Bali, Indonesia

We’ve been fortunate enough to have stayed in some pretty amazing accommodations in the past but nothing had prepared me for Mandapa. Our flight arrived to Bali after sundown and due to heavy traffic caused by Barack Obama staying at the neighboring Four Seasons resort, we didn’t reach our hotel in Ubud until well after bedtime. Though the surrounding landscape was blanketed in the inky darkness of night, I could tell there was something magical about this place. When we reached our villa my jaw dropped. The rooms, the furnishings, the decor, everything we laid eyes on was sumptuous and inviting. If I could decorate my house like this I would never leave home. Our luxurious bedroom suite opened up to a private patio, pool, garden, separate media room/lounge area, and a towering wall of jungle foliage beyond. The villa and grounds were lovely at nighttime but when bathed in daylight they were positively dazzling. For the umpteenth time during this trip, I was blown away.

The walk from our villa to the breakfast buffet was insanely beautiful. No matter how many times we made that walk I never tired of taking a million pictures of the gorgeous scenery. Our eyes feasted on sculpted gardens, tropical vistas, landscaped walkways, and exquisitely manicured fields and rice terraces, all set against a majestic river and lush jungle backdrop. And then there was the food. THE FOOD! Our bellies feasted on delicious Pan-Asian and European cuisine. I never knew oatmeal could be sublime, but at Mandapa, it was nothing short of sublime. I make a point of not ordering the same thing twice if it can be helped but I could not help ordering this damn bowl of oatmeal each morning. Exotic cocktails in the evening were perfection. We were in love with everything about this place. The adorable open air kids’ club even had a petting zoo with chickens, ducks, and a cow.

We hired a car service to tour the major sightseeing landmarks of Ubud and was able to customize our itinerary based on the recommendations of our awesome driver/tour guide. The kids quickly got in the habit of calling him “Uncle Darma” and greeting him with hugs. The monkey forest was definitely a highlight because our brave girl was eager to interact with the monkeys and she got her chance. The boy, understandably, was scared of them.

Another highlight, with one brief low point, was our 18 kilometer bike tour down a mountainside and through local villages of Ubud. We saw splendid rice terraces, a famous volcano, quaint villages, traditional temples, and so many other unforgettable sights. Occasional rain showers, however, made me second-guess whether this tour was such a good idea. The kids had learned to ride a bike less than a year ago, and now were expected to go on a multi-hour downhill bike trek in the rain—literally a slippery slope. Biking downhill seemed like a good idea in theory because it wouldn’t be too physically challenging, but I didn’t take other factors into account, like how risky it would be careening down a mountain alongside other vehicles. Not only was the rain making the trail muddy, there was no dedicated bike lane, so bikers had to share the unpaved road with automobiles while navigating wet rocks and uneven terrain. We were gripping our brakes almost the entire way down. A couple of close calls really freaked out Tom; he never would have allowed the kids to participate in this tour if he had known how dangerous it was going to be. The kids themselves were oblivious to the danger because you could hear them squealing with glee as they whizzed along. They were loving it, until the fateful fall. On the last leg of the ride just a few minutes before we were due to reach the shuttle and head to lunch, the girl skidded awkwardly over a patch of rough stones and crashed to the ground. She was hurled into muddy rocks and got scraped and shaken up pretty badly. After crying for a few minutes in her father’s arms as we washed and bandaged the wound on her leg, she composed herself, got back on her bike, and peddled the rest of the way to the shuttle. By the time we arrived to our lunch destination she was her normal smiling self. That was the real highlight of the day for me. We all had a great time on the bike tour and the girl didn’t let a few moments of anguish ruin the experience for her or her family. The rest of the tour group was so impressed. One woman declared that she wouldn’t dream of taking her teenage son on this bike tour because he would have complained the whole time. Our kids did not utter a single complaint and, except for the brief low point, they were all smiles.

