Everywhere I went on my first visit to Iran surprised me. Shiraz and Yazd, Kerman and Kashan confounded my expectations, and not just with their immense age and extraordinary beauty. Iran conjures the idea of ayatollahs and women in black and yet I saw no one praying in mosques and young women seemed to flaunt the veil injunction by draping headscarves off the back of high beehives. The towns and cities exuded a surprisingly fresh energy, as though in the process of remaking themselves. Nowhere impressed me more than Esfahan.
A green oasis in the middle of a rocky desert, cut through by the modestly named River of Life and surrounded by mountains, Esfahan is a city of broad boulevards lined with shade-giving trees. It has some of the most beautiful buildings in Iran, as well as my favourite hotel, some very good restaurants and brilliant shopping. On my first night I went straight to the huge central square, where I stood in wonder as the moon glittered on the mosaic domes of those most beautiful mosques. I hadn’t felt that sort of excitement since I first laid eyes on Marrakech.
On that visit I spent a couple of days in and around the square – which is actually a 510-metre-long rectangle – dodging horse-drawn carriages on the outer path (no cars or scooters allowed). I ate kebabs, rice and yogurt and sipped zero-per-cent beer while stretched out shoeless on a raised bench in the Banqueting Hall, a traditional restaurant with a big window looking onto the dome of one of the grand mosques. I drank strong coffee in antique shops with some of the city’s smart young crowd, and managed to break my rule about not buying a carpet before I had even reached the bazaar. Then at sunset, I did what so many in this town do and headed to the river.
When Shah Abbas rebuilt Esfahan in 1598, he made it an essential stop on the Silk Road, but it was his great-grandson who built the white-stone, two-storey Khaju Bridge. My favourite crossing over the river, this is where poets and their admirers gather at the end of the day, taking turns to sing, their voices lifting towards the setting of the sun. What are they singing about, I asked the man nearest me. ‘About women,’ he told me, ‘and love. What else is there?’
Why Stay? Because it’s a surprisingly affordable country hideaway in a handy spot for snooping around the historic and handsome village of Broadway in the northern Cotswolds.
Why Now? For brisk walks – willies provided – and nightcaps by a cosy log fire, either at the bar or in the comfort of your own room.
What is It? The third hotel to open on the 400-acre Farncombe estate, owned by the Danish Philip-Sørensen family, it joins smart Dormy House and swanky Foxhill Manor, the former down the hill and the latter up above, with plenty of green space in between. The Fish is a collection of honey-coloured stone buildings set on Fish Hill, where medieval monks are said to have stored their catch, with panoramic views over the valley below. There are 67 stylish bedrooms, a separate farmhouse sleeping 13, and The Lodge with a light-filled restaurant, huge bar and games room (billiards, darts, table football, kids’ play area). You can also have a go at clay-pigeon shooting, archery and riding a Segway.
Behind the Scenes. The team works hard to make everyone feel at home: wake up to the Sunday papers on your doorstep; help yourself to milk from the kitchen fridge for tea. Cheery staff are on hand to help with anything from mapping out hiking trails to ferrying guests around the estate in Land Rovers. London-based interior designer Hannah Lohan is behind the contemporary- farmhouse look, mixing urban edge with sweet-as-pie country charm: industrial light fittings, reclaimed wood and scaffold-pole shelving units, and squishy armchairs trimmed with plaid. There’s a hint of Scandi-styling too, with tall pillar candles in lanterns dotted throughout and walls painted a cool mix of greys and blues.
Sleep. Rooms here may cost a lot less than at Dormy House, but you’d never think so. They are the kind of spaces to hole up in, especially the Spacious room with its log-burning stove, faux-fur throws, Ercol-style chairs and geometric-patterned blankets on hip-high beds. Bathrooms have artfully mismatched tiles with underfloor heating.
Eat. Chef Jon Ingram, who started work aged 15 at his grandparents’ pub and eventually moved on to Cliveden House and beyond, oversees the food at all three hotels. The dinner menu in the conservatory here is a mix of adventurous dishes (tender scallops with smoked duck bacon, charred cauliflower and almonds) and retro surf ‘n’ turf plates (juicy rib-eye steak served with crispy calamari). Tables are piled with cookbooks and novels to keep you entertained between courses. There’s comfort food for lunch (ham- and-cheese sandwiches; home-made pork scratchings), which can go into a hamper for jaunts across the estate.
Who Comes Here? Townies seeking peace; Cotswolds-obsessed Japanese couples; young families with small children in tow; in short, everyone (even pooches are welcome). With so many different rooms in such a ridiculously pretty area, it‘s no wonder.
We Like. Exploring the vast grounds on a quad bike, whizzing though wooded areas, ducking under tree branches, pelting across grassy meadows.
We Don’t Like. The DIY toast at breakfast is a sweet idea, but can be chaotic with queues and a nearconstant smell of burning bread.
‘Fancy a ride?’ ‘Sure,’ I said.
Duilio pointed at the mahogany Riva Jetto tied to the dock. ‘That’s the pretty one,’ he said, tossing me the keys. ‘You don’t need a boat licence. Have fun.’
‘Do you need to have it back by a certain time?’ I asked, pretending it was no big deal.
‘No. It’s all yours.’
