I added Sofia, Bulgaria, on whim to the 8-night side trip I’d planned for us before our latest house- and cat-sit in Antwerp, Belgium. It was really a matter of “as long as we’re in the area (Bucharest, Romania), why not?” I didn’t know much about either Sofia or Bulgaria before then. Pre-travel research confirmed my general impression of a less-than-wealthy Eastern European capital, still recovering from Communism and still relatively new to the EU. As of the latest census I could find, Sofia has a population of 1.2 million people as compared to Bucharest’s 1.8 million. Bulgaria is both the poorest country in the EU and the fastest shrinking population in the world.
We arrived in bustling Agra in the afternoon after spending the first part of the day touring our way from Jaipur via Chand Baori and Fatehpur Sikri. Our driver threaded his way through the jumble of vehicles, pedestrians, cows and trash as we headed straight to Agra Fort. Hurrying to meet a waiting guide, we didn’t even have time to drop off our luggage.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Agra Fort was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638, when the capital moved to Delhi. The semi-circular fort occupies 94 acres and sits behind 70′ walls on the Yamuna River. Part of the fort is occupied by active military so tourists only see a small portion of the huge complex. From the main tourist courtyard, we could see soldiers atop the wall separating us from the military area.
I don’t often do straight-up lodging reviews and then only when there’s something really worth mentioning. Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel in Jaipur is one of those places that deserves a separate write-up. Located in a neighborhood that’s gated at night, Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel is safe, convenient, clean, comfortable and reasonably priced, but above all, it’s gorgeous. Housed in an elegant historic building, the decor is over-the-top in places, but fun and displaying impressive craftsmanship and artistry. The hotel has been named #1 Romantic Indian Hotel on Tripadvisor and a portion of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 was shot there in 2014. Photos are necessary to do this place justice, so here you go:
While not exactly a tourist destination, Sterling City does boast a historic little hotel and that was enough to get it on my radar screen as a half-way stop on our drive from Big Bend National Park back to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I was looking for a hotel with character and–as nice as Hotel Settles was on the drive down–I wanted to take a different route home just to vary things up a little. When I found a list of historic Texas hotels online, I pulled up Google Maps and eyed the location of those I wasn’t familiar with. 1910 State Hotel in Sterling City seemed exactly what I was looking for.
In recent years, Marfa, Texas, has gained a reputation as a funky, artsy destination town. Before that, it was famous as the filming location for the movie, “Giant,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean. (Dean died in a car crash in 1955 and the movie was released posthumously.) The cast stayed at the Hotel Paisano during filming, a -great old inn steeped in West Texas culture. The hotel plays up its connection to the movie with framed, poster-sized black-and-white photos scattered throughout.
Deciding where to stay during our much-anticipated McDonald Observatory “Star Party” came down to a historic hotel in downtown Fort Davis or Indian Lodge in Davis Mountains State Park. Highly recommended by friends, closer to the observatory, located within the state park where we wanted to hike, and newly refurbished as of summer 2018, we opted for Indian Lodge.
Built to look like a multi-level pueblo village, Indian Lodge opened to the public in 1939. The lodge boasts a big two-fireplace den/game room, a lovely pool and a restaurant with hit-and-miss opening hours. Our room on the upper level had windows on two sides and a now-blocked adobe fireplace in one corner. The ceiling consisted of large beams and twigs. Just what I had in mind!
I’m super excited about our upcoming week-long Texas roadtrip. As a native Texan with roots going back to the days when Texas was an independent republic, it’s high time I got myself to one of the state’s most iconic, unique and remote treasures, Big Bend National Park. I reserved one of the park’s coveted Chisos Mountains Lodge cottages a year ago and crossed my fingers that the weather would cooperate when the allotted time rolled around. A government shutdown didn’t even cross my mind back then. Fortunately, although Big Bend is a national park, the park is open, if unstaffed, and the Lodge is run by a private concessionaire, so we’re still a go. On our journey, we’ll also take in other Texas classics including a “Star Party” at the McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains, a stay in the “James Dean” room at the Paisano Hotel in Marfa and lots more.
Eschewing the Manohara Hotel next to Borobudur Temple for something more exotic, smaller and with better dining reviews, I chose Amata Borobudur Resort for our 4-night stay in Central Java. At about $80/night, it was more expensive than a lot of options in the area, but about $60 cheaper/night than the Monohara and with what looked like a lot more local charm and an interesting setting. Amata also provides free transportation to Borobudur Temple (including for sunrise) which is only 10-15 minutes away.
