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Sun, Sea And Style
By Herbert Ypma
June 26, 2004
From architectural daring in the Tasmanian wilderness to traditional teak houses amid the shifting sands of southern India, the world's most desirable beach hotels defy convention. Herbert Ypma reveals his latest hip list
BAY OF FIRES LODGE
The Bay of Fires is on the far northeastern tip of Tasmania, on the edge of Mount William National Park. A magnificent succession of fine, white, crescent-shaped beaches interrupted by rounded granite headlands coloured bright red by lichens, this is an area of potent natural theatre: the reddest rock, the bluest water and the whitest sand, framed by rolling hills and densely verdant shrub. It is home to all sorts of indigenous fauna: wallabies, echidnas, brush-tail possums, wombats and Tasmanian devils. And the only building in this almost untouched coastal wilderness is the Bay of Fires Lodge. Designed by Sydney architect Ken Latona, it's a thoroughly modern, almost transparent pavilion that respects Glen Murcutt's dictum that buildings should "touch the earth lightly". Scarcely a boulder or rock was disturbed in erecting this long wood and glass box that claims a sweeping view of the coast's extraordinary beaches.
The lodge's discreetly hidden structure houses ten double guest rooms, a library, a loft-style, glass-sided dining room that seats 24, a living room complete with an enormous contemporary cast-iron fireplace, a huge deck that doubles as an outdoor breakfast area, and another deck surrounded by bush. Electricity is solar generated, the dunnies are compost toilets (which don't smell - not even a tiny bit), and the stainless-steel showers are powered by pressure you provide by putting some old-fashioned elbow grease into a hand pump beforehand. That said, the lodge has none of the woollen-socks-and-sandals atmosphere often associated with "green" places.
It's no crime to be a city-based capitalist here; just don't chuck your cigar in the organic dunny.
The Bay of Fires Lodge is inaccessible, but that's the whole point. All guests arrive on foot, complete with backpack and hiking boots. It is the culmination of the second day of a guided walk that starts at a spot called Boulder Point and passes along a string of deserted beaches before arriving at the lodge on the Abbotsbury Peninsula. (The first night is spent at a camp on Forester Beach, where your guides prepare dinner using fresh local produce and seafood.) Day three is spent sea-kayaking across nearby Ansons Bay. Midway through day four, guests depart on foot with their packs.
For four days you don't have just a beach to yourself, you have an entire national park. (Well, almost, but excursion groups are never bigger than ten.) And you stay in a place that effortlessly and stylishly combines the most compelling qualities of this extraordinary continent, namely virgin nature, stylish modern architecture and sophisticated new-style Mediterranean food - and of course those easy-going Aussies, who think it's the most natural thing in the world to be on a beach all by yourself. (00 61 3 6391 9339)
Hotelito Desconocido - literally "undiscovered little hotel" - is surely the most romantic place in Mexico, if not all of the Americas. The setting couldn't be more seductive. Thatched palafitos are arranged along a broad lagoon flanked by mountains and palm forests on one side and by a massive virgin beach and the booming surf of the Pacific on the other. The lagoon is home to an extraordinary variety of wildlife, including herons, vultures and pelicans, and each year hundreds of newly hatched tortaugas (turtles) make their way across the beach and into the wild surf.
As you pass through the nearby pueblo - a place straight out of El Mariachi - and descend towards the distant palm trees that tell you the Pacific is not far away, nothing can compete with your first glimpse of this lagoon and its unending beach.
Hotelito Desconocido has bars and restaurants, a spa, stables and accommodation in palafitos. Built in the Mexican style, these are shacks on stilts, made of palm fronds and mud, with roofs of palm thatch. Painted bright yellow, they may be authentic but they are anything but basic. They are all different, all wonderfully eccentric, vividly colourful and hopelessly romantic. The interiors follow the colours and themes of Mexican bingo. Some are pink, others blue or green or yellow, with four-poster beds swathed in mosquito netting, doors and windows made of woven palm, outdoor showers, bathrooms with colourful tiles, oiled wooden floors, and a riot of naive oil paintings on the walls. And of course, because there is no electricity (just solar power by day), there are lots of candles in all sorts of containers, pots and lamps. (00 52 322 281 4010)
SURYA SAMUDRA BEACH GARDEN
This Kerala beach retreat was the unlikely brainchild of two adventurers.
One, Karl Damschen, is an architect who drove all the way to India from Switzerland. The other is Klaus Schleusener, a German professor who taught in India. Karl and Klaus, unbeknown to each other, were looking for the same thing; a choice piece of land on the virtually undiscovered Kerala coast. Karl had barely stepped on to the secluded beach when he was informed that a German had just bought the rocky promontory he had been admiring. The expats met and Klaus commissioned a house from Karl.
It proved a big hit, as did the idyllic location, and Klaus asked Karl to build another house for his many guests. Karl was an enthusiast for the traditional Kerala teak house, the tharawad, and they eventually built several in what became a landscaped compound and then an exclusive hotel in a magnificently secluded hideaway.
