Many happy returns, honey

Birthdays. Dontcha just love ‘em? Actually, no: I agree with one of my fictional heroes, Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson, that they combine two of my least-favorite things in life: loud noises and people making a fuss.

Doesn’t care and doesn’t care that you know he doesn’t care.

But thankfully for Rebecca and the world at large, Ron’s opinions and mine aren’t representative. And with that in mind, plus the knowledge that I had to make Rebecca’s birthday this year count for two (last year’s was a mid-deportation washout), the trepidation started building mid-August (her birthday is September 6).

Don’t forget: this is a woman who does events for a living and could rustle up a swanky cocktail party in her sleep (I’m glad to say that she doesn’t). She also made me the most lovely handmade birthday card in 2011 and organized a stay at the Conrad Bali and a surprise party with a bunch of friends at Pepe Nero.

So, supremely demanding job notwithstanding, I set about the task of planning this year’s bash about two months before the event. Trouble was, things kept changing: we were to be in the UK for the big day. Then work got in the way of those plans. Then we were going to head out of town, maybe to Lombok. Then ennui and our current cash-strapped status forced those plans off the cards.

Anyway, and of course, the actual card and present were and are location-unspecific. But what to get someone who both controls the purse strings (me and money, we’re not a good mix) and who has tastes that can veer towards the luxurious or towards the very affordable. Mis-steps were possible, even likely. Splash too much cash and I’d be in trouble; be too miserly and I’d be in hot water.

Luckily, Rebecca is blessed with having great friends who also love her dearly. So I enlisted the help of her best pals Corry and Mia to help me shop. Corry went out with Rebecca on one day before and (without arousing any suspicion at all) managed to determine which Kate Spade bag caught Rebecca’s eye. A days later I met with Corry and Mia and we bought the bag, and I bought some materials for my homemade card.

Rebecca is instinctively creative and knows how to press the right birthday buttons with hand-made gifts and expertly spotted knickknacks. As to me, despite being a writer, editor, humorist, wit and intellectual (with delusions of grandeur perhaps), I can be terribly and awkwardly backward when it comes to cards, gifts and the like.

So about a month before the big day, I started working on a homemade card. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, because the danger is that it comes out as rubbishly amateur.

So I toyed with images and scans on the computer, and so the weeks passed. As it got closer and closer and with an increasingly frantic work situation, I found myself comprehensively stressed trying to cut bits of paper out and stick them on bits of card, and so on and so forth (total number of ruined cards: about 12 before I finalized). Meanwhile, behind the scenes, I organized a friends get-together with Corry and for my family to send cards to my office address.

In the end it was impossible to keep some things from Rebecca. We had free-stay (and free-cake) coupons for our favorite hotel, Jakarta’s Grand Hyatt, so I made the arrangements with their helpful PR team (and booked a table for two for the birthday night plus a special card made from one of our pre-wedding photos).

The big day came, and the family cards were left in the lounge. I, meanwhile, lounged in bed as Rebecca went out to eat. She didn’t see the cards—of course—but was pleasingly happy when I pointed them out, especially as they were unexpected. Then my driver brought up the bag, and—praise the Lord—it was not only acceptable, but much, much appreciated.

Thence to the Hyatt. As it turns out, the hotel really did us proud: a cake on arrival and a bottle of Moet (which I largely polished off myself). And later we went for dinner (cue another cake) and an early night: our biggest indulgence any day of the week or year. And I’m happy to report that (with some help from Rebecca, it has to be said) a family gathering and the friend’s gathering went off without any hitch at all.

That weekend really was dedicated to Rebecca and I’m pleased that it all worked; I can be somewhat self-absorbed and I don’t even know I’m doing it. But more than that, I’m happy I was able to make Rebecca happy. After all, birthday or not, that’s what counts. So here’s to next year: and two April birthdays? Hmmmm.

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H for hotel (part 1)

View from our room at Meritus Mandarin at Orchard Rd., Singapore

We worked in travel magazines (and at one point of our careers Matthew and I were rivals).

He and I met on a coffee corner at a convention centre where a travel trade show was held.

The first 12 hours we’ve ever spent together involved: a party on a hotel rooftop, another party in a hotel ballroom, and a room-service midnight dinner in another hotel room.