Our 1.5 hour flight from Denpasar, Bali, was delayed just long enough that we arrived in Yogyakarta, Java, at rush hour. Fortunately, the driver Amata sent for us knew the back roads and was able to dodge some of the traffic once we were out of the city, but what we hoped would be an 1h 20 min drive still stretched to two hours and we arrived after dark. So, the layout of the little resort remained shrouded in mystery and we could only explore our bungalow…which we loved!
Done in classic Javanese style with wooden walls and high ceiling, someone with an artistic touch had really raised it to the next level. The little attention to details charmed us.
The shower room, while un-air-conditioned as usual, was surprisingly fully-enclosed. Save for Nusa Dua, all the bathrooms we’d had had openings to the outdoors. This makes large wood ants wandering the bathrooms a common occurrence. We learned to just ignore them. At Amata, no bugs! We did however have a large salamander that lived high in the rafters and “barked” occasionally. Oh well, when in Asia…
The next morning dawned bright and sunny and we could survey our new domain. We discovered we had the bungalow furthest from the main building, which we thought was a plus. The distance wasn’t far, but we had lots of privacy and looked out over adjoining rice paddies in the opposite direction.
Breakfast in the nearby open-air pavilion turned out to be a multi-course affair served at table.
Later, we found dinner to be tasty and even simple dishes we’d grown accustomed to were presented with an extra flair. A limited selection of beer and wine is available, something not always on the menu in Muslim Java.
From Amata Borobudur Resort, it’s a short walk to Mendut Temple which is definitely worth a visit, and very cheap (less than a $1, if I remember correctly).
All in all, we really enjoyed Amata Borobudur Resort. I’d stay there again, and feel like we got decent value for the money. I paid 4,500,000 idr ($320 US) for 4 nights, or about $80/night for a “deluxe bungalow.” (Our bungalow was named “Sunibya” and I recommend it for style and location within the resort.) This price included breakfast, 10% tax and 10% service charge. The price is relatively high for the area, but provides a measure of luxury with local flair and is substantially less than the $140 or so rate at the Manohara Hotel next to Borobudur Temple, even factoring in the reduction offered there for entry to the temple. (There’s a spa on-site at Amata as well, but we did not use it.) Plenty of budget options exist in the area, for those looking for more basic accommodations. I booked via Booking.com as they had the best rate at the time and I used Topcashback to get even more off. (Currently, Topcashback is offering a 7% rebate on Booking.com bookings. If you’re not a Topcashback member, you can use my link here.)
Amata arranged a driver for us to and from Yogyakarta Airport for 300,000 idr each way ($21.34). There was no additional charge for our pre-dawn departure. They also arranged a driver for us to explore the region for a day which turned out to be a great experience and far less touristy than we feared, a bonus of choosing a car which could wander much further than the horse-drawn tourist cart tour they initially suggested. (A car also offers air conditioning, a huge and irreplaceable bonus is steamy Central Java.) The cost was around $30. We paid via credit card for the 3 drivers when we settled our room bill.
The only minor “complaint” I have about the location of Amata Borobudur Resort is that the several mosques in the area begin an almost comical competition of calls to prayer many times a day, some starting in the wee hours and all over loudspeakers. I’m not sure it would be much better elsewhere in the area, though.
[I’m way behind on blogging our 3-month, around-the-world adventure, so this is the beginning of a catch-up now that we’ve settled into our home-away-from-home in Antwerp for the last few weeks of our journey. Most of the upcoming blogs of this trip were written at or reasonably near the time of travel, but spotty or slow Internet made uploading photos difficult…and I wanted to focus on the trip a whole lot more than I wanted to post about it! – Tamara, May 25, 2018]
Nusa Dua, Bali, is lined with high-end resorts, some charging astronomical prices, especially for usually-cheap Bali. Then again, Nusa Dua is hardly usual Bali. It’s an exclusive beachfront enclave sheltered from those less-than-picture-perfect, third world aspects of the rest of the island…along with much of the authentic culture and charm. Still, I wanted to try a range of Bali lodgings and a big resort was in order.
Putu, our Munduk homestay host arranged a driver for us from Munduk to Nusa Dua. Although Google Maps put the trip at 2h30, it’s closer to 3h30 with the traffic snarl near Kuta and the ongoing construction of an underpass to the Depensar Airport. Hopefully, the underpass will alleviate some of the traffic when it’s finished next year. There’s a new toll causeway out to Nua Dusa and we happily sprang for the small price to shave some time off the trip. We sped along our way, but were surprised to see a long traffic back-up in the other direction as toll booths were apparently not working. We crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t see the same when it came time to leave Nusa Dua.