I untied the ropes, turned the key and motored, rather too aggressively at first, into the wide-open, mossy-green waters. Had I really just been given a Riva to cruise Lake Como? I pinched myself.
I’m not the first to be seduced by the unimaginable allure of Como. It has served as an escape from hot, sweaty, city summers since the Roman Empire. The lakeshore architecture is a testament to this history, from the walled city of Como built by Julius Caesar to Pliny the Younger’s villa, from Renaissance palazzos with grand facades, 10 sash windows by five, manicured gardens and cypress trees, to pretty little houses in butter-yellow, cream and rose with terracotta-tiled roofs.
Yet it is still the lake itself that’s the wonder, more like three steep-sided fjords joined at a nexus – which by chance is the enchanting town of Bellagio with slender proportions and deep waters bound by imposing mountains clad in chestnut trees and conifers. Where the cliffs are too sheer, pale granite peeps through the thick vegetation.
The latest, greatest place to stay among all this incredible loveliness is II Sereno, the second property by the Venezuelan Contreras family, who have Le Sereno in St Barth’s, a handsome hotel, clean and elementary, and the favourite of a smart Manhattan crowd. The family choose their destinations well. And their designers. In St Barth’s, they went with Parisian mastermind Christian Liagre. Here they plumped for Patricia Urquiola, one of the most prolific and talked-about interior, furniture and product designers (Mandarin Oriental in Barcelona, Das Stue in Berlin), who also dabbles in architecture. And boy, she has created a modem masterpiece.
So how to go about designing a new hotel on Lake Como to stand proud next to big-hitters such as Villa d’Este and Villa Tremezzo? Two hard-and-fast rules: avoid historical; avoid repro. But it’s still complicated, not least because Mr and Mrs Contreras are architects themselves, as is their daughter, and their sons are civil engineers, which is the training you might need to build a hotel jutting over the water and cut into the solid rock of a cliff-face. But the family assure me they aren‘t meddlesome. ‘I called [Urquiola] because she’s better than us,’ the father, Ignazio Contreras, says frankly and with a twinkle. ‘She’s a hurricane.’
The origins of Newgrange, one of the most important passage graves in Europe, are steeped in mystery. According to Celtic lore, the legendary kings of Tara were buried here, but Newgrange predates them. The grave was left untouched by all invaders except the Danish, who raided its burial chambers in the 9th century. In 1699, it was rediscovered by a local landowner, Charles Campbell Scott. When it was excavated in the 1960s, archeologist Professor M. J. O’Kelly discovered that on the winter solstice, December 21, rays of sunlight enter the tomb and light up the burial chamber – making in the world’s oldest solar observatory.
A site of mythical importance, Tara was the political and spiritual center of Celtic Ireland and the seat of the High Kings until the 11th century. Whoever ruled Tara could claim supremacy over the country. It is thought that many of Tara’s kings were buried in pagan ceremonies at Newgrange. Tara’s importance as a spiritual center diminished as Christianity flourished. Legend says that Tafra’s most famous king, Cormac Mac Art, who ruled in the 3rd century, did not want to be buried at the Newgrange among pagan kings. His kinsmen, disregarding his wish, tried to cross the Boyne River to Newgrange but failed due to the huge waves and so he was buried elsewhere.
The shortest day and the longest night occurs each year on December 21 and is known as the winter solstice. At Newgrange, on the morning of December 21, rays of sunlight shine into the roof box of the passage, illuminating the north recess of the cruciform burial chamber. At all other times of the year, the tomb is shrouded in darkness. Newgrange is the only passage grave currently excavated that has this characteristic – temples tend to be the usual locations for this type of event. Many believe that because of this, Newgrange was originally used as a place of worship, and only later as a burial ground for pagan kings.
Described as the “cradle of Irish civilization”, the Boyne valley contains two other prehistoric burial sites not far from Newgrange. The closest is Knowth, which is just 1 mile (1.6 km) away. Excavation of this site began in 1962 and it was found Excavation of this site began in 1962 and it 1was found to contain two tomb passages and the greatest concentration of megalithic art in Europe. Archeologists also found evidence that the site was occupied from the Neolithic period and weas used for habitation as well as for burials up until about 1400. Dowth, another passage grave 2 miles (3km) from Newgrange, is less spectacular. Its tombs are smaller and most of its artifacts were stolen by Victorian souvenir hunters.
The burial chamber’s intricate corbelled ceiling, which reaches a height of 20ft (6m) above the floor, has survived intact. The overlapping slabs from a conical hollow, topped by a single capstone.
There are three recesses, or side chambers: the north recess is the one struck by sunlight on the winter solstice.
The chiseled stones found in each recess would once have contained funerary offerings and the bones of the dead.
The passage contains slab of slate, which would have been collected locally.
At dawn on December 21, a beam of sunlight shines through the roof box (a feature unique to Newgrange), travels along the 62-ft (19-m) passage and hits the central recess in the burial chamber.
The opening was originally blocked by the stone standing to its right. Newgrange’s most elaborately carved curbstone is in front, part of the curb of huge slabs around the cairn.
Located on a low ridge north Boyne River, Newgrange took more than 70 years to build. Between 1962 and 1975, the passage grave and mound were restored as closely as possible to their original state.
