Wakatobi: The Resort

Wakatobi is a stunning resort. It’s set in remote Southeast Sulawesi on a little island with nothing else except a little village accompanying it nearby. The water was always a beautiful deep blue, proof of the clear water that heralded good visibility on all our diving days. The resort consists of a longhouse for a reception area, media room and library/lounge with small huts scattered round as guest rooms. They have beautiful luxurious villas too, complete with private swimming pool and direct beach access, which alas we couldn’t afford.

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One jetty is all you need for a resort this intimate, especially when there’s a bar right at the end.

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But wait, more important is the restaurant nestled in the greenery round the bend of the island.

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It’s has an open verandah concept with buffet service, which is great for busy times especially at breakfast and lunch when people don’t linger too long as there’s beautiful diving ahead.

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The food was pretty varied and inventive considering that it had all been flown in together with us. Only the fish and local vegetables were sourced in the area. Breakfast the usual selection of cereals, fruit, baked items, eggs done any style and pancakes made in front of you. Lunch was slightly more lavish, with a good selection of appetisers and salad, hot mains with both western and Indonesian selections and daily pasta (gnocchi, ravioli, et al) made to order. It was a pity that the Indonesian food was completely non-spicy, but the awesome sambal ulek made up for it. Dinner was were they pulled out the stops, with exciting appetisers such as super fresh tuna sashimi, deep-fried prawns wrapped in noodles (done dim sum style) and feta cheese and tomato profiteroles. This was followed by a good selection of western and asian mains. What we looked forward to was always the night’s roast. Memorable ones were the chicken done Indonesian-style, the meltingly tender lamb ribs (best I’ve had in a long time), and the tasty beef roast. There was also a nightly station that served up something interesting, like vegetable tempura cooked to order, sop daging, or crepes suzette flamed to order. Desserts were decent too, with at least one local option reminiscent of the kueh kueh we get in Singapore.

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Accompanying the delightful food was a delightful view of the ocean and amazingly warm and attentive service. One night, we sat outside under the stars on the beach for a romantic dinner. I grabbed a sop daging from the soup station and forgot to take a spoon. Before I could get up to take one, a waiter had come round, scanned our table in the dim lighting, and come straight back with a spoon. There people are mind readers! They were always so helpful and eager to please, yet not ingratiatingly so. Lovely!

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Most evenings we were at the resort enjoying the sunset. There were plenty of deck chairs and seats under umbrellas to lounge at…

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… but we preferred to go to the jetty bar…

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… where we ordered strong but rather bad cocktails at US$10-12 each. That’s the only thing that’s remotely worth complaining about. The good thing is that we saved money by not ordering anymore after that!

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And now for the room. We stayed in the cheapest option: the garden bungalow, which was more than enough to meet our needs. I somehow forgot to take a picture of the outside, each hut on stilts had a little sand garden with two deck chairs to lounge at and an ample front balcony to sit at and to hang wet gear. The inside had a canopied king-size bed where the staff expressed their creativity in towel art.

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Check out this cute monkey. I was so sad when I sat on the bed and it toppled over. But that didn’t detract from the comfortable stay we had, of course. The housekeeping staff were very sweet too, sending us an extra jug of water “just in case” when we were out of drinking water.

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Each night before going to bed, we made sure that we analysed our tanks for the next day’s diving with nitrox. This is a special blend with more oxygen so that we could stay slightly deeper for longer. There was plenty of space in the clean and well-organised dive centre and the place was so well-run that even our individual cups were washed and then topped up at the start of each day. We didn’t even need to fill them ourselves!

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And the diving? Before each dive, there was a briefing complete with hand-drawn map of the dive site and explanation of the currents and what to expect in the 70 minuteswe were underwater (yup you didn’t see wrong, dives here are looooong).

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And here’s a teaser to show you what it’s like, stay tuned!