Passing the guarded gate into Nusa Dua was like entering another world. A wide, smoothly paved avenue led into a large circle with manicured flowerbeds and a central statue.
It was almost embarassing when our driver from rural Munduk pulled into the lavish entry to our hotel, the INAYA Putri Bali. Uniformed bellmen sprang into action to take charge of our luggage and direct us to the soaring open-air lobby for check-in.
I deliberately chose an Indonesian-owned hotel both in hopes of some local flavor and to try out something completely new to me. The value was excellent as well in comparison to other, more familiar brands I had explored online prior to booking. Check-in was quick and professional and soon we were being driven by golf cart to our room. En route, we passed an enormous series of tiered pools by a building housing the main restaurant used for the included breakfast. The sweeping, well-tended grounds of the hotel lead to a wide, beautiful beach.
I’d booked a standard room after deciding the swim-up rooms might be lacking in privacy and having no interest in springing for a suite since we planned to spend most of our time on the beach. Stepping inside our room for the first time, I couldn’t be happier with my choice. The room was spacious with a large balcony and a view of the ocean between buildings. Tasteful Balinese decor including carved wood closet doors and frames preserved a feel of local culture.
The bathroom was gorgeous and downright enormous with a big-enough-for-two stone tub and a over-sized rain shower. I had several long, wonderful soaks in the tub, using the stone bowl of bath salts provided. As in much of Bali, the bathroom wasn’t air conditioned, so we opened the door when not in use to cool and dry the bathroom.
Breakfast was served every day in the cavernous main dining room. We were led to a table most mornings, gave our order for coffee (cappuccino) and the morning’s juice or smoothie (a bright green frozen apple juice, fresh mint and ginger concoction becoming a favorite), then headed off to the many buffet tables available.
The scope of the breakfast offering was like nothing I’ve seen in a hotel: Western and Asian dishes, fresh fruit, yogurt and yogurt parfaits, made-to-order eggs and omelets, Balinese cooked dishes of fried chicken, fried bananas and more, French pastries and a wide selection of delicious and fresh-made breads, granola, savory dishes of all sorts and on and on.
Dining was a mixed bag at INAYA Putri Bali. Breakfasts, as mentioned, were awesome. We liked casual dinners down by the beach, too, at INAYA’s Ja’Jan By the Sea. There weren’t a lot of options there, but the casual vibe suited our beach-y selves, the food was good, the service friendly, and the prices were decent. We tried one dinner at the upscale Indonesian restaurant on-site, Homaya, but were disappointed. Although expensive (especially so by Bali standards), the food was just mediocre and the atmosphere only so-so. A disappointment that discouraged us from trying any of the other higher-end restaurants on the property. There are lots of other options in walking distance in Nusa Dua, though. All it takes is a stroll along the beachfront walkway that connects the many resorts. Our next door neighbor hotel (to the right as you look at the beach) offered particularly appealing picnic style dining and the Park Hyatt Resort (next to the INAYA Putri Bali to the left as you look at the beach) offered several high-end restaurants. We were in lazy mode, though, and just went back to INAYA’s Ja’Jan By the Sea.
The beach at INAYA Putri Bali is lovely, with tidal pools brimming with marine life appearing each afternoon as the tide goes out. I’ll post more on that next as I’ve got some words of caution about some of the deadly sealife we came across there. No reason to avoid the water, but something to be aware of and a reminder not to pick up or touch unfamiliar creatures.
A short walk down the beach (at the end of the resorts to the left as you’re facing the beach), there’s a market selling local goods and a bit further on is a park with a huge Balinese statue atop a small building. Beyond that are observation decks over black lava rock where pounding surf shoots spray high into the air.
One of our only complaints with our room was the sound of broadcast speech in the distance that we could never place. At first, we thought it was a loudspeaker at some event outside, but the sound disappeared when we stepped on the balcony. We stepped in the hall, pressed ears to walls but the intermittent noise was hard to pin down. It was weird, and annoying when my acute sense of hearing woke me to it at 4:50am. After a few days, we finally found the source in a maintenance closet off an employee-only space behind the elevator to our floor which backed to our room. For some reason, maintenance had left a wall-mounted radio turned on high volume even though no one was in this small room. It intermittently blasted static and intra-maintenance chatter. We hated to touch the controls in case there was more to it than we realized, so I videoed the room and sound to show to a lady at the front desk who apologized profusely and got the sound turned off. Shortly after, we found a nice note of apology and generous gift of spa items. Did I mention that I liked INAYA Putri Bali a lot?
