"I should warn you, I'm really strong," says massage therapist Ashley Siebring-Jones as she begins exploring my back--an understatement, not a boast, as it turns out.
Six-one and powerful from years of yoga, Jones is an Amazon, and she delivers the deepest, most intense, and most effective massage I've ever received. She uses her body weight to exile the knots in my shoulders and uses her shoulders to elongate my taut hamstrings. Holding my ankles, she lifts me almost completely off the table and swings my legs until my hips release, but working on my neck, she backs off the moment my muscles start to tense up from the intensity. By the time she finishes, I feel taller and freer than I have in years. My body fits me again like the custom-made garment it is. As will my entire three-day stay, which is being crafted by Pure Kauai.
The vacation company is neither spa nor resort but a consummate tailor of bespoke experience, using the island of Kauai as the setting. Led by CEO Phil Jones, Pure Kauai pulls together a group of very talented people ("healers," as Jones describes them) dedicated to bringing all things spa--relaxation, fitness, treatments, and healthy food--to its guests, whom it houses in some of the north shore's most luxurious vacation homes. Thus, while I'm being massaged in the master bedroom of a 1,300-square-foot villa, a private chef is upstairs preparing an Indonesian curry, redolent with coriander, for dinner. My boyfriend, Andy, and I will eat it in our robes and then doze off on the cushiony sofa while watching a DVD--blissfully tired from a day that starts with a dawn Pilates class in a lovely hilltop studio, after which we eat delicious omelets and fresh pineapple. We spend the rest of the day being led on an arduous hike--we cover four very hilly miles in six hours--along the Na Pali Coast, one of the state's wildest shores, by a guide who knows the area like the back of her hand.
Privacy and customization are the keystones of the new luxury, and they're increasingly flanked by health and spa-centric wellness. Pure Kauai is at the vanguard in emphasizing both halves of the equation. It gives its clients a home away from home with a staff that sees to all the details (and makes the operation look effortless), and it places fitness, mostly through outdoor activity, at the center of the experience. This is especially the case when guests come to lose weight, as many do, including "celebrities who come for six weeks to drop 30 pounds for a role," says Jones. "Guests are really pampered, but at the same time, they can be pushed--in a pampering way."
That's the case on our Na Pali Coast hike. The rugged trail hugs a mountainside above the Pacific, and it ascends and descends some 650 feet. Parts of it require us to scramble over rocks; others, to keep our balance on treacherous ocher mud. The reward is the otherworldly scenery: a lush tapestry of greens blanketing the volcanic rises to our left, as many shades of fathomless blue down below on our right. Overhead, guava trees hang heavy with ripe, sweet fruit, and flanking the trail are verbena bushes whose little purple flowers taste curiously like mushrooms. Guide Noli Hoye doesn't let our photo breaks last long, and a few hours in, when we have to ford a knee-deep cold stream, she gently but firmly prods us along. And, really, we can't complain: She's also carrying our water and lunch (gourmet wraps, baby bananas, and, this being Hawaii, macadamia nuts), which our chef prepared that morning. We eat on a rocky beach, reachable only by foot, on the far side of that chill stream, watching the waves rise into perfect frothy curls. My thighs quake on the way back, but the promise of a massage keeps me going.
Before starting Pure Kauai, Jones spent 12 years at the opposite end of the travel market, running L.A. Ski & Sun Tours, based in Manhattan Beach, California, which put together low-cost large-group vacations, primarily for students. Burned out on big-group planning, he sold the business in 1998, moved to Kauai, and set up a small luxury-travel company that became Pure Kauai in January 2003. Privacy, personalization, and health were his mantras. "I wanted to offer a more intimate and high-end package in which people were active and living healthily and that sent them home having made a difference," he says. The operation currently consists of five full-time staff (primarily hosts) and about 50 regular contractors, from kayaking instructors to medical intuitives.
Jones is ambassador, conductor, and pen pal. He spends time "getting a good rapport with" guests before they arrive, often joins them for an activity during their stay, and keeps in touch afterward. His first call, which comes almost immediately after a booking, is to help the client choose a house. He asks about budget and preferences, then e-mails photos of three or four homes (if they aren't on his website) and tells them "the good and the bad and the ugly" about each one. Pure Kauai manages three homes, regularly rents about 15 others (including some whose owners rent only to Pure Kauai, since, says Jones, "our guests tend to behave--no smoking, no parties"), and has hundreds more at its disposal. Jones categorizes them as "luxury" and "deluxe." The former include the Mediterranean-style Kalihiwai Ridge Estate, a nine-bedroom, 25,000-square-foot compound with its own gym, pool, and Jacuzzi. Our much smaller deluxe villa is built into a hillside with the living areas on the ground floor and two bedrooms below. The dining nook and little lanais on both floors have wide-angle views of the Princeville Makai golf course (unusually pretty, I grudgingly admit), Hanalei Bay, and the misty mountains beyond. The decor, all whites and neutrals, is more homey than hotel, and we find it very comfortable, particularly the dreamy four-poster bed, uncommonly soft pillows, and almost ankle-twisting plush carpet. (Guests can also opt for "standard" guesthouses and suites at the Hanalei Bay Resort, although this changes the experience somewhat.)