White quartz and granite stones found scattered around the site during excavations were used to rebuild this wall around the front of the cairn.
Newgrange was designed by people with exceptional artistic and engineering skills. Without the use of the wheel or mental tools, they transported about 200,000 tons of loose stones to build the mound, or cairn, that protects the passage grave. Larger slabs were used to make the circle around the cairn (12 out of a probable 35 stones have survived), the curb, and the tomb itself. Many of the curbstones and the slabs lining the passage, the chamber, and its recesses are motifs. The corbelled ceiling consists of smaller, unadorned slabs.
In Irish mythology, Aenghus Mac Oc was the God of Love, who tricked his way into owning Newgrange. It is said that he was away when the magical places of Ireland were being divided up. On his return, he asked to borrow Newgrange for the day and night, but refused to give it back, claiming it was his, since all of time can be divided by day and night.
c. 3200 BC: Construction of the tomb at Newgrange by Neolithic farmers.
c. 860: Danish invaders raid the burial chamber and remove most of its treasures.
c. 1140: Newgrange is used as farmland for grazing cattle until the 14th century.
1962-75: Newgrange is restored and the roof box is discovered.
1967: Archeologist learn that rays of sunlight shine up the chamber on the winter solstice, December 21.
1993: Newgrange is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Explora Group was the lone-wolf trailblazer for immersive off-grid experiences in remote landscapes, spawning a whole new movement. The group’s openings were rare, and became major happenings. Now its first hotel for almost a decade has landed in Peru.
The best way to view dawn over Peru’s Sacred Valley is through a picture window at the new Explora Valle Sagrado – preferably wrapped in one of the hotel’s alpaca-wool blankets. Tucked into a cleft at the base of the Urubamba mountain range, and facing com fields and an enfilade of receding, snow-topped peaks, Valle Sagardo comprises several long, low buildings made of stone, wood, plaster and glass, each with a vast louvred roof linked by elevated walkways. The whole place is designed to melt into the landscape.
The Chilean hotel group’s existing outfits in Patagonia, Easter Island and Atacama set the standard for adventures in Latin America, and indeed for wilderness properties around the world. Founded in 1993 to great acclaim with an extraordinary hotel in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, Explora continues its mission to revolutionise our relationship with nature, grafting sustainably designed hotels into the most remote landscapes, and opening up places previously available only to hardcore trekkers. Its first outpost outside Chile is a well-matched pairing for Peru, which is already known for adventuring and has a growing number of places to billet those who are past gap-year age but still have a hunger for the intrepid.
Of course, other hotels offer wonderful views in far-off destinations – there’s an Inkaterra property close to Explora’s new set-up – but few take it quite as far in terms of experience or ethos. While derring-do comes with the territory when guests are taken to the back of beyond (dry-wicking jackets and fleeces are the dress code here), there are shades of a spiritual quest at Explora, where the point of its excursions is a complete engagement with wilderness – something few of us are exposed to. I got my first taste of this philosophy in Patagonia, where the original Explora hotel straddles a waterfall, and pumas stalk the surrounding hills.
Valle Sagrado is equally impressive. It was going to be built higher up the slope, but a series of Inca terraces were discovered when digging for the foundations. These narrow, stepped fields now passed on the way down to the hotel entrance – give a vivid sense of having landed in a place where history collides with daily life, a place where Inca ruins lie scattered among the hills like dropped pearls. At almost 3,000 metres above sea level, the air is clear as glass and rinsed of oxygen. There are views over a patchwork of fields fed by gullies, and eucalyptus trees marking the banks of the silvery Vilcanota River.
Sweden’s most popular museum enshrines the royal warship Vasa, which capsized on its maiden voyage of just 4,265 ft (1,300m) in a calm weather on August 10, 1628, in Stockholm’s harbor. About 50 people went down with what designed to be the pride of the Swedish Navy. Guns were all that was salvaged from the vessel during the 17th century, and it was not until 1956 that a marine archeologist’s persistent search led to the rediscovery of Vasa. After a complex salvage operation, followed by a 17-year conservation program, the Vasa Museum was opened in June 1990, less than a nautical mile from the scene of the disaster.
Vasa was built as a symbol of Swedish might by King Gustav II Adolf, who was steadily increasing Swedish influence over the Baltic region during the 1620s, through war with Poland. Vasa was the largest vessel in the history of the Swedish fleet and was capable of carrying 64 cannons and more than 445 crew. From its 170-ft (52-m) high stern it would have been possible to fire down upon smaller ships. Vasa was equipped for both traditional close combat and artillery battles. The musketeers had shooting galleries from training, and on the upper deck were so-called “storm pieces”, erected as protection against musketry fire.
Vasa’s intended destination on its maiden voyage was the Älvsnabben naval base in the southern Stockholm archipelago, where more soldiers were to embark. Each man’s life on the ship would have been determined by his ranks. The officers also ate better food than the crew, whose meals were very basic, and consisted of beans, porridge, salted fish and beer. The decks would have been very crowded – the small space between every two guns was the living and sleeping quarters for seven men (gun deck). There was no fresh food, so many of the crew would have had scurvy and died from deficiency diseases before they reached battle.
