Thailand has been capturing the imagination of travellers for years now, and Chiang Mai, in the North of the country, is a popular spot due to its gorgeous temples, rich culture and buzzing atmosphere. Here, Rebecca Anne Milford finds a mecca of serenity for those looking to relax and rebalance.
As soon as you step into the foyer of the Anantara Hotel, tranquility envelops you. It is as if you have plunged, hot and dusty, into a pool of sparkling water, only to emerge into a cool and hidden glade. The bustle and business of Chiang Mai centre seems a world away as you move further into the oasis of Zen-like calm.
There is no doubt that Chiang Mai is a wonderful city, but it can also be chaotic and overwhelming. This is why Anantara have created this ‘urban retreat’ – a place to unwind and rebalance in the midst of Northern Thailand, while still retaining the captivating allure of South East Asia.
On entry, the design is distinctly contemporary-Japanese – dark beams of wood look stunning against the soothing white walls; there are low sofas in deep, chocolate browns; exotic and striking leaf prints catch the eye; and a shimmering lily pond glints in the sun as one sits in the lobby.
It is a place to exhale. To collapse onto a couch, close your eyes for a moment, and smile at the beauty that surrounds you. I have never had such a strong sensation of instantly unwinding upon stepping into a hotel, and the peace is extraordinary.
The service and standard of commitment to guests is evident upon arrival – a beautifully smart young lady hands me a tray laden with a damp towel to cool down (necessary after the muggy heat from which I’ve just escaped), a sweet puffed rice snack, and a little glass containing butterfly pea water, which, when lime is added, turns from a light blue to a glorious lavender. I soon realise this quirky attention to detail will be something that Anantara excels and takes pride in.
A Sanctuary Amidst the City
The resort, although it seems compact, is actually far larger than it appears – it unfolds like an intricate piece of Japanese origami, and reveals a fitness centre, two restaurants, the turquoise rectangle of an outdoor pool that rests a stone’s throw from the Ping river, and the stunning spa. This refuge of wellness has a soporific effect as soon as you enter – the heady scent of incense will make you want to sink onto one of their massage tables, or step into the rose-flecked water in the impressive ebony-hued jacuzzi. It is no wonder people flock to Anantara spa for its cleansing attributes – there are special guests who speak on all elements of wellness, and programmes that promise to detox and revitalise. In fact, finding ones inner equilibrium seems to be the aim here – everything has been considered, such as the double enterance doors to rooms that shield guests from any traffic noise.
I am shown to my particular room via long corridors of calming white, my shoes tapping against cool stone flooring as the faint sounds of the city filter through wooden lattices. When evening descends the glow of Japanese paper lanterns will shed their butter-yellow glow across the scene, and the light from street-lamps will shine through those same lattices, making intricate shadow patterns on the wall.
My room is beautiful. A snowy white bed dominates the scene (it is ridiculously comfortable, FYI), and I’m further soothed by the earthy tones – warming wood, powder-grey walls, amber lamp shades, and touches of terracotta orange from the cushions and bathroom tiles. A balcony can be reached via the large sliding French Doors that flood the room with light, complete with daybed and table for taking tea or tiffin – the latter is provided in little stone pots. Once more I am put in mind of the Japanese art of Feng Shui – the room has every convenience without being cluttered, and the various spaces (bathroom, bedroom, lounge area) all flow into one another seamlessly. The doors and panels slide with a smooth precision, and everything in here is tailored exacty for ease and comfort – it makes me think of the assuring care of a very competent butler. Once more, relaxation reigns supreme at Anantara.
Eating in the secret service
The Service 1921 is, quite simply, extraordinary. I don’t think words will be able to convey the pure, theatrical joy that comes from dining here. It is not just a meal – it is an event, one that you will most likely never have encountered before.
The attention to detail is staggering. From the moment you step onto the original floor tiles and are greeted by a lady wearing a silken evening gown, the immersive theatre has begun. The theme itself comes from the original building – a glorious colonial house that was opened in 1921 as the British Consulate of Chiang Mai. It was a time of society gatherings, parties for the English royalty, croquet on the lawns, and wave upon wave of elegant visitors. This evocative, enthralling period is given an extra frisson of excitement as Anantara imagine what it would have been like with the undercurrent of secret service intelligence gathering. The result? A quirky and fabulous fictitious reinvention that encapsulates the very best of east and west.
Ascend the steps onto a wide veranda, where tropical breezes blow fragrant scents from the surrounding garden, and the lulling chips of cicadas near the Ping river make for a wonderful evening sonnet. Visitors can sit outside, or choose to move into the dining room – a private area is accessed via a door hidden in a bookcase, no less.
On top of that, the waiting staff all wear costumes from the 1920s, write down your order in an era-appropriate pocket book, and the menu (for your eyes only) is delivered in an intriguing manilla envelope with Top Secret stamped across it.
It’s all hugely thrilling, and that’s before you even get to the food.
Cocktails by Dr X
Anantara embraces a number of things – colonial quirks and a love of storytelling, as well as a desire to imbue a sense of complete relaxation in guests. Whether you are enjoying their famous afternoon tea on the decking beneath whirring fans, or taking a dip in the pool, the whole place is geared solely towards the utter comfort of visitors.
This dedication is what I love about Anantara, and is epitomised in the many events they hold for their guests. From wine tastings to fashion shows, specialist curry evenings to themed James-Bond nights, the mixture of fun and class is on point. Innovative, irreverent and masterful are the words I would use to summarise it all.
As the cooler season approaches, guests flock to the outside deck to enjoy cocktails and wine in the velvet evening. This is the image I will have of Anantara – of smiling, relaxed faces lit by the flickering of candlelight, shimmering like moths in the warm night air as the river flows past. Perhaps it is one of the popular themed nights and the ladies will be wearing fine gowns while the gentleman display bow ties; perhaps the Indian chefs are cooking a feast on the lawns. But one thing is for sure – each and every person present can forget, for now, about the chaos of the world, and rejoice in this little gem of escapism.