I was so sad to check out of Mandapa and leave Ubud to head to our final destination in Seminyak. Ubud is the artistic and cultural center of Bali while Seminyak is its touristy beach/nightlife destination. I originally mapped out our itinerary knowing we were coming to Bali after spending a week at the beach in Phuket, and figured that the cultural sights of Ubud would be a refreshing interlude before ending our vacation back at the beach in Seminyak. After experiencing Mandapa, however, I was kicking myself for not saving the best for last. There was no way any other hotel could possibly top Mandapa, no way I could ever be blown away again. Plus I had read that Bali’s beaches were polluted and less than desirable so I mentally braced myself for disappointment. We arrived to Seminyak in the late afternoon and guess what happened when we checked into Katamama? MIND. FUCKING. BLOWN. The general manager escorted us to our penthouse suite (reportedly the best unit in the hotel and the only one that had a private rooftop garden, deck, and hot tub), and once again my jaw dropped. How did that happen? I had no memory whatsoever of booking this place. Both Mandapa and Katamama were distinctively Balinese in style, but the former had more of an opulent zen quality while the latter had more of a hip mid-century modern sensibility. It was impossibly chic. There was even a bath tub in the master bedroom and who doesn’t want a gratuitous bath tub randomly situated in their bedroom?

As guests of Katamama we also had access to the exclusive Potato Head beach club next door. Apparently Potato Head was THE spot to see and be seen in Seminyak and cabanas there were highly coveted. Now ordinarily I’m not into the whole super-trendy-tourist-trap-VIP-scene, but, not gonna lie, when we breezed past the waiting crowds and the hostess promptly escorted us to a reserved cabana, we felt like total ballers. It was such a scene. Funky music blared from disco speakers as throngs of families, couples, assorted friends, motley singles, and waitstaff weaved through and around the cabanas. As cheesy of a tourist trap as it was, we had fun lounging around, ordering drinks and snacks, and enjoying the beach and pool. I would come back for the heavenly soft shell crab sliders alone.

There wasn’t much in Seminyak that you couldn’t get in any other tourist enclave in any other country. It had all the standard fare: trendy restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping, drunkenly loud and sunburnt Westerners. We were lucky to score a reservation at the upscale Bambu. The entire restaurant looked like it was floating on a fountain, complete with koi fish swimming in the crystalline pond waters below. We enjoyed the posh ambience and refined Indonesian cuisine.

As far as attractions go, Ubud blew Seminyak out of the water. I would return to Ubud in a heartbeat but would probably skip Seminyak if we came back to Bali. It was definitely worthwhile to experience just as Times Square is a must-see if you’re visiting New York City for the first time, but it’s not where the real heart of the place is. I was thrilled to stay at Katamama and loved it, even though I didn’t think I could love any resort as much as Mandapa. I really had to pat myself on the back for how well orchestrated this vacation turned out to be; whenever we thought it couldn’t get any better, it just kept getting better. I know how braggy and obnoxious it all sounds: “I can’t believe how wonderful my life is!” A part of me feels guilty for traveling as often and as indulgently as we do. There are so many nobler ways to spend money. But then another part of me thinks, am I supposed to not enjoy traveling as much as I do? I am euphoric, ecstatic when we travel. Isn’t that better than being bored and jaded? I never want to get to a point in my life where I’m unimpressed by places like Mandapa or Katamama. I’m so grateful for our experiences and I hope to always feel gratitude and appreciation. And am I supposed to pretend that I’m not proud of my vacation planning skills? ‘Cuz I got mad skills. I know there are haters out there but if you’re the type of person who hates on other people’s vacations, then 1) maybe you should do some inner soul searching and evaluate your life decisions and 2) maybe you shouldn’t read travel blogs.

Phuket, Thailand

When I was researching where to stay in Phuket I read a lot of reviews complaining about how commercialized and overrun with tourists Phuket had become. I decided to split our trip by staying three nights in the touristy Patong area and three nights at the nicer, more remote Surin Beach. I didn’t have high expectations based on what I’d read, but sometimes you just have to experience things for yourself. When we arrived at Amari Phuket, perched on top of a hill overlooking Patong Beach, I was blown away. The great thing about booking accommodations several months in advance is that you forget everything you did and you’re pleasantly surprised at how good you are at picking hotel resorts. And at booking fun tours.

The morning after arriving in Phuket, we had a 6am pick-up to sail Phang Nga Bay. As soon as we reached our first destination, Tom commented that I had the biggest smile on my face. I couldn’t stop grinning the entire day because I was doing what I loved most: seeing beautiful sights with my favorite people. We had to lay down in canoes and row through partially submerged caves in order to access the lagoons of Panak Island. Emerging from the dim caverns into sunlit lagoons of mangrove forests was breathtaking to behold. We kayaked around Hong Island to admire the stunning topography and then visited “James Bond” Island where one of the franchise movies was filmed in the 1970s. The kids had a blast and the crew members were so sweet to them. The buffet lunch prepared and served on the tour boat was phenomenal, possibly some of the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten. Lastly we were delivered to a private island beach where we nibbled on fresh fruit served to us while we swam in the ocean. It was unreal. I will be forever grateful to have experienced a day like that with my family.