The marine archeologist Anders Franzén had been looking for Vasa for so many years. On August 25, 1956, his patience was rewarded when he brought up a piece of blackened oak on his plumb line from Vasa, located 100 ft (30 m) beneath surface. From the autumn of 1957, it took divers two years to clear tunnels under the hull for the lifting cables. The first lift with six cables was a success, after which Vasa was lifted in 16 stages into shallower water. Thousands of plugs were then inserted into holes left by rusted iron bolts. The final lift started on the morning of April 24, 1961, and on May 4, Vasa was finally towed into dry dock after 333 years under water.
King Gustav II Adolf, who commissioned Vasa, was known as the Lion of the North, so a springing lion was the obvious choice for the 13-ft (4-m) figurehead.
Visitors cannot enter the warship itself, but a full-size replica of the upper gun deck, with carved wooden dummies of sailors, is on view, giving a good idea of conditions on board.
More than 50 of Vasa’s 64 original cannons were salvaged during the 17th century. Three 24-lb(11-kg) bronze cannons are now on a display in the museum.
Carvings of 20 Roman emperors stand on parade on Vasa.
Some 200 carved ornaments and 500 sculpted figures decorate Visa.
Vasa’s stern was badly damaged but it has been painstakingly restored to reveal this ship’s magnificent ornamentation.
The entrance to the cabins was towards the stern. This area was the grandest part of the ship, reserved for senior officers.
Vasa carried more heavy cannons on its two gun decks than earlier vessels of the same size. This probably contributed to its capsizing.
The woodcarvers who made the sculptures and ornaments on Vasa came from Germany to Holland. Motifs taken from Greek mythology, the Bible, and Roman and Swedish history were carved in oak, pine and lime in late-Renaissance and early-Baroque styles.
1625: King Gustav II Adolf orders new warships, including Vasa.
1628: Vasa is ready for its maiden voyage, but it capsizes in Stockholm’s harbor.
1956: Archeologist Anders Frazen locates Vasa and participates in its salvage.
1961: Vasa is raised to the surface after 33 years on the seabed.
1990: The Vasa Museum opens as a permanent museum, showing the restored Vasa and its treasures.
The only stave church to have remained unchanged since the Middle Ages is Borgund Stavkirke at Laerdal in western Norway. Dedicated to the apostle St. Andrew, it dates from around 1150 and is built from almost 2,000 carefully crated pieces of wood. The interior is very simple: there are no pews or decorations, and the lighting is limited to a few small openings high up on the walls. The exterior is richly decorated with carvings: dragonlike animals in life-and-death struggles, dragonheads, and runic inscriptions. There is a 16th-century pulpit and a free-standing belfry with a medieval bell.
The earliest stave churches, built in the 11th century, had wooden wall columns that were set directly into the ground . These churches lasted no more than 100 years, since moisture in the ground caused the column bases to rot away. As construction techniques developed, it became customary to set the wooden framework on sills that rested on a stone foundation. This raised the entire wooden skeleton above ground level, protecting it from humidity. This method proved so effective that churches built in the 12th century are still standing today.
Borgund Stave Church is one of the largest and most ornately designed of the almost 30 remaining stave churches in Norway. Usually stave churches were Simple, relatively small structures with a nave and a narrow chancel. Borgund ‘s chancel also has a distinctive semicircular apse. Stave posts mark a division between the two. Th e interior is dark, since light can only filter through from small round openings (windows) under the three-tiered roof, which is crowned by a turret. An external gallery often encircles stave churches.
The introduction of Christianity to Norway around the year 1000 saw the merging of pagan and Christian cultures and beliefs. Most stave churches were erected on the sites of old temples that were destroyed in the wake of Christianity. The impact of this can be seen in the richly decorated carvings in stave churches, which unite pre-Christian and Christian symbolism. Pagan gods were represented in disguise alongside medieval Christian saints. The door frame designs (West Door) are particularly elaborate and demonstrate the skill of the carpenters who embellished them from top to bottom with intricate carvings. Wood from pine trees was commonly used, since this was most readily available. Branches and bark were removed from the trees , which were then left to dry out before being chopped down. This method meant that the wood was more weather-resistant and durable.
Many of the surviving state churches are in remote locations. High, exposed sites that were noticeable and remarkable were generally chosen to create a dramatic visual effect.
Intricate framework of the main roof.
The exterior of the church is richly adorned. The decorations on the Romanesque West Door feature vinelike ornamentation and depictions of dragon battles.
This sits atop the three-tiered roof.
There are three tiers on the roof of this tower. The first tier is decorated with dragoheads on the gables, similar to those on the main roof. These were meant to cleanse the air, purging it of the evil spirits of unlawful pagan worship.
This, along with the other roofs, is clad in pine shingles.
Twelve posts (staves) around the central part of the nave support the roof. Disappearing into the semidarkness of the roof, they give an increased sense of height.
The gables above the doorways and apse tower are decorated with plain crosses.
Simple, circular openings in the outer walls let in a small amount of light.
The interior of Borgund Church contains no ornate embellishment, only a simple pulpit and altar. This altarpiece dates from 1654.
The central nave is bordered by crosses in the shape of the letter X.
