My family and I had been to Bali, that storied island of spiritual renewal, art, dance and romantic hotels with infinity pools and rice paddy views, but until we moved to Singapore six years ago, its neighbor Java wasn't on our radar.
Just west of Bali and a two-hour flight from Singapore, Java is the largest and most populated of Indonesia's thousands of islands and home to the sprawling capital of Jakarta.
For 2,000 years, Java has been at the heart of Indonesia's rich history, where Hindu-Buddhist empires thrived between the ninth and 14th centuries, followed by Islamic sultanates and the colonial Dutch East India Co.
Today, Islamic Java is still the country's cultural heart, in both its heavily populated coastal cities and remote interior, where ancient monuments survive against a backdrop of smoldering volcanoes, tropical jungles and hills carpeted in emerald green rice paddies.Hotel heaven
Designed by American architect Ed Tuttle to blend in with its surroundings, Aman Resorts' Amanjiwo was built in 1997 on rice paddies at the foot of the Menoreh Hills, opening out to the Borobudur plains and Borobudur, one of the most striking Buddhist temples in the world, two miles away. Four volcanic mountains frame the horizon.
If a hotel can tastefully mimic a temple, Amanjiwo has done it. The main building is a pillared rotunda made from local limestone, and there are two crescents of suites artfully tucked into thick foliage.
The main building feels hallowed when you first enter, until you spot the chic boutique camouflaged down one corridor, and quietly inhabiting other corners are a hip bar and library, where the hotel's resident archaeologist gives lectures on Borobudur's history and related topics. There's also a spa, gym and tennis court. Yoga sessions are held by the green-tiled, 130-foot-long pool, and two restaurants serve traditional Indonesian dishes like nasi goreng (fried rice with a fried egg), satay (skewers of meat) and lotek (local vegetables with peanut and tamarind sauce) as well as Western fare.
We booked a Garden Suite for our family of four, and it was spacious and serene, with soft lighting, stone walls, Sungkai wood screens and traditional glass paintings creating an ethnic-meets-chic ambience. The focal point was a four-pillar bed on a raised terrazzo platform; thick twin mattresses were set up in the corner for our boys and still the room felt cavernous.
My family appreciated the separate toilet and large shower, pair of vanities and outdoor bathtub. Sliding glass doors lead out to an expansive foliage-framed patio with daybeds. Half of the 36 rooms have views of Borobudur, and half also sport private pools.
For families with kids, Amanjiwo is surprisingly doting for a high-end hotel, offering arts and crafts, dance lessons, pony rides and chocolate cooking classes. Babysitting is also available.
Borobudur was built more than 1,000 years ago atop a hill in Magelang, Central Java, several centuries before Cambodia's Angkor Wat and Europe's grandest cathedrals. Borobudur was in ruins and covered by foliage and volcanic ash by the time Sir Stamford Raffles (of Singapore fame) got wind of it from locals in 1814, when he was the British ruler in Java.
Since then Borobudur has undergone several restorations, was deemed a Unesco World Heritage Site and is once again a vision of beauty and mystery. The temple comprises huge square tiers topped by circular domes and is crowned by one main stupa (a dome-shaped shrine). Hundreds of Buddha statues include 72 set inside perforated, bell-shaped stupas.
Borobudur deserves a visit at dawn to watch the sun gradually shed light on the ancient monument, along with another 100 or so tourists in matching batik sarongs loaned to visitors to wear as a sign of respect.
Another worthwhile excursion that can be arranged through Amanjiwo is a half-day visit to Selogriyo, a tiny eighth century Hindu temple at the top of Mount Sumbing. A scenic, hour-long drive through farmland and small villages is followed by a one-hour trek by foot up a gently sloping dirt path that weaves along terraced rice paddies reflecting the clouds. At the site, we had a look at the small shrine, its stone black with age, and sat on the ground atop rattan mats to enjoy snacks and drinks brought up earlier by hotel staff. Other tours take visitors to the temples in the Prambanan Valley near the city of Yogyakarta.
Another afternoon, sans kids, we spent two hours working up a sweat trekking the steep slopes of the Menoreh Hills just behind the hotel, past rural homesteads and plots of red chilies. At the peak we were rewarded with panoramic views that went on for miles.