Natai Beach, on Thailand’s west coast, is separated from Phuket by a strait that is only a few hundred metres across, but the short distance belies a difference in character and feel between the two places. Phuket is now one of southeast Asia’s most popular holiday destinations, with hotels and resorts that run the gamut from the definitively luxurious (Adrian Zecha debuted Amanpuri, the first of his Amanresorts, here in 1989; Christina Ong, founder of COMO Hotels and Resorts, will open one of her new buzz-generating projects, the Paola Navone-interior-designed Point Yamu, this December) down to the decidedly mass, all sometimes marching wall-to-wall up the same stretch of road. While a degree of this has inevitably bled north across the strait, Natai Beach is still characterised more by private villas sequestered in the casuarinas at the sea’s edge, with flat fields – many of them empty, or tended by local farmers – spreading to the hills behind.
There is a man here, however, who wants to move this lesser-known 7km-stretch of coastline directly into the global spotlight. Former derivatives trader and current full-time philanthropist Mark Weingard will in December open Iniala Beach House, a private compound that is comprised of three villas and a penthouse whose interiors have been masterminded by some of the best-known names in the world of design, along with a restaurant created by one of Spain’s most venerated (and multiple-Michelin-bedazzled) talents. Resolutely art-led and staunchly original, Iniala is next-generation luxury hospitality as imagined by a total iconoclast. It won’t be to all tastes – die-hard traditionalists, for instance, most assuredly need not apply – but this is the design hotel remixed and writ large; and for sheer imagination, craftsmanship and ambition, there is little in the area that will compete with it.
Weingard, who spent 15-odd years in Singapore and Thailand working in finance, cultivated his passion for travel – and high-design, high-luxury hotels – on frequent forays to the far reaches of southeast Asia. While his CV is not totally without hospitality experience (he briefly launched a hotel-ratings site in the late 1990s), the actual operations component of running a hotel is new to him. But by surrounding Iniala Beach House with blue-chip talent, and the fact that much of that talent is separated from received traditions of Thai hospitality by thousands of miles (and, in terms of design aesthetics, by light years), Weingard is stacking the deck in the project’s favour.
“I wanted to create many extraordinary environments” in one exclusive location, he says. “I visited design exhibitions around the world and, with the help of dealers, looked for designers and designer-artists who expressed great originality with beauty.” These are showcased in the Collector’s Villa, at the property’s centre. Among the first he approached were Brazil’s famous brothers, Humberto and Fernando Campana. “I feel like they break all the rules; they look at the world through a kaleidoscope of colour and texture.” In the villa’s atrium, columns are clad whimsically top to bottom in shards of shattered Thai celadon porcelain, while in the living room, two walls are lined entirely in blue-and-white ceramic plates, further encrusted with mirrors for a dizzying infinity effect. The room is dominated by a giant amorphous lounger. One could be forgiven for thinking oneself in an installation at Milan’s Salone Internazionale del Mobile, were it not for the palms blowing in front of the calm Andaman sea just beyond the adjacent terrace.
Spanish wunderkind Jaime Hayon and the Irish master furniture-maker Joseph Walsh soon followed, each commissioned to design a bedroom, from wall and floor finishes to furnishings and lighting. “Joseph is probably one of the 21st century’s greatest craftsmen. This is the first time he’s created a total interior environment,” says Weingard. The fluid, technically brilliant curves of Walsh’s handmade furniture (including a bespoke desk hewn from a single piece of black marble, so heavy that when it was delivered the floor had to be torn up, fortified and relaid to support it) are complemented by sinuous, organic architecture. Hayon’s space is an unexpectedly glamorous take on breezy Hollywood beach-house chic – all whitewashed wainscoting, jade-green accents and glimmering veneer finishes, with a knockout bathroom adorned in floor-to-ceiling, finely veined Carrara. A tour of the property reveals further whimsies from the New Zealand furniture and lighting designer Mark Brazier-Jones (whose flamboyant boudoir aesthetic is arguably the most incongruous here, against the backdrop of the tropics) and the English designer Graham Lamb, whose curved teak roofs (on Villa Bianca) reflect the Thai tradition of healing hands.