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Wakatobi: Getting There

Wakatobi made sure that we were very well taken care of from the get-go. When we arrived in Bali, there was someone waiting to escort us out through the VIP channel and make sure that we make a smooth transfer to our hotel in Bali. It was really good to whizz past the long immigration line and have porters push our big heavy bags out to meet our hotel rep. I’m surprised that they had this service from our flight into Bali as it technically wasn’t yet part of the trip. I’m definitely not complaining about it though. They provided the same helpful reception the next morning with complimentary porterage services and the use of the VIP lounge in the domestic terminal. After a short delay because SBY had been flying past the area that morning and they needed to clear the air space (!), we took off in a little 40-seater propeller plane! We flew past blue sea and beautiful islets and coral atolls, hoping that Wakatobi would be just like that.

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Of the four islands that make up Wakatobi National Park – Wangi Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia and Binongko – we landed at the airstrip on Tomia. This was the only town on the island, it was that remote.

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There’s actually a small airport on Wangi Wangi, presumably a larger island, but transfers between Bali and the resort take longer because the flights connect through Makassar and the boat ride to the resort is longer. The resort simply built its own airstrip on Tomia and run chartered flights direct from Bali.

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This suited us just fine because having your own airstrip means that your fleet of SUVs comes right up so your guests can saunter straight from plane to car. What a great idea!

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Before we had a chance to break a proper sweat in the hot sun, we were whisked off past the welcome sign…

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… with our luggage and all the supplies for our week at the resort following closely behind.

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The next stop was the jetty, where we piled onto one of the Wakatobi dive boats and enjoyed iced ginger soda on the short 15-minute ride while the friendly staff briefed us on our stay. We could already see that the water was going to be amazing as it was a beautiful clear turquoise at Tomia jetty already.

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At Wakatobi jetty, it was even better. The water was clear blue…

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… and the white sand was perfect against the backdrop of lush vegetation.

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More beautiful pictures to come!

September in Bali: Last Pampering

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It was time to call it wraps in Bali. I’d spent about 3 weeks diving in both Bali and Komodo and while I enjoyed it all greatly, it was time to take a break from being underwater. What better way than to do it in style – at one of the Nusa Dua resorts. I was lucky enough to get a free ride from Permuteran to the airport from a very generous Spanish couple. It was there that I met my aunt for our pampering at the resort.

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We stayed at the Hyatt, a lushly landscaped resort.

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My aunt found a great deal on it and we spent four days lazing around this resort.

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Most of the time was spent at the swimming pool, a free form one that snaked round the premises. It was lovely wandering from one coil to another, exploring the little surprises round the corner.

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One cute surprise was the slide, big enough for adults even! I enjoyed going down a few times, it was pretty fast. But soon I got embarrassed because little kids were going both before and after me.

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At breakfast, we had a choice of the open air patio or comfortable airconditioning inside. The open air patio gave us a beautiful view of birds enjoying the grounds too. They were fairly tame and I didn’t have to zoom too much to catch good shots.

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This little fella was our breakfast companion as we sat by the lily pond. In exchange for his companionship, we gave him a few morsels of bread from our table.

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And after spending the day lazing in the pool, we had dinner at Jimbaran beach. Here we had the typical spread of barbecued seafood, and here I also wave goodbye with my crab to the end of the Bali series.

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Holiday from the Holiday: Stop-over in Kota Kinabalu

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After six days of doing nothing but diving, eating and sleeping, it was time to take a break from the stresses of it all and unwind at a nice resort. We checked in at the Shangri-la Tanjung Aru Resort to relax and wash our gear. Yes, you saw it right, we like to unwind in a place where we can wash and dry our gear in peace so that we don’t have to deal with it when we get home. It’s nice to really chill out and do nothing while waiting for our wet suits to dry. Here’s the lovely view of the bay from our room.

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We had very decent weather the whole time, with hot, clear days (ideal for drying our stuff) and clouds rolling in only in the evenings. It was lovely how a rainbow hovered over the resort just as we were strolling round checking out places to eat.