Surya Samudra has changed a lot since then. There's a beautiful new pool carved into the rocks, an Ayurvedic spa, and the garden has matured. Klaus has moved on, replaced by an Indian company, though Karl remains as architectural adviser. But the most dramatic change has nothing to do with progress. When Klaus and Karl arrived, Surya Samudra had a big sandy beach to the left and a tiny one on the right. Today the tiny beach is no more - it's been replaced by one far bigger than its neighbour. Locals see it as a divine omen: the gods are happy. It's a wonderful example of the fleeting nature of beauty. Two years ago, the beach didn't exist, until a particularly persistent monsoon brought it here - but another monsoon could just as easily take it away again. (00 9 14 71 226 7333)
SONEVA GILI RESORT & SPA
REPUBLIC OF MALDIVES
One thousand, one hundred and ninety green, blue and white amoeba-shaped islands floating in a crystal-clear sea just north of the equator - the Maldives are like nowhere else on the planet. From an aeroplane, it seems impossible that these sprinkles of palm trees, coral and sand could be inhabited. They seem so fragile. And in fact they are. As the sea is rising, the Maldives are sinking. With a maximum height above sea level of 7ft, climate change was such a concern that the Government of the Maldives struck a deal with Australia several decades ago. Should the 250,000-odd Maldivians be in imminent danger of losing their homeland, the Australian Government will allow them to resettle in Oz. Biblical but true.
Aside from being a few inches lower in the water, this gentle but strict Islamic republic has changed little since H.C.P. Bell, the British Ceylon commissioner, travelled to the Maldives in 1879 to detail the contents of a shipwreck. He stayed on and became an expert on the Maldives and the author of a definitive monograph on the islands. "See a Maldive atoll and die - 'tis beauty truly bent," he wrote. It's true most islanders no longer fish or trade coconuts for a living, but the atolls' beauty remains undimmed.
Enchanting as the Maldives are, it is their underwater beauty that attracts many visitors. The diving and snorkelling are among the best in the world.
Even though a great portion of the reef is being bleached by global warming, there is still plenty of colour and spectacle left. Wildly striped and polka-dotted tropical fish, gropers, schools of baby sharks - these translucent waters are like the world's biggest aquarium. The weather is always warm, and so is the water, but ocean breezes ensure that temperatures are rarely extreme.
The Maldives are most people's idea of paradise. Except that until recently, paradise was a pain in the neck to get to. It inevitably involved a flight to the Middle East followed by a long wait in the airport, then a further five-hour flight to Male, capital of the Maldives. And even then, you still had to get to your island. New airlines and direct flights have changed all that. To contain the impact, only 90-odd islands are allowed to host holidaymakers. Island-hopping is also discouraged, though with the atoll being so stretched out, the chances are that the isle you stay on will be the only one you'll visit. This puts a lot of pressure on a resort.
It must sustain visitors' interest without compromising the qualities they came for.
What's required is an approach that Sonu Shivdasani and his wife Eva (hence Soneva) describe as "intelligent luxury". What they mean by this, in a nutshell, is the art of being spoilt without spoiling anything else, be it environment, culture or people. At Soneva Gili, pampering is done with such devotion that it's almost like religion. It's about using creativity, imagination and design to create a new experience. To start with, there are no rooms. Guests each get their own villa extending over three levels, with an open-plan living area, a small kitchen, a bedroom, a huge bathroom, a private water garden and a roof terrace. Best of all, each villa has its own swimming platform, which is possible because all of them are built on stilts in the lagoon. Some stand right out in the water and can only be reached by canoe. Even the spa complex and the hotel bar are on the water.
Only the restaurant, the dive school, the boutiques and reception area are on land.
Cynics might point out that cottages on stilts are nothing new, but the intelligent and imaginative approach to the architecture at Soneva Gili is genuinely innovative. Even taking a shower is an experience when your shower is a glass block cylinder suspended 10ft above the lagoon. The island has plenty of white, powdery beaches, but Soneva Gili's accommodation solution goes one better. To sample some of the world's best snorkelling, all you need do is slip off your own swimming platform. (00 9 60 440 304)
HIX ISLAND HOUSE
VIEQUES, PUERTO RICO
As so often happens with highly individual places, Hix Island House was never planned as a hotel. Toronto architect John Hix, who had visited Puerto Rico for years, built himself a hilltop house in a dramatic, triangular style, designed to withstand extremes of weather - he had seen the impact of hurricane Hugo. It evolved into a hotel because he figured it was time some of his friends started to pay. So he built more villas in his signature style, with raw concrete exteriors and enormous cut-outs framing sunlit postcard views.
The design blurs the distinction between outside and inside. One end of your huge loft is exposed to the elements, yet your bed is far enough inside never to get wet. You can experience a tropical downpour without closing a window - there are none. Hix Island House is the tropics amplified by modern architecture and design.
A certain sort of rugged simplicity asserts itself with the fact that the hotel has no room service, restaurant or bar. Each suite has a fully equipped kitchen and a well-stocked fridge, fresh bread is delivered each morning and the well-travelled couple who run the hotel will direct you to the island's remotest beaches. The message is clear. We give you a great space to stay, you entertain and feed yourself. This, after all, is no place for princesses. (00 1 787 741 2302)
Hip Hotels: Beach by Herbert Ypma, published by Thames & Hudson, is available from Books First for Pounds 15.16 (RRP Pounds 18.95) plus Pounds 2.25 p&p