Bill Bensley’s newest resort in Vietnam is a re-education in luxury
The JW Marriott Emerald Bay takes us back to school in the paradise island of Phu Quoc
Vietnam. A nation of conical hats, chicken satay and backpackers, or that’s what's believed by many people. I too was guilty of such stereotyping, until a trip this summer changed my opinion for the better. I first visited Vietnam in 2007 as a young traveller. Armed with a rucksack and a map, I explored the mainland, hopping between guest houses and sleeper boats in my quest to ‘find myself ’ Eat, Pray, Love-style. 10 years later, I was invited to venture beyond the mainland to the island of Phu Quoc for a re-education that even Julia Roberts would have been envious of.
Phu Quoc island, a hidden gem in southern Vietnam, is where the rich and famous of Vietnam holiday. Lovingly known as the ‘pearl of the ocean’ in honour of its undeniable beauty, the island has, surprisingly, remained mostly untouched. It's home to just one luxury five-star hotel, the newly opened JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay. For now, the resort has a monopoly, but its opening has set in motion a change that'll see a multitude of high-end brands set sail for Phu Quoc's sandy shores in the coming years.
Arriving at the resort, we knew we were in for something special. Driving up the path we’re greeted by two giant dog figures and a greeting: ‘Welcome to Lamarck University’. It was immediately clear that this is no ordinary hotel. The resort was designed by Bill Bensley, an eccentric hotel designer behind wonders such as The Siam, a serene garden escape in the heart of bustling Bangkok, and the forthcoming Shinta Mani Wild, Cambodia’s first luxury eco-tent resort. Bensley famously only takes on a project if he is given an “unlimited” budget, and this is evident in the astonishing attention to detail that’s been paid as he brings to life his concept of a make-believe college.
Reality has been blended with fiction in a way that's so convincing that you could be forgiven for believing the elaborate stories that Bensley is selling. As he gives us a tour, pointing out the photographs and sports kits that line the walls, giving us anecdotes about the ‘classrooms’ we visit, and letting us in on little secrets – “the hotel manager is grandson of university’s founder, but he’s shy so don’t tell him you know”, he claims – I find myself asking, has he become the protagonist in his own story?
Home from home
The resort is organised into several ‘departments’. The Department of Physical Education houses the fitness centre. The Department of Mycology is home to the Chanterelle Spa by JW, a particularly whimsical space with a quirky ‘Alice in Wonderland’ theme. The Department of Chemistry is, meanwhile, the gastronomy hotspot of the resort and offers a delectable spread of fine and casual dining options – and an incredibly sleek ocean-facing cocktail bar.
Start the day with freshly baked pastries at French & Co or head to Tempus Fugit (meaning ‘time flies’) and lose yourself in an enormous buffet of international dishes, washed down with sweet Vietnamese coffee. When the sun goes down, you’re spoilt for choice. The fresh seafood BBQ at Red Rum is a firm favourite all round, while guests can also enjoy authentic Cantonese flavours in the opulent Pink Pearl, or small bites and opulent elixirs mixed by ‘chemists’ at the Department of Chemistry.
When it comes to ‘student halls’, accommodation is spectacular. Sea views, marble bathrooms and private terraces come at a minimum, while the private villas are something else. Each luxury villa has a different nature theme. From sea life and bugs to mammals and birds, every animal lover can find a villa to fulfill their fantasies. The most impressive villa, Lamarck House is scheduled to open in December and is set to be even more opulent. As well as a bathroom filled with $1m of marble, it will feature the longest private pool in Asia at 50 metres. and sits at the end of the bay in absolute privacy. If this is student living in Bensley’s world, sign me up for three more years.
Three blocks of rooms and suites, topped by stunning duplex apartments, overlook the Emerald Bay and the hotel’s garden and trio of infinity pools. The most striking pool lies in front of the Department of Concology and is shaped like a fanned shell – a silhouette that’s most impressive from the top floor penthouse.
Work hard, play harder
The resort is set along the Bai Khem beach, locally known as ‘ice cream beach’. Guests can spend the day relaxing on the private sandy shores and watching the wooden boats taking fishermen out to sea and visitors out on day trips. Those eager to be more active can take part in a generous choice of activities, or ‘lessons’. Presented in the format of a class schedule each week, options range from sunrise surf-yoga and Vo Viet Nam (A Vietnamese martial art) to traditional lantern making and cocktail mixology. There’s even a weekly Sports Day where guests can go head-to-head on the lifesize running track.
Those who can drag themselves away from the resort can join exclusive excursions, or ‘field trips’, around the island. From kayaking through the waterways of the national park and trekking in the forest, to Vietnamese fishing and trips to local farms, there’s a lot on offer. It’s clear that a trip to JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay is more than just a holiday, but an education in life. And with one of the world’s most creative interior designers on hand to add to its magic, the resort truly is a modern-day fairy tale come to life. It’s a place where Bensley is headmaster and we’re all the students participating in his fantastical game.
Currently, the best way to get to Phu Quoc from London is to fly with Vietnam Airlines to Ho Chi Min City and transfer to the island, where Bill Bensley awaits ready to usher in a new class of students eager for a lesson in luxury at Lamarck University.