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There were two casual dining places at the resort, one was al fresco and only served barbecues, and the other was the cafe where the sumptuous buffet breakfast was served. Lunch here was pretty decent too, with a good selection of western and local favourites. My Sarawak laksa was very decent. Not having been to Sarawak, I wouldn’t know whether it was authentic or not, but I enjoyed what tasted like a cross between curry and mee soto. A winner in my books!

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Sunset here was very beautiful. The resort was built on a shallow bay and the curves dotted with coconut trees looked lovely silhouetted against the evening sun…

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… as did this wader looking out for fish.

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We sat under some coconut trees for happy hour drinks, waiting for sunset to arrive.

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It was lovely to put up our feet and sip our cocktails.

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Post-cocktail shishas and more drinks didn’t hurt either! It was fun messing about blowing out vanilla-scented smoke through our nostrils. No incriminating pictures here though, sorry!

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What a lovely end to our holiday.

Layang Layang: First Approach

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We flew to Layang Layang via Kota Kinabalu by chartered plane. It was a cute little propeller plane and in much better condition than the ones I flew in The Philippines and Indonesia. Nonetheless, we still had to go a bit snap-happy!

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We could see the pilots very clearly through the open cabin and were very amused watching them go through their pre-flight checks and put on their own seat belts.

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We flew over the beautiful outlying islands off KK…

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… flying low enough to see our own shadow in the pretty turquoise waters below.

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It was then followed by nothing but blue water for a while, until the pilots announced that we’d reached Layang Layang and that they would bank the plane to let us have a good view of the atoll island. It was great flying a chartered plane! Not only were they patient enough to wait for us to finish the touristy photo-taking before takeoff, they also gave us a good few turns of the island to take pictures to our hearts content.

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You can just about see the shape of the atoll in this picture, together with the lagoon formed in the middle.

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The resort is on this thick bit of the atoll that has definitely been reclaimed. There’s the air strip, the resort and the Malaysian air base and nothing else.

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The rest of the atoll isn’t really much of an island, with quite a lot of it underwater most times of the day.

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It was a lovely place smack in the middle of nowhere, with nothing but sea and sky stretching out as far as the eye could see.

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It was especially beautiful at sunset with wide panaromas of coloured sky throwing their colours onto white clouds…

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… as well as casuarinas and hardy tropical pines silhouetted beautifully against the setting sun.

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We went on sunset walks before dinner when we weren’t completely knackered from the diving to take in as much as we could.

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Inside the very charming resort, we found different sea creatures in the room. Some days we had angelfish, other days a turtle, and on one special day, we had a pair of manta rays come visit!

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And on the last day of diving, a hammerhead came to visit us. It was so sweet of the resort staff to put in special touches like these to make our day even better.

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More to come soon on the diving!

Diving the Similans: Eating at the Villa After

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The Vijitt has a beautiful infinity pool to match its beautiful grounds. We admired it every morning at breakfast and had a dip a couple of times. Too bad it wasn’t quite as good as the diving the past week!

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Food at the resort was very good. I liked the breakfast, the buffet spread was decent and they provided fresh juice to order. DC, however, has higher standards. Good thing the a la carte menu for dinner met his standards! There were two restaurants inside, one the main restaurant looking out at the pool and the other an intimate Thai restaurant in a beautiful house facing the beach. It was this restaurant that had fabulous food. I liked how refined the cooking was.

Here we’ve got a delicate soup that tasted like a very sophisticated tom yam. It showcased the vibrant taste of fresh herbs and aromatic roots to a T. Didn’t hurt at all of course to have fresh juicy prawns to add to it. The clarity of the flavours was astounding. I’m fairly drooling thinking of it as I type.

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Another dish was rather oddly named as fermented smoked shrimp. It turned out to be deep fried dried shrimp with deep fried lemon grass bits and peanut, all tossed together with herbs and chilli. While the shrimp was a bit of a chewy-crunchy mouthful, the deep seafood umami flavour permeating this dish really worked. It’s nothing like I’ve had before and a definite re-order. (What am I saying, all the dishes featured here are definite re-orders.)

