Just take a short drive west along the highway from where we live, and you reach the Empire Hotel. Built 10 years ago as a pet project of the Sultan's brother Prince Jefri (now discredited and ostracised after some financial scandals in the 1990s), this hotel is marketed as having 7 stars - 5 stars is so 'last year'. Look in the dictionary under opulence, and this should be what you see...
The Atrium by night - 25 metre high marble columns...
decorated with gold leaf.
Beautiful orchids in the Lobby.
Everywhere you look there is marble, gold, semi-precious stones, inlaid mother-of-pearl... no wonder it took US$1.1 billion dollars to build!
And yet the place is nearly empty. I suppose this shouldn't be too much of a surprise - Brunei has never really made it onto the world-stage as far as tourism goes, and - sad, but true - I don't think that it ever will while it maintains its status as a dry country. Many people just wouldn't consider a holiday where they couldn't relax by the pool with a cocktail, or have a glass of wine with supper.
However, the fact that there seems to be more staff than guests only adds to the extravagant feel of the place!
It is possible to become a member of the Empire Country Club and therefore use all their facilities. The most appealing thing about it (for me anyway) is the swimming pool and lagoon where you can sunbathe and swim to your heart's content, whilst looking out over the South China Sea.
But we're not members. It's astonishingly expensive, and as we both work full time there is no way we'd make enough use of the place for it to be worthwhile. I can see why people join - if you're used to paying a monthly gym membership in the UK this probably doesn't work out as that much more money, and likewise if you are a member of a golf club in Britain then again the price is probably comparable (the golf membership package is a lot more than the basic membership), plus you get great facilities here, including the use of the pool which is members and hotel guests only. But it's not right for us.
Another reason we've found for not joining is that, on the occasions that we do visit it seems really special - I don't think I'd like to get too used to this kind of luxury; I mean, nothing else is ever going to measure up is it?!
Many of our friends are members and as part of the membership deal you get vouchers for a couple of free nights stay in the hotel. We were offered one of these vouchers at a very reasonable price so snapped it up, which is how we ended up staying there last weekend.
Our room was lovely - well, this was the second room we were offered after we complained about the lack of view from the first one! I think it's worth being fussy in a place as posh as this. The bed was HUGE with beautiful Egyptian cotton linens; so comfortable. It's a bit hard to tell from the photo, but the bathroom was wall-to-wall marble. It was fabulous to relax in the bath looking out of the window at the sea view too.
We ate out at a local Thai restaurant on Jalan Jerudong on Saturday night - I fear that the hotel's restaurants are a little over-priced, and we were keen to try some of the Thai places nearby. We had an excellent meal, but then came back to the hotel and enjoyed a walk around the grounds by night.
The next day we did eat in the hotel, starting with a superb buffet breakfast. We were glad we had gone out to Bukit Shahbandar for a pre-breakfast walk in order to work up a good appetite!
I think we managed about 4 buffet-visits each! The hot selection was particularly good - here's my plate of fried rice topped with a fried egg, corned beef hash (bizarre) and 'crumbed cauliflower'! Plus some other things I can't remember - I tried a sample of most dishes.
The sweet selection contained a few comedy items... the ubiquitous brightly-coloured cubes of desserts (the green and white one was like cold rice-pudding topped with a coconut milk-jelly), and the round bun was bread topped with grated cheese and sugar!
The coffee was excellent and importantly (and unusually for Brunei) served without sugar. We ate plenty so didn't feel the need to have lunch.
Feeling very full we headed down to the pool to relax and read. I really like the little 'pods' they have by the pool - and the covers are very useful when it rains, which it did briefly on both the Saturday and Sunday.
We sat there sheltering in the pod laughing about how it was just like being in England... except even when it's windy and raining it's still hot enough to be sitting around in a swimming costume!
After getting through an entire novel and swimming several laps of the pool (an exhausting day!) we decided to head back to the hotel for Afternoon Tea. This is about the best way for non-members to experience the Empire, particularly when they have the buffet tea at the weekends and when it's 2 for the price of 1! It's still $30 for two people which is a lot more than you'd pay for your average meal here in Brunei, but you do get to eat in enviable surroundings. And eat until you feel sick! (Must learn when to stop...)
Visit 1 to the buffet...
Having filled up on sandwiches and wontons, it's on to dessert...
By Sunday evening it really felt as though we had been away for much longer than the 36 hours that we had spent at the Empire. As we come to the end of a very long term, it was a much-needed break!