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

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A Travel Snob Returns to Disney World

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Magic Kingdom

My childhood was marked by several nurturing constants: a loving home environment, a strong network of faith and friends, and yearly trips to Disney World. And while the former two are still very much a part of my life, the latter has, in the past decade been noticeably absent.

In a sense you can blame Disney itself for that – between the enticing pavilions of World Showcase in EPCOT and (back in the day) attractions such as If You Had Wings, I was exposed at an early age to a sense of wonder and multiculturalism that sticks with me even now. So once I “outgrew” a yearly trip to see the Mouse, I made it a point to visit these far-off locales glorified in the theme parks firsthand – even traveling to all but one of the nations represented around EPCOT’s World Showcase Lagoon (Morocco, how you elude me!).

Just recently, after nearly ten years of trotting the globe seeking the authentic experiences Disney strives to recreate, I returned. I was joined by my parents, sisters, brother-in-law and six nieces and nephews for a family reunion in the place that meant the most to me as a child. This allowed me to compare the progress the parks have made as well as reflect on the nostalgia sparked by one of those constants I mentioned earlier. So if you can remember when Tomorrowland’s colors were blue and white, riding the monorail was the coolest thing ever, and the Contemporary Resort actually was contemporary, read on for a travel snob’s take on what has changed in the past ten years.

The Magic Kingdom

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Main Street USA at night

Nothing is more vintage Disney than the Magic Kingdom. In fact, during my visit they celebrated their 45th anniversary. To me, the best thing about a return to Disney’s signature park was the number of things that stayed the same. Or at least close to being the same. Space Mountain, my favorite ride growing up, had only minor changes, and while racing through the dark I could still see those same meteors whizzing by that I did as a kid. Something about that made me feel good. Both they and I have been floating around for the past 37 years (my first trip was at 4) and it’s nice we can still cross paths.

I was glad to see that Pirates of the Caribbean had the same skeletons playing chess while waiting in line, and even the addition of elements from the more recent movies didn’t detract from the overall sense of nostalgia at seeing a colonial village being pillaged by singing criminals.

Another Adventureland classic, which was once completely ruined by a change in sponsor, was the Enchanted Tiki Room. My inner child was appeased to hear the familiar original soundtrack restored, and I found myself humming along despite not having heard it in more than just the last ten years.

Some additions that I liked: new dining venues such as Be Our GuestA Beauty and the Beast themed restaurant with good food and great ambiance. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was cute, though basically a Snow-White version of Big Thunder Mountain (which sadly, was closed. I was hoping to take another run on the “wildest ride in the wilderness”). The Little Mermaid ride was well-done and in harmony with the singing-animatronics-depicting-movie-scenes that is Fantasyland’s bread and butter. And even the eternal Peter Pan ride, though exactly as it has always been since I was a child, had some changes to the wait line that made it even more interesting.

Best of all, for me at least, was shopping our way out of the park down Main St. USA at night. Say what you want about Disney, they know how to light a park.

EPCOT

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EPCOT

I can still remember as a little boy jumping up and down on our bed in the Contemporary Resort and staring at an artist’s rendition of what EPCOT would look like (yes, I’m that old). While in those days my interest was strictly reserved for the rides of Future World, in later years my appreciation for the pavilions of World Showcase increased. Now, that’s where I preferred to spend the bulk of my time.

I totally understand that in this day and age, theme parks need to unveil newer, flashier rides and attractions to keep people coming. But I do feel a certain sense of loss that some of those stalwarts of my childhood have been converted to ‘thrill’-type rides at the expense of their predecessors. For instance, the Test Track attraction – which in my opinion is only interesting when you take a high-speed lap around the building at the end – has nowhere near the charm or appeal (unless you’re an 8 year-old boy) as the former World of Motion (complete with the caveman blowing on his foot). Ditto with Mission to Mars which – though admittedly much more interactive – doesn’t compare with the vision of the future presented in Horizons.

Perhaps the biggest change was the Journey Into Imagination ride. This was my EPCOT favorite growing up, and I was appalled when it was changed nearly twenty years ago into an antiseptic disappointment of a ride. To Disney’s credit, they have restored Figment, its resident mascot and stuffed animal marketing draw, as well as the catchy “One Little Spark” tune. But alas the whimsical world of the Dreamport has not returned, being replaced by an Imagination Institute that doesn’t nearly compare to the charm that mesmerized me as a kid and had me wishing a trip through my own imagination were possible. Now, at over forty years old, the attraction’s biggest draw for me are the restrooms strategically located around back, which I have cleverly dubbed: the Journey Into Urination.

The best addition to the EPCOT theme park? No, not the new Frozen ride – that is unless you’re a six year-old girl dressed as a princess. It’s the Soarin’ attraction, originally borrowed from Disney’s California Adventure, and recently converted from a flight simulation over California to a journey to points of interest around the world, complete with wind in your face and even a grassy smell when hovering above a herd of elephant in front of Mt. Kilamanjaro. I’m not going to lie. This ride really appealed to my inner travel snob – especially when there were many scenes that I recognized from my own travels.

