VIRTUOSO LIFE | Article
May / June 2010

Real Escapes

These days, travel is all about the experience, from what you do to where you stay.

Into the Wild

Well-appointed and woolly hideouts worthy of their surrounds. By Aaron Gulley

REMEMBER, AS A KID, the simple abandon of being outside, rambling in the woods, sloshing through surging streams, charging across clearings that stretched to the horizon? In the vast canyon country at Amangiri, the latest U.S. offering from Singapore-based boutique hotelier Aman, you can rediscover that untamed childhood freedom. But with Dungeness crab cakes and sumac-roasted chicken on the menu, no one will have to call you indoors when the sun begins to fade.

Crouching between Lake Powell, Glen Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and Paria Canyon Wilderness, the resort is practically a private reserve, with 600 acres of crackling desert lassoed by a string of sedimentary bluffs. The stark-but-elegant 34-room hotel is a study in simplicity. Austere panes of gray and beige concrete and glass contrast with the delicate bristles of scrub that flitter in the wind and the swells of the Entrada Sandstone in the distance. The swimming pool curls around both sides of a finger of creamy sandstone like a crystalline evaporating pool on a canyon floor. And from the tumbleweed sculptures to the Navajo-style sand paintings created with local earth and pigments, the designers took great care to nestle the resort into the landscape. Here, connecting with nature is fundamental.

Some people say that camping is the ultimate way to commune with the earth, but choosing a tent over a room at Amangiri would be like vacationing at a sandbox instead of the high desert of the Four Corners. Each room has a wall of glass that accordions open to let you enjoy sleeping alfresco while still lolling in crisp linens. Floor-to-ceiling glass frames the marble tub for wide-open bluff vistas while you soak. And though you could roast marshmallows over the sleek flame flickering from the stainless EcoSmart fireplace on your patio, more likely you’ll just ring round for a waiter to pop up with an Ibarra chocolate fondant and a cappuccino.

Amangiri’s most compelling appeals lie beyond the resort walls, though, where burnt sienna panoramas crash into massive cobalt skies at every turn. You can charter a flight to the Grand Canyon for a day or spend an afternoon paddling the twists and undulations of the Colorado below Glen Canyon Dam. But with so much empty land swaddling Amangiri, you need not even leave the property. Instead, take a page from your youth and set off into the corduroy of red rock and burning sand, charging across boulder fields and through broiling slot canyons. Just don’t be late for dinner.

Doubles from $900, including breakfast, one lunch for two, and round-trip transfers from Page Airport.

More back-to-nature Getaways

  1. Perched in the thick of the imposing scenery that graced Baz Luhrmann’s blockbuster Australia, El Questro Homestead is an ideal spot for playing drover or simply getting in touch with your strapping side. Take a horse trek along the banks of the Pentecost River, go walkabout in the endless bush, or, if you’re feeling soft, slide into Zebedee thermal springs. And save some time to spend at the dramatic six-room lodge, which thrusts out over the Chamberlain River like a diving board. Doubles from $1,700 (two-night minimum stay), including meals, most beverages, and touring and wilderness park permit.

  2. Few places are wilder than Patagonia, at the wind-lashed tail of South America, and The Cliffs Preserve at Patagonia, Chile lets you witness the ferocious setting from the serenity of a five-star villa. Watch pods of blue whales from the patio of your suite – one of only 18 – before hopping a helicopter to a lonesome stretch of water in the hills to hook a few giant trout. There’s white-water rafting and culinary tours, but you might be tempted to just take a sauna and then sit and watch the pounding surf from the terrace of the 20,000-square-foot lodge. Four nights from $2,700 per person, including meals and beverages, guided activities, and round-trip airport transfers from Puerto Montt.

  3. The ultimate mobile home, King Pacific Lodge is a barge-cumeco-resort that’s towed 100 miles each year to inhabit a sublime perch on the flanks of northern British Columbia’s Prince Rupert Island. Floatplane flights shuttle guests from Vancouver to this 17-room Rosewood resort. Some come to cast a line for salmon, and others just want to crack a novel in the comfort of their suite. For a treat, book the Princess Royal Suite, a two-story flat with a private dining area, a slate soaking tub, and balcony views to both ocean and forest. Three nights from $4,625 per person, including meals and beverages, guided activities, and round-trip floatplane transfers.

