By Ayesha Khan
Photography by Amanresorts
In the past 20 years, we seem to have lost dedicated, passionate hoteliers amid an army of cash-flow driven, generic hotel operators. In this world of bigger, better and more profitable, former journalist and publishing mogul Adrian Zecha’s Amanresorts offer a breath of fresh air, literally. With exotic locations in the lagoons of the South Pacific and the vast expanses of Wyoming, Amanresorts offer a winning formula of seclusion, adventure and sheer luxury.
You won’t find branded towels, signage leading you to the pool or “tacky” single-use shampoo bottles at any of this hotel group’s 18 properties-and that’s what makes Aman an absolute staple for his loyal followers, to whom he lovingly refers to as “Amanjunkies,” Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei among them.
What you will find is Zecha’s own brand of creative service – a philosophy that has his worldwide staff treating each visitor as a truly special houseguest. “What I like best about working with Adrian Zecha is that he is a man of vision and exceeds in pushing the levels of hospitality to a lifestyle experience rather than just building a beautiful hotel room,” said Amanjiwo General Manager Sean Flakelar. “He has provided opportunities for many people like me to break the molds of tradition with a far simpler approach to hospitality. That’s why we treat every guest like a member of our own family. We care about them, as he does about us.”
It is this true lack of pretension, coupled with just the right amount of cultural authenticity that keeps some 100,000 repeat customers coming back for more. To shed light on his creative process, Zecha said, “There are still many wonderful, underdeveloped places in the world, and when I visit them, I unconsciously relate to ‘Amanjunkies.’ If, in my opinion, it is a place they would find interesting or beautiful, I assess the practicalities of building a resort there. As always, the location and environment dictates the inspiration for each property.”
The Aman story began in Thailand in the mid 1980s when, in search of a site for a Phuket vacation villa, Zecha happened upon a quaint, unspoiled coconut grove. The developing costs of this stunning site, which didn’t even have access to clean water, were so high that it would make business sense to build only a small resort. Luckily, Zecha knew a thing or two about the hospitality business since he, along with hoteliers Georg Rafael and Robert Burns, had launched Regent Hotels International, Asia’s first five-star hotel chain.
In January 1988, the first Amanresort opened on the Phuket site. From there, Zecha opened 17 more resorts. The next to follow were Hotel Bora Bora in French Polynesia, Amandari in Bali and a trendsetting project on Moyo Island in Indonesia. Amanwana was built after Zecha utilized his innate deal-making skills to convince the Indonesian government to entrust him with the pristine island in the Flores Sea, provided he left its natural flora and fauna unharmed. His solution: pitch 20 luxury air-conditioned tents – an idea that had the resort industry, from Taj Hotels to Four Seasons, buzzing and led to a vast crop of luxury tent communities. But that didn’t faze Zecha. “There are a lot of Amanwannabes,” he shrugs. And let’s face it, imitation is the greatest form of flattery – as long as you stay one step ahead of the game.
And that’s just what Zecha did. He set his astute sights on the untouched Philippine isles. More precisely, the tropical coralline island of Pamilican, where, he believes the world’s best beach is to be found. “I have been to countless beaches all over the world, but never seen a beach like this. It is incredibly beautiful,” Zecha said. Opened in 1993, Amanpulo, or “peaceful island,” was designed by Filipino architect Francisco Manosa to pay tribute to the native Bahay Kubo dwelling. Four years later, Zecha returned to Indonesia to round out his homeland portfolio using yet another irresistible site as a stunning backdrop. Located in the heartland of central Java, Amanjiwo is poised in the great shadow of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist sanctuary in the world.
With Southeast Asia well-covered, Zecha turned his attention to new frontiers. He had already acquired the French Alps resort Le Mélézin in Courchevel but there was something about Wyoming’s East Gros Ventre Butte that got him thinking. And really, who can resist the appeal of the greater Yellowstone’s panoramic views of the Rockies and Snake River? Amangani in Jackson Hole opened its doors in 1998.