Practical info: I booked our room at INAYA Putri Bali via Agoda which I’ve found to usually have the best prices in Asia. To get an extra savings, I log into my Topcashback account then search “Agoda” and click through to Agoda before booking my hotel. The current offer on Topcashback for Agoda is 6% cash back. You’ll get an additional savings, and so will I, if you use my referral link to create and use a Topcashback account.
Note re leaving for the airport: Even though the hotel is close to the airport, we were warned to leave 3 hours(!) before our flight to Yogjakarta, Java (short, domestic flight), due to road construction and bad traffic. Worried about the back-up we’d seen on the toll road, we took this advice…but found ourselves in the airport and through security a mere 30 minutes after we walked out of our hotel room. Once the road construction is finished, the ride to the airport should be reliably short. Also, although the hotel offers a paid shuttle to the airport, we opted to have a bellman call a taxi (on the advice of a lady at the front desk) and found it to be prompt, clean and much cheaper than the hotel ride.
I don’t usually do straight-up lodging reviews on Wanderwiles unless something really stands out. Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort is one of those:
I’d always wanted to visit the beaches of Thailand, but I originally didn’t think it would be possible on this trip because we’d be there during rainy season. I’d originally thought to go directly from Singapore or Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok, then travel through Thailand, ending up in Cambodia, from where we’d fly home. When Luang Prabang, Laos, found its way onto my radar screen, I discovered flights that allowed me to reverse my original circuit. Flying home from Bangkok rather than little Siem Reap had the added benefit of bigger and better Korean Air airplanes for our much-anticipated First Class flight home. (We would have had to forego First Class entirely and settle for Business Class on the Siem Reap to Seoul leg of our journey home.) So, after Kuala Lumpur, we flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, and from there to Luang Prabang where we caught the Mekong boat to northern Thailand. This allowed us to push the south of Thailand to the end of our trip, and that meant we could add a detour to the far south beaches in November when the area would just be moving from the rainy to the dry season. Cheap direct flights were available from Chiang Mai. We had a shot a good weather and we decided to take it.
I considered Phuket or one of the islands, but opted for Krabi instead because I wanted somewhere less touristy, less nightlife-geared, and quieter. I also didn’t want the hassle and extra travel steps of getting to and from an island. Krabi (pronounced “kra BEE” rather than “crabby”) is the name of both the city and the region. The city itself is inland with gorgeous beaches not far away on the coast. The nearest beach town is Ao Nang where I found some pretty resorts, but descriptions of street noise, young crowds and bars led me to look farther afield. I researched lots of options up and down the coast before settling on Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort 45 minutes from the Krabi Airport. (Tup Kaek rhymes with “cupcake.”) It turned out to be the perfect choice for us.
Once we got past the AirAsia chaos at the Chiang Mai airport, the flight went smoothly. We arranged a transfer via the resort and our driver was waiting with a sign, as promised, when we exited the baggage claim area. The sky was overcast and there was a slight drizzle that ended during the drive. David and I were the only passengers in the brand new silver van and we marveled at the dramatic landscape of steep rocky cliffs that jutted straight up from the jungle as we left Krabi proper and sped through Ao Nang. The shops and restaurants gave way to a rural landscape as we neared our destination. I worried when we spotted a tanker at a long pier, but our van turned inland, skipping that small commercial stretch to arrive on the far side and our hotel.
A smiling Thai lady greeted us in the open-air lobby, offering pottery cups of chilled tropical fruit juice to enjoy while she made quick work of check-in. A waiting golf cart then whisked us to our thatch-roofed beachfront bungalow. I relished the pleasure of expectations fulfilled when we stepped inside: The room was spacious with sliding glass doors facing the incredibly gorgeous beach, gleaming teak floors and furniture, a vaulted ceiling made of woven bamboo.
The bathroom was sleek and modern in a back-to-nature sort of way with a big tub and a pebble-floored rain shower open to the sky above and a cut-out window facing the beach.
Beyond the sliding glass doors, two cushioned lounge chairs on a large roofed teak porch faced the beach where the still waters of the Andaman Sea lapped against white sand only 20 meters away. Rocky little islands and outcroppings dotted the blue water, improbably beautiful. There was no mistaking this beach for more-familiar beaches back home or in the Caribbean or Mediterranean. My parents had given us a generous 5th anniversary gift in July and we’d decided to use their present on this portion of our Asia odyssey, so we were considering this a late anniversary celebration. It was perfect!