Royal Retreats

Travel back in time at these historic hotels. By Everett Potter

If you’d like a proper intro - introduction to a European castle hotel, try spending an afternoon on the deep blue waters of Lough Corrib with Frank Costello, Ashford Castle’s resident gillie (fishing guide). Or perhaps mount a horse for a ride into the Connemara countryside, take a Harris’s hawk out for an afternoon of falconry, or simply recline on a sofa and gaze out the leaded glass windows at some of the most dramatic scenery in the west of Ireland. This is daily life at Ashford Castle, a dramatic architectural statement in stone of fairy-tale turrets and towers that’s fronted by formal gardens and a fountain, overlooking Lough Corrib.

Surrounded by 26,000 acres of parkland and thick, ivy-covered forest, Ashford is the most famous castle in the country, a storybook idea of what a castle should look like. Dating from the thirteenth century, it’s a compendium of Irish history and architectural styles. The Guinness family bought the castle in the mid-nineteenth century and gave it Victorian flair as they added wings.

A warm and welcoming place that’s quite low key, Ashford offers a typically Irish relaxed formality. Many of its staff count their tenure in decades, and you feel like a return guest even if it’s your first visit.

You can well imagine an extended family living here – assuming your extended family came from the pages of Brideshead Revisited. It feels like a rambling country house, with dozens of high-ceilinged rooms and countless stairways and passages. The paneling is dark, the nineteenth-century landscape paintings are important, and the floors creak a bit, as they should. The 83 guest rooms are each different, but many have four-poster beds, wingback chairs, Victorian wallpaper, and tall windows offering views of the lake or parkland.

Dinner at Connaught, the castle’s most formal restaurant, is in a setting of vintage paintings, silver service, and glowing peat fires. In the morning, enjoy a classic Irish breakfast in the George V dining room, which is marginally more relaxed. Romantic? Irish actor Pierce Brosnan even held his nuptials here.

Like any true castle hotel, Ashford offers almost everything you could ever want right on its grounds, such as horseback riding and shooting. Or you can stroll along a riverbank into the tidy town of Cong, where some of The Quiet Man was filmed. Galway, that most Irish of cities, is less than an hour away, as is Westport, a typical County Mayo market town, best reached by taking the “boreens,” the tiny roads of Mayo that lead into the wild, largely treeless landscape of Connemara. But sitting in a club chair by a window, near a fire, with a cup of strong Irish tea and an Oscar Wilde play at hand – he was a frequent guest of the Guinness family – is also a memorable way to spend an afternoon. In fact, in this period setting, it’s enough to gently and convincingly transport you to Victorian times.

Doubles from $332, including breakfast and a $68 activities credit.

More Castle Chic

  1. Surrounded by vineyards, forests, and rolling hills, Château de Bagnols was a derelict thirteenth- century castle in Beaujolais, France, when Lady Hamlyn of Great Britain purchased it in 1987. It took 400 artisans to renovate the 21-room property, unveiling Renaissance and eighteenth-century wall and ceiling frescoes and restoring the moat, drawbridge, and towers. Dine in the shade of century-old lime trees on the terrace or at the Michelin-starred Salle des Gardes restaurant. Doubles from $583, including breakfast and a wine tasting at a local cellar.

  2. Built in 1450 as a hunting lodge for the archbishops of Salzburg, Hotel Schloss Fuschl overlooks Lake Fuschl, one of Austria’s prettiest. A hybrid of mountain rustic and formal, the 110-room hotel features stone fireplaces and timbered ceilings, but also Biedermeier furniture, historical paintings, and a star chef in its restaurant. Doubles from $885, including breakfast and a $68 spa credit.

  3. Set on 50 acres of woodlands against the backdrop of Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain, intimate Inverlochy Castle in Scotland has just 17 guest rooms sumptuously furnished with floral wall coverings, botanical prints, and antiques. Three dining rooms showcase inventive Michelinstarred cuisine. Doubles from $662, including breakfast.

