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The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: These hotels are the destination, not the cities they’re in

Luxurious resort hotels are becoming the destination - and not the towns or cities they’re located in - Vir argues in this week’s column.

vir sanghvi Updated: Aug 02, 2017 07:21 IST
Vir Sanghvi
The Park Hyatt in Mallorca is huge, the rooms are super-luxurious, staff-to-guest ratios are higher than is normal and guests get a sense of being pampered in an enclave of privilege.
The Park Hyatt in Mallorca is huge, the rooms are super-luxurious, staff-to-guest ratios are higher than is normal and guests get a sense of being pampered in an enclave of privilege.

Till the second half of the 20th Century, the idea of a resort hotel was largely unknown. When rich people went to say, the Alps, they stayed at palace hotels which were, frankly, not so different from grand hotels in European cities. At such once-trendy French seaside resorts as Biarritz and Deauville, the top hotels looked as though they could be picked up and transplanted to the centre of Paris without anyone noticing.

The modern beach resort hotel is probably an American creation, starting with such properties as the Fontainebleau in Miami beach which was built in 1964 and then, the early resorts in Hawaii, which set the template for beach properties, a model which would be followed all over Asia in the years to come.

The Fontainebleau in Miami set the trend.

In the old days, a beach resort was usually a large tower block with a swimming pool, a few restaurants and beach access. You could eat your meals in the hotel but you were expected to go out and swim, soak up the sun on the beach or explore the neighbourhood. The rooms were nice but basic. You did not come to a beach resort for luxury, you came for the sea.

If you belong to a certain generation, you will remember some of the early resorts. In Bombay, we had the Sun and Sand on Juhu Beach, a hotel that could well have been built in Miami. In 1973, the Taj group opened up Goa to the world with the Fort Aguada Beach Resort but, in keeping with the times, the rooms were small and no more than fairly comfortable. In 1976, it opened the Fisherman’s Cove on the Bay of Bengal, on the stretch of road that led from Madras to Mahabalipuram. Here too, most of the rooms were in a tower block and the cottages were well-located but still, fairly basic.

I reckon that all resorts stayed that way till the 1990s, when the hotel industry discovered new standards of luxury. In Bali, for instance, the Oberoi which had opened in 1978 and come to be regarded as one of the island’s top properties, had to massively upgrade its facilities to cope with the new hotels that were built in the 1990s.

In the old days, hotels used to brag about providing you with the comforts of home. Now all luxury hotels try to create experiences that are far above anything most guests could expect at home.

The Regent Hotel group designed a property in Bali’s Jimbaran Bay where every room was a villa and every villa had its own private pool. By the time the hotel opened, Regent had been taken over by Four Seasons. And the now renamed Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay proved to be an extremely influential property, transforming forever what guests expected at luxury beach resorts.

In the old days, hotels used to brag about providing you with the comforts of home. Now all luxury hotels try to create experiences that are far above anything most guests could expect at home. The idea of a deluxe hotel is no longer limited to providing you with a comfortable and upmarket room. It is to pamper you with levels of luxury you would not normally encounter.

Nowhere has the difference been more dramatic than in the resorts sector with its villas and plunge pools.The Oberoi’s Vilas properties are designed to create a luxury ambience that takes the experience to a level that guests have never previously experienced. The Leela Goa, designed with the help of the Four Seasons (but that’s another story for another column) was built to a similar philosophy.

At the ITC Grand Bharat, the group’s first resort, you look forward to a luxury experience that is complete within itself.

The ITC’s group’s first resort, the ITC Grand Bharat, in Manesar takes the concept one step further. When you go to an Oberoi Vilas, you usually have a sense of place (Udaipur, Jaipur, Agra, the tiger sanctuary in Ranthambore, etc.) but the Grand Bharat is not really near anything of consequence or beauty. (Except perhaps for a golf course.) The hotel is itself the destination. You go there because you want a luxury experience that is complete within itself.