In the first year we’ve been a couple we’ve stayed in more than 30 hotels, mostly in Southeast Asia and including some that were under renovation or even under construction.

Those were fun facts about us that lead to this blog post. We’re summing up a list of things in a hotel we fancy and/or found handy. I think this would be helpful for hoteliers who are designing and building hotels at the moment. For fellow travellers, this list will be useful in choosing your next camp!

On a site inspection at a big white colonial private villa. East Bali.

Attending a travel & tourism summit, NOT as an Egyptian delegate, obviously. Westin Resort Bali.

Things we need and want in a hotel when we’re on a business trip…

  • First and foremost: high-speed Internet connection, preferably free and wireless. These days we may not bring our computers with us but only portable tablets that depend on WIFI. Also, this is not the era where you put on “auto-reply: out office” when you’re travelling. You’re expected to be online anywhere and at anytime.
  • A big working desk is appreciated. Even better: one that has multiple and universal electricity sockets. A club/suite room normally features a study or a working station. The separation makes it easier for you to focus when working or trying to sleep.
  • Iron and ironing board. Even better: free ironing service. This service is normally offered for club/suite guests so don’t be shy to ask, as it is mostly only valid on arrival.
  • Portable hairdryer. I know that hotels fear that guests will steal hairdryer but there must be a way to prevent this other than plugging it to the wall of the bathroom. Some of us have long hair and need to look sharp for that important business meeting, so it needs work for at least half an hour. And we’d like to dry our hair while watching TV, please.
  • Full cable service. Business travellers normally stay alone in the room. It gets boring if you only have limited channels on TV (and no Internet connection!). Even better: a DVD player and a library of DVDs for guests to borrow.

The coziest rooms we could find (so far) in Singapore that has greenery as the view. Fort Canning Hotel.

  • Room service that comes at 30 minutes or less. This is pretty standard actually, but we could get food delivered from outside the hotel for the same wait. So when we stay in a hotel that delivers at 20 minutes, we tend to order in, especially if our schedule is packed and we can’t be bothered to explore what the foreign city has to offer.
  • Breakfast in bed. Eating alone is no fun. Ironically, the only hotels that serve in-room breakfast without extra charge are honeymoon hotels, not business hotels. I guess it would be a hectic service if all thousand of your guests order in-room breakfast every time.

More praise for Fort Canning Hotel: most distinctive room service tray!

When we’re company delegates:

  • If given the choice, we would stick to the budget but choose our own hotel
  • We choose free WIFI over breakfast inclusion
  • We would order a paid airport transfer over public taxi for comfort, safety and security
  • We don’t care for iPod docks, we care about user-friendly control panels and uncomplicated lighting systems
  • Swimming pool and gym are not a consideration but would be nice to have for when we feel like it

Breakfast with a view. Karma Kandara, Bali.

Yes, we were on a business trip in Bali. It was for an interview and photo op, also attending a beach club opening. Envy us, please. And now we’re wishing we could have a nickel for every person that envies us 😉

Now, if you wanna know our preference when we travel as a couple, read here.

H for hotel (part 2)

This is the second page about what we appreciate in hotel rooms that we’ve stayed in. As a business traveller, we have different needs and wants. As a couple travelling without children…

  • A his-and-hers sink arrangement is a very good way to keep things tidy and peaceful. It allows us to have our own territory and to save time before going out as each of us can do our thing at the same time. Even better: an extra bathroom. This feature can easily be found on a club/suite level or a two-bedroom condotel or villa.
  • And speaking of bathrooms, we prefer ones that have perfect privacy. We have seen a number of design on boutique hotels and villas that actually have clear glass walls around the toilet or have a big open window from bedroom to bathroom. When travelling with a partner, you don’t want them to be THAT intimate with your bathroom business.
  • Balcony, preferably with a view. Maybe it’s the English part of us, maybe it’s just a vanity, but we do like to have tea in the afternoon on a balcony and enjoy the natural sunlight and breeze.

My birthday present for Matthew’s 41st: two nights in the sun. Conrad Bali.