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Yet another re-order was the salad of winged bean and shrimp. There’s something magical about the combination of savoury fish sauce, tangy lime juice, seafood and crunchy greens. The topping of dried coconut and fried shallots brought it to another level. What can I say except “yum!”

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Last dish to feature is the simple yet very skillfully made crab omelette. It was crisp at the edges and still runny in the centre. Of course, the crab was fresh and sweet. It was such a satisfying counterfoil to the rest of the dishes. I could eat here every day!

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The Vijitt Resort Phuket
Friendship Beach
16 Moo 2, Viset Road, Rawai, Muang, Phuket 83130
Tel: +66 (0) 76 363 600

Diving the Similans: The Villa After

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After all that hard work diving, a couple of days at a nice villa was definitely in order. DC found the Vijitt Resort online based on its reputation. It didn’t hurt that the place appears in Francis Ford Coppola’s list of top resorts in the world. and what a beautiful place it was! The resort only has individual villas, there aren’t any rooms in a building. Each had a private entrance and a little garden filled with aromatics. I especially liked how they grew a lot of pandan outside our villa. When we emerged for breakfast in the morning, the fragrance was such an uplifting start to the walk to the restaurant. What was even better is that the resort recognises that the grounds are quite big, so there’s a buggy service that takes you wherever you like in the compound. It was great how cheery staff would come up on the buggy and ask if we needed a lift. Most times we waved them off so we could enjoy the walk and the view, but having one at beck and call and also for when the sun was beating down was just fantastic.

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There were excellent views from the villa. Here’s what we saw from the balcony and bath tub. It overlooks the southern shore of Phuket and what passes as its beach. It was incredibly lovely to see the old coconut trees towering majestically over the villas. The resort claims that they built the villas round the trees and not a single one was cut down to build the resort.

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I shall be coy about the room itself, go have a look at the resort website to have an idea of the layout. But what was really nice was the pseudo-outdoor shower. It’s actually sheltered so you’d still need to turn on the shower if it rains. The shower is built in a kind of lean-to bamboo shack with a window that opens out to the lovely view.

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It was really nice having a shower and enjoying the view at the same time. I liked how thoughtful they were in planning the villas. It’s really hard for someone to peek at you while in the shower, so no worries about privacy.

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After all that rave review, would I stay there again? Unfortunately, no. It’s mainly because they had a major mosquito problem. The resort is located in a rather swampy area and despite their efforts to fumigate and place mosquito coils (upon request) in the villa, there was no way of keeping them out. Didn’t we close the verandah door and windows? Yes. We had both airconditioning and fan on at full blast at night but still got bitten. Puzzled by the mystery, DC looked at the finishings carefully and realised that there was a large gap in the sliding verandah doors, so mosquitoes could get in anyway. I was kept up all night scratching, it was that bad.

The other problem with the Vijitt is that the maintenance isn’t that great. I think they chose cheap finishings and didn’t do it up properly. For instance, the metal hand grip of one of the sliding doors in the bathroom came off. We realised that even though there were holes for the screws, the panel was simply glued on. Nonetheless, that didn’t affect our stay at all, just that I wonder if the place has longevity. The resort is currently just over a year old and while definitely not run down, it looks like it could do with moreTLC. Please go if you’re immune to mosquitoes, and go soon!

November in China: Tangshan Hotsprings

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No pictures this post. You’ll figure out why in a bit.

After Nanjing, we headed to the hotsprings at nearby Tangshan (literally: soup mountain; I think tang could also be an old-fashioned term for hot water). When Nanjing was a capital, Tangshan was highly regarded for a place to take the waters. Apparently one of the Soong sisters, most likely Ching-ling, liked going there so much she commissioned a special road to lead there from Nanjing.