The newest resorts around the world operate on the same principle; something I was reminded of when I went this summer to one of the newest Park Hyatt resorts. It is located on the island of Mallorca (or Majorca; both spelling are fine). The island is part of Spain and shares the same stretch of water as Ibiza.

There was a time (the era before techno music if you want to date it) when Mallorca attracted the sort of party crowd that Ibiza now gets. But now, except for one dingy corner that is overrun with drunken Brits, Mallorca aims to offer a more sedate, more adult experience. (If you have seen the hit TV adaptation of John LeCarre’s The Night Manager, the villain’s vast and picturesque estate is located in Mallorca: the show has given a huge boost to tourism to the island).

The Park Hyatt Mallorca is on a beautiful hill in a largely undiscovered part of the island.

But here’s the thing: The Park Hyatt is not really near anything. The capital Palma, is at least an hour away as are the famous touristy beaches. So, why build a luxury hotel that is so far from everywhere?

Well, that is exactly the point, actually: The hotel is the destination. It is on a beautiful hill in a largely undiscovered (by tourists and non-residents certainly) part of the island and it offers you a Mallorca that’s far removed from the bits that other holiday makers see.

The Park Hyatt complex is huge, the rooms are super-luxurious, staff-to-guest ratios are higher than is normal and guests get a sense of being pampered in an enclave of privilege.

And then, there’s the food. I wrote, last year, about the Michelin starred Albora in Madrid, one of the few Michelin-rated places I liked in the Spanish capital. Well, the Park Hyatt has stolen the chef. And because Tapas, the restaurant at the resort, is much smaller that the bustling Albora, he actually cooks for the guests, bringing many main courses to the table himself.

Most upmarket travellers are fed up of the tour groups who throng most destinations that they want resorts that afford them a degree of peace and relative solitude, allowing them to venture out only when they want to.

Is this enough for most guests? I reckon it is. I watched as the mainly European guests (many with children) enjoyed the luxury of the resort, stepping out only to go to the beach. The food at the resort (except for a disastrous Malaysian/Asian restaurant; they should really do Japanese) was so much better than most of Mallorca’s touristy (but expensive) places, that guests were content to eat at the hotel.

I like wandering around so I chose the long drives to Palma, to the local Cathedral, the palaces and other parts of Mallorca. But I had to say that some of the my nicest experiences came in the villages around the hotel; sipping a gin and tonic at a street market or crunching on crispy calamari at a cafe in a village square.

Is this the future of resorts? I suspect it might be. Most upmarket travellers are now so fed up of the tour groups and backpackers who throng most destinations that they want resorts that afford them a degree of peace and relative solitude, allowing them to venture out only when they really want to.

Is this a good thing? Opinions are divided. For many decades, Kurt Wachtveitl ran Bangkok’s The Oriental, and became a legend in the hotel business. The Oriental was one of the world’s best hotels when Kurt ran it. (It is now run, corporate-style, by Mandarin Oriental.)

The Vilas hotels, including the Udai Vilas, bring the flavour of the cities they’re in.

Kurt had seen Asia change and he was not a fan of the new brand of luxury. The Oriental, he always said, had a sense of place unlike say, The Four Seasons in Bangkok (now the Anantara) or the St. Regis, both big, glamorous international hotels.

His guests were travellers, he said, who used Bangkok as a base from which to explore the region, including the countries that had now opened up: Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam etc. They did not want big cookie-cutter international hotels.

He was particularly disdainful of the new luxury resorts. “They attract guests who go from one resort to another, from one villa to another, reading the same books by identical private swimming pools and eating the same international hotel cuisine at every resort! How does it matter where they are? Phuket? Bali? It is all the same to them.”

That’s one perspective from an old-style hotelier. And yes, its possible to argue that too much luxury can edge out any sense of place. Certainly the Asia of the new resorts is not the East of Somerset Maugham or Joseph Conrad.

But then, I guess, the world moves on. And the reasons why people travel and what they look for, keep changing.