A Tale of Three Hotels
I first came to Phuket back in 1990, still a somewhat contemporary sounding date, yet now a neat quarter-century ago, which in terms of the pace of Asia’s tourist development, is more like half a millennia. The treasure island I was sent to explore by an American travel magazine was not exactly virgin—as my suite at the vast Dusit Laguna complex proved—but it did still seem to be mostly what God and geography intended: a sort of mini-Hawaii, except without people, a heavily jungled and pleasingly mountainous terrain offering itself up so gently and modestly to a world aching for pineapples and sunshine. To call it a “pearl” in a shimmering sea was back then no preposterous brochure come-on but an obvious truth easily confirmed by a single day’s winding drive down its Western coast from one bluff overlooking one perfect arc of unpopulated white sand after another. Maybe it was, in fact, too good to be true, to ripe for anything but developers’ plucking. The rest, as we know, is history (the kind measured out in the unchecked multiplication of massage joints, girly bars, and gas-spewing jet skis).
But wait! News flash! The sun still shines, the waters still glisten, the forests (as they are) still beckon, the balm still reigns, even if the scent of frangipani has been replaced mostly by truck exhaust and suntan lotion. And, considering how many chains have set up flags here, how many nationalities retired, how much cash and credit have gone into the register, Phuket still seems remarkably habitable and splendidly hospitable. Perhaps, in our hippie dreams, we would have liked to see rows of grass shacks and nature reserves, but in truth, even hippies, especially aging ones, are not going to turn down a few creature comforts, or pools. In my first week’s foray to Bangkok’s southernmost suburb in nearly a decade, I had to come away admitting that progress did come with a few sweet perks—among these, first and foremost, a collection of some of the world’s most special and wonderfully specialized places to lay one’s weary head.
Barely twenty minutes easy pickup from the Phuket Airport, you might call Thanyapura the fitness centre for planet Earth. Founded by a visionary, wealthy German, Klaus Hebben, the place was first opened as a haven for calm and reflection—which still survives in the somewhat woodsy original wing, now kept in scrupulous silence as the main venue for “mind control” (i.e. meditation) workshops. Today, connected to the campus of a local international school as well as many philanthropic endeavours, the place boasts, without too much fanfare or resort razzle-dazzle, among the most world-class facilities for training or partaking in just about any sport or form of bodily improvement. The Dutch Olympic swim team hibernates in its vast pools each winter; tennis legend Maria Sharapova recently tuned-up here on their perfectly shaded and maintained hard courts. So why not me and my daughter (who rarely exercises outside Bangkok malls) or about half of Southeast Asia’s weekend warriors?
At first impression, the main courtyard of rooms, built around a wide, shallow pool for kids, seems somewhat bland and decidedly un-tropical. It’s very comfortable, however, a kind of upscale Holiday Inn—but the real attraction comes after crossing a bridge (where one can view a patch of rainforest crawling with tree snakes) over to what, in homage to Disney, should be called Fitnessland. The aforementioned vast pools, and courts, are supplemented by gyms featuring every sort of machine, dance and yoga studios, and superb track facilities. In two days, I squeezed meditation, a stomach cleansing massage, and more around three outstanding group tennis lessons. I even got tempted to step in the outdoor ring for a little basic Thai boxing, trying to show off for my daughter. It left me with a few bruises and an appreciation for how hard you have to kick to leave a dent in a punching bag.
Better still are the between-workout rewards, namely the meals at Divine Restaurant (as in tasty, not holy). Where other resorts make lo-fat rations dull and monotonous, the chefs here are really creative, not just in reducing calories, but in giving lots of Thai zing to a wide range of local fish, tons of obligatory smoothie choices, and fresh-baked breads. Oddly enough, only the breakfast buffet, so well-suited to putting forth a special variety of fruits and grains, seemed more in line with ordinary, greasy hot table fare.
My digestive massage came at a new “wellness” facility as the hotel is now shifting to a more holistic focus, treating specific ailments and states of mind as well as improving sports technique, all within the package of de-stressing nearly all of us need. But there’s nothing trendy or shortcut about this sort of healing. It’s not some California New Age feeling, but German earnestness, that pervades the place.
If Thanyapura has one drawback, it’s simply that stays of a few days, like mine, are simply not enough. There are too many sports to try, too many coaches and diet regimens to follow, too much self-discovery, and too many pounds to take off, for so brief a booking. And, being in a hurry to cram in too much, can mean heading toward check-out with most of one’s limbs cramping up. One day soon, I’d like to go back and really put in some workout time, maybe sign up for a package they ought to offer for recovery from excessive exercise.
I’m not sure what sport is played at the Iniala Beach House, my second stop and another magnificent indulgence of an overseas owner (in this case, Mark Weingard, a British broker moved by a series of personal tragedies to create a one-of-a-kind concept that aims as much at charity as charm). If the Iniala isn’t the most amazing place to stay in Thailand, I’d like to see the competition. It’s not a place to stay really, but a signpost of a way to be. There are just four seafront villas here, on a perfect strip of beach spreading just north of Phuket itself. Each room, each artefact within the four, have been created by a different world-class designer. Beds float hammock-like from spider webs of bamboo, a bathroom turns into a Japanese ink drawing, a private screening room (like full-length mirrors that turn into TVs) offers hundreds of movies, pillars and walls are plastered Dali-esque with broken shards of tea cups and pottery, sculpted white couches seem to mirror the dazzling sun. Of course, each place, big enough for whatever constitutes your entourage, comes with personal butlering, private pools, decks, wondrous sushi and taco breakfasts, espresso makers, and the usual. Making all this luxury truly unusual is a gallery featuring a rotating collection of contemporary Southeast Asian art, beside a “kiddie hotel” where younger guests can stage their own sleepover parties in an imaginary space that puts everything Disney to shame. The idea here is to open the mind, the heart, and especially one’s eyes to the world all of us might live in if we let aesthetics and fantasy rule.
