Visiting The Pavilions Phuket resort for an intensive, three-day journey of discovery,almost bumps into the neighbours
EXCEPTING RECLAMATION PROJECTS, which will doubtless continue augmenting our coastline long into the foreseeable future, Hong Kong’s total dimensions remain fixed and finite. Yet from the chatter of Cantonese and Home Counties English, and the surprising profusion of familiar faces in certain corners of Bali, Koh Samui or Phuket, you’d be forgiven for thinking that entire colonies of local residents have recently decamped into Southeast Asia, expanding our city’s footprint by creating informal yet semi-permanent versions of Stanley, Tai Tam or Discovery Bay somewhat closer to the Equator.
Over the past 25 years, these three Asian islands have become terrae cognitae, places whose popularity with Hongkongers continues to grow precisely because we feel so much at home there. And to these balmy climes we flock by the planeload four or more times a year, there to luxuriate in an ever-increasing array of hotels and spas, gourmandise on our favourite dishes and shop until our credit cards self-destruct. Many of us buy apartments or villas where we can hide away from the rat race, only to meet up for golf, drinks or dinner with pals from home who’ve done the same, just as if we were back in Repulse Bay or on The Peak, while others have even indulged the urge – either deep-seated or recently discovered – to play the hotelier.
Among the latter is solicitor, entrepreneur, outdoor adventurer and sometime publisher Gordon Oldham, who opened his own intimate resort on Phuket some five years ago after having helped a few of his Hong Kong-based clients do the same. Occupying a privileged position overlooking the island’s western Bang Tao Beach to one side and Laguna Phuket – the vast complex of resorts, villas, golf courses and man-made lakes that now sprawls across an area of former open-cast tin mines around Cherngtalay – to another, Oldham’s Pavilions Phuket began with 30 high-gabled pool villas of varying sizes and configurations (but all of them enormous), lined both upwards and around the hillside. Little more than a year ago, these were joined by almost the same number of spa-and-pool pavilions and penthouses, constructed to a more modernist design, arranged in vertical terraces down a steep hillside and linked to the resort’s main level by a tiny guest-operated funicular.
With each walled unit offering a minimum of almost 3,000 square feet of space and a swimming pool at least 10 metres long, and with an absence of communal facilities beyond an open hilltop bar – appropriately named 360° – and a colonial-themed Plantation Club-house that accommodates an open-sided restaurant, a bar and a library, it stands to reason that when they aren’t meeting friends from home outside of the resort, most guests opt for the privacy of their villa or pavilion. Here, much as I did, they can disport themselves pretty much as they please without horrifying anyone other than possibly each other – and with so much space and privacy, not to mention the pool and a choice of voluminous mattresses both inside and out, it isn’t hard to understand why The Pavilions has also become a firm favourite among the honeymoon crowd.
Recognising, however, that post-nuptial holidays are ideally no more than a once-in-a-lifetime experience (and preferably no more than twice), that those guests who aren’t in the throes of 24/7 mutual admiration might want to do something other than lock themselves up for hours, and that Phuket does have times of the year when it can rain for days on end, Oldham – a canny Northumbrian if ever there was one – has devised a programme of activities that should ensure a constant stream of guests, whatever the stage of their marriage or the state of the weather. Dubbed “Passions,” the programme caters to a wide range of interests by bringing to the resort a constantly changing roster of experts and teachers, each adept in a particular field, who impart their knowledge, skills and enthusiasms to others.
Pioneered almost two years ago with an introductory course in perfumery, hosted by British-born, Bangkok-based perfumer Stephen Dowthwaite, the Passions portfolio has since expanded to cover such varied pursuits and subjects as music and dance, yoga and meditation, organic food and chocolate, outdoor adventure and even body painting, all of which were showcased over a long weekend at The Pavilions in early October. While northern Thailand was being deluged with continual rain (which brought flooding to the suburbs of Bangkok only a couple of weeks later), Phuket was faring rather better, the fickle weather bringing occasional heavy showers that were invariably followed by bright sunshine.
