Pricey, but it's the ambience that counts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 May, 1998, 12:00am

Adrian Zecha is modest about the popularity of Amanresorts, the chain of hideaways celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.

'If you measure success in room numbers, Amanresorts has not achieved all that much in its first decade,' the Hong Kong hotelier said.

'We are only up to 430 rooms. That's about what you would normally find in one medium-sized resort. But then we have never focused on being the biggest.

'We prefer to think small. Intimate. Involving.' It is a formula that works, especially for Mr Zecha's rich and famous clientele. He refuses to reveal names, referring to guests only as 'Aman Junkies'.

Among the frequent visitors are sporting heroes, members of royalty, business tycoons and political leaders. They are converts to the 13 Amanresorts retreats not merely because of the five-star-plus luxury, but for the privacy they offer.

Mr Zecha, a dapper 64-year-old Dutch-Indonesian, was in a Robinson Crusoe mode when he literally stumbled on the concept of this 'small but beautiful' upmarket resort chain a decade ago.

'Like a lot of nice things in life, it happened by accident,' he said.

Hunting around Phuket for a location to build a holiday home, he stumbled on idyllic Pansea beach.

'It was perfect,' he said. 'But then I discovered there was no water supply. The cost of piping it in would not have justified just one residence, so I started thinking about the resort business.' He named it Amanpuri, meaning Place of Peace. Almost from the moment it opened, the 40 villas, along the lines of a Thai temple complex amid a lush coconut plantation overlooking the Andaman Sea, attracted a clientele second to none.

'It became quickly clear that we had struck a market need,' he said. 'Within six months, guests were asking where else we had resorts.' So he set about building more. In Bali, he opened a 29-villa retreat in the hills of Ubud called Amandari (Peaceful Spirits); followed by Amankila (Peaceful Hill), a 35-villa enclave of sea-front hedonism; and Amanusa (Peaceful Isle), perched above the Bali Golf and Country Club.

In French Polynesia, Amanresorts took over Hotel Bora Bora, where the late James Michener wrote his classic novel, Tales of the South Pacific.

Michener called the location beneath a volcano 'the most beautiful lagoon in the world'.

Most recent of the Amanresorts is Amanjiwo (Peaceful Soul), opened last year in the shadow (and in the same remarkable architectural style) of Borabodur, the great Buddhist wonder in central Java.

'We're different, that's all,' Mr Zecha said. 'What we offer is a lifestyle experience, one without limitations.' Charging from US$500 to $600 a day, the resorts are exclusive and relatively expensive, although Mr Zecha's response to those who question the price is unequivocal and oft-repeated.

'An Armani is an Armani, wherever you buy it you pay the same,' he said.

For Mr Zecha, however, it is the 'overall ambience that counts the most'.