  • Couple’s room spa. We may have separation anxiety issues but even if we were normal, isn’t it nice to have a spa treatment with your spouse in the same room?
  • Turn-down service. There’s something sexy about a white, clean, and made-up bed. This is what couples don’t normally get at home. Coming back to our hotel bed after a dinner out is something to look forward to when we know our room would have been made up. Even better: chocolate as turn-down favors. I have to say, I rarely find this in Asia.
  • Full-on butler service. Just another vanity. We’ve used this service to our delight! From drawing us a bath to packing our overloaded suitcases.

One of the most modest places we’ve ever stayed it but the coffee-shop serves coffee unrivaled by 5-star hotels. Fortville Guesthouse Bangkok.

When we book for a short getaway:

  • We choose location over luxury
  • We can stay in a budget hotel but never in a place that has no amenities, TV, and daily housekeeping
  • We would pay more for room size
  • We would not dine in the hotel, mostly because we want to explore the area and/or eat local food
  • We appreciate hotels that commit to providing a double bed when we book a double bed. Not a lot of hotels can guarantee this nowadays

Simple, cozy, and at a great location. Grey Hotel Bali.

Trust us, it’s NOT about the journey, it’s about the destination!

In the ocean of articles and blog posts on how people LOVE travelling, I’m glad you found this one. The past three years have been the busiest years for Matthew and I. Between us, we have booked over 250 flights in the past 36 months (even so, we don’t have the largest amount of air miles among our friends). Here’s why we hate the travelling part of travelling:

1. The getting to airport. No matter who’s paying for the ticket, we always choose the best available rate (because we feel guilty enough about the carbon footprint!). Therefore, we’re punished with stupid-o’clock flight schedule and worst transit scenarios (either too long or cutting it fine). Because of this, we need to wake up or stay awake at weird hours. Matthew is a chronic insomniac to start with, so messing with his sleeping schedule does not help. And I have serious tummy issues when being awake for too long or too early: hunger pangs.

One day, we needed to catch a 6am flight with Lion Air from Jakarta to Singapore. I didn’t know that terminal 2F Soekarno-Hatta airport is not ON for 24 hours. There’s no lounge or food counter open at dawn. After wailing excessively to poor Matthew, who obviously couldn’t do anything, we found a warung inside the terminal. I was surprised that there is such a thing! It’s a typical Indonesian warung: no AC, full of roaches and rats, sells instant pot noodles, and smoking is allowed.

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Cheap airfare gives you sunrise at the airport!

What discomforts Matthew the worst are the physical labours of the transfers: getting luggage down to the apartment lobby, stowing the luggage to the car trunk, getting the luggage out of the car and to the airport trolley, and so on and so forth. My quick answer to this in Indonesia is: bellboy and porter. Sadly, in countries like Singapore and Hong Kong, such service (even in 5-star hotels) is rarely available.

2. Effing around at the airport. You may have read our version of Amazing Race Asia and may understand that we’re not too keen on airports. But what we don’t enjoy specifically is the security screening and why can’t they find a way to make it efficient. Also, online check-in does not make baggage check in quicker. Why? Because there are so many rookie travellers who don’t prepare their documents and money for airport tax (in a few countries in Southeast Asia, you still have to pay this at check-in). Add to this: general people’s stupidity at unlikely hours.

Again, for Matthew it’s the physical challenges that hurt: the ridiculously long walk from drop-off to check-in counter to lounge to gate to the actual plane. Then the temperature of airports, which is mostly very cold, but can be very hot due to laughably outrageous design flaws like the glassy Suvarnabhumi airport. Plus, airport toilets can be appallingly dirty or far or hidden.

3. Boring boarding time. OK, no matter how many books, magazines, and iPod playlists that we bring, boarding time sucks. You can’t really be into something in case you’re called on PA. Um, it happened to me twice: being the last one to board because I was watching a TV show on my laptop.

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On my 27th birthday, alone at Hong Kong Int’l Airport on a 4 hour delay T_T

Provided there’s no flight delays, Matthew claims that waiting during boarding time is no issue for him; he can just sit and do nothing.

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This is Matt, doing nothing. At T3 Soekarno-Hatta airport.

