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Safe Cocoons: Luxury hotels and resorts in IndoChina for travel post-Covid-19

safe-cocoons:-luxury-hotels-and-resorts-in-indochina-for-travel-post-covid-19

As travel lockdowns start easing across Southeast Asia, we point you to three beach retreats ensconced in nature and privacy within nearby Indochina.

Nestled along a wide stretch of sand less than 40 minutes from Da Nang International Airport, Four Seasons The Nam Hai houses 60 standard villas and 40 pool villas as well as eight spa pavilions, three outdoor pools and various amenities including a health club, tennis courts and a kids’ activity centre.

Upon arrival, my family and I checked in at an open-air pavilion that looks out over the three in nity pools that cascade down to Ha My Beach. Then we were whisked to our villa by golf cart via one of several stone paths that wind around the property. The villa itself, a spacious 1,120sqf, has two full bathrooms plus a king-sized bed and children’s room with a trundle bed. Tall French doors open to a garden that leads directly to the beach.

Our first activity, and the most highly anticipated among the kids in our group, is AntiGravity Yoga. The Nam Hai is the only facility in the country to offer the authentic AntiGravity programme developed by Christopher Harrison – complete with his incredibly strong hammocks. After a few breathing exercises, we were all soon belly laughing as we attempted to untangle ourselves and get into the various postures. In the end, we managed to master a few series.

After that, it’s a return to relaxing as I checked into the Heart of the Earth Spa. Built around a lotus pond with individual overwater pavilions, the award-winning facility – last year it was named Global Wellness Resort of the Year at the SpaChina Awards and one of the Five Best Spas in the World by Condé Nast Traveller – is inspired by the lessons of a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.

While the resort has introduced a Visiting Masters programme in the past year, which sees wellness practitioners from a wide range of healing therapies sharing their expertise, I was there for the signature Nam Hai Earth Song ritual. The 150-minute treatment was a journey of sound, scent and touch as the therapist led me through breathing rituals, a crystal singing bowl performance, Vietnamese body scrub and bath complete with herbs from the resort’s own farm, and a deeply soothing massage using gem-tipped tuning forks to balance the body’s internal rhythms.

Our final activity began after an early breakfast as chef Trang escorted us to a local organic farm and noodle-making facility. We made our way through rows of chives, basil, lettuce and lemongrass before arriving at a small building with a thick thatched roof.

First, we ground rice by hand using an ancient stone contraption. We added rice and water, turning the wheel by hand until we were left with a milky liquid that we then ladled over the re to produce steamed rice paper. Following this, we transferred the rice paper to a cutting board where we sliced it into noodles for use in soups and stir-fries.

The process was surprisingly satisfying, but the real work was yet to come. Back at the resort, we headed to a purpose-built pavilion for cooking lessons. In no time at all, we were plucking herb leaves, mixing sauces and boiling fresh local prawns and chicken. Eventually it was lunchtime and we got to tuck into the fruits of our labour.

By the end of the session, we felt newfound respect for The Nam Hai’s chefs – many of whom we saw a few hours later at Waterfront Street Night. Vietnam is famous for its wide range of street foods, from pho and steamed buns to stir-fried noodles. And once a week, the resort brings the best of the local offerings to its guests alongside traditional performances such as dance and music. After watching a traditional dance performance and eating our weight in noodles, broth and barbecued meat, we collapsed into a deep slumber. The hardest part of our stay came the next morning, when we finally had to say goodbye.

With the reopening of hotels and beaches in Phuket, those craving for Thai hospitality by the sea can finally make plans. Despite Aleenta Phuket’s name, it is actually situated far from the madding crowd – in the stunning and secluded Phang Nga Province just north of Phuket Island.

Located right on a 10km stretch of pristine golden sand known as Natai Beach, Aleenta is just a 30-minute drive up north from Phuket International Airport over a bridge linking Phuket Island to the western coast of mainland Thailand, where the Phang Nga Province is. The resort, a Small Luxury Hotels of the World member, faces the Andaman Sea, with the Similan Islands 80km out into the blue and several national parks in its backyard. Due to strict regulations in the area, there are no beach vendors, strip malls, tourist joints or shores littered with speedboats.