Arriving in the small hours after a late-night flight from Hong Kong, we spent our first day at The Pavilions mercifully occupied by doing as little as possible. I’d been assigned a pool pavilion, with its own fully equipped spa room (the resort has no spa as such; instead a therapist visits you). It was suitably enormous and well appointed, though sufficiently unintimidating – but in the best kind of way, of course – to be considered supremely homey. Save for a brief excursion up the Plantation for lunch, I kept my gate firmly closed, spending the hours relaxing in the pool and lazing in my open-sided sala – though thanks to the Wi-Fi connection, I discovered that had I checked in the previous day, I could have spent the time with neighbours of mine from Hong Kong, who checked out of The Pavilions just a few hours after my arrival.
As the evening sky gradually turned to orange, salmon, purple and finally a luminous ultramarine, we trooped up the hill to 360°, where the overhanging greenery festooned with a twinkling web of fairy lights provided the magical backdrop to an opening dinner and cocktail.
Following a deep sleep in my cavernous pavilion, the real business – two whole days of concoction, appreciation, delectation and exploration – began. Relatively unaffected by the weather (and thus neatly proving the efficacy of the programme), we were launched headlong into a day of perfume and chocolate with a tutorial from Dowthwaite and his ever-patient team on how to blend if not the perfect fragrance then at least a rough approximation of it. This objective more or less achieved, we then turned to a lengthy examination of the cocoa bean and its derivatives, starting with a chocolate-themed lunch at the Plantation restaurant, continuing with a chocolate-body-scrub spa treatment in our respective spa rooms and concluding with dinner, preceded by a talk and short demonstration from Singapore-based chocolatier Laurent Bernard and a chocolate cocktail, and finished off with a chocolate dessert. Accompanying the latter, and ticking yet another of the Passions boxes (that of Music), was a performance of Chinese music, drums and opera by performers specially flown in for the occasion from Taiwan and Singapore.
My body and nostrils still choc full with the tastes and aromas of the day, I returned to my villa and fitfully dreamed of beans.
Day two, with its programme of organic holistic activities, was an altogether more restful affair, in which we did our best to connect, spiritually and well as physically, with ourselves and others. After a leisurely breakfast, we were handed over to Elysabeth Williamson, who’d travelled to Phuket from her home in Colorado to introduce us to Principle-Based Partner Yoga, a discipline devised by her, though firmly based on existing practices, in which two people help each other achieve a range of yogic postures and thus attain mutual spirituality, health and relaxation. Skulking at the back of the room, I was naturally chosen by Williamson to act as her partner until my body’s unwillingness to assume any of the necessary postures forced her – rather graciously, I might add – to relieve me of my duties.
After a healthy organic lunch, we adjourned to a different villa, where UK-based Chopra Center acolyte Peggy O’Hare (a former Hong Kong resident) introduced us to primordial sound meditation, a means of achieving spiritual calm and alleviating stress through breathing techniques and eventually the recitation of a personal mantra. Having found ourselves in an unusually tranquil space, we were then brought back to Earth with a flourish: evening cocktails, an organic buffet dinner and a rousing performance of flamenco (a Passion for Dance) from a Spanish troupe based in Hong Kong.
Sadly, my own early departure the following day forced me to skip the Passion for Adventure programme (rides on an elephant and a zip-line), but with two days of study under my belt I’d already sufficiently got with the Passions programme to earn a few hours of down time by the pool.
En route to the airport I realised that this was the first time I’d left The Pavilions since my arrival, so involving was the Passions programme that I hadn’t even thought about stepping outside the resort. After my intensive crash course, I’d discovered that I can create a reasonably passable scent, I have a serious addiction to chocolate, I’ll never make it in Chinese opera and I’m even more hopeless at yoga, but I’m not a total sceptic when it comes to meditation. Not bad for a three-day stay – even if I wasn’t able to hook up with the neighbours.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ Samui Wind
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO