Monthly Archives: December 2016

Hotel Review: The Samata, Bali

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The Samata’s main pool in the public area

At the tail end of my latest whirlwind Southeast Asia tour, what I really wanted more than anything else was to have some privacy and time to relax. If you’re coming to Bali for that, I can enthusiastically say that the Samata is the place for you.

Our positive experience started right from the airport where the driver was waiting for us with a placard (which was even nicer then the cheap print-out of the Four Seasons – just sayin’). He took our bags, gave us cool towels and took us on the approximately 45 minute ride northeast to the hotel.

The public areas are gorgeous, with two long pools and comfortable lounges. We were technically there in the “off” season so it was not at all crowded. Even if it were, once we were ushered into our gorgeous two bedroom villa (2) we would have left them all behind.

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The Master Suite (2 bedroom villa) at the Samata, Bali

The canopy beds with mosquito netting were soft and clean, the outdoor shower and tub were charming and the decor was distinctly Balinese. The enormous, open-air covered living area was a great place to relax (we loved the driftwood couch) in between dips in our private infinity pool – where we spent the majority of our time looking out at the rice paddies in front of us. There was a dining and kitchen area but we had no time for that, and food on Bali was so cheap that it wouldn’t have been worth the hassle.

Breakfast is included and was beyond just a basic meal. You’re offered a juice, coffee or tea (go with the Balinese coffee – it’s a little muddy by the end but delicious) then a selection of fantastic dishes. I highly recommend the vanilla French Toast and berry pancakes.

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The main building, restaurant and reception at the Samata, Bali

Twice we decided to have dinner in the onsite restaurant, and while it was a slightly pricier than the restaurants in nearby Sanur, the food was just as good as the breakfast was, and still very reasonably priced if you’re coming from Europe or the U.S.

They have spa and massage treatments onsite but I just opted to get the standard $5-$6 massage offered about every other 15 feet in town. I wouldn’t be surprised if “massage?” is the most widely known English word on the island.

There are tennis courts, a well-equipped fitness center and yoga studio on the grounds – not that I used them. If you want to work up a sweat in Bali, all you have to do is stand outside.

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Private pool with a view, the Samata, Bali

Depending on the driver’s availability, they offer free shuttle service to Sanur, which is about 10-15 minutes to the south. You’re on your own getting back, but finding a Blue Bird cab (they have meters) isn’t hard and only costs a few bucks. Make sure you take the hotel’s business card as the hotel is tucked away in a backstreet and not all cab drivers know exactly where it is.

Best of all was the staff. They were exceedingly polite and Leni in particular was a most excellent hostess. They arranged a private driver for a tour up to Ubud and the rice paddies that was competitive, though not quite as cheap (but still really cheap) as the operators in town. They even just charged it to our room which made things easier.

Some details worth knowing: Wi-fi is included and refreshingly fast compared to some other places in Asia. Air conditioning works well too, which regardless of when you visit, is something to be grateful for.

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The ample living area in the two bedroom villa, The Samata, Bali

There is a beach not far from the hotel (you can see the water from your balcony) or you can just go down to Sanur. From here, you’re approximately a 45- minute ride from the much more lively Seminyak /Legian/Kuta area. The area immediately around the hotel is not particularly interesting or suited for tourists unless you’re looking to buy a giant stone statue or wood carving from the dealers lining the main road. And if you stay in villa two, there’s a tall window in the master bedroom without a curtain, so if you have friends or relatives staying in the other bedroom, be cautious when prancing around after using your outdoor shower.

We got a spectacular deal – probably since it was the low season – that meant for less than one night in Manhattan our group of four stayed in our private two bedroom villa. If you’re looking to splurge then this is a great spot. I cannot say enough good things about this place, and if you’re looking for the quiet, but not too quiet part of Bali, and don’t feel like partying over in hopping Kuta, The Samata is just right

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Kaohsiung, Taiwan – The Nicest Little City You’ve Never Heard Of

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Nighttime on Lotus Lake, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a geography buff. I revel in being able to hear of some obscure place and then pinpoint it on a map from memory alone. And if I come across as a bit of a show off, it’s not due to any bad intent, but rather a real love for the subject. So when I was invited to attend a convention held in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, you can imagine my chagrin when I was obligated to look it up on a map. Little did I know then, that it would turn out to be the nicest little city I’d never heard of – and chances are, you’ve never heard of it either.

The Basics

Calling Kaohsiung (pronounced GOW-shung) a ‘little city’ is actually a misnomer. It has a population of around 2.7 million people and is Taiwan’s second largest city. To put that in perspective, that’s about 4 times the population of Boston and 3 times that of San Francisco (not counting the surrounding areas). As an American whose familiarity with Taiwan was mainly connected to the words “Made In”, Taiwan’s second city was a nice surprise and fitting site to wipe away my ignorance.

The city is found in the extreme south of Taiwan, and being located inside the tropics, the weather is understandably hot and humid. The primary part of the city is clustered around the port area, as well as the Love River. Like everywhere else in Taiwan it is clean, safe and boasts many modern conveniences.

