At Home in the World

Malaysia
No Sleep 'Til Kuching
Ben Chapman thinks this blissful Borneo spot is tops in southeast Asian adventure

I'm sitting on the floor of an Iban longhouse in Borneo, shoving tropical fruit into the mouths of two drunk blonde women. One of them is old enough to be my grandmother; the younger one (pretty, South African) empties a bottle of rice wine on my face, which I try to swallow, steadying myself by focusing on some shrunken human heads hanging from the ceiling of the hut. We're playing a "native drinking game," and, as far as I'm concerned, this alone makes the 24-hour flight from New York worthwhile.

The experience was courtesy of Borneo Adventures, which offers what are called "longhouse excursions," for incentive groups to spend the night in the indigenous Iban tribe's dwellings.

You probably didn't know that Borneo is the third largest island in the world, but it is. It's shaped a like a big T-bone steak, right in the middle of southeast Asia, with the small end of the steak pointed northeast. The Malaysian states of Sarawak and Saba inhabit the eastern part of the island, with the small, oil-rich nation of Brunei in between them, and a strip of Indonesia in the south, facing Australia.

Most visitors have their first taste of Borneo in the city of Kuching, the bustling capital of Sarawak, and home to half a million inhabitants and a small airport. I flew business class on Malaysia Airlines, and the experience was nothing short of luxurious. Just the kind of treatment you need before an extended foray in the jungle. Only trouble was that I couldn't sleep.

Central Kuching runs along the north side of the river, distinguished by a sleepy boardwalk littered with cafes, food carts, and plenty of benches for sitting and sipping tea or coffee. Along the land side of the boardwalk, Main Bazaar Road is Kuching's shopping zone, specializing in textiles and spooky furniture carved from Borneo's rock-hard black ironwood.

Kuching (which means "cat" in Malay) is bisected by the Kuching River, a mellow, coffee-colored waterway that does triple duty as a highway, source of food, and center of commerce. It's a quaint little stretch of water, but also a fairly busy place: Locals fish by net for carp and other prehistoric-looking seafood, and water taxis ferry residents about, while a sprinkling of tourists explore the city by hired boats. But for me, and most visitors, Borneo's main attraction is not the gastronomy, but the jungle and its inhabitants, human and otherwise. Better than 70 percent of the state of Sarawak is equatorial rain forest, home to seven thriving native tribes, including the Iban, who favor tattoos and shrunken heads as living room decor, and the Orang Ulu, who stretch their ears and necks in the name of beauty. If those customs seem bizarre, remember that everything's relative. As one local tribesman argued: "Michael Jackson does the same thing." (And Iban headhunting ceased years ago.)

Actually, the Iban are very hospitable, though they're apparently responsible for legions of headless corpses. Their longhouses are large wooden cabins built on stilts, and each one is home to 30 or so people who share a large communal space and several smaller rooms. Tourists sleep in adjacent cabins and visit after dinner to sing songs, share tales, maybe do a little foot wrestling. Rice-wine-drinking contests of the kind mentioned earlier also may occur on rare, lucky occasions.

An Iban excursion will take you through the dense jungle and the mangrove swamps, where you might see a giant python, a hissing pit viper, or a 20-foot crocodile. Your guides might take you net fishing, or boar hunting, or on a hike to a local waterfall for a refreshing swim.

And while you're in the area, you must be sure to visit that most famous resident of Borneo, the orangutan, the supremely intelligent primate that has but two natural habitats on the planet: Borneo and nearby Sumatra, Indonesia. Just outside Kuching, the Sarawak Rehabilitation Center allows visitors a chance to see rehabbing primates feeding and frolicking in a 5,000-acre jungle reserve, while Borneo Adventures offers a look at the primates in a pure, wild state, on guided excursions along the Red Monkey Trail.


Switzerland
Nothing But Time
April I. Torrisi experiences Swiss bliss in Interlaken

Time. Where does it go? Well, I can tell you where some of mine went: While schussing the Alps in the charming, snowy town of Interlaken, Switzerland, last January, I also attended the grand opening of the five-star Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel's spa, E'SPA, following its $13-million renovation. There, I experienced a signature treatment called "Time" that, as one might expect, immediately took a lot of it off my hands. Starting at a minimum of two hours, a variety of treatments were customized by my personal E'SPA therapist into a soothing ritual that blended foot pampering, aromatherapy, and massage to rejuvenate my sore muscles, weary body, and jet-lagged brain.

E'SPA, along with the fitness and wellness centers at the 220-room Victoria-Jungfrau, take prides in promoting health in the classic European manner, which is all about taking time. Romans used to spend hours recreationally in a public bath, being nurtured with oils and the water therapy of natural mineral springs. It is reported that the Roman spa process was to first visit an unctuarium, where oil was rubbed onto their skin, then on to the tepidarium (warm room) where they would relax and chat. Next, the caldarium (similar to a Turkish bath) was visited, and they sat and perspired, scraping their skin with a curved metal tool known as a strigil. After a dip in the caldarium, they would take a quick dip in the frigidarium (cold bath). Three thousand years later, this leisurely approach is seen as a luxury—yet is essential in taking care of one's body. According to E'SPA's spa director, Jurg Schupbach, "It is part of the Swiss culture to be into wellness, like checking one's heart rate and evaluating one's physical and stress limits in a spa environment. It is critical for a fitness gym to be incorporated into the spa experience for our Swiss, German, and other European clients. The rest of the world has caught onto this trend and now Victoria-Jungfrau has caught onto the pampering aspect—it's an even exchange."

Needless to say, I felt better. To pamper myself even more, I relaxed and drank Ayurvedic tea in the relaxation room with stunning views of the Alps. The spa and its 10 spa suites have the look of Asian simplicity fused with a modern James Bond-y edge, which isn't surprising, since On Her Majesty's Secret Service was filmed on nearby Mt. Schilthorn at the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant (which is one of the many attractions to visit while staying at the hotel).

According to Schupbach, the spa was designed to make guests feel as if they are on a cruise ship, and the hallway above the spa, which links the spa to its spa suites, resembles the walkway on a cruise ship. The decor is unlike yet compatible with the style of the property, which was first built in the 1860s originally as two different hotels. (The two—the Victoria and the Jungfrau—merged in 1893, joined together by an indoor bridge.) Baroque grand elements combine with some 70s modernism, but the architectural focal point is a commanding water works, comprising a swimming pool surrounded by Roman columns and whirlpools, a salt-water Jacuzzi where swimmers can choose to be inside or outside, a Turkish steam bath, a Finnish sauna, a cold-water plunge pool, and a solarium.

Outdoors, in the fresh air and the bright white snow, I skied, tobogganed, and snowshoed beneath the daunting and all-encompassing magnitude of the mountains, which left their imprint of unforgiving beauty on my mind. But once indoors, I took advantage of the fabulous spa facilities. And why not? For once, time was on my side.