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Place of peace
Among high-flying cognoscenti, the name is a check-in legend. It is a semaphore for resort-trippers who cherish discreet luxury, a secret handshake by which Aman junkies around the world recognise one another.
The story is that, in the early 80s, after lunch, the hotelier Adrian Zecha was wandering around a secluded spot high on a hill overlooking a private white-sanded beach on the western shoreline of Phuket - then a relatively unknown destination. He loved the views and seclusion; it was perfect for his new holiday home. To supplement the construction and maintenance of that home when he was away, he decided to build a small hotel on the same site. He would charge US$250 a night which, at the time, was an outlandish sum given Phuket's most elegant room at the posh Phuket Yacht Club was going for only US$75.
When Amanpuri (a Sanskrit portmanteau for "place of peace") was eventually unveiled on Jan 1, 1988, it stunned a world of jaded travellers, most of whom were convinced they'd seen it all. Certainly, nothing in Saint-Tropez, Ibiza or even the Bahamas had prepared them for this.
Mr Zecha had tapped Ed Tuttle for the job of building the small 40-villa resort. The American architect's lasting contribution was to set the blueprint for all the Aman resorts since. Specifically, he drew inspiration from the temple complexes in the ancient Thai capital of Ayuthaya, and built a Shangri-la into the side of a low hill thick with coconut groves and lush greenery. Criss-crossing walkways linked the pavilions - constructed of teak and maka-wood, and styled in traditional Thai architecture with peaked roofs - like a village.
Subsequent luxury resorts in Asia, whether the Datai in Langkawi or the Four Seasons Sayan in Bali, are, in fact, all variations of Amanpuri, right down to the room layouts, huge en-suite bathrooms, and adjoining private salas.
As it turned out, my first Aman experience was at Amanpuri in early 2001. By then, the resort was already a legend for its quiet luxury and graceful, almost telepathic, service.
Emerging from the shadows cast by the high vaulted ceiling of the reception sala, I remember a moment of stunned silence at the tableau before me. In the centre of the sprawling granite forecourt stretched a 27m midnight blue-tiled lap-pool. To the left were the tri-tiered spires of the dining sala. To the other side, a grand set of granite steps led to the music sala where every evening, a Thai musical quartet played to the counter-notes of cicadas and the drone of bullfrogs.
For the two nights I was there, the world really did seem a whole lot better than it really was. That magical first impression has never lost its hold. It is the palimpsest beneath every resort, every hotel I have stayed at since. Every service staff and turn down, every room and view, and every front desk welcome has been judged, however unfairly, by the standards set all those years ago at Amanpuri.
And though opportunities presented themselves, I hesitated about going back to Amanpuri. Looming large was LP Hartley's observation that the past is a foreign country because they do things differently there. How could my memories hold up?
And yet, 15 years later, on a recent return visit - as the car rode up the hill, past the tennis courts and green thickets - I find time slowly slipping back.
From the grand courtyard and perfectly proportioned rooms to the gentle ways of the staff, everything is exactly as it was, though, of course, I know this is impossible. Every June, Amanpuri closes for a month for renovation and maintenance - the salty air blowing in from the jade-green Andaman Sea is both a boon and a housekeeping nightmare.
Yet, the illusion persists. Despite the well-publicised shareholder and management issues behind the scene, the resort remains resolutely serene, presenting a united front and attitude of "business as usual". The sensation of reconnecting - of coming home - is palpable.
And over the next few nights, I rediscover an old love that is almost cinematic in its quality.
There are subtle changes. The vegetation and landscaping is now considerably lusher and thicker. The spa has expanded into a sprawling complex of private pavilions screened with mature stands of bamboo and palms - this fall, it is unfurling the first in a series of immersion programmes that covers everything from wellness and weight loss to detox and fitness. Toto toilets are now standard features. The quality of the dining room is superb, whilst the pad thai and the afternoon tea of ka nom krok Thai pancakes are as fabulous as I remember. The old gym down by the beach, destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, was rebuilt higher up in the estate with fabulous views of the sea and island, while two new pool areas and an haute Japanese diner, open only in the high season, have been carved out among the beach and granite boulders.
These changes are mostly cosmetic. (Though perhaps not the high season room rates which now start at US$1,650 and zoom up to US$4,700.) Amanpuri's fine bones are intact. This is due largely to Ed Tuttle's ongoing supervision of every refurbishment project, so that the results have the look and feel of an organic evolution.
In every sense, the reunion is a seductive one. Despite the years, Amanpuri remains the gold standard - much imitated, as Forbes magazine once put it, but never equalled. At every turn, the resort conspires to stop time, to create a cocoon against reality, especially the unruly built-up streetscape just beyond the gates.
Mr Zecha once said that all he wanted to do at Amanpuri was to "provide an incredible, relaxed, stress-free experience with genuine warmth and good food".
Twenty-eight years on, Amanpuri still delivers on every count.
- The writer was a guest of Amanpuri