Getting There & Around

To my knowledge, there are no direct flights from North America or Europe directly to Kaohsiung. This means that you either need to connect in a nearby Asian city, or fly into Taipei (TPE) and take a high speed train down to Kaohsiung. Since my best-priced flight was nonstop Houston to Taipei on EVA Airlines (a great airline, by the way) I opted for the latter.

Getting the high speed train is not as complicated or frightening as you might think. At Taoyaun International Airport there is a counter selling tickets for the bus (follow the signs for Bus for High Speed Rail). It costs about NT$30 (or about $1 US) and the trip takes about 20-25 minutes. At the HSR station, buy a ticket for Zuoying Station, which is in the northern area of Kaohsiung. Depending on which train you take, the trip will take between 1.5 to 2 hours, and give you an ample look at the entire length of the western coastline.

From Zuoying you can take the Kaohsiung Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), which is a subway system to points all around the city. You can buy tickets at the ticket counters or from automated machines. Fares are based on the distance you travel. Simply tap on your desired destination and you’ll see how much money to insert (having coins is easiest as not all machines accept banknotes or credit cards). At this point you’ll receive a blue token that will get you past the turnstyles – DO NOT LOSE IT! You’ll need to insert it in the turnstyles on the way out.

Taxis are plentiful and cheap, and their only drawback is that they’re subject to street traffic just like everyone else. But if your destination isn’t too far away and you don’t feel like walking in the stifling humidity, I highly recommend them. Just keep in mind that not all drivers speak English, so having your destination written down in Chinese will save some time and confusion.

What to See

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Tuntex Sky Tower, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

One of the reasons Kaohsiung isn’t terribly well known in the Western world is that it doesn’t have what can be described as world-class attractions. Still, there are some things to see and do to keep you busy for a few days.

The Tuntex Sky Tower or 85 Sky Tower is the tallest building in the city by far, and also the city’s unofficial icon. Located near the port and exhibition center, it was built to resemble the Chinese character meaning “tall”, which is certainly appropriate. You can take a trip up to the 74th floor for views of the city, which are nice though hardly on par with the Empire State Building or Eiffel Tower. Or you can do as I did and stay at the hotel located inside which offered similar views and an excellent breakfast buffet.

The Love River area is popular after dark, as are the various Night Markets that come to life with the setting of the sun. Personally, the smells from the various food vendors did little to spark my appetite, but the nighttime bustle and lights do make for a pleasant ambiance.

There are several parks in the city and its surroundings, but my favorite spot by far is Lotus Lake, nearby to Zuoying Station (yes, the same place you got off the HSR). This serene lake is ringed by numerous statues, temples, pavilions and trails, all of which make for great photos and a peaceful night’s stroll. My favorite was the Tiger and Dragon pagodas, each with a huge representation of their respective namesakes guarding the entrances. I can say from experience that coming around sunset and watching the lights come on one by one is one of the most enjoyable scenes in the entire city.

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Dragon and Tiger Pagodas

For shopping addicts, there are modern shopping malls throughout the city – many several stories high and each seemingly equipped with large food courts catering to all palates. If street food isn’t doing it for you, this is a good option. But I have to say, the stores here are all the same stores (and prices) of upscale malls back home. So if you’re looking for unique products (or souvenirs) you’ll be quite disappointed with the commercial homogeny you’ll find everywhere in Asia.

If you’re looking for a more natural setting, another place of note is located about an hour outside the city. The Maolin National Scenic Area is found right in the rugged Central Mountain Range that serves as the island’s spine. The primary draw here – aside from the gorgeous mountain scenery – is its location as a spot to see the Purple Crow Butterflies – which at certain times of the year (such as November when I visited) are around in large numbers. Nearby is the Duona High Suspension Bridge, which is exactly what its name would suggest. This huge pedestrian span crosses a beautiful gorge and allows for some great photo opportunities. For more on these sites and others in the area, click here for the official website.

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Duona HIgh Suspention Bridge, Maolin National Scenic Area

Odds and Ends

While Mandarin Chinese is the official language, most signage will also include English, so finding streets, buildings and your way around the MRT shouldn’t be much of a problem. Prices in general aren’t all that expensive in Western terms, so even a hotel like the 85 Sky Tower can be relatively reasonable. The people in Taiwan were almost to a person quite friendly and helpful. And as I mentioned before, it really is a very safe destination, so don’t hesitate to venture out after dark for the bustle and buzz of Chinese nightlife.

Kaohsiung will likely never be on the main Asian tourist circuit, and honestly, I couldn’t say it would be worth traveling halfway across the planet on its own merit. But if you do find yourself in the Orient, and would like an easy, comfortable location for experiencing Chinese culture without having to get a visa, Kaohsiung is a worthy option. And you just might find that its the nicest little city that you’ve never heard of – until recently.

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Sunset on Lotus Lake, Kaohsiung, Taiwan

Have you been to Kaohsiung? Share your thoughts by commenting below

Categories: Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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