Brunei’s most glam­orous ho­tel may be an al­co­hol-free zone but its op­u­lence can make guests giddy , re­ports Leonie Coombes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

IF you feel in need of some right royal treat­ment, find a ho­tel owned by a king, I say. The Em­pire Ho­tel and Coun­try Club in Brunei Darus­salam is one of sev­eral pres­ti­gious ho­tels be­long­ing to the Sul­tan of this tiny na­tion.

The Dorch­ester in Lon­don and the Bev­erly Hills Ho­tel in Los An­ge­les are also part of his ac­com­mo­da­tion port­fo­lio and sig­nify the stan­dard of op­u­lence that the Em­pire at­tains.

Built in 2000 and set on 180ha of trop­i­cal beach­front, the front steps trans­port guests to a palace. Ital­ian white mar­ble cov­ers prac­ti­cally ev­ery sur­face. Splen­dour ranges wide, from the ceil­ings and col­umns adorned with 24-carat gold to the Bac­carat and Mu­rano ob­jets d’art in the lobby.

The most ar­rest­ing fea­ture, how­ever, is the soar­ing atrium, en­closed by a breath­tak­ing moun­tain-face of glass.

Eyes are drawn past the 53m-high col­umns sup­port­ing this ar­chi­tec­tural marvel to a man-made par­adise be­yond. Vis­i­ble from all the ho­tel’s pub­lic ar­eas are oceanic pools, park-like gar­dens and far pav­il­ions that know no bound­aries ex­cept the South China Sea.

A nig­gling fear that all the money might have been blown on the lobby proves un­founded. The Em­pire Ho­tel is im­pres­sive through­out. Even a dou­ble deluxe room is twice the size of­fered by most ho­tels and fam­i­lies can spread out in gen­er­ous, self-con­tained vil­las with private pools.

But it is in a ju­nior suite that delu­sions of grandeur can be prop­erly in­dulged. A spa­cious, high-ceilinged sit­ting room re­plete with fine furniture leads to a re­gal bed­room.

Sleep is as­sured in gi­ant cus­tom­made beds dressed in Egyp­tian cot­ton sheets with a thread count so dizzy­ing it is best to lie down im­me­di­ately.

For­tu­nately, just within reach is a panel op­er­at­ing the television, lights and mo­torised cur­tains that open to re­veal a ter­race and sparkling ocean. Wal­low­ing in lux­ury can be more pur­pose­fully pur­sued in the spa, po­si­tioned for the views.

It all feels grand un­til one catches a glimpse of the Em­peror’s suite. Oc­cu­pied by such no­ta­bles as Bill Clin­ton and Bri­tain’s Princess Alexandra, th­ese rooms are filled with the kind of os­ten­ta­tious furniture that im­por­tance de­mands. Mu­rano glass chan­de­liers and a grand pi­ano in­laid with moth­erof-pearl are ad­di­tional tri­fles.

An in­door pool over­hung by a mo­torised movie screen in­su­lates guests from hav­ing to min­gle with the or­di­nar­ies. Nearby is the but­ler, ready with a robe and chilled juice.

Too bad if the pres­i­den­tial tongue is hang­ing out for a mar­tini. The Em­pire Ho­tel and Coun­try Club might seem at first like sev­enth heaven fallen to earth but there is a short­com­ing. Not just the ho­tel but the whole coun­try is stone cold sober, bound by an Is­lamic pro­hi­bi­tion on the sale of liquor.

The re­al­i­sa­tion of stay­ing in a seven­star pub with no beer comes as a shock. No lit­tle bot­tles of in­stant mer­ri­ment en­liven the mini­bar. There is no risk of al­co­hol-fu­elled in­dis­cre­tions. No happy minute ap­proaches, let alone a Happy Hour.

Find­ing the cup of life nei­ther half full nor half empty, but bone dry, calls for fresh think­ing. It seems wise to re­gard the Em­pire Ho­tel as a tem­ple to healthy liv­ing and a well-equipped one at that.

