The fantasy about slipping away to an island tucked into a hidden corner of the planet has been unattainable for quite some time. Cheap air travel and Lonely Planet guides have meant Southeast Asian beaches – such as those on Boracay, Bali and Langkawi – are as well known for their touristy establishments as they are for their fine sand. Lying on your lounger trying to enjoy the view, it’s difficult to find relief from the pesky tourists on selfie rampages by the waterline who persistently taint the picturesque scene.
When I got wind of the sleepy southern Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc, I sat up and paid attention. Phu Quoc is an island of peaks clad in lush, tropical greenery, fringed with white sand. The island has been on the radar of sunseekers for some time but development is taking its sweet time, and there are a few more years to go before other tourist attractions intrude, such as the world’s longest cable-car line.
Getting to Phu Quoc means flying to Ho Chi Minh City, where the hustle and bustle contrast with the peace, tranquillity and refreshing breeze that await you when a 45-minute onward flight delivers you to Phu Quoc International Airport. A short drive along sunlit roads takes you from the airport to the southern tip of the island. There, at the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort and Spa, two gargantuan bronze dogs greet you.
If you are expecting the typical tropical island resort, you are in for a surprise. The expansive lobby is in French Colonial style, decorated in a black and white check. Once you have checked in, when you are sitting under the canopy of a swinging bed, sipping a lemongrass-infused welcome drink, it’s as if you have been transported to the 19th century.
A heavyweight among architects in the business of designing Asian resorts, Bill Bensley led the planning of the 244-room resort. Told that money was no object, Bensley based his design on an imaginary institution that he calls Lamarck University, after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a French naturalist and a precursor to Charles Darwin. Every part of the resort is based on an element of the wildly colourful imaginary campus. The result is at once whimsical and awesome, frivolous and grand, luxurious and sensible.
To bring his vision to life, Bensley’s team of designers trekked across Europe, scouring antique shops and markets for the more than 5,000 genuine artefacts in the resort.
No detail is minor enough to escape attention, whether it is the vintage books lining the windowsills of the spa, the rows of scales on the shelves in the hotel cafe and bakery, or the loopy calligraphy on the cobblestones in the main lane that connects the various parts of the resort.
The design and colours of the accommodation reflect the various disciplines studied at the imaginary university: zoology, conchology, astronomy, herpetology and so on. The Reptiles Study, for instance, is a villa where the carpets have a gecko pattern and where towering stone statues of a snake and a crocodile face-off by the swimming pool. It’s accommodation for the adventurous.
Whichever field of study inspires each villa, the colour scheme is vivacious and the space expansive. Each room has its own balcony and proper bathtub. After a long day spent exploring, there is nothing quite like a blissful soak in a tub of water strewn with rose petals and surrounded by scented candles.
The JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay is different in many ways and the Chanterelle Spa is one of them. The spa is a wonderland of white and dewy, mustard hues. Like the Wonderland Alice visited, it plays tricks on your perceptions, with its white, arcaded hallways, high ceilings, paintings of mushrooms and disproportionately huge lanterns. The facilities comprise treatment rooms for couples, a body treatment suite, a hair salon, a steam room and a sauna. The spa offers a range of services meant to relax the weary traveller. For 90 minutes, thoroughly qualified massage therapists unknotted the muscles in my stiff back and eased the soreness from my limbs, as light, Middle Eastern-sounding music soothed my mind.
Other features of the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay include a gym open around the clock, a running track, and three swimming pools for communal use. My favourite is the seashell pool, a stretch of sparkling blue water of ineffable charm.
The resort has plenty for its guests to do. In tune with the university theme, it offers classes of all sorts. I began with a surf yoga session, doing rejuvenating exercises in the clear, tranquil water under the watchful eye of a certified instructor. The sun above was hot, but the sparkling, emerald-tinged sea all around cleared my mind of the last shred of those busy thoughts that beset the city-dweller.
I took a class in making Hoi An lanterns, acquiring the craft of turning beautifully colourful fabrics and bamboo frames into luminescent lampshades, which guests can take home as souvenirs. I took an evening class in mixology at the Department of Chemistry. Expert mixologists in lab coats let their students into the secrets of concocting gingery cocktails. And I took a cooking class, learning how to roll fresh produce into darling Vietnamese spring rolls and turn eggs into crackling Vietnamese pancakes.
There are plenty of extramural activities to enjoy, too. One day I explored Phu Quoc on a bike. The ride took me to the disused but preserved Coconut Tree Prison, where prisoners of war were held; to a fish sauce factory; and to the An Thoi market. Again, the sun was hot. The low season at the resort is the rainy season on Phu Quoc, during the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere – although the rain is intermittent rather than constant.
On another clear day, I jumped aboard a John’s Island Tours boat to explore the islands to the south of Phu Quoc. Along the way, I caught a few fish, went snorkelling at colourful coral reefs and gorged on a feast of seafood, all freshly prepared: grilled prawns, squid and sea urchin lightly toasted and topped with peanuts – a Phu Quoc speciality. Much of the food was caught fresh and served only a few minutes later. It was accompanied by that divine Vietnamese green chilli sauce – a novelty to me and my favourite discovery on Phu Quoc.
The JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay seems determined to send its guests home a few kilos heavier. The resort has five places to eat, serving many kinds of cuisine. Tempus Fugit is open all day. The menu offers flavours from Vietnam, Japan and France. The high ceilings and wide windows give the place an atmosphere of cool comfort. French & Co is a bakery and cafe which is great for a quick bite. Simply inhaling the aroma of baking and seeing the sight of the resplendent croissants and pastries gives you a keener perception of what joie de vivre is.
Dining on Phu Quoc is at its most delightful at Red Rum, a bustling alfresco grill on the beach. There, succulent seafood comes with freshly made salads and sparkling wines. The executive chef, Satoru Takeuchi, is well versed in French cuisine. Working at the Park Hyatt Chicago hotel gave Takeuchi a wealth of experience and finely honed his expertise. Another place to eat, Pink Pearl, will specialise in Cantonese food. It is due to open shortly.
No description can do justice to the serenity of the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay. Over the next few years it is bound to become the getaway of choice for those itching to escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. Make a point of enrolling as soon as you can for a term at this university of leisure.
This article originally ran in the September 2017 issue of #legend magazine.