Lisa Richards doesn’t arrive in style, but leaves feeling fabulous from Amanresorts’ first ever property – and still its grand-dame – Amanpuri, a luxe haven on the west coast of Phuket
Unlike Amanpuri’s other beautifully dressed residents, who are whisked from airport to villa in the comfort of an air-conditioned Amanpuri liveried limo, we arrived under the steam of a rather sorry-looking hire car – but this is Thailand, and thanks to the proliferation of people, animals and mopeds on its pot-holed roads, the concept of luxury car hire never took off here.
The guards protecting the resort’s hallowed gates (decked out in mirrored Raybans, but thankfully not brandishing machine guns) eyed us and our wheels suspiciously as they radioed through our details to the front desk. After a blast of static, the gate was raised and we wound up through dense jungle, past pristine championship tennis courts and to the hotel’s bustling reception. Barely had I turned off the ignition and we were being swept from the car into the stunning reception area – an open-air teak pagoda cooled by the whooshing of fans and the gentle swishing of smiling staff, light on their feet. The car’s keys were prised gently from my fingers and we were encouraged to move away from check-in and towards the hotel’s pool area. The only thing missing was a young boy with ostrich feather fan to cool our heated brows – we were rather hot and bothered thanks to missing the hotel’s entrance several times. Nothing as brash as a signpost points its way to this über-luxe hideaway on the west coast of Phuket. Thankfully, an in-the-know local who understood our wild hand signals and repeating of “Amanpuri, Amanpuri” over and over again finally pointed us in the right direction.
The stress of driving back and forth on Phuket’s chaotic streets soon began to melt away as we were shown around while our passports were photocopied and our bags were retrieved. While our fellow guests, immaculately turned out for a day at the beach or by the pool certainly caught our eye, it was the slate-lined pool that captured our attention. The late-morning heat was already rising and its cooling black depths were calling. But our tour continued, and we’re glad it did, as it led to us to the dramatic, wide flight of stairs that lead down to Amanpuri’s pristine stretch of sand. Having stayed in north Phuket for the last few days, I was bewildered as to why Phuket’s beaches were lauded so. After fixing my gaze onto the white, soft sand and the twinkling, clear aquamarine waters I was beginning to understand why visitors to this isle first fell in love with the beaches.
Just above the beach, perched on a rocky outcrop, was a small beach restaurant where beautifully styled guests lounged in the shade, partaking in cheeky pre-prandial glasses of rosé and chilled beers, Oliver Peoples and Tom Ford sunglasses perched atop their perfectly coiffed hair-dos. Had I forgotten myself for a moment, I could have easily assumed that I’d stumbled across a fashion shoot for Vogue – a casual beach scene, with every model preened and honed to perfection, making the view even more beautiful. This is not the kind of resort where one falls out of bed and onto the lounger without so much as a hair and make-up session and styling.
After our show-round while the check-in process took place, we were loaded onto an electric car and whizzed off to our villa. The word ‘upgrade’ had been mentioned – quite possibly my favourite word in the English language – so we were excited to see what lay in wait. Having already experienced our own private pool villa at Anantara, we weren’t expecting that to be matched. It wasn’t so much matched as usurped and relegated to lower leagues: a pool as large as Anantara’s public pool glistened before our villa – clad, again, in Amanpuri’s signature black slate. Our maid greeted us and excitedly pointed out our outdoor salas – a lounge on one side and dining room on the other. On the other side of the pool was our one-room villa, with two bathrooms, two walk-in wardrobes and sitting area. Surrounded by staff, we played it cool until, at last, we were left alone with our palace and pool. Our maid barely had time to shut the door of her flat, located just off our pool area, before we’d stripped off and done what all discerning guests with their own private full-size pool should do: gone skinny-dipping.
After the giddiness, we dried off and made ourselves respectable for dinner. Dressing down is not an option at Amanpuri, when your dining companions include Middle Eastern aristocracy and fallen Hollywood film stars. As we sat down for dinner at our candlelit table by the hotel’s main pool, we watched floaty couture dress after floaty couture dress swish by, not a creased brow or unpumped set of lips in sight. Dinner was one of the finest meals we had in the whole of the country: and that takes some doing. We’d decided to opt for Thai food, rather than the gastronomy on offer at Amanpuri’s modern Italian restaurant or their intriguing French kaiseki eatery which combines French cuisine with Japanese artistry. The resort’s Thai chef, a 60-year-old woman who set up the kitchens at Bangkok’s Sukhothai, proudly introduced her food to us, and watched as we murmured with delight as we tucked into her tasting menu of Thai curries. Charcoal-cooked roti and fragrant rice accompanied the heavily – yet deftly – spiced curries with their rich gravy, spiked with coriander, lime and chillies. As we gorged ourselves, the sound of cicada filled the air, along with the chitter-chatter of the international jet-set. Across the pool a trio of musicians set up their traditional instruments and serenaded us as we ate and drank excellent wine. And so to bed, we arrived back at our villa, swaying as gently as the surrounding palms, to find our maid had folded up every item of clothing we owned, hand-washed our smalls and unpacked for us.
After the night before’s feast, and because the beach was beckoning, we opted for the healthy option at breakfast. Feeling virtuous – not so virtuous as to test out the hotel’s hilltop, glass-clad gym, with its postcard views of the coast, admittedly – we headed back to our room to get changed for the lounger. Costume changes are mandatory at Amanpuri. On the sand, feeling energetic, we borrowed a kayak (for the member of our party afraid of fish – that would be me) and snorkel and headed out into the bath-water-warm, clear waters. Out to the pontoon we headed, the braver member of our party face down in the tropical waters being followed by a Nemo-like shoal of fish. After feeding them with the bread left at the pontoon by the ever-thoughtful staff, the waters filled with even more oddly-shaped breeds, jostling for the best feeding position. Such was the thickness of the shoals that my companion had to hitch a ride home on the end of my kayak, attempting to lift her flippered feet out of the busy waters.
Back on dry land, we retired to our loungers, picking two on the frontline of the pristine sands, deserted apart from a smattering of beautifully turned-out hotel guests. On one side sat a prince and his swelling entourage, on the other a pair of Americans that look liked that stepped off a private jet, having spent the previous weekend partying in the Hamptons with the Kennedy clan. The eavesdropping opportunities were legendary, and as we dozed in the heat of the sun, we woke only for cocktails that the beach staff brought round regularly or for a juicy piece of gossip.
Are there down-sides to this island idyll? Of course there are. The hotel opened in 1988, and was the first in Amanresort’s now impressive armoury, and in places its 20-plus years of business are evident. The bathroom suites in our villa, for example, are of another era, and the showers have seen better days – and too many bodies. But the management are aware of this, and the property is being slowly refurbished, with some suites having their own private plunge pools added. Not that age is always a negative: maturity’s advantages are shown in the experience of the team, and the fact that many of its key staff are long-serving Amanresorts’ employees, for example. It’s this cultivated notion of customer care that means throughout our stay we bump into General Manager Fred Varnier on his rounds. Greeting all guests by name – such a wonderful touch, and so rare these days – Fred delights all with his tales of the hospitality industry and his love of Amanresorts, and Amanpuri in particular. As we are gently placed into our hire car and wished well for our next stop on our Phuket island tour, being waved off by tens of staff, we left feeling that this property’s maturity and experience are key factors for what makes a confident, interesting hotel with stories to tell. If Amanpuri were a person, you’d definitely add it to your dream dinner party guest list.
Pansea Beach, Phuket 83000, Thailand
Tel: +66 76 324 333
Date of review: January 2010.
Lisa Richards stayed as a guest of Amanpuri.