Olav Haraldsson became king of a united Norway in 1016 and went on to convert the country to Christianity. Pagan statues were torn down and stave churches were built. He died in battle in 1030. A year later, his body was exhumed and he was declared saint.
Rich ornamentation in stave churches is evidence of Norway’s Viking era, when skilled carving techniques were developed to combine art and woodworking in construction. The depiction of animals such as dragons and serpents in these carvings is thought to derive from Viking art.
c. 1150: Borgund Stave Church is built to replace the rotting existing church.
1300s: A chancel and an apse are added to the building.
1500-1620: This pulpit is constructed and the altarpiece added.
1870: The church goes out of regular service when a larger church is constructed nearby.
Chef Willin Low demonstrates a flagrant disregard for rules.
During an eight-course omakase dinner at his restaurant Wild Rocket, I dig into his take on Singapore’s most ubiquitous dish, Hainanese chicken rice. Said dish is customarily composed of tender poached meat, fragrant ginger, garlic-and pandan-leaf-infused rice, and a cup of broth; Low’s version, served in a miniature black casserole dish, incorporates black-truffle butter and shavings of the prize fungus. It’s utterly decadent — and sacrilegious to Singaporean culinary purists.
Low became a celebrity for twisting regional fare into what he coined Mod Sin, short for modern Singaporean cuisine. Although long regarded a foodie destination, Singapore has remained grounded in the humble traditions of grandma’s kitchen and hawker stalls, despite Michelin-worthy, fine-dining spots like Tippling Club, LesAmis, Burnt Ends and Andre.
“When we started, we were worried that people would think we were trying to destroy traditional food,” Low Says. “But we’ve been pleasantly surprised at how receptive everyone has been.”
Wild Rocket continues to grow in popularity, with foodies clamoring for East-meets-West reinterpretations of staples like saucy chili crab and spicy laksa soup.
Fellow chefs also took note, and Mod Sin has swelled into a bona fide movement. Inspired by Low, chef-owner Malcolm Lee added a 2.0 approach to his restaurant Candlenut, which specializes in Peranakan cuisine.
A defining dish, ayam buah keluak, is a flavorful chicken stew made with the black seed of buah keluak, an Indonesian fruit. Although toxic while raw, the seeds become edible when cooked properly — but the flavor is impossible to describe. Not even Lee can articulate it. It looks a bit like tapenade, but there’s nothing olive-y about it.
I find my favorite Mod Sin buah keluak invention at Violet Oon’s National Kitchen, which opened December 2015 within the impressive and new National Gallery. Oon, a former food critic and Singapore’s answer to Julia Child, presents me with a spaghetti dish, the inky puree tempered with prawn, fried red bird’s eye chili and coconut milk. It’s insanely toothsome, pure umami with just enough chili heat and al dente bite. It’s my sixth course, but I clean my plate, and Oon glows with a mother’s joy.
My next stop is Labyrinth, where chef LG Han tells narratives through his madcap Mod Sin five-or-10-course tasting menus. He presents a deconstructed Hainanese curry rice dish that would be true to Dada artist Man Ray: plated to evoke a forest scene with a potato resembling a white stone, a quail egg, and deep-fried mousseline atop quinoa curry and mossy-looking coriander sponge. His version of chili crab, typically a messy affair, entail easily chomped deep-fried-soft-shell crab with a scoop of savory-sweet chili ice cream.
I’m disappointed when the procession of eye-pleasing surprises finally concludes. “What’s next?” I implore. “I’m working on an oyster omelet”, Han teases.
Clearly, eggs and rules will be broken.
In 1960, Laurance S. Rockefeller, a conservationist and hotel visionary, was invited to the undeveloped island of Hawaii. As he flew over the volcanic island, he spotted a beautiful, crescent-shaped white sand beach at the foot of the dormant volcano, Mauna Kea.
Unable to peel his eyes away, he asked to take a swim after landing. Looking up from the bay, Rockefeller dreamed of a resort that conformed to, but did not intrude upon, the location’s incredible spirit and beauty – one that inspired guests to return for generations. Here, the magic of Mauna Kea Beach Hotel began. A luxurious retreat was conceived, and the industry’s leading contractors were hired to build it.
Making its breathtaking debut in July 1965, it was the first resort hotel on the island and – at the time – the most expensive hotel ever built, at $15 million. More than 50 years later, resting on the gemlike turquoise bay of Kauna’oa, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel is a jewel of its own. It remains a legend and a tradition, offering guests a beautiful beach, the finest cuisine, championship golf and tennis, and endless aloha.
When Rockefeller found Kauna’oa Bay, there was little there: no roads, no power and no water; undoubtedly the right spot for his masterpiece.
He brought in every resource to transform the rocky landscape into a grand resort, including Mexican flagstones, Italian marble, ancient lava rock, black beach pebbles, concrete, steel and more than 200 varieties of plants to develop the lush, colorful landscape. One-and-a-half million man-hours went into building the “invisible” midcentury mega-structure.
A stone-stacked sign marked “Mauna Kea” and an extra-long winding drive leads guests to paradise at the resort’s entrance.
Blue tile floors matching the waters of Kauna’oa Bay line the open lobby, capturing the view of the ocean and encouraging guests to relax immediately upon arrival. The walls and pillars conform to the color of the bay’s sand. A multistory garden with sky-scraping coconut palms fills the center.