The Healing Touch

Hotels that put well-being center stage. By Elizabeth Woodson

On a recent Thursday afternoon in Miami, a thirtysomething couple from Long Island shuffled into the waiting room of Dr. Karen Koffler, a dynamic physician who projects a stylish earth mother-meets-Sarah Jessica Parker vibe. They’d come to the new David Rockwell designed Canyon Ranch Hotel & Spa in Miami Beach for a week away from their children, and, so far, the vacation proved everything they asked for: days spent lying on the hotel’s glorious stretch of sand, with nights partying in South Beach. One mojito often leads to another; thus time for a little TLC at the spa.

As such, they wound up on Koffler’s couch, sipping purified water from Bodum glasses and discussing issues like life expectancy and weight loss. By the time the 80-minute consultation ended, the wife had signed up for three days of well-choreographed services that included diagnostic treatments such as body composition scans and metabolic tests, and the husband had blood drawn to check for predisposition to a number of ailments. They eventually found the spa across the hall for a de-stressing chakra ritual, but their time with Koffler was the trip’s highlight, prompting promises of return visits, with kids.

Forget deprivation and detoxing: Canyon Ranch is far from yesteryear’s roads to Wellville. Rising from a pristine oceanfront stretch in the heart of Miami Beach, it’s part of an increasing trend of catering to travelers in search of a tune-up – be it physical or mental – along with 500-thread-count sheets, Bruno Paillard Champagne, and multicourse meals. These new hybrid hotels specialize in any number of health services just short of going under the knife – territory formerly left to destination spas (as Canyon Ranch well knows). However, whereas traditional health retreats completely immerse clients in structured (and usually restrictive) programs of diets and workouts, guests at Canyon Ranch Miami Beach freely partake of all the city’s hedonistic pleasures. After all, South Beach is just a few blocks down Collins Avenue.

Of course, the property tries its best to counter excess with a full enrichment-activity roster: more than 230 fitness classes per week, from active (spinning) to contemplative (sandcastle building, anyone?); lectures on a number of health and wellness topics; and Aquavana, an elaborate circuit of pools, showers, saunas, and other thermal experiences. Then there’s Koffler’s medical program featuring her team of experts, including one of the country’s top exercise physiologists, a Chinese medicine practitioner, a nutritionist, a life management coach, and a physical therapist who will regale you with stories of his days training fashion editors in New York.

Book one of the ranch’s health packages and you’ll walk away with a file inches thick, along with an incredibly detailed fitness prescription for prolonging your life, grounded in both Eastern and Western medicines. It may not be Ponce de León’s fountain of youth, but it’s likely the closest you’ll find in Florida.

Doubles from $350, including breakfast and a $100 spa credit.

More To-Your-Health Vacations

  1. Located on a 1,000-acre private island in the Turks and Caicos, 58-room Parrot Cay – part of Christina Ong’s stylish hotel empire – is home to the Como Shambhala Retreat, one of the Caribbean’s more holistically minded havens. Check in for yoga classes, spa treatments, and a diet tailored to your dosha (body type) by the on-site ayurvedic doctor. The center also runs multiday yoga retreats led by some of today’s top talents, such as Rodney Yee. Doubles from $621 (three-night minimum stay), including breakfast and lunch once during stay.

  2. Velden, Austria’s legendary, 104-room Alpine resort Capella Schloss Velden complements spa offerings with wellness programs that address stress, physique, and relationships. Guests sign up for a combination of nutrition appointments, life management counseling, yoga classes, and (of course) massage services. There’s even a medical spa for those desiring a little extra touch-up. Doubles from $337, including breakfast and a sunset boat outing.

  3. A rotating mix of holistic healers – from naturopathic doctors to chiropractors, acupuncturists, abdominal massage specialists, and traditional Chinese medicine doctors – supplements diverse spa offerings at Thailand’s Six Senses Hideaway Yao Noi resort. The 54-room retreat sits on the tiny island of Yao Noi, a 45-minute boat ride from Phuket, and offers prearrival consultations with the spa director to craft a health-oriented stay. Doubles from $795, including breakfast and an 80-minute massage.