We were on the beach in no time, marveling at the bathtub warm water. Only a few small resorts shared this gorgeous beach and there were not many other guests in sight. At our resort, lots of cushioned lounge chairs and hammocks were free for the taking. Choosing lounge chairs near our bungalow, we ordered two mai tais to sip while we watched the sunset. The mai tais turned out to be the best of the trip: made with real juice, good rum, a little nutmeg and topped with a slice of fresh pineapple.
We spent four nights at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort, enjoying mai tais every day save a day we dove the Phi Phi Islands, a world-class dive site a 2-hour boat ride from Ao Nang. Breakfast was included with our room and was a generous spread of Thai and western food served in the open-air tented waterfront dining area. After trying a neighboring hotel, Tup Kaek Boutique Hotel, for lunch, we ended up eating the rest of our meals at Tup Kaek Sunset Beach. The food was good and the service excellent.
The prices were much higher at Sunset (and at the other hotels on the beach) than we’d found elsewhere in Thailand as we were a captive audience and this was a higher-end hotel. There’s no walking distance town with food stalls and the usual little dive-y restaurants. Still, by American standards, the prices were very reasonable and much better than you’d find at a comparable resort back home. We could have hired a taxi or tuk tuk to try a little place in the closest town–or one of the six restaurants in the nearby Ritz-Carlton, but we simply weren’t motivated to leave.
The weather turned out to be great. It was raining the first morning, but stopped by the time we got out of bed. There were a couple of other intermittent, brief showers and one impressive but not overly long deluge. We’d duck under our porch roof during those periods, then be back out enjoying partly cloudy skies and delightful temperatures for most of the day. Occasionally we heard a little thunder and saw sheet lightning on the horizon, but it only made for a pretty show. The water was warm with barely any waves. The bottom is soft sand, sloping very gradually so that you can wade far out before the water is chest-high.
Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort has other non-beachfront rooms, including some very neat ones whose porches open directly onto a new blue-tiled swimming pool of Olympic proportions. There’s a pretty older pool as well and rooms that open onto small man-made “canals.”
Construction/remodeling is ongoing on a large, enclosed restaurant that is not currently open. It sits to one side of the resort complex, so did not really effect our stay. Construction noise wasn’t an issue, and the open-air beachfront dining suited us perfectly. Housekeeping kept the room spotless and were quick to respond to requests for things like extra towels. Two bottles of water were provided each day. We had a small minibar fridge with a few other food and drink items for purchase which we didn’t use. The hotel also provided a large safe, big umbrella, flashlight, robes and sandals. Local “long tail” boats pull up just down the beach and can be hired to visit the islands visible from the beach.
David and I have struggled to find negatives to this stay. The internet was sometimes–but not always–very weak in the room, but was always very strong and fast on our porch and in the dining area and other parts of the hotel. We did get some maybe-mosquito bites, mostly on our sandaled feet, although we only saw one while we were there. It’s a quiet, low-key location, especially during this shoulder-season, which we consider to be a huge plus, but it wouldn’t be for those looking for a party scene. (i.e., There were no backpackers and loud music.) We spotted a lizard or two in the room a couple of times, but they didn’t bother us and we just ignored them. There are several cats on the resort grounds and they’re happy to beg if you feed them, which we got a kick out of, but I guess if you don’t like or are allergic to cats, it might be an issue. That’s pretty much all we can come up with in the way of negatives. We loved the Tup Kaek Sunset Beach Resort!
We paid 28,420 baht ($812) total for our beachfront bungalow for 4 nights, including breakfast and taxes. Meals, mai tais and private transfer from and to the Krabi Airport cost another 8,270 baht ($236.29) total, including taxes and gratuities. (The airport transfer cost 800 baht/$22.86 each way for a 45-minute ride.) I consider the cost to be good value for what we got. Value is my goal whenever I purchase anything, often more important to me than the bottom line. You can find out more about the resort at: http://www.tupkaeksunset.com/en I had some trouble contacting them, pre-trip (re questions about diving companies that would pick up at the hotel), but was finally able to get a response by messaging them on their Facebook page. Also, I booked via booking.com this time, probably because they were offering the best final price and a rebate via Topcashback, one of my favorite sites. If you haven’t joined and are interested, please use my referral link: https://www.topcashback.com/ref/tcut It’s free to join and easy money for things you buy anyway. I always check it when I’m booking travel (or buying almost anything) to get rebates on hotels, rent cars, products and more.