Courtesy of Parrot Cay
Spa cottage at Parrot Cay
updated 6/30/2005 7:43:35 PM ET 2005-06-30T23:43:35

If a resort could have a resting heart rate, Parrot Cay’s would be in the 30s. At this 1,000-acre private-island hideaway in the Turks and Caicos, a 40-island British colony in the Atlantic just south of the Bahamas, the atmosphere is one of perpetual intermission, of animation suspended.

Here purpose seems to have been given a furlough, cell-phone reception is nil, and the essential accessories are a good book and an appointment at the newly enlarged (and excellent) spa. Here the staff is instructed never to ask a guest what he does for a living, lest it rouse the very thoughts that the resort aims to bury temporarily. Here the siren song is so low key that it’s played in an octave all its own.

Parrot Cay is the creation of Christina Ong—that’s Mrs. Ong to you, me, and just about everyone else, including the hotel’s general manager. She is one of Asia’s style icons, the chatelaine of a fashion empire that includes ownership of the licenses for Jil Sander and Issey Miyake in Asia, Giorgio Armani in Australia, and Donna Karan in Britain. Her husband, real estate baron B. S. Ong, is a major investor in Four Seasons Hotels—he owns five of them—and Mrs. Ong is now in the hotel business, too, as the head of COMO Hotels and Resorts. (The name is an acronym for Christina Ong Melissa Ong, the latter being her daughter, who discovered the then derelict Parrot Cay on a diving trip in 1997.) The brand’s far-flung stable consists of the Halkin and the Metropolitan in London, the Metropolitan in Bangkok, Begawan Giri and Uma Ubud in Bali, Uma Paro in Bhutan, and Cocoa Island in the Maldives. COMO has also created its own spa brand, Shambhala, which means “center of peace and harmony” in Sanskrit.

The COMO Hotel network (and the Ongs’ other hotel-world connections) are the key to Parrot Cay, because it has given management access to a corps of well-trained, experienced Asian staff. They compose 50 percent of the resort’s personnel, filling most of the positions, for instance, waiting tables in the two restaurants, that make or break the guest experience. Thus Monica Barter, the Singaporean spa director, was the assistant health club manager at the Metropolitan in London, and spa supervisor Juliet Ng was at the Concord Hotel in Malaysia, an Ong property. Mrs. Ong’s business relationships also come into play in maintaining quality. Donna Karan’s private chef, Jill Pettijohn, had a big hand in developing the organic, nondairy Shambhala menu, according to Parrot Cay’s recently departed chef, Claudia Dunlop. “Pettijohn sources way-out ingredients like agave syrup and has actually taught us a lot,” says Dunlop, adding that “Donna and Mrs. Ong are very close.”

The Asian connection is particularly evident in the spa, which offers not only a pan-Asian menu of massage, from Thai to tui na, but therapists from almost every treatment's country of origin to perform it. The Thai-massage therapist, Aire Anongnaut, was trained at the Old Medicine Hospital in Bangkok, the Harvard of Thai massage, and Ayu, from Java, does the Indonesian massage, which relies on skin-rolling techniques to get the blood to rise to the surface. The acupuncturist, Satoshi Hashimoto, is from Japan, and then there's Oka from Bali, who is a kind of utility infielder, doing tui na (Chinese for "push and grab") and a great riff on hot stone, as well as Balinese treatments. Some 20 percent of the staff is from Bali, in fact, which goes some way toward explaining the serene vibe permeating the property.

Courtesy of Parrot Cay
Pool at Parrot Cay
At Parrot Cay, as at all her resorts, Mrs. Ong is coining a new language of luxury. She eschews the traditional signifiers-marble, silk, grand spaces, and gilt-and the hackneyed contemporary one, that international minimalist vocabulary that runs the gamut from Starck to stark. Instead, she offers a pared-down but eloquent idiom of white, light, and weathered wood that meshes perfectly with the high skies and low-slung horizons of the Turks and Caicos.

She accessorized the six Beach Houses and six Beach Villas, the most private accommodations, perfectly: screened-in porches with Balinese daybeds, hammocks, and old-fashioned whistle-pull showers beside the pools. (They evoked the same delight in me that the bunk beds in our Maine vacation cabin did when I was a kid.) The 42 double rooms and four one-bedroom suites, which are in eight two-story buildings on a hillside, adhere to the same aesthetic-white walls, canopy beds, understated furniture-with the second-story rooms having generous terraces to boot. It's an aesthetic that seeps into you, apparently. One guest told me she actually preferred the double rooms because they kept everything simple. "The Beach House is too much space," she said. "I wouldn't want some of my things in another room." (You get used to it.)