Most of an international staff who make you feel instantly part of some special in-crowd seem to have been chosen for their F&B background, and the Iniala hasn’t just settled for some typical crab-by-moonlight hotel restaurant. Aziamendi, a darkened lair where guests dine in near-exclusive privacy, is the Asian outlet of a specially-scouted Michelin-starred operation from Spain’s innovation-obsessed Basque country. Left in the hands of a playful (and rare) woman chef (even more uniquely young and Filipino-American), the tasting menu, supplemented by an adventurous sommelier’s daring pairings (from sake to moscato), looks minimalist on the page, but each mini-plate comes with layers of texture and pretty much everything one has never consumed before—an appetizer “picnic” of brick paper and pork belly, an edible rock (no typo), an olive oil crepe, and loyal to its Spanish roots, crab meat washed with an essence of black olive and Ibérico ham.
At every turn, the Iniala simply refuses the opportunity to be ordinary. It’s hard to believe all of this is found down one barely-marked coastal two-laner leading to a little-known hot spring. The Iniala probably doesn’t need the publicity or endorsement. It’s the sort of joint that is already known through word-of-mouth to those who can afford it. And this isn’t the sort of place that can be summarized as part of some regional round-up. This is a hotel that deserves to be the subject not of reviews but short stories or today’s equivalent of Somerset Maugham novels. All it lacks is the history.
After such heights, I somewhat dreaded the return to reality I anticipated at the Amari chain—especially when I realized the branch I had booked was on mobbed, besotted Patong Beach. That was before we got there, and found the cheery, warmly ochre-coloured complex spread out on a hillside promontory that looks out across the blue bay and sweep of beach but that’s remarkably and blissfully isolated from the backpacker hubbub (even if actually within walking distance of the southern end of the town, just in case you simply must have a foot massage or get your lifetime’s fill of people in tank tops and tattoos). That was also before we were met at the busy entry by communications manager Tai, an ever-smiling transplant from Isaan whose unforced warmth and personal attentiveness could have made an iguana feel at home in Antarctica. My daughter and I certainly felt like we could live here forever, once we were ferried by golf cart, up into the veritable equatorial suburbia of separate small modern houses by which the hotel has recently expanded from its aging bayside building. While our room was only a third of a condo, it felt like we were blissfully alone and once more relaxed in our villa with separate living room and a perfect balcony for losing oneself in a view of the sea.
While a doting staff member named Gypsy took my daughter off to paint her own Thai-style paper umbrella, I got a superb “mojito” treatment in the Amari’s open-air, aptly named Breeze Spa overlooking the sea. I left stirred, not shaken. Considering this was high season and the place at full capacity, lunches and breakfasts of exceptional quality hummed along swiftly at the eating outposts for executive members strung along to the heights, to wonderful outdoor dining with views. Invited by Swiss hotel manager Pierre-Andre Pelletier, we dined right by the water, and better than candlelight with the lights of cruise ships and fish fleets bobbing in the distant horizon, at the Amari’s La Gritta Italian outlet, supervised by female chef from Rome, with pastas that tasted like it (even if the veal was undoubtedly untenderized Australian). I wasn’t surprised to hear that Pierre-Andre lives modestly in the hotel himself after decades in Thailand, without family—the very model of a hotel manager, who has the knack to find time to make every guest feel like part of his intimate circle and make it look like he isn’t even working.
Amari’s tiny sweep of beach was alright for a dip, and boats shuttle guests round the bend to the sheltered and apparently semi-nude Freedom Beach. In general, the place bills itself as a pleasant jumping off point for sea excursions to Phi Phi and less trampled islands. But with its brace of pools and the lush environment, I had no desire to go anywhere. Neither, tellingly, did my daughter—and as we watched a sunset off a jetty at the farthest end of the Amari’s ample property, and saw schools of striped clown fish choking the waters below, we went at once to rent snorkels for our last morning’s modest attempt at adventuring. Ferried down at 7am, we had but to plop ourselves safely within sight of the hotel, and within five breast strokes of the rusted jetty stanchions, before we became deep-breathing voyeurs in our very own “Finding Nemo” cartoon. Jet-black species highlighted with yellow ridges floated past electric blue breeds, giving us such easy access to tropical wonder as to make us feel guilty. But all pangs of self-recrimination, and sorrow at leaving so soon, were assuaged by the hugs, grins, and photo-taking bestowed on us personally by Pelletier and the crew. How did he so effortlessly make it seem like he was personally aware of every single person in every single one of his beds?
In the hands of people like Pelletier and Gypsy, the future of Thai hospitality seems safe. And Phuket itself seems a little less endangered, too, with all those aquarium wonders thriving so near the unwashed masses, and still as it always shall be, it is a place of abundant welcome.
BY John Krich