At Aleenta, nature is your playground. The 2km section of beachfront where the resort sits is straight, empty and spotlessly clean. During the peak season of December to March, when the weather is dry and temperatures at night could drop as low as 23 deg C, the sea is a glistening flat calm. The beach gently slopes into a seabed devoid of rocks or corals. Standing in the water here, for me, was a therapeutic experience.

Equally restful for the mind and body are Aleenta’s resort grounds and accommodation. Although it is a small boutique resort, its “all suites, all private” concept means the compact grounds are laid out in separate segments that ensure adequate personal space. The lobby sits up high by the (very quiet) two-lane main road, offering a bird’s-eye view of the resort estate, which glides downwards towards the blue yonder, housing a spa, swimming pool and two restaurants in between.

There are 10 room categories catering to small-group requirements, from couples to families. At the top end are the luxurious 1,000sqm, four-bedroom Grand Villa Satis and large three- and four-bedroom Beachfront Villas, which are all open-plan, come with their own swimming pool and kitchen, and are situated just steps from the Andaman.

For couples, there’s a variety of spacious, chic villas and suites – most with their own plunge pools. Sunseekers would love the new lone-standing 71sqm Pool Suites right on the beach. Designed with an “Outside-Living- In” concept, it features oor-to-ceiling retractable glass walls to bring the sea into the suite, which also comes with a 7m-long pool and a jacuzzi. For more privacy, pick a Grand Deluxe Pool Villa in the grounds behind the lobby across the road. Elegantly furnished, each 141sqm villa boasts a large and lovely private pool, an outdoor sala and an outdoor jacuzzi.

I hardly saw other guests unless I was at the public and dining areas. The Natai is a modern Thai, dinner-only restaurant that doles out tasty Thai cuisine. The Edge is an Asian-inspired Western contemporary restaurant with Italian chef Luca Mancini from Perugia at the helm. There are mouth-watering Italian specialities during dinner (I recommend the delicious lemon linguine, porchetta and oven-roasted seabass). The restaurant can also set up a breezily romantic beach-dining experience.

The resort’s wellness focus means there are plenty of healthy yet scrumptious dishes at breakfast and lunch, which I enjoyed. Breakfast combines a small buffet offering lots of tropical fruit and a frozen yoghurt machine, with cooked-to-order a la carte dishes. The lunch menu serves up gourmet tacos, Thai favourites, and healthy grain and poke bowls in addition to burgers and pizzas. The coffees are also great.

Aleenta’s spa is the Ayurah Wellness Centre featuring a smorgasbord of treatments, some of which are based on the holistic elements of earth, water, wind and fire. There are chromotherapy baths, massages, traditional Thai-style therapies, facials, and even oxygen and music therapy. The Ayurah Children treatments are a nice touch. Aleenta also offers several retreat packages that include room stays, meals, massages, and yoga and meditation sessions. Programmes can be customised.

Sign up for a cultural day tour, which will take you past old tin-mine lagoons to nearby waterfalls and temples. A must-visit is the pretty teakwood Wat Tha Sai just metres from the sea on an untouched beach. Across the mainland is the spectacular Phang Nga Bay with its limestone towers and emerald lagoons. A 45-minute longtail boat ride from Aleenta will send you there for a day of discovery. Not up for adventure? Hop next door to its sister resort Akaryn Beach Club to welcome the gorgeous fiery sunset, with a drink in hand of course, at its convivial beach bar.

While Phuket is the pearl of the Andaman and Phi Phi the jewel, there still exist hidden gems that make for dreamy holidays. In Myanmar the once off-limit shores and complicated maritime geography of the Mergui Archipelago – Myeik in local dialect – have kept the islands here the biggest secret of the Andaman waters for almost two centuries. After they were first accurately charted following the British occupation in 1824, Mergui was closed o to the world and tourism until 1997.