Disney Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom

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Animal Kingdom

These parks are still too new in my opinion to be ‘classic’, though I did appreciate that the Great Movie Ride was essentially the same and the Muppet 3D Movie was just as funny as I remembered it. At Hollywood Studios I really enjoyed the Toy Story Midway ride – a contest with the other person in your car through a virtual fairground midway which is good for some laughs and even bragging rights (just ask my wife). Excellent too was the updated Star Tours simulation incorporating elements from the new movie into what was back in the day my favorite attraction in the park.

In both Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom, I was highly impressed with the nightly shows. At HS there was a fireworks-studded, flame shooting, laser-firing Star Wars medley that would impress fans and non-fans alike. And at Animal Kingdom, which is now open in the evening, they somehow create the illusion of the animals in the big tree moving around before a set of four shows projected onto the tree depicting various seasons. As someone who has seen a lot of cool things, I thought myself above sticking around to watch the shows. But I was definitely impressed. Well-played, Mouse. I give you credit for that.

Another Return?

As great a job as Disney does in recreating places both real and imagined, I find it impossible to shake the reality that I’m really still in Central Florida (the humidity doesn’t help either). With so many real places to see and experience it feels unproductive to dedicate the time and funds to re-live the things I’ve seen so many times before. But I have to say, the sense of nostalgia and charm were soothing, and if I didn’t get into the whole ‘Disneyverse’ like I used to I was still happy to be there, making new memories with my loved ones and in the case of my nieces and nephews, seeing the parks through their young eyes. So while I have no immediate plans to visit again anytime soon, I cannot feasibly say it’s off the table. Even to a self-admitted travel snob, it’s a small world after all…

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Sunset Over Disney World

 

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Putting the ‘Art’ into the Art of Travel

Travel is known to inspire many things: wanderlust, broader horizons, and sometimes even cases of good-natured envy. Among artistic types, the scenes and experiences had while traveling have often served as a muse – just ask Paul Gauguin, Ansel Adams and the people who’ve created those fascinating travel posters during the last century. Regarding the latter, I’ve always admired the style, artistry and design sense displayed in their productions. So it’s no surprise that when my internal need to create became too loud to ignore, I directed my efforts into a creative outlet that echoed the travelers who have gone before me, and put in visual form my own twist on those posters of the past.

How it started

For me, my inspiration came during a visit from my parents. My mother -artistic and talented in her own right – wanted to stop into a store called Hobby Lobby. Apparently this craft store is well-known beyond my native Long Island, but since moving to Texas I had never once stepped foot inside. For those of you in those same proverbial shoes, think of an enormous, Texas-sized craft store brimming with enough raw materials and finished goods to keep oneself occupied for the next few decades. All of sudden, my latent creative juices began to flow.

Some of the many items for sale are framed prints, which also include maps and vintage-style travel posters for various locales. Seeing these, I examined them and thought – as many wannabe artists are wont to do – “I can do that”. With my self-imposed challenge in place, I not only picked up some fresh art supplies in a nearby aisle, but also mused about how exactly I was going to reproduce something in that vintage style.

The first attempt

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My first attempt at a travel poster recreation was a map of southern Africa (see above) that detailed my travels in the region. Not only did I design the title to reflect fonts appropriate to the setting, but came up with the idea of several insets that were entirely based on my own photographs. I was quite pleased with the end result and this 30″x 40″ painting still generates conversation among my house guests.

Keeping it goingsouthamerposter

The problem with opening any creative jar is that once you get going, its hard to stop. There’s an inborn need to improve and expand one’s work. Or at least that’s my own take. It might be my mild case of OCD or eating Mexican food after 9PM, but once inspiration strikes me I find it difficult to tear my mind away from future projects.

So, with plenty of wall space still available, I embarked on another project; one that would not only include the same motif of a map with photo-inspired insets, but would now include graphic elements taken from the region. In this case, the toucan, orchids, Inca-syle stone lettering and jungle-like background were all inspired by my travels to the South American continent and are also meaningful to the client (namely, me).

A new line of work?

They say that if you do something you love, you never work a day in your life. I’d tend to agree with that, and I think we’d all agree that the pay is better than actually never working. After consulting with a friend who also happens to be an extremely talented professional artist (click here to see more on him) I decided to try my hand at making paintings on sale to the public. Here’s the first of my generic travel series. For the record, this one’s for sale. If you’re interested in the painting or a print, leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.

posterI’m also considering offering  custom paintings in this inset, vintage travel poster motif. Like anything else, I know I’ll have to get it in front of the right audience, but if you or someone you know would be interested in commissioning a custom painting using their family name and photos, I would welcome the chance to talk about a possible collaboration. My direct email is ben@tripaccomplice.com

Either way

Whether or not this custom travel poster recreation thing turns out to be a viable line of work or just another hobby, I can affirmatively vouch for the satisfaction derived from having a creative outlet and satisfying the artistic need to create. And whether its handicrafts, sketches, sculpture or interpretive dance, don’t forget to venture out into the big wide world for some inspiration. Oh, and you might want to pass by Hobby Lobby as well.

 

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