PUB WITH NO PEER
Brunei’s most glamorous hotel may be an alcohol-free zone but its opulence can make guests giddy , reports Leonie Coombes
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.
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