Mergui’s turning point came in 2014 when the Myanmar government gave the green light for developers to build resorts and hotels. Six years on, spending a few nights in Mergui – on the shore of some 20 out of over 800 islands, or on board a luxury yacht oating in their surrounding waters – is as convenient as visiting any other tropical destination.

My journey here began with a short flight from Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport to the airport in Ranong, from which point we were transferred to the immigration pier. It took all of 30 minutes on a longtail boat from there, with a few checkpoints along the way to get you to Kawthaung, or Koh Song (Second Island) as Thais usually call it. The border immigration is located on the pier and the whole procedure took less than 10 minutes. Kawthaung is the main transfer point for many resorts in Mergui, with some luxury properties offering their own speedboat on hand to transfer guests with ease. Ours was arranged by luxury five-star resort Awei Pila.

Developed by Myanmar’s hospitality giant Memories Group, the Awei Pila only opened its doors in December 2018. The 90-minute ride on the speedboat gave me a glimpse of what lay ahead – turquoise water and blue skies that stretched as far as the eye could see. As the boat approached Pila Island, I noticed that the water was so clear that I could even see the colours on the large schools of tropical sh circling us below. Beyond the dock, Awei Pila’s luxurious villas and elegant common areas seem as though they are a part of the tree-covered mountains.

I checked into one of the beachfront villas, which is designed to resemble a yurt. Inside, my bedroom came furnished with a comfortable king-sized bed, wardrobe, study, a plush couch and other thoughtful amenities. My living quarters connected to an en suite bathroom and an adjacent outdoor shower, while my private patio had a secondary living area which was the ideal spot to read a book and lounge about.

The design of Awei Pila has skilfully taken into consideration the existing landscape as well as the surrounding environment, as building in an environmentally responsible way is part of the agreement set by the Myanmar government for all developers in Mergui. It also has a no- plastic policy, and to minimise waste and food leftovers, the resident chef creates succinct set menus for every meal, and all organic waste is treated for compost, while recyclable waste is transported to facilities in Ranong. The resort also relies on solar panels to generate electricity.

One of my adventures here was a morning trip to Long Beach for group activities and a hearty barbecue lunch. Located on the other side of the mountains which dominate our island, Long Beach features an immaculate stretch of fine white sand, with a small rock island serving as the sole snorkelling spot.

A day at Long Beach is an amazing sun, surf and sand experience, but for snorkellers there’s not much to see underwater. Hence, I demanded a rematch and the divemaster at the resort’s dive centre curated a snorkelling trip to Shark Island the following day. Located about 30 minutes by speedboat, Shark Island features a private, pristine beach, with rocky caves where marine life flourish in abundance. Visibility was a bit hindered due to the aftermath of last year’s El Niño, but there was still plenty to see, including sea urchins and parrot fish.

If greenery and land activity is more your thing, the forests of Mergui are perhaps one of the best places to trek and hike, and even experience the life of local Moken people – sea gypsies who have been plying the waters and lands of Mergui for centuries. On the way back from Shark Island we spotted one of their wooden shing boats, which resembled a small pirate ship, with cracks and holes.

On my final day I visited Kawthaung Island. Accompanied by a local tour guide, I explored the island’s port town, where the most famous landmark is the Pyi Daw Aye pagoda. The hilly geography reminded me of other charming European port towns, and I spent most of my time walking up and down the hills, discovering small stores and street food stalls. The island is also home to a church and a mosque.

For those waiting to cross the border back to Thailand, Kawthaung’s capital market serves as a last-minute duty-free shopping pit stop, where local food, delicacies and souvenirs galore are available, and most shops accept Thai baht and US dollars.

Looking far beyond the pier of Kawthaung, I spotted a few charter yachts gently swaying offshore. Long before commercial development took place in these parts, these charter ships were the only means to experience the beauty of the Mergui Archipelago. Today, they continue to give travellers similar experiences to what I had enjoyed during the past few days, although I’m cautioned that most lack Internet connectivity on board – which to me sounds like more of a blessing than a curse.

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