To infinity pools and beyond

There’s an exuberant new presence in the über-luxe resort world. Lucia van der Post experiences a brand emphasising the local, thoughtful and sustainable – and giving Aman a run for its money.

January 12 2011
Lucia van der Post

I am in Bali, floating in an infinity pool on a cliffside high above the Indian Ocean. To my right is the birdcage-style cabana in which the night before I’d sipped something cool and lovely while watching the sun go down. To my left something sizzles on a griddle, wafts of something eastern and spicy drift by on the air. Martha, my very own butler, is making sure that all manner of things shall be well in this world where nothing is ever allowed not to be well. Behind me in my private pool villa the pillows are plumped, the fresh fruit arranged seductively, the little titbits sit ready under salvers. I am here, right on the southern tip of Bali at Uluwatu, because there is a relatively new arrival in the world of über-luxe hotels that’s making waves. It’s called Alila and I’m here to see if it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

So who and what is Alila? The brand isn’t, it seems, the product of one person’s personal and passionate vision. There’s no Adrian Zecha, whose Amanresorts was started when he decided to create what he calls “a personal pleasure zone” for himself and his friends on Phuket in Thailand. No Christina Ong investing places such as Parrot Cay and Cocoa Island with her own brand of understated elegance. Rather, Alila is the brainchild of a group of like-minded investors, of whom CEO and president Mark Edleson, an American banker-turned-hotelier and the man behind Mandara Spas, is probably the most prominent.

Though the first Alila was opened in Jakarta, Java, some 10 years ago, it seems only to have hit its real stride with the launch of its high-end Alila Villas in Uluwatu and Soori in southern Bali in early 2009. They were swiftly followed last August by the opening of Alila Villas Hadahaa in the Maldives. Just to complicate matters, the three Alila Villas are the flagship properties, the most luxurious, each consisting of nothing but private pool villas, butler service and starry chefs. Then come the seven “life-style” hotels in the Alila group – a slightly lower level of luxury but all to be found in special places in Bali, Thailand, India and Jakarta. Finally, there are two “By Alila” hotels, smaller, more like boutique hotels: the enchanting 3 Nagas, inserted into old French colonial buildings in Luang Prabang in Laos, and the first Alila of all, the ultra-cool, avant-garde Kemang Icon in Jakarta.

What seems to have motivated the people behind the brand is the idea that there was room for a newer, more modern form of luxury. Amanresorts, where Edleson had worked as financial adviser with Zecha for some years, had in its time captured perfectly the contemporary notion of luxury, pioneering a form of barefoot understated luxe, doing away with conventional swank but imbuing each and every resort with a profound sense of place. A spectacular setting was a must, and architecturally each resort tapped into a romantic vision of the country it was in. Most of the resorts were suffused with an almost Zen-like calm; and service of the real “thinking” sort, as opposed to the formulaic kind laid down in manuals, was a major part of the package.

Alila has taken many of these precepts but updated them to suit a world that seems a less secure place than when Amanresorts started way back in 1988. Many of the old certainties have gone and, above all, eco and social issues are even more pressing. Edleson himself puts it thus: “We wanted to do something that was more intimate, more expansive, more luxurious but we wanted it to be more contemporary. We start by looking for interesting locations, opening up places where the culture is particularly rich or nature is especially beautiful. Then we knew that we wanted to showcase design; and on the service side we wanted to provide a deeper experience for the guests, whether it was art, wellness, cuisine, yoga or something more spiritual. Above all, we wanted to be sure that everything we built was entirely sustainable. All the newer [hotels] are built to EarthCheck standards [the industry gold standard for eco credentials]. We use recycled wood and local materials wherever possible.”

So let’s start with the architecture. Alila works with some of the best contemporary architects around the world to create what it calls “design icons”. Whereas Amanresorts draws heavily on vernacular architecture, often using temple iconography, Alila’s architects go for a more modernist, understated, subtle sense of place. Chan Soo Khian, a Malaysian Chinese educated in the US and now living in Singapore, who designed Bali’s Alila Villas Soori and the Maldives’ Hadahaa, creates what he calls “polite buildings” – ones that don’t make grand statements, that are founded on classical principles (he’s an admirer of the great Louis Kahn), and that convey a profound sense of calm.

“They’re very difficult to photograph,” he says “because from certain angles the buildings seem almost to disappear into the landscape. At Alila Villas Soori, for instance, everything is designed to frame the ocean, and it’s really about going from space to space. The outdoor spaces are more important than the inside ones.” He likes structural order and uses space and light to convey this extraordinary sense of tranquillity.

At first it’s all sublimely cool and modern, not obviously “ethnic” in any way; but look more closely and everywhere there are subtle references to place. At Alila Villas Soori, where the beach is startlingly black because of the volcanic sand, Soo Khian uses local volcanic earth in many places. “If you use that and the orange terracotta, which is also made locally, rather than importing marble from Italy or exotic woods from Africa, you will see that it sits rather well.”

There’s an abundant use of indigenous flora – palm trees, ferns, bamboo – because “nothing would grow except what was here, so we worked with what we found and it looks natural and the colours work.” There is, in fact, something curiously sumptuous about their austerity, which comes from the lushness of the plantings and the play of water and light.