But later that year, when it seemed Zecha was at the top of his game, something went wrong. A conflict between Zecha’s then partner, Clement Vaturi and Los Angeles-based Colony Capital, a major Aman fund, prompted his reluctant departure from Amanresorts. It was alleged that Colony sought to re-brand some of the properties in its portfolio into Amanresorts, effectively cloning Zecha’s unique “anti-resort” concept. Needless to say Zecha, who had built the Aman name and reputation through years of uncompromising dedication, was staunchly opposed to the idea. “It’s the small things that matter, the detail, the human touch,” Zecha said. “That’s what Colony could not understand.”
Soon, things sorted themselves out, and with lawsuits settled and a change in partnership, Zecha came back to reclaim his rightful post of chairman and CEO of Amanresorts – and a two-year hiatus wasn’t about to slow him down. The charm of Moorish North Africa soon beckoned, and Zecha found himself in 13 acres of prime land outside Marrakech formerly owned by the royal family. In 2000, Amanjena, opened its doors to international jet-setters in search of the mystique of North Africa.
December 2002 saw a brief return to Southeast Asia because of a very special offer, one that only Adrian Zecha could secure. Located just steps from Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization, Angkor Wat, Amansara is none other than King Norodom Sihanouk’s guest villa (formerly known as the illustrious Villa Princière), designed in 1962 by French architect Laurent Mondet in stark contrast to its ancient environs.
Recently, Amanresorts has set out on a development drive in South Asia. Zecha managed to secure two sites in India, a country that has captivated him since 1958, when he was a young journalist with Time. “They have the same material comforts as the West but have never lost their own culture; that’s impressive,” Zecha said of the rich Indian culture. The desert state of Rajasthan is home to the Aman-I-Khas resort, set amid the wildlife and serenity of Ranthambore National Park. Also in Rajasthan, the Amanbagh resort recalls the charm and grandeur of Mogul architecture and design.
In 2004, Zecha bore the fruit of a very special 13-year labour of love, the first resort venture by an international hospitality group in the untouched Himalayan nation of Bhutan. A series of picturesque lodges extends from the capital Thimphu to Paro, Punakha and Gangety, offering a unique insight into the land of the thunder dragon. Crafted of local building materials, compacted earth and corrugated tin roofs, the lodges blend seamlessly into their awesome surroundings, which include the ruins of the Drukgyel Dzong monastery and the Himalayan peak of Jhomolhari. But Zecha’s entry into this virgin territory did not go undetected. It sparked more than its fair share of global stir with critics worrying that the country’s mysterious charm would be lost to an eventual mass influx of tourists. Zecha is more than willing to admit that his presence “has a significant social impact.” Still planeloads of eager tourists, souvenir shops and bungee jumping are not exactly on the country’s Himalayan horizons, despite the presence of an international resort group such as Aman.
Last year saw the launch of two Amanresorts in Sri Lanka. Set within the ramparts of Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Amangalla resort offers a glance into the Dutch fort’s vibrant past as a trading hub for Chinese, Arab, Persian and Indian merchants. The azure shores of Eastern Sri Lanka play host to a second property, Amanwella. In March of this year, the Amanyara resort opened on Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos and is now the largest property in the Amanresorts portfolio.
So whether you prefer being surrounded by deer, tigers and leopards, skiing Alpine slopes or basking under sunny skies in Bali or the Caribbean, rest assured there’s an Amanresort for every season.
And there are plenty more in store. Now in his early 70s (a seasoned age, which he so effortlessly disguises with his youthful demeanour), the Indonesian born-Zecha still spends his days combing the globe in search of new sites. In a 2004 interview with Time, he quipped, “I tell my wife I don’t chase beautiful women anymore, I just chase beautiful sites.”
We hope, for the sake of legions of devout Amanjunkies, that he continues to indulge in such pursuits.