a backpackers spot, but had a large family room next to the owner’s apartment. My older son became fast friends with the owner’s son, Howie, and talked about him for months afterward.
Enjoying the cooler weather at Phong Nha Farmstay.
In Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, we rented a private 14-seat boat for just for the four of us where I could easily breastfeed the baby; the privacy gave us the flexibility to turn back if our 2-year-old was scared of the caves. The three-hour cave gondola ride was $15, plus a $6.50 entrance fee for the national park. Rather than a scary experience, the ride turned out to be peaceful and done at the perfect pace for our family.

Another day, we took advantage of the advertised free bikes at the farmstay. The only family bike had a flat seat on the back. We used my sarong to tie my older son on the back, and my husband wore the baby on his front over the bumpy, muddy roads to the only local attraction called The Duck Stop.
Using a hand-drawn map, we found the family-run spot, which offered a package of food and a visit to see their raft of ducks ($4, kids free). Suddenly, we were in borrowed sandals and feed was being thrown on our feet. The ducks chased us while trying to bite our feet with their bills as the owner screamed, “It’s like a massage!” We then greeted the resident water buffalo before heading back on our bikes. These are the types of peculiar travel experiences that I had while backpacking in my 20s and love having again with my family (my husband less so).

High: Four Seasons The Nam Hai
As much as I love reliving my backpacking days, entering the Four Seasons Nam Hai was extraordinary. We booked with a fourth night free, which brought the cost down from $750 per night to $660 per night for a one-bedroom, ocean-view villa with an included exquisite breakfast. Yes, that is pricey, but that is why we balance it out with more affordable accommodations. We also considered the Intercontinental Nha Trang, Vietnam using IHG Rewards Club points from the generous IHG®  Rewards Club Premier Card (bonus currently up to 120k points) and the fourth consecutive award night free for cardholders.

The magical thing about a luxury resort is that they pretty much know where you are at all times and can reach you. With the kids safely in childcare, we attended a Vietnamese cooking class arranged by the hotel that included a visit to the local market. When we returned from the market with our fresh ingredients, the cooking assistant notified the babysitter to bring my youngest son to me at the cooking school via a golf cart because he needed to breastfeed.

When the baby finished his lunch, his babysitter whisked him away again, which made me feel like a mother in “Downton Abbey.” We could not have dropped the fresh shrimp into hot sizzling oil with our tiny children in tow. The Cooking Academy was $115 each and included our fantastic five-course lunch of grilled calamari skewers, grouper in banana leaf and wok-fried prawns in tamarind sauce.

To round off the experience, on our last night we went into the ever so photogenic Hoi An to see the lanterns lining the streets. We wandered the streets until our children melted down, and then hopped in a taxi back to the hotel and into bed.

When packing the next morning, we realized that my DSLR camera was gone and must have been left in the taxi. Normally, that might been adios to the camera, but the hotel quickly pulled the license plates off the security camera of us arriving the night before, located the driver and had my camera back in my hands by our 11am departure.
That could have been a sour note to end the vacation. Instead we were happy to be staying somewhere where we were just taken care of — our problem suddenly became their problem. We enjoyed the bountiful breakfast buffet rather than scrambling to track down the camera and avoided the sadness of losing all the photos from our trip in Asia with the kids, including those in this story. It was also a reminder to make sure I know what insurance protections my credit cards have.

Bottom Line
The adage goes that a vacation with kids is just a trip and never a vacation. After enjoying sightseeing and adventure time, end your family trip at a luxury resort with safe, reliable on-site childcare so you have time to truly unwind and maybe even have a date before returning home. Using this high/low method, you can average out the costs either with points or cash while enjoying both secluded luxury and local culture.
Have you ever tried a high/low vacation? How does your family balance different interests during travel?

SkyTeam Launches New Metasearch Tool to Find and Book Flights Across All 20 Members

Delta loyalists, take note: You’ll be doing yourself a favor by bookmarking SkyTeam’s new Find Flights portal. Fresh out of the coding oven, the revamped metasearch tool allows you to evaluate your paid routing options across all 20 member airlines, including the likes of Delta, Air France, KLM, Alitalia, Korean Air and Aeromexico. One of the most powerful elements of the new tool is its ability to integrate and surface many airlines that are lesser-known among US-based flyers: Saudia, TAROM, Vietnam Airlines and XiamenAir, for example.
The tool, which is available now on the web via flights.skyteam.com, is a first among the major global airline alliances — at least at this level of granularity. The engine shows “real-time availability, schedule and pricing information across 1,074 destinations with clearly displayed results all in one place.” It even includes a direct link out to whichever carrier is selling the flight for the lowest fare, enabling users to purchase and complete the booking without having to reconstruct the route elsewhere.
SkyTeam airlines transporting passengers around the globe. (Photo by the author / The Points Guy)
As of now, the new tool is only available via web, though we’re told that the next iteration of the SkyTeam mobile app (due out in October 2018) will include the new functionality. It’s of particular interest to those seeking to maintain or earn Medallion status on Delta, as it removes the guesswork when it comes to answering the question: “Can I fly to this destination on airlines that I can credit back to my Delta account?”
Delta’s earning chart for partners (located here) lays out what you can expect if you decide to credit SkyTeam partner flights back to your account. It’s worth noting that it can be advantageous to book flights sold and marketed by SkyTeam partners while crediting the flight(s) back to Delta, particularly on cheaper business-class fares, which can provide a huge boost in the MQD department. Delta ranks partners on a tiered status, with its closer allies such as KLM and Air France earning more than distant partners such as Air Europa and Kenya Airways, so be sure to check those before booking.
In our testing of the new functionality, we found it both quick and accurate. It’s pretty intelligent, too. For example, in looking for a round-trip flight between St. Louis (STL) and Rome (FCO), it surfaced an outbound flight that included legs on Delta and Alitalia, while the return was best served with a one-stop journey entirely on Delta metal.

Similarly, a round-trip flight between Portland (PDX) and Kuala Lumpur (KUL) surfaced an outbound itinerary involving Alaska Airlines (PDX to SFO), Korean Air (SFO to ICN) and Malaysia Airlines (ICN to KUL), while the return involved Korean Air and Delta.

Presently, the tool allows you to sort by cheapest, quickest and best, but those only apply to economy fares. There’s no option to search for the lowest fares on premium economy, business and/or first, but we’ve inquired with SkyTeam to understand if this is something that may be the product roadmap.

Lastly, the new SkyTeam portal only surfaces paid options. If you’re looking for SkyTeam award routes, Air France’s booking portal is still your best bet.
Featured image of SkyTeam livery at Atlanta (ATL) airport by the author.