Asia’s Most Fun Luxury Resort: Soneva Kiri in Thailand
By Ann Abel, Forbes on 27 April 2017,
In 15 years as a travel writer, I thought I’d tried everything. But until recently, I’d never had to wear a seat belt to have a snack.
That changed when I buckled myself in and waited as a pulley lifted the wicker dining pod more than 30 feet into the air above Soneva Kiri, It docked between the branches of a tree on a steep hillside overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. A server waited on a platform to offer tiny croissant sandwiches, bites of avocado wrap and pots of imported tea.
The idea came from an employee—or “host,” as everyone from top management on down is known, which seems to make for an empowered and happy staff—who suggested it to Soneva cofounder Sonu Shivdasani. It appealed to the hotelier’s sense of whimsy and “why not?” thinking. They gave it a shot last year, and it quickly proved so popular that it’s sometimes booked for breakfast, two lunch seatings (hoistings?), afternoon tea and dinner on the same day.
That’s Sonu: eager to embrace ideas that aren’t just fanciful but intelligently in line with guests’ expectation of the unexpected. Since 1995, he and his wife, Eva (Soneva—get it?), have built one of the most playful high-luxury brands around. As creative director, she scouts the world’s flea markets for treasures in the rough for the rooms, and claims to have started the ladder-as-bathroom-shelves trend.
Soneva Kiri has an ice cream parlor whose sorbet-colored seat cushions match the scoops and a seaside cinema whose screen appears to float on the water. Some suites have slides straight from a top-floor bedroom into the pool below. (At a sister resort in the Maldives, the slides plunge guests into the Indian Ocean.) Venues have clever names, like Ever Soneva So Spirited for the bar, …So Celestial for the observatory and …So Chill for that scoop shop, which has 60 homemade flavors. Even the electric golf carts the butlers use to ferry guests around the 150 acres have “Ever…” mottos printed on them.
Just about the only thing that isn’t at least a little ever so over the top is the location. I’ll hold Koh Kood up as evidence for my theory that the harder a place is to reach, the better it is. Unlike some of the better-known Thai resort destinations, which now have Hard Rock Cafes and Nikki Beaches, Koh Kood still has the rugged jungles, pristine beaches and fishing-village charm that drew people to Thailand’s islands in the first place. It’s the country’s fourth largest island but its least populated, with only about 2,000 residents and a smattering of small, indie guesthouses and three- and four-star resorts. There’s virtually no nightlife.
Most visitors to Koh Kood fly from Bangkok to Trat, then take a public boat. Not Soneva Kiri guests. They fly on the resort’s own airline (Ever Soneva So something, I’m sure) to the neighboring island of Koh Mai Si, then take the hotel’s zippy private boat across a much shorter distance. There’s even a quiet little check-in counter tucked among the departures sprawl at Suvarnabhumi airport.
The reward for the journey is a palatial, private villa—there are just 36 spread across all those acres. Mine, one of the simpler ones, had three outdoor showers. Three! It also had direct beach access, a pool I could use for laps, a large outdoor living and dining area, an outdoor spa-like bathroom and a mobile phone I could use to summon my butler, who would always pick up within three rings. (I stayed as a guest of Soneva.)
They don’t come cheap—rates start at $905 per night—but they come with long-tail boat rides to a spectacular, nearly deserted beach; access to the ice cream shop, cheese room and chocolatier; weekly cocktail receptions; yoga, mediation and other spa activities; non-motorized water sports; language classes; and wellness assessments from the resident Ayurvedic doctor. There are four restaurants, including Khun Benz, whose chef was scooped up from a village restaurant by Sonu and Eva and given free rein to make upscale yet authentic Thai tasting menus, and activities galore. General manager Andrew Whiffen told me a significant portion of guests end up extending their (already long) stays.
For all of the hotel’s gleeful pleasures, there are two arenas in which Sonu and Eva are dead serious. One is wellness. The spa is extensive, and all the restaurant menus have plenty of healthy options. (And even the less healthy ones tend to be organic.) They profess a “slow life” philosophy and have a “no news, no shoes” motto. While they don’t ban devices, and the rooms and main lodge have fast Wi-Fi, other venues have none. They don’t hand out a newspaper fax at breakfast, and the rooms’ well-hidden TVs only show DVDs. There’s no enforcement on the shoes, though many guests choose to do without, as do a lot of staff.
The other no-joke aspect is sustainability. Rather than paying please-reuse-your-towels lip service to the idea of responsibility, they live it. Cooking oil is recycled as biofuel, water gets reused several times, and the compost system is sophisticated. All 300-some hosts helped with a staff-wide effort to clean the grounds to the point where mosquitos would lose interest, meaning they wouldn’t have to spray anymore.
There are a lot of wonkier initiatives, but that treepod is pretty sustainable. The waiter brought new courses from the kitchen to my table in a small-footprint way: by zip line.