Seoul, South Korea and Bali- Sarah
Back in 2016, I realized that the next year would feature an optimal set of travel circumstances. 2017 would be the year in which I’d have Gold status* with Starwood Hotels, Silver status with United Airlines, and a huge (to me, anyway) stockpile of points/miles in both loyalty programs. On noticing this, I set out to find the perfect new vacation spot that had a beach and a cool town to explore.** This perfect place needed to have a Starwood property, and had to be reachable by United (or one of United’s Star Alliance partners).
Salt Water Pool at The Westin Resort Nusa Dua, Bali
As it turned out, Bali represented the convergence of a solid beach vacation, interesting towns to visit, Starwood hotels, and United miles. One day in November 2016, I stumbled on what was basically a unicorn in the world of flight awards, and as quickly as I could manage some button-clicking, I was booked for August 2017! Five of my friends decided to meet me there, and it turned out to be one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. Here are a few of the highlights of this summer’s vacation.
*Little did I know that I’d spend enough nights in hotels to qualify for Platinum status after my apartment building was severely damaged by a fire in early 2017. Silver linings, people.
**This was a serious mission. It had its very own spreadsheet and everything.
Core Travel Cost & General Itinerary
$542 (Flights, lodging, airport transportation, 6 days of a van & private driver)
10/11 days: San Francisco, California – 16 hour overnight layover in Seoul, South Korea – Bali, Indonesia
Primary Activities: Monkey Forest Sanctuary, Spa, Gili Trawangan, Elephant Safari Park, Pura Tirta Empul, Merta Harum Coffee Luwak, eating all the food
Travel & Lodging
For 160,000 MileagePlus miles and less than $50 in taxes/fees*, I was on my way! I consider this flight redemption to be something of a unicorn since it was a “saver” award that included a 12hr leg in first class – for the same number of miles I was seeing on the business class tickets. It was a longer flight than the others, but that meant I got to fit in some mini sightseeing in Seoul – a city I’d never visited.
My first flight (SFO-ICN) was in United First with the new(ish) Polaris soft product on one of the last 747-400 flights before United retired the aircraft from its fleet. My friend Richard is much better at frequent first class flying than I am, and he advised me to sit in seat 1K, which is in the nose of the plane and offered some serious privacy and amazing views on takeoff. The seat could be reclined all the way to flat, and it came with an actual bedspread to cuddle under. I was also given my new favorite pajamas and a really nice amenity kit.
*I was just 3,000 miles short of 160,000, so I ended up buying the extra miles, which brought my total ticket price to about $158. Still not bad…even if the last 3,000 miles from a car rental bonus posted a few days later.
The other memorable flight I took was from Taipei (TPE) to SFO.
I thought I had it pretty good with the first flight, but I was apparently unprepared for the amazingness that is Eva Airways Royal Laurel Class. Unbelievably, the seat was even more comfortable than my flight to Seoul. Except for the pajamas – the largest size they had was still for a very tiny person. The Rimowa amenity kit made up for it though. Shaped like a mini hardside suitcase, it was super cute and filled with lovely toiletries. And I thought the bathroom in the cabin was huge. There was actual floor space in an airline bathroom!
Speedboat to Gili T
We took a Blue Water Express “fast boat” to go from Sanur to Gili Trawangan, then from there to Padang Bai, for about $120. I found the staff & service to be professional, and the boat to be reliable – it appeared a lot better maintained than some of the other options. The water was really choppy on the way back, but I felt safe overall. The staff kept cold beers on board – just know that if one is offered, it is for sale, not a gift lol.
Seoul – Aloft Seoul Myeongdong
view from the room at Aloft Seoul Myeongdong
I really like the Aloft brand and don’t often get to stay there. This Aloft is relatively new, and turned out to be the best location I could have asked for on a long layover of less than a day. It was right around the corner from a huge pedestrian mall that had all the delicious and inexpensive bites I could possibly have wanted.
Ubud – Airbnb (and the novelty of an outdoor shower)
We picked our Airbnb largely due to the fact that one of the bathrooms was outdoors. That bathroom brought whole new levels to the idea of communing with nature – showering outdoors (still with plenty of privacy) was an incredible experience.
Coming from the U.S., Bali was really affordable overall, but I still have trouble wrapping my head around the type of affordability this Airbnb presented. For less than $50 per person, we (the six of us) had two nights in a 3-bedroom, 3-bathroom villa with a private pool and fresh-cooked breakfast. As far as I could tell, this was pretty much the norm.
Nusa Dua – The Westin Resort Nusa Dua, Bali
This resort was everything I was hoping it would be. Their elite status recognition was top-notch…even a bit over the top at times. When we checked in, they took a photo of our party so that the staff would recognize us throughout the resort – and they did! For our entire stay, all 6 of us were repeatedly recognized as Ms. Johnson. It was really pretty funny.
I booked rooms for the six of us using the cash + points rate, and we received room upgrades on arrival. I’d booked three rooms, and two were combined into a two-bedroom suite, with the third upgraded to a one-bedroom suite. I was really pleased with the one-bedroom suite I stayed in for 5 nights. I’m pretty sure it was bigger than my last 3 apartments.
Pura Tirta Empul
I really enjoyed our visit to this water temple. It was packed with both locals and tourists, yet somehow managed to remain a majestic environment with a serene vibe that encouraged personal reflection, prayer, and meditation. I was told the water is holy, with the water source blessed by a rotation of priests.
Monkey Forest Sanctuary
The sheer quantity of monkeys was a little disconcerting, but it was a special experience to see all the monkeys just chillin in the park. There were quite a few babies and those were so much fun to observe.
Suluban Beach & Caves
I research details like nobody’s business, but somehow it didn’t register for me that a beach with secret caves located at the bottom of a cliff would be a serious physical undertaking to get to. I don’t even want to know how many steep stairs I climbed that day, but I have to say I’m glad I did it. The views around the caves were unbeatable.
We went to Bodyworks Bali, which I understand to be kind of the middle of the road as far as spa prices in Bali go (still a fraction of what is charged in the U.S.). I have zero regrets. I had a 2-hour full-body treatment, which included a wrap, a scrub, a massage, and a soak in a tub full of flower petals. Then I had one of my top 5 pedicures ever. And my bill came to $65. I don’t know how I’m supposed to ever go to another spa again. It’s gonna be a struggle.
Though I left Bali with a rather vicious case of “Bali Belly” despite Komang’s attempts to protect us from the local foods that he deemed our stomachs unprepared for (we tried to argue and later realized he was 100% correct. Don’t argue with Komang. He knows everything), I considered it a small price to pay for the wonderful foods I got to try. I found food in Bali to be as incredibly well-priced as our Airbnb, and almost invariably delicious.
Seafood at Sunset at Jimbaran Beach
Go. Just go.
This might have been one of my favorite meals of the trip. There are a ton of restaurant choices, and you go pick out your seafood and how much of it (it’s sold by weight) and choose how you want it prepared. Well, that last one is hit or miss – I told the guy at Ganesha Cafe that I wanted fried oysters, and he goes, “Why must you Americans fry everything? No. It will be too small. I will grill them for you.” …alrighty then (oysters un-pictured, but they were still delicious). There were also the biggest king prawns I have ever seen or heard of in my life.
3 Monkeys (Sanur)
This was an undisputed home run. The meal below (fish, rice, & veggies – all of which turned out way more exciting than when I try these ingredients at home) cost about $15, including a drink. I am also in love with their logo. I think it’s an incredibly clever take on the restaurant name.