Magical. There is no superlative that quite describes the experience that awaits the sophisticated traveller at ÀNI Thailand. And at an eye-watering price tag starting at USD$14,000 (S$19,007) a night, there’d better be some supernatural level of hospitality sorcery going on here.
Thankfully, ÀNI Thailand did not disappoint. In fact, it redefined luxury for this luxury lifestyle writer of more than 20 years.
After all, bells and whistles are de rigueur in certain echelons of luxury. Oceanfront villas? Exquisitely crafted fine dining meals? Gorgeous sunset cruises? Private yoga sessions on the beach? Check, check, check, and check.
Impressing ultra high net-worth individuals, however, is a high-skilled game reserved for those in the business of orchestrating happiness. And ÀNI accomplishes this with finesse.
As purveyors of private travel experiences, ÀNI Thailand is part of the ultra exclusive ÀNI collection of private resorts situated in some of the most remote corners of the earth. Sister properties include coastal estates in the Dominican Republic, Anguilla, and Sri Lanka. And there’s one common policy amongst all: Guests have to book out the entire resort, thus assuring you utmost exclusivity.
In short, ÀNI Thailand and its all-inclusive luxury proposition could be all yours for USD$14,000 a night for six villas and up to USD$32,000 per night for all 10 villas, depending on the season, for a minimum of five to seven nights.
A plush front row seat to nature’s beauty
From Phuket, we take a 30-minute boat ride to the comparably unspoiled Koh Yao Noi, which means ‘small long island’ in Thai, located midway between Phuket and Krabi. ÀNI hugs the island’s east coast, nestled in a two-acre property that opened in 2015.
We arrive after dusk, which proved a strategic move the morning after, as we wake up to resplendent sunshine and sweeping, soul-soothing views of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Phang Nga Bay.
There are two ocean villas, two family villas, and four pool suites on the lush, manicured grounds, each spanning between 980 and 1,044 sq ft and elegantly furnished in an inviting, contemporary aesthetic with a nod to the ancient Lanna architecture of Northern Thailand. Altogether, the villas accommodate between six and 20 guests.
Over the next five days, we are pampered in ways that are uncommon even at this level of luxury. With nary another holidaymaker in sight, this must be how rock stars and billionaires vacation, I imagine.
Cultural excursions for the rich
We are ferried around the island (population: 6,000) on a variety of private excursions designed as cultural immersion activities specially curated for the group. We visit a local fish conservation nursery, where I gamely pet a baby leopard shark and play with a real-life Patrick Star, braving its podia tickles on my palm, which later doubles as a pin cushion for the prickly spines of the pufferfish. Watching the blowfish deflate right before our very eyes, this is probably the most comically alien creature of the sea, I decide.
Afterwards, we meet Mah, the owner of a five-acre rubber tree plantation, and learn about how the locals make a livelihood from rubber tapping. Mah herself ‘taps’ 350 trees after midnight each day, as this is when the latex flows most bounteously. I give it a shot and soon after return her the curved jabong knife. Surely there’s an easier, automated way to do this?
One particularly dewy morning, we turn up to the resort’s courtyard to find a fleet of motorcycle sidecars waiting for us. We hop in and are happily transported to a rice paddy field in the middle of which ‘The Noodle Shop’ has been erected for us to enjoy an authentic local breakfast at sunrise.
Later that afternoon, we stop by the ÀNI Art Academies Thailand and discover the real origin story behind the ÀNI brand of private resorts.
It all began with a humble art academy founded by former Wall Street banker Tim Reynolds, himself a passionate artist and patron of the arts. The vision was to establish a non-profit art academy offering an intensive four-year fine arts programme based on the photorealism curriculum by Anthony Waichulis, an American contemporary artist who became the first trompe-l’œil painter to be granted Living Master status.
Founded to uplift local communities, the programme, as well as room and board, are offered without charge to students dedicated enough to persevere with the gruelling curriculum and adhere to the 30-hour a week training schedule. Talent is not a prerequisite, so long as students demonstrate the necessary commitment.
We previewed several awe-inspiring photorealistic works in progress during our short tour and were bowled over by the visual complexity of each piece, including a remarkable portrait of the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
The ÀNI resorts were therefore built within proximity of each academy as a way to introduce the artists’ work to the resorts’ wealthy tourists, and guests are encouraged to purchase art or commission paintings from the aspiring local artists in support of their craft.
Beyond the ordinary
It is this understanding that informs the ÀNI philosophy, and back at the resort, more experiences meticulously designed to extract surprise and delight await — every detail exacting in its artistry.
With a staff-to-guest ratio of one-to-one, the intuitive service goes well beyond the ordinary. By the second day, all the staff know you by name and remember your preferences, like how you like your coffee (or tea), even after just one encounter. Attentiveness appears to be the name of the game here in this borrowed slice of paradise.
When not imbibing tipples at the open bar or luxuriating by the 43-metre infinity pool, we partake in batik painting, sound bowl healing, and even Muay Thai boxing sessions, all facilitated by experts and veterans in their field who have come to guide our intimate group of nine.
Then, one night, we are ushered to the sandy shore of the private beach. A row of chairs beckons us to take a seat. Dragon, The Fire Juggler, enters the scene. A half hour later, we are left spellbound and speechless by the spectacular display of acrobatics, pyrotechnics, and flame-eating flair.
Curiously, we find ourselves craving some heat, and, conveniently, the ÀNI staff have reconstructed — from scratch — an elaborate Thai night market set-up, replete with individually-helmed cooking stations proffering various signature Thai dishes cooked for you on the spot, accompanied by a traditional Thai dance performance by young students for entertainment as we feast.
And they were only building up to the showstopper culminating on the last day. We gather on the beach once again, and this time, we board a traditional long-tail boat and sail off into the bay; the light patter of rain on our faces doing nothing to dampen our spirits as the emerald waters afford a salve to the grey skies above.
Finally, the boat approaches another majestic limestone formation, and, on the sliver of shore, we are greeted by the warm smiles of ÀNI staff who have grown to feel more like friends over the past week.
The team had gone ahead to transform the uninhabited Batang Island into a mini playground for us to revel in for the afternoon. But this is not your average picnic: The crew serves up a splendid three-course meal more evocative of the fine dining fare you find back home. Accompanied by a steady flow of champagne, the exquisite table setting impresses as much as the food — after which, you laze languorously, sunbathing under white umbrellas.The crew, always eager to ensure you are never wanting for joy, almost telepathically tops up your bubbly even before you realise you need a refresh. They say the devil is in the details but at ÀNI, the magic lives in the intangible. And the bubbles.