You can see the longing for it across the luxury travel spectrum, from hotel room design (bigger, ever more luxurious suites and bathrooms) to hotel choices (small, secluded properties such as Parrot Cay in the Turks & Caicos and Maroma in the Yucatán are in vogue now); from preferences in accommodation (villa rentals are hot) to changes in client behavior. Larry Pimentel, the president and CEO of SeaDream Yacht Club, which operates two 344-foot charter yachts in the Caribbean, cites the fact that his clients' attorneys now often put "copious nondisclosure language regarding the charterer's identity" into the contracts. "That's a big change," he says. "In the 1970s and '80s chartering a yacht like SeaDream would have been a hell of a big stripe and the person would have wanted to show it off."
But if there's one area that shows just how strong the privacy- is-primo mentality is, it's the hotel spa. It's just not private enough anymore. Treatment rooms are migrating into top villas (the new Four Seasons Langkawi in Malaysia), becoming urban hideaways (Kara Spa at the Park Hyatt in Los Angeles, whose architect, Harry Christakis, calls its villas "a docking station for re-energizing the body"), even making sleep secondary to spa. At Plateau in the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, rooms on the 11th floor were redesigned with that idea in mind, with the king beds giving way to treatment futons.
"The rise in ultraprivate luxury accommodation can be attributed to the increased need for relaxation and privacy," says Ingo Schweder, the group director for spas of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. "Private spa suites are a natural extension for the high-end consumer seeking ultraprivate facilities, where one can enjoy a variety of treatments and personalized services." Schweder's view is shared by most luxury hotel companies today, but as recently as the late 1990s, the spa hadn't been individualized. Then spa suites, now increasingly common, were rare. So when the Banyan Tree Phuket introduced its Spa Pool Villas in 2001, it was a pioneering move. Here was an entirely new room category oriented around the pole of privacy, to the extent that the spa now came to you. And it was no small commitment. The 13 villas cost $425,000 apiece to construct and are each 5,920 square feet. Today they are one of the resort's most in-demand accommodations, even at a daily rate of $1,600. "There is an enduring appeal to exclusivity and intimacy," says general manager Kamal Chaoui, citing the average occupancy rate of 80 percent.
The fact that such a sanctuary exists here is remarkable. Banyan Tree is part of Laguna Phuket, a five-property, 1,000-acre development on Bang Tao Bay--by far the most luxurious and secluded component. It's hard to imagine that this vernal landscape was once a tin mine--or, rather, a ravaged moonscape containing the remnants of a tin mine. In 1984 Laguna Resorts and Hotels purchased the site and began remaking it, bringing in tons of topsoil, turning the pits left behind by the miners into lakes and lagoons, and creating a landscape with thousands of new plantings, which have matured into the lush vegetation that marks the property today. (Laguna Phuket was awarded the International Hotel Association's 1992 Environmental Award for its work.)
The Spa Pool Villas are essentially spa pavilions in a tropical garden. "They were designed to be self-contained," says Dharmali Kusumadi, Banyan Tree's assistant vice president for design, who created them. "We use the lush tropical landscape to soften the density of the buildings and to create a natural shield. The landscaping is thicker on the outer rim of the villa compound to create the sense of being cocooned."
In keeping with the classic idea of spa, water is everywhere. Outside, there is a shower and Jacuzzi, as well as a 30-foot-long swimming pool and a soaking tub. I spent most of my afternoons in one or the other, letting the warm, gentle rain massage me--nature's own hydrotherapy and gratis in the rainy season (May to November). Indoors, Asian materials (nyatoh wood, black granite from China, light Thai sandstone, and lots of silk) quietly disport themselves, and the bathroom has a spacious glass-walled shower that doubles as a steam room (and looks out over the garden). The only thing I missed--and I feel like a hotel brat for even thinking this--was a tub for those nights I didn't want to soak outside.
Life in the villa is a long-wavelength oscillation between the bedroom and the sala, a Thai open-air pavilion. "From the start, we were clear that we wanted to make the bedroom the haven," says Kusumadi, who in a bit of delicate understatement calls the room romantic. (Even "drop-dead seductive" would be putting it mildly.) Walled in glass, the bedroom floats over a lotus pond--it's a lily pad for two. The interior is about as simple (and as clear) as can be: a king-size bed covered in Thai silk. The rest of the villa is more residential than resort scale. "Taking into consideration that the guests will be spending most of their time in the villa, we made the living area, such as the private study, living room, outdoor garden, and patio, much bigger," explains Kusumadi.
One night I returned from dinner to find the space lit by candles, the Thai silk replaced with satin sheets, and hundreds of fragrant blossoms scattered across the bed. Incense was burning, and the outdoor bath had been filled and strewn with flowers. And to get the party going, there was a bottle of Monsoon Valley 2003 Pokdum red wine, from the floating vineyards of Thailand's Chao Phraya Delta, on a tray by the bath. When in Phuket... I soaked, I sipped, and I slid on the sheets until sleep overcame me. The sala is where massages are given. (More elaborate treatments such as wraps have to be taken in the spa.) My sala was at the far end of the pool, and from it I could gaze out over the development's network of lakes and lagoons. The space is outfitted with two massage tables--I particularly liked them because the face cradles were larger than most others I've encountered and therefore didn't leave a telltale mark--and fitted with curtains that can be drawn for even more privacy. The massage to book is the two-and-a-half-hour Royal Banyan ($195), which consists of a lemongrass-cucumber body scrub, a pressure-point massage, a coriander-and-clove-filled herbal pouch massage, and an herbal bath.
Ten minutes before a massage, the therapist arrives, baskets in tow. The clinking sound comes from the baskets' contents: bottles of oil, oil burner, incense, a Tibetan bell, linens, tea, and refreshments. When the massage beds have been set up and the curtains drawn, you're invited into the sala. For my first treatment I chose the just introduced, 90-minute Sukothai massage--a little lomilomi, a little Thai, and a little Swedish--and it left me limp because the therapist was so good. (See "Banyan Tree Spa Academy" on page 124.) The massage ended, as all treatments do here, with the gentle ringing of the Tibetan bell. There were lots of other Spa Pool Villa touches that I particularly enjoyed: the juicer set up every day along with a plate of fresh fruit (why hasn't anyone else thought of this?) and a daily tea service with delectable mini scones, homemade jams, and herbal teas from Chiang Mai.
But the real luxury was having sway over my own little paradise, dressed or undressed, active or contemplative, squirreled away amid birdsong, frog song, and wind song. There was only one moment of stress--when one afternoon the sound of a human voice came vaulting over the villa's high stone wall. That speaks volumes about the Spa Pool Villas as sanctuary.
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