Slideshow: Polynesian paradise Jones also helps guests craft their itineraries from a long menu of adventures that includes hiking, outrigger canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, kiteboarding, and surfing. "We've taken 70-year-olds surfing," he insists when I balk. Yoga and Pilates are part of most stays, too. He also arranges spa services: massage, facials, Watsu, four-hour lomilomi, life coaching, and relationship counseling. And if something isn't on his list, he'll arrange it anyway. No fewer than four calls and e-mails were exchanged leading up to Andy's and my stay. For a seven- to ten-day vacation (the usual length), Jones and his staff typically spend five hours doing the behind-the-scenes work--if you're going to surf, they'll find out exactly where the best waves will be--and 30 to 40 hours with the guests (but less if they prefer more privacy). Our stay runs like clockwork and makes us feel as if we're the only visitors on the heavily touristed island.
Each group is matched with a cell-phone-carrying host, ready to do errands and make things happen. In our case, this means two coffee runs into town (Pure Kauai is officially caffeine-free, so coffee is supplied only if you ask); videotaping the vice presidential debate, as I'm surfing when it airs and our villa has no VCR; and finding a guitar store for us to shop at. Here I admittedly throw a curveball, but Andy is an amateur musician and the design director of a group of music magazines. My pitch turns out to be right down the middle for our laid-back yet efficient host, Bryce Toney, who takes us to a store in Kapaa. He tells us that he once drove three hours round-trip to buy air conditioners (not standard-issue on Kauai) for a guest. "You name it, we've done it," says Jones of the requests Pure Kauai has accommodated: helicopter pickups at the end of hikes, romantic dinners on the beach, private-jet service, handling faxes and packages, buying groceries and wine, child care, and creating separate itineraries for family members. They've put together weddings (for which they brought in a wedding consultant), large family reunions, and a 100-person company retreat. Large groups are the exception; most of the clientele is couples, small families, and solo travelers, particularly women. The company can handle four groups at a time but usually has just two or three. A chef calls each guest a few days before arrival to go over allergies, food likes and dislikes, dietary needs, and weight loss goals, and the standard menu is then made to measure--a different one for each member in a group, if need be. Unless instructed otherwise, the chefs prepare a vaguely Zone-ish mix of carbs, fat, and protein. Fresh fish and vegetables are staples, and a George Foreman grill is the essential tool. The food is healthy but hardly ascetic.
I'm a vegetarian, and Andy wants lots of local fish, a combination that doesn't faze either of our affable Californian chefs, Bradford Lundquist and Morgan Bowen. "I've done raw food, Atkins, South Beach, beef Wellington," says Lundquist one evening as he puts together a platter of delicious Mediterranean meze that includes from-scratch hummus and walnut dip. But both express pleasure when we say we aren't looking to lose weight. "I like to feed people," says Bowen.
Both chefs cooked at Esalen and then opened a restaurant together in Mexico before landing on Kauai. Neither Andy nor I is a cook, and they seem eager to rectify that. Bowen explains how to make a fluffy omelet (without lots of cream and butter), starting at square one. They're also endlessly entertaining, telling us stories about the crazy Mexican landlord who put an end to their business venture by shooting at Bowen, then stabbing him with a screwdriver. Andy makes fast friends with both of them, as Lundquist plays bass guitar in a death-metal band and Bowen takes pictures for a local surfing magazine. The rest of the staff display the same winning mix of genuine friendliness and utmost professionalism.
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Jones tells me repeatedly that he hires the best people on Kauai. How does he know? "It's a fairly small island," he deadpans. But Jones, himself a personal trainer who once biked across the U.S., and his core staff road test all the fitness instructors and guides, and Ashley, his wife and business partner, tries out every therapist. While any business owner could make this claim to a writer, I find no reason to think otherwise. Laurie Cole's Pilates instruction is on a par with anything I've encountered in six years of classes in New York. Travis Bonnell, a surfer since age four, gets me, a desert girl with a very healthy fear of ocean currents, to stand up on a long board, and I still occasionally fantasize about Lundquist's Vietnamese spring rolls.
In addition to Ashley's massage, I have one from therapist Ocean Wind that's tinged with lomilomi and cranio-sacral work. It calms my mind profoundly. After an hour of gentle strokes up and down my back, subtle pressure on all the right points, and a few slow, deep stretches, she gives me some spiritual advice. "I have one word for you," she says. "Radiate. You have this incredible light, calm energy at your core, but I can tell from the tension in your hands and feet that you're keeping it inside. Let some of your light out. You're like a fawn. Let people know what's in there." This isn't how I usually see myself, but in my euphoria, it makes perfect sense.
Pure Kauai is not sui generis. A handful of new high-end custom-vacation companies are housing guests in private homes and filling their days with fitness, wellness, and spa services. Wildfitness, which puts together trips in Kenya and Portugal, focuses on pushing you, and Abercrombie & Kent's Concierge Villas in Europe and North America excel at pampering you. (Jones insists the companies weren't models for him.) But Pure Kauai is still under the radar. None of the half-dozen top travel agents I speak with upon my return home have heard of the company, probably because Jones, who is quite happy being small, invests little money in marketing.
That small is beautiful becomes clear to me on my first afternoon, during that surf lesson in Hanalei Bay. Bonnell has figured out that the waves east of the pier are more beginner friendly than those to the west, and we have that side of the bay to ourselves. His patience is boundless, as is his humor. "Style is everything," he says, demonstrating the bent-knees, raised-arms posture that will keep me upright. We practice on the beach, then paddle out. Before I fully register what's happening, he gives my board a shove and cues me to "stand up!" when a wave rolls in. As I push myself onto my knees and then my feet, vertigo gives way to exhilaration at standing not on terra firma but aqua fluvida. The trees beyond the beach grow closer and closer with remarkable speed. Two hours later, my ribs are bruised from flopping myself back onto the board and my abs are protesting. Back on the beach, Bonnell won't let me lift a finger to help with our gear. All I have to do is let Pure Kauai handle everything.
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