Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | June 21, 2012

Brunei: Empirical luxury

Tropical waters: One of The Empire’s nine pools, with the South China Sea in the background

Lying on the floor in Miri, my mind (though not my body) drifted back to the previous evening where I had been ensconced in the tranquil, marble-appointed features of the The Empire Hotel & Country Club.

How rapid the descent from five-star to no star … but if you are going to travel a lot you need to be flexible. Or at least I need to be flexible. After exploring Brunei I thought I would spend a couple of days in neighboring Sarawak on the island of Borneo, where I stayed with some charming people in their home and ate far too much.

My bathroom there would have fitted into the polished, marmo-clad surrounds of the shower I had at The Empire, but each experience was extremely rewarding in different ways, even if one involved sleeping on a pile of cushions and in a hospital operating theatre.

Empress Suite: There should be more grand pianos in hotel rooms

The Brunei way – at least at The Empire – features lots of gold and imported stone. Intriguingly, for a small country, everything is large at this hotel. Spread over 180 hectares, it is almost a kingdom unto itself, with 22km of roads for cycling and a 12-storey lobby.

My capacious room had gold taps in the bathtub and a balcony where I could sit and watch the sun set over the sea, if I didn’t feel like wandering the ample grounds around various pools and lagoons to waterside lawns and a headland.

Built over a period of six years when Brunei’s oil dollars were gushing freely towards architects and high-end Italian emporia, the hotel is a soothingly  spacious, quietly chilled oasis of gleaming fittings and Swarovski crystal chandeliers. Opening in 200o, one of its big attractions is the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, voted best in the Asia Pacific by Asian Golf Monthly for the past two years.

Canadian golf pro Ahmad Bateman has been with The Empire for more than half a decade and retired from the professional circuit for a more peaceful existence by the South China Sea. ‘It’s a great golf course,’ he says, ‘all the holes are different and it has a bit of everything.’

Shining support: Gold and marble columns in the lobby

My interest in golf is a withered thing compared with my interest in spas, so next I inspect the Country Club building, which houses an indoor pool, ping pong and a ten-lane bowling alley. As everywhere here, if a surface is not covered with marble, it is probably beneath some plush carpet, so even in a complex devoted to sports facilities, the ambiance is muted and pleasingly quiet.

The spa, unsurprisingly, is immaculate and when I am being massaged I hear nothing but a little background music. Bruneians like vigorous air-conditioning , so the rooms are cool. However in case you feel cold, the massage bed is heated.

My therapist was attentive when I said (as always) my shoulders needed some work, and she manipulated the knottiness very effectively, including that troubling insertion point of trapezius near the bottom of my neck. I departed, crunchy muscles significantly eased and moving more freely.

Diving at Brunei’s coral reeks and assorted wrecks, and a range of other activities including jet skiing, wind surfing and parasailing can be organised at the hotel’s Marine Center.

Staff are unfailingly helpful and friendly. I left my sunglasses in the 675 square metre Emperor Suite, where Bill Clinton, Prince Charles and the King of Jordan have all brushed their teeth and possibly paddled in its private indoor pool, and they (just the glasses, sadly) were waiting for me later that day in my room.

My only quibble would be that with all the tropical fruit I saw at the local market a fresh juice bar would be a welcome addition to the breakfast buffet. The coffee is undistinguished, however the French pastry chef does excellent work on the bread and pastry front. The pain au chocolat was so good a second was required.

The Empire Hotel & Country Club:

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