Personal tragedy led entrepreneur Mark Weingard to found the Iniala resort
A Thai resort with individually designed rooms is a new charitable venture by entrepreneur and survivor Mark Weingard, says Giovanna Dunmall
"I grew up believing I would die at 35," says British entrepreneur Mark Weingard, whose father was killed in a car crash nine days before his 36th birthday. This keen sense of mortality drove Weingard to work hard, and by the time he was 29 he was the top trader at a bank in the City of London. By his early 30s he had amassed what he calls "a small fortune".
Since then, death has reared its head many more times. Weingard narrowly missed a meeting in the World Trade Centre on the morning of September 11, 2001 because he was running late.
Then, on Boxing Day in 2004, he awoke to gargantuan waves racing towards his beach house in Phuket. He and 17 others survived the Indian Ocean tsunami by climbing on to the roof of his house, which was luckily built on stilts. The ocean carried away all its contents.
Weingard did reach the fateful age of 36, but tragically, three months after his birthday celebrations, his fiancée Annika Linden was one of the victims of the 2002 Bali terrorist bombings.
"I decided there and then I was going to change the way I lived," he says, his blue eyes shining. He set up the Annika Linden Foundation, since renamed the Inspirasia foundation.
Over the past 10 years (along with other companies he has invested in) it has donated more than US$10 million to 13 education, health and rehabilitation projects in Thailand, Indonesia and India. Earlier this year, Weingard opened the Annika Linden Centre in Bali. This houses a prosthetics workshop, a stroke victims' clinic and a kindergarten for children with cerebral palsy.
At the end of this year Weingard - a professional investor and philanthropist - will open Iniala, a luxury beachside retreat built on the site of his former tsunami-stricken house in Phuket. The house, which has been lovingly restored and revamped, is one of the three villas that will receive guests, and the 10-room ultra-exclusive residence will donate 15 per cent of its revenues to charity with the aim of raising US$750,000 a year.
Philanthropy is not the only way Weingard intends Iniala to be out of the ordinary, however. Every room will be designed by a different international designer or architect. Famous names include the Campana brothers of Brazil and the hotter-than-ever Jaime Hayon.
Others are less well known, but accomplished designers and architects nonetheless, such as Irish designer Joseph Walsh, Thai designer and curator Eggarat Wongcharit and Spanish architects A-cero.
The results range from the organic and earthy to the opulent and futuristic, with a bar and games room, and a children's hotel that sleeps 15, and is filled with tree houses, caves and a desert island. Weingard, who is well travelled and ran an online hotel review business with Linden for several years, speaks with passion about the people making his vision come true.
On the Campana brothers, he comments: "I love their lack of convention, and the fun in their designs. I also love their philanthropic nature."
He says Walsh "is the greatest craftsman of the 21st century". The Irishman, who is more used to making highly sculptural wooden furniture, has never created an entire room and is "breaking new boundaries", Weingard says.
Eggarat is relatively unknown on the world stage, but is one of the most respected designers in Thailand, Weingard says.
"When I first spoke to him, he described himself as a maximalist. He said that Thai design was ornate and colourful. I knew straight away that he was the one to create our Thai space. His rooms are spectacular and full of fantasy, yet they also remain elegant and comfortable."
Eggarat's suite features wickerwork, glass mosaics and a bed hanging from a bamboo trellis in the ceiling.
The final designs of Iniala are still under wraps, although information on the room designs is being released month by month on the website in the run-up to the opening.
If it sounds like Iniala could easily become a tale of "too many cooks", initial renderings seem to contradict this. The spaces look confident and well made with plenty of handcrafted details; the materials are often natural (wood, glass, bamboo and stone), and the finishes of high quality.
Overseeing the entire project is interior designer Graham Lamb, who has created several of the spaces himself. Lamb says it's both exciting and challenging to have so many personalities on one project. "We were careful in selecting the personalities so as to have no issues with ego," he says.
The group does seem genuinely easy-going and cohesive. The Campana brothers talk excitedly about the spa they designed for Iniala with mother-of-pearl inlay walls and ceilings.
Lamb explains that his penthouse suite was conceived with Weingard, who, "really thinks outside the box".
"We wanted the floor to become a piece of furniture that you can simply throw yourself into at various points throughout the space," Lamb says.
"The desert-like forms in the floor house the functions of the interior, with elements such as a sofa, a dining suite and an 'oasis-like' bath all consumed into the floor finish."
High-end design requires high-end amenities. At Iniala, these will come in the form of a gourmet restaurant headed by young Spaniard Eneko Atxa - who recently won a third Michelin star for his Basque restaurant Azurmendi - and a 24-hour butler and spa service.
Next spring, Iniala will also have an art and design gallery, a second restaurant, a beach club and a sculpture garden in a building next door.
Of course, there's also Iniala's location. Only a 20-minute drive from Phuket's airport, it is surrounded by lush greenery and nestled between a river and the Andaman Sea. The villas and suites face Natai beach and have full-length windows to make the most of the views.
"The beach is a beautiful golden sandy affair that stretches for miles," Weingard says. Since there is little development on this stretch, Iniala's guests will feel like they have it to themselves.
With Iniala, Weingard says he wants to make the most of the area's "warmth and hospitality" while bringing to the island some of the spectacular gastronomy and culture it lacks.
If all goes to plan, the first Iniala will be one of many. Weingard now has his eye on an island off Palawan, where he hopes to create an island retreat.
"It's the most beautiful seascape on earth," he says. "The Philippines are the travel destination of the future."