The issue is the physical hassle to be into the gate with the extra security X-ray (are you noticing a recurring theme here?). At Changi airport, you have to take your gadgets out of the bag too. One time I was queuing behind a fit Chinese guy in his 50s that had to take a gizmo out of his bag. The security guards were examining it. Baffled. No idea what the finger-size glassware was. The guy finally said, “It’s for sex okay!”

4. The actual take-off. Nobody likes being seated up straight in a confined space, and buckled up next to strangers. Plus, we’re not allowed to listen to music. Plus, we never know if our neighbours bothered to shower. PLUS, some parents are too stupid not to anticipate what air pressure will do to their baby’s ears. And I have no idea why it’s not mandatory for flight attendants to advise people who fly with children!

Matthew enjoys the fact that it is the most peaceful time on the plane, provided that there’s no baby screaming bloody murder. He does still have the child-like excitement of taking off, even knowing that most plane crashes happen at take-off and landing.

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Taking off from Ngurah Rai airport Bali ^_^

5. Tedious air travel. Remember when you’re a kid and you’re excited to fly? I do feel that still, sometimes. Normally when I’m flying to a new destination or with a new airline. But that excitement wears off as the plane takes off. And of course, when you feel like it’s been forever, you find out that you’re only half way there.

The only two things that made flying feels quick for me are: being stinking drunk, straight from the last club in Bangkok to catch my 6am flight back to Bali (only happened once) and TV show marathon on a fully charged MacBook. By the way, I used portable DVD player to pacify me during traffic jam back when I was working full time in Jakarta.

Me and my best travel companion =)

Matthew occasionally finds it easy to sleep during flight. He thinks it’s the buzzing sound of the engine. But most of the time, it is when the boredom/irritation starts to kick in. One AirAsia flight attendant woke him up just to try and sell their merchandise. That’s annoying. However, fellow passengers are always the culprits of a negative flying experience.

Stupid passengers are worst than turbulence and I have experienced sudden altitude drop! Some of passengers that ever sat next to me are: an old Chinese man sneezing during the entire flight, an Arabian extra large man spraying himself with a cologne every 15 minutes, an Indonesian domestic worker watching my personal in-flight entertainment despite having her own at her own seat, and an Indonesian guy with a 3-year-old boy on his lap that kept kicking my legs while screaming. Also on the list is a disturbingly handsome Brazilian guy that did not ask for my number.

6. Immigration line. A few times is enough times to want to punch an immigration officer in Indonesian airports for inefficiency and lack of respect. Enough said.

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Long lines at immigration check T3 Soekarno-Hatta airport, just because there are only 2 officers out of 6 cubicles

7. Waiting around destination airport for baggage and transfer to hotel. Emotionally, we’re slightly glad that we arrived safely. But there is still a room for a mix-up: baggage claim. I’m happy to report that we’ve never lost our baggage ever. We are also clever enough to have huge stabilo-boss yellow and very gay purple suitcases. They are easy to spot and hard to miss.

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Landed on HK airport, pick up baggage, hop on a train to the main island, hop into a cab to bring me downtown… at zero-hundred hour!

Even though baggage claim is rarely an issue, the transfer to hotel is can be tricky if you are unfamiliar with the destination. If you can afford it, I advise you to always get airport transfers service from the hotel you’re staying at. But more often than not, we travel on a budget. So, do master your airport-hotel route and prepare the fare in their currency before you fly. That’s another thing: exchange the money before you travel!

Matthew and I have experienced being stranded in Dubai in the middle of the night just because we didn’t have enough dirham to pay for taxi to get from where we were to our hotel. We walked to the nearest mall to find moneychanger but they needed passport for it (not the photocopy we always carry with us). Of course our real passports are in the safety deposit box, in the hotel!

8. The front office saga. We often travel compliments of the hotel management. But no matter how many stars a hotel has, someone in some department can manage to stuff up our room reservation. And then we have to call up higher management and everybody’s embarrassed. And for the entire stay, we’re known as “that couple that gets the room for free”. Good thing is, we normally build good rapport with our butlers. One of them is Karen at St. Regis Bangkok, who diligently took pictures of us before we went out.

One of the pictures that Karen The Butler took of us in the suite.