Scores of hotels have gone in for barefoot luxury-the Meridian Club on nearby Pine Cay comes to mind. But they usually do it by a process of subtraction, simplicity equaling what's left over when you take away anything (sophisticated decor, for instance) that smacks of a Four Seasons. (It's an equation that happens to work at the Meridian Club, incidentally.)

Parrot Cay, on the other hand, works by a process of addition. It starts with nature-or, rather, reverence for the natural. The island has been left largely in its scrubby state; the resort hasn't even erected palapas on the long, often deserted sateen-sand beach. The other pole is nurture-the spa, which nearly doubled in size last year, and the Shambhala menu, for which there is a separate chef. In between the resort layers in of-the-moment fitness (a Pilates hut with a Reformer and a Wunda chair for private sessions), a little candlelit glamour at night in the Terrace Restaurant, and prompt service. And it's all wrapped up with a ribbon embossed with "come as you are." This is the anti-St. Bart's.

The Shambhala spa is a pet project of Mrs. Ong's. The spa only recently introduced hot stone massage because it took Mrs. Ong until then to find the right trainer for the staff-Leslie Bruder in Colorado. The spa products are chosen for being organic and natural to the extent possible, but the treatment menu also offers Guinot facials, which in some cases, such as Hydradermie, use chemical products and galvanic currents. The reason: Mrs. Ong happens to be a fan of Guinot.

The new spa building, built into a hill, has dramatic views of the adjoining North Caicos Island-and some terrific chaises from Indonesia on an outdoor terrace for savoring them. The layout is simple: reception area above, treatment and locker rooms below, calm throughout.

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My Thai-massage therapist, Aire, is barely five feet tall and weighs perhaps 90 pounds after a meal. But she is a sprite with strength: When I tell her she can increase the pressure, she ratchets it up at once. At one point she is practically cantilevering me (who weighs 179 before dinner) off the mat. The treatment is gentle, deliberate, and powerful, and it comes with a nice dollop of Eastern philosophy: "Not like you press on today and is gone tomorrow already," she tells me when I ask whether I'll ever get rid of the pain under my right shoulder blade.

It's the hot stone massage, the Nessun Dorma of the spa world, that shows creativity here. "Eighty percent of the time you are faceup," Barter tells me, "but you are massaged on both sides. It's quite a dance." And so it turns out to be--but for the therapist more than the guest.

When I come into the massage room, the stones are laid out on the table like runway landing lights. I lie on them faceup, and Oka proceeds to run another line of them across my abdomen. It makes me feel my pulse in my stomach. Then the pas de deux begins.

Oka employs his forearm by turns as a roller, an I-beam, and a fulcrum. At one point my lower leg is hooked across his lower back, as he uses his slightly bent posture to stretch my hip. (All I can think of is that old line, "In some countries, we'd be married now.") At another point he balances and rolls my neck on his forearm as he pursues the bag of marbles that is my upper back. Near the end, he turns my body into a folding chaise and the release in my lower back is like a small landslide. Then he balls me into the fetal position and I find, with some dismay, that I'm balancing on the side edge of the table and being compacted like a car in a crusher (although there is no pain). The coda is a spinal twist.

Throughout, Oka works the stones into the massage, which sometimes requires enormous dexterity. At one point he is balancing me on my side, massaging my lower back with the stones, and keeping my posterior under wraps. Given the complicated movements, there is more than one point at which the drape seems to be headed south--then suddenly Oka does a quick tuck or fold and modesty is preserved.

On my last morning at the resort, I decide to take a chance on the tui na massage, despite being warned by Barter that it can be excruciating. "It involves a lot of cross-fiber work," she adds, "and not always in the most soothing way. But it really does the work." Yes, it does. There is a lot of pressure-point pushing with fingertip, forearm, and elbow and lots of skin kneading. (You'll be reminded of your love handles if you have them.) Tui na is a cumulative massage--for the first 30 minutes it seems less like torture and more like tedium. But then I go around a bend and when Oka is through, I feel slightly gauzy, as I do when a lot of tension suddenly slips away.

Languages evolve, and the language of luxury is no exception. We may be living in the twilight of marble and silk, posh and palatial. It's part of a more profound cultural change: Affluent people now visit resorts to be active rather than indolent, to pursue well-being rather than sheer escape, and to engage themselves rather than just indulge themselves.

Mrs. Ong is onto the seismic shift, and in the end, that may be Parrot Cay's singular achievement: It offers the coming yin-yang of our time. Worldliness without glamour. Luxury without excess. Spare without spartan. Privacy without pulling up a drawbridge. It's that rare resort that understands the difference between simple and simplicity--and gets the latter just right.

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