Apart from eight swim­ming pools and a beach of­fer­ing aquatic sports, there is a stately coun­try club ac­ces­si­ble to guests.

This sep­a­rate fa­cil­ity of­fers ten­nis, squash, 10-pin bowl­ing, gym and day spa. Nearby is an 18-hole golf course, de­signed by Jack Nick­laus, and stud­ded with royal palms (nat­u­rally). Time usu­ally spent at the 19th hole can be con­verted to a mas­sage and whole­some mock­tail.

Most of th­ese pseudo cock­tails com­pare well to a tequila sun­rise, only with­out the tequila. Less vivid re­fresh­ers such as wa­ter­melon juice or freshly picked co­conut suit the equa­to­rial cli­mate.

Old habits die hard. An out­break of joy ac­com­pa­nies the news that some­one in our small group has brought some chardon­nay. Un­der a spe­cial pro­vi­sion, tourists can take into Brunei two bot­tles of wine or spir­its and six cans of beer for per­sonal use.

Where to en­joy the wine be­comes a topic of dis­cus­sion. The Em­pire Ho­tel has sev­eral ex­cel­lent restau­rants but we opt for Spaghet­tini, an el­e­gant cor­ner of Tus­cany where the in­con­gru­ous smell of Ital­ian cook­ing per­vades the sul­try South­east Asian air. The wine is served dis­creetly and we feel as wicked as un­der­age drinkers at Schoolies Week.

Tem­per­ance has its com­pen­sa­tions. Ex­quis­ite choco­lates, hand­made in the ho­tel from ex­otic fruits, pro­vide com­fort to those miss­ing the rit­ual of drink­ing. And an old-fash­ioned plea­sure of­fered by the Em­pire Ho­tel is a posh af­ter­noon tea, served in the bro­caded arm­chair com­fort of the lobby. As­p­ley china and gleam­ing sil­ver set the tone.

This af­fec­tion for English tra­di­tion is not sur­pris­ing given the his­toric links be­tween Bri­tain and Brunei. In the 1830s this part of the is­land of Bor­neo fell un­der the con­trol of the Brooke dy­nasty, white rulers who usurped most of the sul­tan’s pow­ers. They reigned un­til 1946 and Brunei re­mained a Bri­tish Pro­tec­torate un­til its in­de­pen­dence in 1984.

The present Sul­tan, Haji Has­sanal Bolkiah, a polo-play­ing Sand­hurst man, suc­ceeded his fa­ther in 1967. The royal re­galia, fea­tur­ing the lav­ish char­iot used at his coro­na­tion, is on dis­play in the cap­i­tal, Bandar Seri Begawan. Ge­nealog­i­cal charts also on view trace the Sul­tan’s lin­eage back to 1405, mak­ing it the world’s old­est reign­ing dy­nasty.

That’s why he de­serves a de­cent palace. Built in 1984, Is­tana Nu­rul Iman, the Sul­tan’s abode and seat of gov­ern­ment, stretches along the Bru- nei River; its 1788 rooms are partly filled by his two wives and 11 chil­dren. View­ers of the LifeStyle Chan­nel’s Grand De­signs will know that it prob­a­bly ex­ceeded the bud­get, but 22-carat gold leaf domes don’t come cheap. The palace is open to the pub­lic at the end of Ra­madan.

Glit­ter­ing domes also sur­mount two fab­u­lous mosques, vis­i­ble from most parts of the sunny cap­i­tal. One was built by the present Sul­tan, fur­ther con­firm­ing his sta­tus as one of the world’s rich­est men. He is also benev­o­lent. In oil-rich Brunei, the pre­dom­i­nantly Malay and Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion of 380,000 pay no taxes.

The con­spic­u­ous mid­dle-class driv­ing about in smart cars is not nearly as fas­ci­nat­ing as the colour­ful so­ci­ety that sig­ni­fies old Brunei. Open-air pro­duce mar­kets such as Tamu Kianggeh re­veal el­derly Malay women squat­ting on their heels and smok­ing droopy hand-rolled cig­a­rettes, their hi­jabs pulled down over deeply lined faces as their fin­gers work quickly, peel­ing olive-like kem­bayau.

