As a seasoned travel writer, I've had the privilege of staying at some of the world's most ostentatious resorts.
So you can imagine my surprise when I first heard about Aman. A collection of 30 resorts built in fantastical, one-of-a-kind settings like a royal retreat in Cambodia where King Sihanouk once entertained Jacqueline Kennedy and Peter O'Toole back in the sixties; a 16th-century Venetian palazzo where George and Amal Clooney tied the knot; and an oasis of domes, arches and reflective pools in the Moroccan desert where David Beckham held his 40th birthday party.
Aman doesn't advertise in the traditional sense. Marketing is conducted via invitation-only pow-wows where attendees are offered the opportunity to join an almost secret society of executives, celebrities, royalty and heads-of-states known as "Aman junkies" for their refusal to stay almost anywhere else.
A THAI BEGINNING
The more I learned about Aman, the more fascinated I became. The company came to fruition in 1987 when Adrian Zecha, the Indonesian co-founder of Regent Hotels & Resorts, flew to Phuket to find a plot of land to build his dream holiday villa.
After an exhaustive search he discovered the perfect spot - a headland overgrown with coconut trees that looked down onto a half-moon bay with a sugar white beach on the island's west coast.
But fate - and gravity - intervened. The headland was so narrow that water ran off both sides and the plumbing was going to cost millions to install. So Zecha hatched a plan to mitigate the cost: he built a series of villas he could rent or sell to friends and a small hotel company to manage them all. The company would be called Aman, the Sanskrit word for "peace", and the resort would be called Amanpuri - "Place of Peace".
"We never set out to build a company or a brand - all we wanted to do was build a small one-off resort that would give pleasure to our friends," Zecha said.
In contrast to the domineering facades of many five-star resorts, Amanpuri was designed with a sleek minimalistic aesthetic.
"Simplicity is the essence of elegance and you don't achieve elegance by 'gussying up' things," Zecha said. "When I walk into a building that looks rich and expensive, I feel uncomfortable and a bit intimidated - as if I should hold my breath and be careful not to touch anything. I don't want our guests at Aman to feel like that. I want their first impression to be a warm unpretentious welcome, with simple, clean lines and soft colours that put them at ease."
Three months after it opened, Amanpuri attracted its first celebrity guests - Michael J Fox and Sean Penn, who were in Thailand filming Casualties of War. Word got out among Hollywood A-listers and soon the phones were running hot. Everyone who was anyone wanted to stay at "the Aman".
Buoyed by Amanpuri's success, Zecha started creating more Amans in his native Indonesia and across other parts of Asia before expanding into Europe and the US.
Every Aman would be different, designed in tandem with its natural environment, though they would all charge through the roof to ensure exclusivity. The average rate for one night in a standard room at an Aman today skirts just under the $2000 mark.
My interest in Aman now bordering obsession, I was determined to see what all the fuss was about. So I booked a flight to Bali to visit the first three Amans Zecha built after his success in Phuket.
When Bali's tourism boom kicked off in the 1980s, development was focused around the surfing mecca of Kuta.
"Everyone was building on the beach, but in 1988 Zecha goes off to the river valleys of Ubud looking for a site to build his first Balinese hotel," says Canadian Mark Swinton, director of Aman in Indonesia.
"People said 'Where are you going? It's just jungle up there.' He said 'Don't you worry about me, I'm going for a little hike', and a year later he opened the most exquisite property in Bali where Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall used to stay. When guests arrive, they say this is the real Bali. This is why I came here."
My first impressions of Amandari are of understated elegance.
From the lobby a butler leads me along a cobblestone walkway encased by tall volcanic-stone walls to my room - a two-storey villa. On the ground floor is a living room that opens on three sides via floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors to a courtyard with a plunge pool, walled garden, palm-thatch cabana and views of the Ayung River.
On the top floor sits a four-poster bed decorated with images of the Hindu veda that revolve around a golden Ohm, the Hindu peace sign.
The same rich detail overwhelms me as I explore the grounds of the resort - a Balinese interpretation of the fictional Kingdom of Lilliput. I see shrines wrapped in colourful sarongs, fish ponds carpeted with lilly pads, false doors set in paras-stone walls, little waterfalls and footbridges, statues of dragons and deities, gecko lizards and dragonflies, a museum-quality boutique filled with the works of local jewellers and a Hemingway-esque cocktail bar overlooking a jungle-clad gorge.