The 252 guestrooms – all with ocean or golf course views – were designed with an understated elegance in the style of an Old World mansion. Multiple sliding doors offer privacy and fresh-air cross-ventilation.
Guestroom doors open to corridorless floors that float over an atrium, where gardens and sky can be seen and trade winds can freely pass through. Suspended stairways rise throughout the concrete structure, connecting the floors. Monumental lava-rock walls adorn nooks and crannies.
More than 1,600 authentic Pacific and Asian artworks are displayed, giving the impression of a grandiose estate filled with fine art. With pieces from India, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, Melanesia and Polynesia, Mauna Kea has one of the most extensive collections of Asian and Oceanic arts assembled by one person.
It was developed as an integral feature of the resort, and includes hand-selected works like the 7th-century pink granite Buddha resting under a Bodhi tree at the top of an enormous staircase; the two golden Buddhist disciples cast of bronze, guarding the lobby entrance; and the hand-stitched Hawaiian quilts and hand- dyed kapas and tapas lining the fifth through eighth floors.
Some pieces were intentionally selected for outdoor display. Others were chosen for exhibition in lounges, corridors and alcoves to inspire and inform guests.
Marked by two oversize bronze Japanese koi, Manta resembles an 18th-century Buddhist temple. The open-air restaurant overlooks the bay and Manta Point, where amazingly graceful manta rays feed along the shoreline most nights.
It’s home to a legendary daily breakfast buffet and an even more colossal Sunday brunch buffet. As the sun sets, the ambiance changes as guests watch executive chef Roger Bartle and his team prepare ocean-and farm-fresh fine cuisine in the restaurant’s exhibition kitchen. The Batik curry remains a staple while specials change nightly. Displayed outside are the resort’s resident Macaw parrots, Mango and Keo.
Hau Tree rests on the beach and serves fresh salads, wraps, ice cream and the resort’s famous Ovaltine froth, a perfect beachside treat. Grab-and-go breakfast, sit-down lunches and relaxed dinners around the gazebo mean guests only need to stray steps from the sand for a great meal. It’s the ideal place to enjoy a Fredrico, the signature cocktail of Mauna Kea. Spiced with velvety Jack Daniels, the “Freddy” is a modern take on the island’s Mai Tai. It was named in 1988 after a guest who desired a crisp drink to enjoy in large quantities.
The most iconic gathering place is Copper Bar. With wide floor-to-ceiling panoramas of Kauna’oa Bay and copper accents throughout, it underwent a slow and calculated renovation in 2015 to preserve the multigenerational feeling and allure of Mauna Kea. The original copper bar top was transformed into a beautiful backsplash. Marine rope that once lined the pillars was reused as a new art wall. Skylights splash the bar with light from the lobby level above. Eighteenth and 19th-century Indian temple toys, made of extravagant bronze and brass as offerings to Hindu deities, are displayed. Elegant island favorites like seared poke bowls and spicy macadamia nuts are served daily. Mixologists shake craft cocktails like the Mauna Kea mule, made with house-made ginger beer and Maui’s own Pau vodka, and served, of course, in a copper mug.
Never has a grand hotel seen such grand activity. Although the trade winds smell particularly sweet and the waters look glass-calm in the early dawn, the crescent-shaped beach is lovely any time of day. Sun worshipers can bask in year-round warm weather, while adventure seekers can snag stand-up paddleboards (and glow SUPs at night), canoes and trendy inflatables from the Beach Club.
Snorkel gear is available for water enthusiasts looking to see the reef, located a few short fin kicks from shore and Manta Point.
Kids can engage in Keiki Club Adventures, a daily program filled with fun activities, while children and adults alike can enjoy cultural activities such as ukulele lessons, cast-netting, coconut weaving, lei making and more. Eleven tennis courts overlooking the ocean can be booked for private or group sessions with instruction offered daily at the Seaside Tennis Club. A weekly art tour explores some of the unique pieces in Rockefeller’s collection. The protected Ala Kahakai trail, which circled the entire island before there were roads, connects Mauna Kea Beach Hotel and sister property Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel via a rocky oceanside hike over hardened lava.
Developed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. on black lava rock, the award-winning 18-hole Mauna Kea golf course mirrors the resort in design, vision and glamour.
The elevated greens challenge players with prevailing winds and breathtaking ocean and hillside views. Some holes play right along the water, and others across it. The prized third hole draws masses all on its own with waves crashing into the rocky shoreline with each putt. Guests can carve their way through the course with a GolfBoard or get pro-style tips from new GPS-equipped golf carts.
Whether couples are renewing their vows or planning a destination wedding, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel offers stunning backdrops to make their special day one to remember. Outdoor venues include the classic Hole Number 3, located on the ocean’s edge of Mauna Kea Golf Course, while the new Kauna’oa Ballroom offers panoramic views of the bay and coastline.
With Rockefeller pedigree at its foundation, Mauna Kea Beach Hotel continues to welcome guests to experience rest, relaxation, adventure, and the timeless magic of Hawaii at Kauna’oa Bay.
Dawn is breaking over the Gulf of Thailand as the boat drops me off at Prek Svay, a small fishing village on Koh Rong island. About the size of St. Thomas, it’s the largest of the 15 islands in Cambodia’s Koh Rong Archipelago, and the second largest island in the country.