And then there’s the awkward silence Matthew and I have when we got to the room. The wait until the bellboy comes with our yellow and purple luggage. More awkward moments? Trying to think whether it’s okay to tip in that country and how much in their currency is appropriate. By the time we finish calculating, the bellboy is already at the door, wishing us a pleasant stay and shutting the door behind him. Then for a split second, we feel guilty. It soon passes.

When it’s all over, we take in the view from our room, marvel at the amenities, flip through the TV channels, unpack, and then shower. Feeling shattered and ready to sleep in yet another foreign bed.

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Our Jakarta residence, when we were not Jakarta residents.
At Ritz-Carlton Pacific Place.

Banged up abroad!

Matthew posted a three-part story about our Southeast Asian adventure that started the day he got deported. He promised himself to blog about it… but because it’s a long story and he’d been back traveling since then, it took him 4 months to finish the story. Here, I’m going to help you with a synopsis and links to read his posts.

This is a story about an editor-in-chief of the bestselling travel magazine in Asia, a British passport holder who was based in Bangkok and had a girlfriend who lived in Bali. Obviously, he traveled a lot to Asian countries, namely Indonesia, China, and Cambodia, all of which give out large visa stickers on visitor’s passport. Even though his passport wouldn’t expire until 2019, it’s a no brainer that he would need a fresh one much sooner than 2019.

Naturally, this series of unfortunate events include the British government issuing a new regulation that says all British in Asia that wishes to renew their passport shall send it to Hong Kong office and wait for 4 weeks to get a new one. This regulation was issued in 2011, just the year when Matthew travels fortnightly.

(rather) fresh passport but full of stamps

Around the time when there was no blank full-page in his passport, we were planning to get engaged in the UK, so he thought he might as well renew the passport in London. But *long sigh* since Matthew doesn’t live in the UK, he cannot renew it in London. God save the Queen!

Change of plans: Matthew secured a job in Jakarta (Hallelujah!), so why not just go to Indonesia with what was left in his passport page and stay there for a month till he gets a new one out of Hong Kong (*rolls eyes*).

It was the Muslim’s Lebaran holiday that week. Since I tragically lived in Bali at the time, we both flew from Bangkok to Bali to unwind for a few days before Matthew starts his first day.

I got my baggage and waited for Matthew’s long immigration queue. It was way too long. Apparently, he had been moved to detention. It’s official: Matthew Beech Leppard is being deported.

You would think two people with connections like us could have asked someone to help out, wouldn’t you? Well, it was August 29, a public holiday in the UK and the next day was August 30, a public holiday in Indonesia. All of our friends in the “high places” were on a nice long vacation and incommunicado.

De.port.ed.

It means, he would be sent to his last port, the one city he had grown to hate: Bangkok.

Since I was innocent, immigration wise, I was free to go. But looking at my poor refugee, I guess I could be the Good Will Ambassador and stayed with him. But staying in an airport requires one thing: a flight ticket. That’s right, I bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok, while canceling all my meetings and gatherings for the following weeks.

The Terminal

He needed me. I have never been certain about anything else. He needed a translator while being held captive for 24 hours in Bali airport. He needed a personal assistant while his big-move suitcases were scattered in Bali, Jakarta, and Bangkok. He needed a mother to protect him from cockroaches or just cocks. He needed a secretary to book his next flight, appointment with multiple embassies, find a room to decamp, and an ongoing flight to ensure any immigration we would have to encounter that Matthew was not going to permanently stay there, where ever “there” is.

So we went back to Bangkok...  Thank goodness Muslim holidays are not celebrated in Thailand. The UK embassy was open! Matthew got his single travel emergency passport.

One.Single.Travel.To.Indonesia. Alright!

Short of cash and short of breath. We decided to take a road trip to Pattaya and have a taste of backpacking.

Of course, with Matthew’s bad back and my menstrual period, we ended up dragging suitcases on the streets. I managed to feel good about myself. Easy. Just look at every single woman in Pattaya.

I celebrated my birthday in Bangkok, on our way back to Indonesia. This time, we opted for a direct flight to Jakarta.

We arrived midnight, buying us enough time in the morning to get Matthew’s photo taken for his new passport application. But the British government asked someone in Jakarta who is not a family member to write a statement that they have known Matthew for over 2 years. Man, he just arrived 7 hours ago! C’mon!