An evening mar­ket in the city cen­tre, Tamu Gadong, is more lively, its food and sou­venir ven­dors ea­ger to en­gage with vis­i­tors. Qual­ity me­men­toes are avail­able at the gov­ern­men­towned arts and hand­i­craft cen­tre where bas­kets, sil­ver and kain tenun , the tra­di­tional gold bro­cade used for cer­e­mo­nial oc­ca­sions, are dis­played. But th­ese glo­ri­ous fab­rics are as ex­pen­sive as they are vi­brant.

To look fur­ther un­der Brunei’s golden ve­neer it is es­sen­tial to take a long­boat tour from the city to Kam­pong Ayer, a town built on stilts like herons’ legs, hov­er­ing above the wa­ter. Houses, hos­pi­tals and schools con­nected by rick­ety board­walks vi­brate to the surge of speed­ing boats.

On ev­ery veranda is a cameo of vil­lage life: youths strum­ming gui­tars, moth­ers peg­ging clothes, grey-haired men gos­sip­ing. About 17,000 Malays live here as did their fore­bears hun­dreds of years ago and at­tempts to re­set­tle them in mod­ern ac­com­mo­da­tion on terra firma have been largely un­suc­cess­ful.

Throt­tling away, we scour the shore­line for rare pro­boscis mon­keys, found only on Bor­neo. Sight­ings are al­most as­sured when they re­turn to the trees by the river­bank as night falls.

Our guide spots a fam­ily in the dense tree­tops 50m in­land but the very big-nosed male, red­dish hair catch­ing the late af­ter­noon sun, coyly turns his back on us.

Lazy mon­i­tor lizards and colour­ful birds can eas­ily be ob­served on the man­grove roots while ex­u­ber­ant long­tailed macaques swing joy­fully be­tween branches. Th­ese crea­tures en­joy a pro­tected do­main. Though tiny, Brunei Darus­salam is very ac­tive in con­ser­va­tion and much of its ter­ri­tory is na­tional park. Abode of peace, the mean­ing of Darus­salam, is a for­tu­nate truth for the wildlife in this eco­log­i­cally di­verse na­tion.

The Em­pire Ho­tel and Coun­try Club is a pro­tected do­main, too. It oc­ca­sion­ally serves as a re­treat for mem­bers of the royal fam­ily. On Sun­day af­ter­noon, I oc­cupy a toop­er­fect sun lounge, invit­ingly draped in white tow­els, by the ho­tel’s man-made la­goon. My in­so­lent sprawl­ing is soon cur­tailed by a pan­icky pool at­ten­dant.

‘‘ Madam! Madam! I am very sorry but you can­not stay here . . . This is for the princess.’’

An hour later, three gleam­ing Euro­pean sedans park on the vel­vety lawn near the pool, and shortly af­ter I spot the princess hold­ing court from my sun lounge. Her squirm­ing dis­com­fort is no ac­ci­dent. I did, of course, put a pea un­der her mat­tress.

Back in my suite, the ar­rival of a def­er­en­tial waiter bear­ing el­e­gant hors d’oeu­vres served on starched linen makes me feel like re­stored aris­toc­racy. Prim as Queen Vic­to­ria, I raise a tee­to­tal toast in Earl Grey. May the sun never set on the Em­pire. Leonie Coombes was a guest of the Em­pire Ho­tel and Coun­try Club.


Pic­tures (ex­cept royal cou­ple): Leonie Coombes

Glit­ter­ing sur­prises: Clock­wise from left, Jame’ Asr Has­sanal Bolkiah mosque; the Em­pire Ho­tel and Coun­try Club; Kam­pong Ayer; Sul­tan Haji Has­sanal Bolkiah and his wife, Queen Saleha; the Em­peror’s suite

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