Tucked inside my pocket is an unusual map. I won’t need it to navigate — there are no roads here, only a few bush trails that lead into the forested interior — but it might help me understand what the future holds for one of Indochina’s last untouched archipelagos.
Prek Svay is a traditional Khmer village. Plank-board houses sit atop stilts to ward off floodwaters during monsoon season and cobras during dry season. There are no guesthouses or tourist bars here, and nobody really notices as I wander the town’s sandy lanes. Mothers stoke their morning fires, rock babies in fishnet hammocks and call out to one another in singsong tones. The air is pungent with the smell of drying tuna and dung, softened only by the aroma of sandalwood incense wafting from the spirit houses.
It’s been 29 years since I was in Cambodia, and these sounds and smells bring back memories. But this is not the country I remember.
Cambodia in 1987 was reeling from the deadliest genocide since World War II. The country was occupied by Vietnamese troops fighting the Khmer Rouge. I was a young journalist on the Thai border, and my glimpses into Cambodia came from the crowded refugee centers and Khmer Rouge camps.
The villages I saw on patrols were ghost towns; tree roots spilled over abandoned houses like candle wax, and rusted cars sat in the vine-choked streets like so many gargantuan beetle shells. I couldn’t have imagined that somewhere beyond this ruin was a lost archipelago rimmed in white-sand beaches.
“Joom reab sour.” The monk’s voice brings me back to the present. I lower my gaze, press my palms together and touch my fingertips to my brow in a Sampeah, a respectful greeting. I don’t have any papaya or rice to offer as alms, but he smiles anyway, and I watch him pass down a trail until his orange robe fades in the trees.
Turning back to the village, I take my map out, unfolding Koh Rong’s future: the airport, the golf course, the marina, and the acres and acres of luxury residences.
In Cambodia, a land enjoying its first postwar breath of peace in more than half a century, the only thing certain is that the country is poised for momentous change.
“Tourists know Cambodia for two things only: Angkor Wat and the Killing Fields,” Sokheang says. “So I’m really glad you will be telling the world about our beautiful islands.” The former soldier-turned-tour-guide with Abercrombie & Kent is leading me down a trail to a remote 12th-century temple complex near Angkor Wat. We’ve left the tour-bus crowds behind.
I might be bound for Cambodia’s islands, but it makes sense for me to start my journey at Angkor Wat. After all, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the only stop most tourists make in the country, thanks in part to its role as a Hollywood set in the film Tomb Raider.
Sokheang says the government was fighting the Khmer Rouge out here up until about 10 years ago. At one temple, he points to lichen-crusted Buddha statues, their facial features pecked away. “They had no respect for tradition,” he says of the Khmer Rouge. “They used Buddha for target practice, and they placed mines everywhere.”
“This area is mined?” I stop walking. We’re a half- mile into the forest on a faint braided trail.
“Oh yes, many mines, mines everywhere” he says. He sees my face. “Oh, do not worry. We found most of them. I’ve walked this trail many, many times,” he adds. “Now let me take you to a temple tourists never get to.” Once we’re there, we drink cold Cokes and watch the steady flow of tourists, budget backpackers in tuk-tuks and middle-aged couples in air-conditioned minivans. “It’s good you’re going to Koh Rong,” Sokheang says. “It’s time for Cambodia to be known for something more than war.” What does he think of all the changes underway? Siem Reap’s skyline is full of construction cranes and signs heralding new five-star resorts. “Change is good. Starbucks is coming this year, so we’ll have some good coffee.”
I leave behind the bustle of Siem Reap that afternoon and catch a turbo-prop flight to the coastal city of Sihanoukville, packed with traffic and boisterous casino crowds. Sam, my taxi driver, points out his favorite strip bars but warns me to beware the Russian mafia.
When I tell him I’m not lingering here, I’m headed to the offshore islands, he sighs. “Before the revolution, the islands were beautiful, and you could go swimming off the beaches. Nobody lived there. It was all wild. But that all ended with the Khmer Rouge. They took the islands, and nobody wanted to go out there. If you did, you never came back.”
After spending a night in a small guesthouse outside Sihanoukville, I return to the port and board the ferry to Koh Rong Samloem. The hourlong journey in the air-conditioned boat costs $6. A group of Dutch kids are bound for the main island of Koh Rong, so I’m the only visitor to get off on Koh Rong Samloem’s long pier, jutting into Saracen Bay.
It’s a gorgeous bay. Except for a narrow gun slot facing the sea, the bay is almost completely enclosed by forested ridges. The bay is so shallow, I’ll discover later, that you can wade out for a quarter-mile and still keep your bellybutton dry.
Losing track of time is easy on Koh Rong Samloem. Living is cheap. Beers are under $1, and you can find a rustic bed for less than $10, probably $5 if you searched hard. The 2-mile-long arc of beach is backed by casuarina trees and speckled with guesthouses and restaurants. Traditional meals like sweet amok — fish curry — cost only a buck or two.
One morning, two fishermen greet me in English. Up until the revolution, the second language here was colonial French. But the Khmer Rouge, in their effort to erase all traces of Cambodia’s past, killed most of the older generation. Recently, returning refugees have brought back English learned in the refugee camps.