“Of course, it was important to find a contemporary Thai expression within the property as well,” notes Weingard. A tour of the SuperStudio perimeter during the 2011 Milan Furniture Fair introduced him to the work of Eggarat Wongcharit, whose contemporised translations of traditional Thai crafts – wicker weaving, gilt work, glass mosaic – have resulted in the stunning Villa Siam. Its spa (each of the three villas has its own dedicated one, complete with full-time therapist as a booking option) is shaped like a giant bell and lined with hundreds of pieces of text depicting Buddhist teachings and precepts, layered one over the other in hand-applied gold leaf. Meanwhile, Bangkok artist Maitree Siriboon’s mosaic walls greet you in the entrance lobby.
Also on the two-acre property are a lounge-library, private cinema, bar and billiards room (even Weingard acknowledges its Swarovski crystal-embellished snooker table will induce either delight or an involuntary cringe, based on the provenance and demographic profile of the client in question) and a rather fantastic kids’ club, by a former Sadler’s Wells creative director-set designer, replete with pop-up forts, drawing tables and extravagantly appointed play areas.
So far, so fabulous – but Weingard’s vision wasn’t limited to accommodation. He defines Aziamendi, Iniala’s ambitious restaurant (which will be open to non-hotel guests as well) as “inspirational cuisine to match our inspirational spaces” – and, equally, an attempt to establish Natai as a standout dining destination for the country. Weingard’s passion for the cuisine of the Basque region developed when he bought a house in Spain in the early 2000s. He went on a chef hunt across its northern regions for Iniala, visiting eight Michelin-starred restaurants in as many days; last on the list was the three-Michelin-starred Azurmendi, near Bilbao, run by 34-year-old chef Eneko Atxa. “Eneko’s art is evident and his passion unquestionable. We knew we’d found our talent.” Aziamendi sees test-kitchen theatrics and techniques that are signature Atxa, reinterpreted through the lens of traditional southeast-Asian ingredients. Executing skilfully on the remit is 27‑year‑old Alex Burger, most recently sous chef to Atxa in Bilbao and who previously worked with Daniel Boulud in New York. When I visited, Burger prepared a tasting menu showcasing some of his signature dishes, including a showy – and delicious – take on truffled egg (a par-cooked yolk, half-drained of its centre with a syringe and injected with black-truffle broth) and a massaman curried-cauliflower dish that married adventurous texture and refined preparation to perfection.
Behind the vision of a sybaritic playground at the sea’s edge, however, is a very serious philanthropic intent. In 1999, Weingard built a house with his fiancé, Annika Linden, on the original plot of land. In 2002, Linden died in the bombings at Kuta on Bali, and Weingard established the Annika Linden Foundation, a charitable organisation for aiding children and the underprivileged, in her memory. In December 2004, he was at home on Natai Beach with 16 friends and on-site builders when the tsunami hit; while all were fine, the devastation to the area occasioned in Weingard a sea change of perspective and ambition, and he dedicated his energies increasingly to philanthropy. The foundation’s name was changed to Inspirasia, and its purview expanded. Based in Denpasar, Bali, it now identifies strategic philanthropy partnerships for NGOs across southeast Asia, and through its work, mentally and physically disabled Indonesians, Thais and Indians receive valuable skills-training and education, as well as physical therapy and special-needs care.
Inspirasia director Matt Thorpe, who has worked with Weingard on and off for more than a decade, is actively looking to engage with more initiatives in Thailand. Currently the foundation provides grants and support to organisations including Home & Life, an orphanage set up in the wake of the tsunami, and the Bangkok-based Goodwill Group Foundation, which provides English language tuition and skills-training to girls and women in difficult circumstances. As part of their community programmes, Inspirasia will bring English-language teachers to all the schools in Natai and the local area, and upgrade school and playground facilities.
So how does Iniala Beach House fit into this? A full 10 per cent of its revenues will funnel directly into Inspirasia’s coffers, while 5 per cent of all restaurant revenues will be donated as well. In comparative terms, within the shaded area of the Venn diagram where luxury hospitality and philanthropy meet, these are robust – and laudable – figures. Swarovski crystals and foie gras won’t be what every traveller is seeking from a Thai holiday escape, but of all the outsized statements that Weingard and his team are making here on Natai Beach, this one has guaranteed universal appeal.