William Heinecke moved to Thailand from the States in the Sixties when he was just 14, and within three years was running a successful advertising agency. Next, he turned his attention to fast food, and built a vast pizza empire that became the foundation of Minor International – so named because he was a legal “minor” when he started and needed parental co-signing of documents. Today, his conglomerate Minor includes a few dozen businesses and is one of the largest hospitality and food players in Asia, with around 150 hotels, nearly 2,000 restaurants and several hundred retail stores. Heinecke owns, operates, or has owned major luxury brand hotels including Four Seasons, St. Regis, Radisson and JW Marriott, and as a frequent international traveler himself, came to the conclusion that there was a void to be filled by a hotel that combined the top shelf service and amenities of a global luxury brand with a more discernible local sense of place that respected and reflected its setting and culture. To that end, he created his top tier “5-Star” brand, Anantara, and his slightly less opulent “4-Star” brand Avani. Today both are thriving and growing. Not surprisingly for a hotel chain started by a restaurateur, the emphasis on culinary experience permeates both brands.
The first Anantara was opened in Thailand’s famed beach resort of Hua Hin just 15 years ago, and now roughly three dozen of the luxury hotels and resorts can be found in a very varied range of city, island and desert settings across Thailand, the Maldives, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Mozambique, Zambia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and now Europe. The brand just opened its first resort outside of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort on the Portuguese coast. Vilamoura in turn is one of the largest and best-known golf and leisure resorts on the Continent. It is a perfect example of the Anantara philosophy, bringing a branch of the brand’s highly acclaimed Thai-style spa, health club offerings such as tai chi and yoga, and a restaurant specializing in Thai cuisine, but otherwise celebrating the local setting. Rooms were furnished with local artisan products like colorful Portuguese ceramics and items made from cork trees. The main restaurant features local specialties, while a new raw bar eatery will showcase Algarve seafood, and there is a deep resort-wide program showcasing Portuguese wines. The hotel employs the winner of Best Sommelier in Portugal, who will prepare restaurant food and wine pairings, lead tastings for guests, and suites are equipped with wine fridges.
While several hotel chains have branded their spas globally, Anantara is the only one that has taken this approach to cooking schools, with its Spice Spoons program – which always focuses on the local cuisine where the resort is set. In each case, the Spice Spoon half day format begins with obtaining ingredients alongside the chef instructor, which might mean a local market visit, foraging, or at beach resorts even catching the main course. Then guests and chef head into a dedicated demonstration kitchen where they learn to cook a local specialty, enjoy it for lunch and go home with recipes, souvenirs and keepsake ingredients like rice or spices. Guests in Thailand might learn to make green curry, at a Vietnamese beach resort to cook fish, or in this new case to prepare classic Portuguese specialties.
The Spice Spoons concept is one of my favorite features of the Anantara brand, another memorable and experiential activity in each destination, but it is not the only way locales are distinguished and emphasized. In Bangkok, I took a Thai boxing class, which I have not seen on the activity list at the many other luxury resorts I’ve visited worldwide, and it was fun, informative, memorable, and an excellent workout. I have now been to enough Anantara properties to have developed an appreciation of the unique offerings and luxury accommodations. Most locations host live cultural performances for guests, from music to dance to theater, always reflecting local culture. The food is first rate, as are the extensive spas, and most properties encourage exploration by offering extensive off property programs to showcase the location. In Bangkok they have a “Street Guru,” a full time hotel employee, to lead tours of the city complete with an immersion into its famously rich street food culture. In Cambodia’s Siem Reap, home to the world-famous Angkor Wat Temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, they have a “temple guru.” The Siem Reap boutique resort offers a laundry list of local outings, from rice paddy to fishing village tours. Outings are offering at various resorts by boat, bicycle, rickshaw and foot. Back at the hotel. rooms are lavish, there are usually multiple dining options, and gorgeous swimming pools are standard. Many resorts also feature villas with private pools. The flagship Anantara Siam in Bangkok used to be a Four Seasons, and is a grand urban business and pleasure hotel in the mold of the Peninsula Hong Kong, with a big ornate lobby, top shelf shops, multiple restaurants and much more. I loved it, and it easily competes toe to toe with any name brand 5-Star luxury hotel in the city – or most cities. But the brand’s other Bangkok property, the Anantara Riverside, is completely different, an urban resort concept with vast gardens, elaborate pools and outdoor spaces, a true oasis in the city, right on the river with its own boat service to popular destinations, outdoor Thai boxing ring and numerous choices for dining and drinking.
On – 24 May, 2017 By Larry Olmsted