The men are hauling in nets left overnight on the beach. Only a few small minnows flicker among the filaments. “It’s the Vietnamese fishing boats offshore,” one of the men complains. “They’re not supposed to be here. But this is Cambodia, and here, money is everything. They bribe the navy so they can take our fish back to Vietnam.” His friend brightens. “No matter. We’ll be rich soon. The Chinese just bought Koh Rong island, and they want to buy us too. The Vietnamese and the Chinese are buying land to build resorts. Our beaches are much prettier than theirs. I’ll be happy to take their money.”
If Koh Rong Samloem is an easy island to lose track of time on, then my next stop, the exclusive Song Saa Private Island resort, makes telling time even tougher. Cambodia’s only five-star island resort, opened in 2012, is in a self-created time zone, which is one hour ahead of the rest of the country.
“We try to make it easier for our guests,” the concierge explains when their private launch delivers me to Song Saa’s pier after a 30-minute ride. “This way, you don’t need to wake up so early to see the sunrise, and the sun waits for a civilized time until after dinner to set.”
Song Saa has created a new, luxury vision for Cambodia. The island — technically two small islets connected by a wooden bridge — is located several miles north of Koh Rong Samloem and only a half-mile off the coast of much larger Koh Rong island. But it’s worlds apart from the other islands’ backpacker beaches and fishing villages.
Overwater bungalows with infinity plunge pools gaze out at the shallow sea, while ocean-view villas climb the island’s low hill. It’s a self-contained private-island resort. The pools, the restaurants and bars, the spa — everything exists right here. I soon find, however, that while Song Saa is its own world, the owners have made efforts to build bridges with the surrounding communities.
Filippo, the onsite director of the Song Saa Foundation, guides me around on local village walks and hikes. “We work closely with the villages to reduce trash through recycling, reusing and education,” he says while showing me a new water system they built in Prek Svay.
“And recently, we established the largest marine sanctuary in all of Cambodia. We’ll work closely with locals to protect and preserve the area.”
My two-bedroom villa sits on the crown of Song Saa. In the evenings while I cool off in the plunge pool, pairs of hornbills wing over and land in the surrounding trees to feed on fruit. Everything I see from the pool is an ancient, untouched Cambodia, nothing but wild coast and endless forest.
But the future of these islands and Cambodia is up in the air. Hun Sen, the prime minister for the past quarter century, was himself Khmer Rouge. When I speak with locals about politics, the conversations are whispered. One guide only speaks to me about it when he discovers I speak Spanish, a language our driver doesn’t understand. “The government still kills anyone who is against them,” he says. “The Khmer Rouge never left Cambodia. They only changed their uniforms.”
That fear, however, is balanced with a hopeful optimism about the future. Wedged between the economic powers of Thailand and Vietnam, Cambodia is seeing a huge influx of money, and tourism is starting to boom. Everyone I speak with dreams of development and easy money. They want to sell their homes, their beaches, their islands. And who can blame them?
My futuristic map of Koh Rong island on which golf courses and luxury villas replace wild forest? I downloaded it from the website of a company that had recently secured a 99-year lease of the island.
Near the end of my stay on Song Saa, I head back to Prek Svay village. The resort has arranged for me to receive a blessing from the monks before I leave. In their simple wooden temple, I sit cross-legged before the same monk I greeted earlier on my visit. lie is wrapped in his flame-orange robe and has a distant, peaceful smile. Together with two younger monks, he begins to chant in Sanskrit.
The head monk picks up a hammered tin bowl and mixes lotus petals into the water. He dips a bundle of sticks and sprinkles me with a cool mist. Then he ties a red yarn around my right wrist.
“To keep you safe and happy in the future,” the translator explains.
I close my eyes, make the Sampeah and quietly wish the same for these monks and their beloved country.
Abercrombie & Kent is a luxury outfitter exploring Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Its two-week Images of Indochina & Angkor Wat departures from September through April include Phnom Penh and the Angkor Wat complex at Siem Reap ($6,500 per person). A&K can also arrange a custom journey to include other parts of Cambodia, such as the Koh Rong Archipelago. Song Saa Private Island resort is the only five-star island property in Cambodia and has both overwater bungalows and hillside villas; all-inclusive packages start at $1,440 per night. The resort offers plenty of opportunities to explore the culture and landscapes of the surrounding islands. Neighboring islands in the Koh Rong Archipelago have a wide range of guesthouses and small resort accommodations. Visas for U.S. citizens are available on arrival at the airport.
WHEN TO GO
Dry season is November through February. The weather gets unbearably hot from March through May, and much of the countryside takes on a dry, brown appearance. Rainy season, from June to October, brings lower prices and less sunshine, but the country’s jade rice paddies and jungles are the most photogenic.
Remove shoes and hats before entering a temple (or home), and be sure to cover your arms and legs out of respect. Learn to do the Sompeoh (hands pressed together in prayer form) when saying hello and goodbye; when greeting an equal, keep your hands at chest level; raise them to your lips when greeting an older person; raise them to your brow when greeting a revered person (like a monk).
U.S. dollars are widely accepted. Credit cards are fine in the tourist centers of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but bring cash for the islands.