Megan Flamer finds a 'six-star' hotel rating doesn't mean six-star service in Brunei.
“Apparently, there are dozens of pools,” my travelling companion says, leafing through the brochure. “And a lagoon! There's a bowling alley, badminton courts, tennis courts, a spa...” he trails off as we drive through the front gate of The Empire, a six-star hotel and country club around half an hour from Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.
It is manicured perfection. We start pointing out landmarks from the brochure: That must be the country club! The cinema! Look how perfect the golf greens are!
By the time we've pulled up to the front door of the hotel, our expectations are sky high. Will we have our own personal concierge? Deluxe chocolates on the pillow? Footrubs before bed?
You know what they say about expectations, right? Something about leading to disappointment?
Maybe we thought someone would help us with our bags. Or the doors. Or tell us where to check in. You know, not just five-star service, but ... six star. Instead there are kids. Everywhere. As soon as we enter the main lobby doors the “fun” is deafening. They are lurching across the lobby, flailing polystyrene pool noodles, rolling on foam mats, several sit snivelling in snotty tears.
Kids screaming in a glass and marble lobby? It's like nails on a blackboard...and I like kids.
Dodging one of the polystyrene fencing fights, we stand in various queues at what we think is the check-in desk for ten ... 15 ... 20 minutes. The desk is surrounded by confusion and pushy, impatient businessmen and a good number of staff studiously avoiding eye contact.
Did I mention we were still carrying our bags?
Eventually, after a long, painstaking conversation (an exact replica of the one I'd had on the telephone when making our booking) we are awarded a room key and directions on how to find our wing of the resort. Twenty minutes later, still lugging our own bags, we find our “Ocean View” wing.
The room is large, I'll give them that. Each of the “Ocean View” rooms is at least 60 square metres, with a spacious marble bathroom, walk-in robe and even a little marble lobby. The carpets feel amazing underfoot (New Zealand wool!) and the linens are lovely. There is a reasonable view of the beach from our balcony but the grassy hill leading down to it is littered with discarded cigarette butts, water bottles and soft drink cans.
Chins up, we decide to grab some lunch to get ourselves back in the six-star state of mind. At the Atrium restaurant, we wait a good ten minutes for someone to seat us, another ten for menus and eventually arise ourselves to go and place our orders with the payment desk. We are one of only three couples in the restaurant. The food itself, a vegetable foccacia for me and a hamburger for my friend, is great and the servings are huge. We eat amidst the clatter of preparations for the dinner service before another 10 minute wait at the service desk to sign our bill to our room.
Our food and beverage experience is rescued by a dinner at the Bunker Bistro. The staff are friendly, uber-attentive and the food is pretty good. Similarly, the coffee, cake and chocolate selection at Zest cafe within the hotel is delicious with a wonderful staff. The prices, albeit expensive for Brunei, are very reasonable for visiting Westerners. And that great dining expense, alcohol, won't be a factor: Brunei is a dry country.
Why is it that the most basic guesthouse will have lovely service, free wi-fi and breakfast served with a smile? It seems to be a rule that the fancier the hotel, the more you get stung for extras. The Empire has phenomenal amenities: the country club alone is chock-full of activities, but most of them will cost you extra - even a game of darts. We rolled a couple of games in the bowling alley and visited the charming cinema.
I am not really a fan of golf, but from what I can gather, the course here is one of the main drawcards. The 6.5km of fairways hug the coastline of the South China Sea and includes the cliffs and ravines. It has been declared “Best Golf Resort in Asia Pacific” by Asian Golf Monthly for two years running.
Rumour has it nothing in Brunei is allowed to be built in competition with the Sultan's Palace or the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque. As a result, the landscape is somewhat flat and uninteresting. We attempted to walk around the sprawling grounds and found ourselves in a vast carpark somewhere beyond the golf course. This is a major feature of Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan and it's surrounds. With petrol priced at only 24 cents a litre and diesel at 39 cents, everyone drives everywhere. All the time. Carparks are a strong feature on their urban landscape.
And then you walk back into the Empire's jaw-dropping 12-storey gold-and-marble lobby, and you feel maybe this six-star fuss is justified.
How did I not take this in when we first arrived? Oh, that's right. I was shaking a toddler off my leg. It is a shame that while the amenities are six star, the service, for us at any rate, was not.
Royal Brunei Airlines flies from Melbourne four times a week, becoming daily from March 25. Return airfares start from $A630. Sydney passengers buy a separate fare to Melbourne to connect. See www.bruneiair.com
Rooms at the Empire Hotel start from $BND400 ($A298) per night for a Superior Room, $BND450 ($A335) for an Ocean View Room. See www.theempirehotel.com for details.
The writer is on Twitter @shinyhealthy