Well, the following day I was due to fly back to Bali. I had to wrap it around my head that I actually have a job to keep. So I left Matthew in Jakarta without a single paper that says who he was.

Today, he has about a dozen of papers, books, and cards that say: Matthew Beech Leppard, subject of the Queen, resident of Jakarta, technical advisor of a media mogul, fiance of Fredina Rebecca. Phew.

Suite surrender: where to stay!

Coming to the wedding but need a place to rest your head amid the celebrations? Here are our hot picks to suit all budgets and expectations. And yes, I usually tend to write in magazine PR blurb… It’s my job.

The Grey Boutique Inn
http://thegreybalihotel.com
Few-frills 2-star boutique accommodation with free Wi-Fi—always a plus in our books—this little find may be the perfect place to nap before and after the nuptials. Located on sunset road, this is a great base camp when you’re not at the wedding.
Budget: USD35++ (IDR300,000++) per night for a superior room for two. Let them know that you’re our guests and receive a special rate of IDR300,000 nett!
Address: The Grand Kuta Residence Lane No 8x, Seminyak, Kuta 80361
Email: thegreybali@gmail.com
Tel: +62 361 847 5937

Holiday Inn Baruna Bali
http://www.bali.holidayinn.com
The entire Holiday Inn brand (and, therefore, properties) recently underwent a much-needed renovation and overhaul. The 1970’s-style motel associations are gone, and in their place are modern amenities and a touch of efficient luxury. The Bali property is no exception: well appointed and ideal for the whole family, it boasts a beachfront location, too. Comes with our personal recommendation.
Budget: US$170++ (IDR1.5m++) per night for a superior room for two.
Address: Jalan Wana Segara, Bali 80361
Email: baruna@bali.holidayinn.com
Tel: +62 361 755 577

The Intercontinental Bali Resort
http://bali.intercontinental.com
Another personal recommendation, the InterCon is an upmarket five-star stay in Uluwatu, about halfway between the chapel and the party venue. Somewhat exclusive, the price reflects the property’s charm and Bali beauty, but you get what you pay for in the service, the spa and the seclusion. At “press time” domestic travelers also get a special package, so book now!
Budget: US$240++ (IDR2.15m++) for a classic room for two
Address: Jalan Uluwatu 45, Jimbaran 80361
Email: mailto:bali@interconti.com
Tel: +62 361 701888

Fave Hotel Seminyak
http://www.favehotels.com/location.php?id=MTY=&page=Mjk=
Fresh, fun and funky… Yep, all the “effs” seem to apply to this 2-star central-Seminyak stop. It also describes itself as “functional” which means it’s not one for the luxe crowd. But if you want a place just to rest your head and that doesn’t cost the earth (and you love Bali bar-hopping and other distraction pre- or post-wedding), this just might be the place for you.
Budget: USD40++ (IDR 360,000++)
Address: Jl. Abimanyu (Dhyana Pura) No. 9A, Seminyak, Bali
Email: SeminyakInfo@FaveHotels.Com
Tel: +62 361 739 000

Nipuri Hotel
http://www.nipurihotel.com/
Perhaps the best-placed property among those listed here for the wedding (it shares the same zip code with the reception location), the Nipuri is nestled near a peaceful rice field. With attractive facilities, a certain style and grace and a very affordable price point, the Nipuri offers a minimalist rest away from the bustle of Kuta.
Budget: USD30++ (IDR270++) for a twin room for two
Address: Jln. Batu Belig No. 16X – Batu Belig, Kerobokan, Kuta
Email: info@nipurihotel.com
Tel: +62 361 415 899

W Retreat & Spa Seminyak
http://www.starwoodhotels.com/whotels/property/overview/index.html?propertyID=3221
We were there for the soft opening and the grand launch (and a grand hangover, I freely but ashamedly admit) so it seems fitting to include this homage to wonderful excess. Decked out with dazzling decor and with a fabulous array of dining options (a sumptuous W breakfast is the only way to start the day), this is the second-best place to see and be seen. (The best being our wedding, of course.)
Budget: US$320++ (IDR2.8++) for a standard room for two
Address: Jln. Petitenget, Seminyak, Bali 80361
Email:  whotels.bali@whotels.com
Tel: +62 361 473 8106