I've visited numerous health retreats over the years, none of which made me feel as at peace with myself as I do after only a few hours at Amandari.
"I hear that a lot," says the general manager, Jann Hess of Switzerland. "This place is almost like a monastery. It has great energy."
After Amandari, Zecha travelled to east Bali, where Mount Agung, a strata-volcano revered by locals as the home of the gods, casts a long shadow over the villages and jungle of the coast - a setting that is the very embodiment of a Western cliches about the tropics.
East Bali is also home to many of the island's important historical sites, like the Ujung Water Palace. Built in 1919 by the last Raja of Karangasem, it features three large ponds connected by long elegant bridges. Ujung was also the inspiration behind Amankila - Hill of Peace - a cascading clifftop resort with 37 suites nestled into a lush green hill overlooking the Lombok Strait.
Amankila's centrepiece is a three-tiered infinity-edged pool, each of which merges into one another, the sky and the sea. Every time I see it I stop, almost involuntarily, and snap a picture on my phone.
The scene is even more instagrammable at night, when the pools morph into giant mirrors full of stars and traditional Balinese dancers entertain guests at an adjoining library bar.
From the bar a paved walkway descends 30m to a lawn the size of a football oval beset with hammocks, a crocket field and an Olympic-size swimming pool edged by a colonnaded marble dining room cut straight out of ancient Rome. The lawn ends at a private beach club where four-poster cabana beds line lava black sand.
I count only two guests but 12 attendants who are unlike any of the staff I've encountered at luxury properties before.
Firstly, Amankila's staff carry themselves with a soft sense of entitlement; 40 per cent of them, I learn, have been working here since it opened in 1992 and have even inducted their grown children into the Aman family. And secondly, they have a way of anticipating guests' needs before they even become aware of them.
When I return to my cabana after a splash in the surf, I find a glass of ice water wrapped in a white napkin set on a tray table. When I put on my sunglasses, they've been polished to a sheen.
"When you work here you become an Aman junkie yourself," says Amankila's general manager Sandra Waterman from Germany.
"My three-year-old daughter has become one, too. Last week, we were having lunch at a cafe outside the resort and she said 'mummy, I need a napkin to wipe my hands.' I said 'darling, there are tissues on the table'. She said 'no mummy, I need a napkin'."
Dumbstruck. Astonished. Lost for bloody words. That's how I feel when I sashay into the grand colonnaded lobby of Amanusa - Peace Island - the third and final Aman Zecha built in Bali.
Perched high on a hill overlooking the beach resort of Nusa Dua on the island's southwest coast, it is very much like a scene out of Ben Hur. From the lobby a marble staircase tumbles into a vast quadrangular pool edged on three sides by 10m high philosopher's stone walls and urns the size of small cars.
It's as though everything Zecha said about minimalistic design was thrown out the window at Amanusa, but in a way that takes nothing away from what is the most resplendent resort I've ever seen. I almost have trouble believing it was built nearly quarter of a century ago, for the aesthetic is as cutting edge as the newest luxury hotels of Dubai or New York.
"That's the genius of the design. It's timeless," says Mark Swinton, who in addition to overseeing all three Amans in Bali, manages this resort.
The service, as per the other Amans, is as precise as a Swiss watch. Attendants in white polo shirts stand at attention by the pool during daylight hours, while in the evening musicians serenade guests with the soothing sounds of xylophones. It makes me wonder: is there anything within reason the staff wouldn't do? And how over-the-top can guests' requests go?
On one occasion, Swinton tells me, they covered the pool with floorboards for a wedding to create a huge outdoor ballroom. Another time they flew in sumo wrestlers from Japan to entertain a group of businessmen.
But the most over-the-top request, he says, came from a Singaporean man who wanted to surprise his girlfriend with a marriage proposal. So he booked a weekend at Amanusa for her and her best friend and planned to parachute into the resort - James Bond-style - to pop the question.
"We arranged a skydiving plane to fly him over the resort and got permission for him to land on the golf course," Swinton says, pointing at the fairway below. "We also had to make sure his girlfriend was having breakfast on the patio at the time so she could see him when he landed, while having no idea who it really was.
"He landed safely and walked in through the pool courtyard and up the stairs. She didn't recognise him until the very last moment when he strolled into the patio, got down on one knee and proposed. She said yes, of course."