The town itself was the usual dusty nondescript so typical of minor Chinese townships. The only difference was the numerous spa resorts dotting the area. Ours was the Yishang Spring Resort, consisting of a hotel complex complete with restaurant and spa park.

At the reception, we were issued with a bead bracelet that also had an electronic locker tag. Then we were ushered to the spa park entrance that had turnstiles quite like those at amusement parks! Here was where Mum and I said bye to Dad and we separated into male and female locker rooms. We were issued with ugly mass-produced rubber slippers and tacky Hawaiian-motif happy coats. A friendly attendant grabbed us firmly by the elbow in case we slipped on the wet floor and walked us into the massive (this is China, remember?) locker room to locate our lockers.  She instructed us to change into our bathing suits and then proceed to the shower rooms for a rinse before entering the park proper.

Before entering the showers, we had to run the gauntlet of more attendants who checked if patrons were going in or out and made sure that each person was sufficient hosed down before getting a towel to proceed inside! Coming out of the park was worse, they wouldn’t give out towels till after the shower! Mum was aghast when she saw naked locals coming out from the shower dripping so that one of the attendants would wrap them in a fresh towel. She made sure to ask for a towel before going in to shower and spoke in English when they threatened to be uncooperative.

There were lots of different pools in the spa park. Most of them were hot pools. On the periphery were pools of spa water of varying temperatures, as stated on little wooden boards above. You could start from 32ºC all the way up to 45ºC. Another area had some roman-style dry baths where people could sit on the heated marble floor between a series of partitions along a marble wall. With such cold weather, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to sit on heated marble out in the semi-open.

There was also a heated swimming pool, though no one swam in it and also an area for getting buried in hot sand. Extra was charged for the privilege of being buried alive. Mum and I went past all these and quickly jumped into one of the 32ºC pools before we froze to death from exposure. I wanted to go straight into a 45ºC one but Mum stopped me. You have to start cooler lest you overheat!

Preliminary soak over, we proceeded inside to explore further. There was so much more! One of the highlights was a heated pool filled with lots of little nibbling fish. The trick is to find a spot to sit comfortably and where you’re covered to the chin and stay absolutely still. The fish would then come over and nibble on toes, knees and elbows . The first nip was startling and we could immediately spot the newbies from their tickled yelps and screeches. Soon I got used to it and was trying to figure out how to get more fish to turn up and also how to get them to nibble  on my fingers. None did no matter how hard I tried.

This place was pretty upmarket, with lots of little services. Waiters would serve soft drinks in plastic cups directly to people soaking in the pools. It got pretty gross when the kids would then proceed on to use the cups to catch fish. Whenever someone hacked and showed the slightest hint of spitting, we’d immediately exit and move on.

Other pools in the area had lots of exotic brews. There were pools of red wine, chrysanthemum, rose,lemon, lemongrass and pomelo-flavoured soaks. Of course there were also lots more flavours I hadn’t even seen before. It was great to pick one, lie in there for a while, feel too cool, pick a warmer one and then get too hot. After soaking for about half an hour, Mum and I would then go to an indoor area for complimentary flower tea. We’d towel off and sit for a while, watching incredulously as groups of men would sit around playing cards and smoking cigarettes (again provided free). Cigarette in mouth, they’d grab another one from the box and stick it behind their ears for later. Odd, but part of the spa experience.

If we were tired from the repeated raisin treatment, we could go inside to the clubhouse. Here there was an area full of rows and rows of soft sofas, all (surprise, surprise!) facing a TV playing the latest Chinese soaps. If not for the TV, it would be a quiet rest room. Once coming in, you could have a nap, get a foot massage or pedicure  (extra charges) or just read a book and have some refreshments. This is how people spend days there!

The best part of the spa was going there after dark. I remember lazing in one of the faux-rock pools looking up at the dark sky. I felt warm from the water, yet my face was cool from the early winter air. I was on holiday. It was the best feeling in the world.