While our days of boozing and bar-hopping are long past, the buzzing tourist hub of Patong was still fun to explore with the kids, who are turning into serious foodies. They gnawed on fresh grilled crab like it was going to be their last meal. As our stay in Patong came to an end, I worried that our next destination wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable. We hit up a few popular tourist attractions on our way to the Surin Phuket where, once again, I was blown away. Amari Phuket was a gorgeous resort but we had our own beachfront cabin at the Surin Phuket and it was incredible! The surrounding town had a sleepy charm that was more our pace. When rainstorms rolled in, I was happy to use the drizzly weather as an excuse to get plenty of massages, although it was a little startling to have my breasts massaged at one point. I guess after a couple of hours the masseuse runs out of body parts to massage? The intermittent rain hardly put a damper on our remaining time in Phuket because it turned out to be one of the best vacations ever. Considering the amazing time we had also had in Borneo, it was inconceivable that the best was yet to come.


Borneo, Malaysia

Our friend Cynthia asked if we would like to join her, her husband Monty, their son Zephyr, and his friend Nicholas on an eco-tour in the jungles of Borneo. Cynthia and Monty are among the most adventurous travelers we know so we were more than happy to piggyback on their vacation. It never would have occurred to me to journey to Borneo (indeed when we went to get vaccinations before our trip the nurse admitted she didn’t know which vaccines to recommend because “No one ever goes to Borneo!”) but it ended up being a fantastic experience. The kids were delighted, especially with their new, much older, way cooler friends. I was delighted with the food: lots of fresh tropical fruit, curry, noodles, spices, yummy things I love.

We traveled by boat from Sandakan to Selingan Island, aka Turtle Island, to watch a sea turtle laying eggs and hatchlings released into the ocean. This was definitely a highlight of the whole trip but one of the lasting effects was unexpected: I inadvertently turned my kids into coffee fiends. Dozens of turtles waded onto the shores of Turtle Island every night to lay their eggs, but the timing of when tourists would be allowed to watch a particular turtle was unpredictable. After dinner we had to wait in the cafeteria for a park ranger to summon us to the beach, and the summons could happen anytime between 8pm and 11pm. After several early mornings and long travel days, I was worried about the kids getting too sleepy; we had paid all this money and come all this way and I was damned if I was going to let my kids fall asleep during this once-in-a-lifetime event. Who knows if sea turtles are going to exist anymore when they grow up? I fear we will all be living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland by then. So, I mixed a half cup of coffee with plenty of milk and sugar for each of them and they downed their cups and smacked their lips. They’ve been hooked ever since and always beg for sips of coffee whenever they see me drinking it now.

After Turtle Island we visited an orangutan rehabilitation center as well as the Borneo sun bear conservation center, and then made our way to the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. The kids thought it was the coolest resort ever. Over the next few days we boarded multiple river cruises on motorboats in search of wildlife in the rainforest. We also went on lots of nature hikes and toured a stinky bat cave, sidestepping armies of roaches scurrying over layers of poop from thousands of swallows fluttering overhead.

Overall it was a wonderful adventure, enhanced by wonderful company: awesome friends, an awesome husband, and two awesomely intrepid little explorers.


Singapore Part II (and III and IV)

We had always regretted not staying longer in Singapore during our first visit in 2013, and decided to make it our home base for this summer’s expeditions. We stayed at the Swissotel Merchant Court each time, with its distinctively funky, dank basement smell so common and familiar throughout Asia. Although the food was as tasty as we remembered, we didn’t remember Singapore being so freaking hot. Granted, we were practically on the equator in the dead of summer, so it was scorching HOT. The kids fared reasonably well, the girl more so than the boy, who constantly begged to call an Uber.

We did all things Singaporean: chowed down on hawker stall food, visited Gardens by the Bay as well as the Cloud Forest Dome, ordered Singapore Slings at Raffles Hotel, breakfasted on kaya toast, roti canai, and teh tarik, meandered through Clarke Quay, checked out an art museum, saw a light show at Marina Bay Sands from Merlion Park, feasted on black pepper crab, chili crab, salted egg crab, all kinds of crab!