At Alila Hadahaa, which Soo Khian also designed, local timber was used to make an upturned dhoni, the Maldivian traditional boat, as the reception area. Here at once it provides a stunning reference point for the extraordinary carpentry skills of the local people as well as their great maritime history, while the water villas, right out over the water, are exquisitely simple, allowing the sea pride of place. It’s the first resort in the Maldives that has been certified by EarthCheck.

At Alila Villas Uluwatu, for which Singapore-based WOHA were the architects, you can see the influence of traditional Balinese architecture in the airy wooden cabanas, and also in the walls of the Cire restaurant, which are lined with beautiful traditional wooden Batik print blocks rescued from oblivion, in the decorative use of natural tree roots, Kalimantan hornbill finials, old bronze gongs and Toraja doors. As one fan put it: “It reminds me of Mies van der Rohe’s German pavilion for the 1929 Barcelona exhibition – a little bit retro, but very cool and modernist.”

In Luang-Prabang, where Bangkok-based Thai architect Duangrit Bunnag has created an Alila Hotel (the second-rung brand) housed in an old French colonial official building protected by Unesco, there is a similar sense of calm and order. He, too, believes good architecture “should disappear – you should feel the context” and he, too, seeks to reflect a sense of place and culture in a contemporary way, with modern luxuries such as private pools and courtyards. Already the great and the good in the world of architecture and interior design have got to hear of them and large numbers come just to gaze.

But while architecture is a great starting point, it isn’t everything – and Alila knows it. Service and meaningful experiences, not to mention great food, are also key ingredients in the sophisticated traveller’s perfect holiday. To this end Alila aims – deliberately – to trump the service levels of the much-lauded Amanresorts. As one new Alila fan put it, “At Amanresorts there’s always a slightly Zen-like feeling: calm, hushed tones, there are usually no TVs in the bedrooms and you’d feel ashamed to ask for a Nintendo game in your room. At Alila you know they wouldn’t bat an eyelid. The service is, if you like, more exuberant.” At Alila Villas you get your own personal butler but you choose whether you’d like the service to be “indulgent”, “discreet” or “private”.

Go for indulgent is my advice. In the Maldives, Leo booked my spa treatments, sent the buggy to collect me for meals, sorted the TV (yes, you’re allowed them here), booked somebody to take me snorkelling over the reef, and generally fetched and carried and spoilt me rotten. At the Soori villas, it was Diaz and at Uluwatu, Martha. Sit down by the pool and before you’ve taken off your wrap a glorious hamper is placed beside you, filled with everything you could possibly need and lots more besides (face sprays, insect repellent, shampoos, suntan lotions, delicate morsels to eat). Another fan tells the story of how he arrived with his (male) partner and by the time they got to their room the lotions and potions (all Bali-made, delicious, pure and herby) were both for “Him” – the “Her” version had been discreetly replaced – and there were two pairs of slippers in properly capacious male sizes.

Then there are the Journeys by Alila, carefully curated experiences designed to immerse guests in the local culture. Go on them. You could sit all day in the sun, admiring the architecture, the pool, eating delectable bits of this and that; but in Bali, where both the Alila Villas are way off the usual tourist trail, the “journeys” go to the local villages, to temples. Go to see the villagers place their offerings at little shrines, go to the market, see the world-famous rice terraces. Here are scenes that haven’t changed in centuries and they’ll leave you feeling you’ve imbibed something of the country you’ve come to see.

Speak to the staff, get to know your butler, and you’ll soon learn the difference Alila has made to their lives. The hotels are in areas where before their arrivals there was almost no work. Hadahaa is in the North Huvadhoo Atoll in the Southern Maldives where there was no development at all; for the tourist this means there are none of the planes and motorboats that so disturb the peace in some resorts nearer to Malé, but to the locals its arrival means work – and work of an interesting, worthwhile kind. At Soori and Uluwatu in Bali, the nearby villages are once again populated by young men who used to have to leave to find work on cruise ships or abroad. Now they live at home and work nearby. “Now,” says Martha, my butler at Uluwatu, “I see my parents often and it’s wonderful because I work with all my friends.” Lovely hotels can do more than give pampered guests the holiday of a lifetime; they can transform the lives of others. This is an ambition with which Alila has wholly aligned itself.

Not that Alila is alone. Everywhere there is this recognition that the sophisticated traveller has changed. Thinking travellers want an acute sense of place and an experience that leaves them feeling moved. In Laos, they want to be part of the early-morning ritual of giving alms to the monks, to see the craftsmen weave their textiles, to drift down the Mekong watching the boat-making and the vegetable-planting on its banks. They don’t want caviar and buffalo mozzarella flown in from Russia and Italy, but local, carbon-neutral foods – fish from the sea, vegetables from the paddies. Hotels that give guests what Alila has defined as “memorable journeys”, that help them dip beneath the surface of the lives around them, are the ones that seem to have captured the mood of today.

As for me, I’m back at home, left with experiences I will never forget. It’s not every day that you find yourself swimming in pitch-perfect temperatures alongside a reef shark (“They’ve never been known to bite man,” they tell me, but there’s always got to be a first, I think), surrounded by the sort of fish you’ve only ever seen on the Discovery Channel. You don’t forget the tropical lassitude of Luang Prabang and the pleasures of wandering round its calm streets, monks in their saffron robes almost as ubiquitous as street cafés. You don’t forget Leo or Diaz or Martha and the glimpses they so generously gave of a way of life so utterly different from my own. That’s why one travels and Alila hotels, for all their splendour, are humble enough to know that.

See also

Alila, Resorts