Critiques

Luxury Legends: Do Aman Resorts Live Up to the Hype?

The best luxury hotels and resorts in the world, in the most incredible locations. That’s how people who have visited them describe Aman properties. That is, if you can get someone to talk about them – Aman is still a bit of an insider secret. The hotels do not advertise, they have no loyalty program, and rates average $1,400 per night for a basic room (they can climb to $50,000 per night.)

We’d traveled the world extensively for years, but we had never heard the Aman name until we started hanging around truly wealthy people a few years ago. Up until that point, we had fancied ourselves knowledgeable luxury travelers, well-versed in the nuances of the Four Seasons, the Ritz, the St. Regis, and the iconic grand dame hotels in major cities around the world. We thought we were totally in on whatever insider luxury hotel secrets there might be.

We were wrong.

First we heard a casual mention of the name “Aman” in passing in a conversation with colleagues at work. Then we started hearing more people speak of it in reverential terms, as if it was some kind of secret private club that only a few people were supposed to know about. Finally, we demanded to know: “what is this Aman that you speak of?

We were kindly informed that Aman is a highly curated collection of hotel and resort properties, most located in remote iconic locations. Founded in 1988 by Indonesian hotelier Adrian Zecha, still privately owned and now London-based, Aman’s first property was built in Phuket. It immediately became the destination of choice for a certain kind of international elite clientele.

What drew that first crowd of global jet-setters is what keeps the “junkies” visiting the other Aman properties around the world (there are 31 of them now, in 20 countries in North America, Europe, and Asia.) Repeat guests constitute an estimated 50 percent of the brand’s global business annually, and the hotel maintains files on the preferences of returning guests (the better to anticipate and meet their every need).

The Aman hallmarks that we kept hearing about and reading about were extremely compelling:

–Stunning locations. The properties are selected to be “awe-inspiring,” and as a result, some are quite remote. The property in southern Utah is a four-hour drive from the closest commercial airport, as is the one in Greece. But the arduous journeys seem to be worth it – the photos from these locations are spectacular. And we’re guessing many guests arrive by private jet or helicopter anyway.

–World-class architecture and design. Each resort and hotel is meticulously designed to frame, rather than dominate, its natural surroundings. The minimalist aesthetic is intended to make guests feel as if they’re at the home of a wealthy, tasteful and gracious friend (one with a rather large household staff.) Nothing about these hotels and resorts is meant to feel “commercial.”

–Small-scale and private. Most of the properties have fewer than 40 rooms, and staff members are prohibited from discussing if a famous person is on the property.

–Spacious, well-appointed rooms. They’re all “suites,” with ample space indoors and out, and state-of-the art baths and tech-driven amenities.

–Excellent spas and wellness programs. Inherent in the brand’s DNA is the concept of harmony, balance and spiritual well-being. As a result, the Aman Wellness program is becoming an even larger element of each property, offering bespoke individual and group wellness itineraries.

–Impeccable service. Anyone who has stayed there will tell you (repeatedly, and occasionally ad nauseum) that Aman properties offer exquisitely tailored personal service.

“Aman” means “peace” in Sanskrit, and each property was originally named “Aman-something” — for example, Amanusa means peaceful island, Amandari means peaceful spirits, Amanyara means peaceful place. To us, this all seemed a bit twee and precious, and use of this nomenclature has lessened a bit as the group has expanded — perhaps there were an insufficient number of anodyne nouns left. In any case, the new urban properties – starting with 2014’s opening of Aman Tokyo – are referred to simply by their locations.

And the locations are truly incredible: one property is on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing; another is comprised of a series of 5 lodges in central and western Bhutan; a third is located in a 300-year old colonial structure in Sri Lanka in the middle of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

All of this intrigued us. So when the irresistible urge to head west hit us a few weeks ago, and we decided to take a somewhat spontaneous trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, it seemed the ideal time to see what all the fuss was about. We booked a 5-night stay at the Aman resort there – it’s called Amangani (peaceful home.)

Did our first Aman visit live up to the hype? Oh yes, dear readers, it did.

Our Amangani experience began before we left home – we were sent a list of all the activities on offer at the hotel and in the surrounding area, and it was basically overwhelming. We could have doubled the length of our visit and still not experienced it all. Still, choices had to be made, so we crafted our itinerary with the concierge: National Park visits, spa treatments, horse-back riding and a trip down the Snake River. The concierge even us gave us some packing tips.

We were met at the Jackson Hole airport by a representative from the resort, who regaled us with stories about the area on the 20-minute drive to the hotel. Upon arrival, the general manager was there to greet us by name and personally introduce us to his team. We took a tour of the property, and then were officially checked into the hotel in the privacy of our room.

What does Amangani look like, you say?

I would describe its decor as channeling the aesthetics of the film “Seven Samurai” — a sleek mashup of the Old West and Japan. Lots of exposed wood, brown and grey fur pelts on the chairs, black patio umbrellas at the pool, and lots of metal, stone and wicker. The two-story main lobby is mostly glass, and perfectly frames the stunning view of the Tetons and the Jackson valley. The wide central staircase leads to an expansive two-level outdoor terrace. The upper level is for sunset cocktails and dining – the lower level features an infinity pool. Design elements give it the feel of a private home: there’s a game room and a well-stocked library with a curated collection of books. It’s surprisingly informal in many ways – we read after our visit that the design goal is “relaxed elegance.”

Mission accomplished. It’s definitely unlike any hotel we’ve ever stayed in.

On the downside, some elements of the rooms are over-hyped, at least in our view. Every room is called a “suite,” but these are not really suites – at any other hotel they might generously be referred to as junior suites, or they might just be called “deluxe rooms.” They’re large, but there’s only one room: it doubles as both bedroom and living room. It sports state-of-the-art amenities, as promised, including a Dyson fan and Somify automatic window blinds.

What was a bit disappointing about the bedroom was made up for by the bath – it’s almost as large as the bedroom/living room, and the design is fantastic: stall shower, sunken tub, two vanities and ample closet space and drawers for two people. Other pluses? Each “suite” has a fireplace and either a private terrace or balcony (the property has two stories of guest rooms.) We had a stone terrace with two chairs, a cocktail table and a killer view of the valley below.

These “suites” were clearly designed with wealthy couples in mind. If you’re traveling en famille, you’re going to need at least two of them. Or you can opt for one of the free-standing houses at Amangani, which have 2-4 bedrooms each and share all of the amenities of the main hotel building.

What about the rest of the experience – the service, the spa, the food, the other guests? All good. All great, actually.

On our arrival day, we decided to stay at the hotel and not venture out. So we gravitated to the game room, and I quickly found the chair that I planned to stake out as mine for the duration of our stay – nestled near the bookshelves and out of the heat of the sunlight streaming through the oversized picture windows.

Within 5 minutes of settling in, a staff member arrived, bringing iced tea and cookies. We hadn’t asked for them – we hadn’t even known we wanted them until they arrived. This pattern repeated itself through our stay – whenever we sat down anywhere in the common areas, within only a couple of minutes a staff member either asked us if we wanted something to eat or drink, or just brought us something to eat and drink unsolicited.

Here’s the moment it started to dawn on us that we were in a special place: we realized that our tall frosty glasses of iced tea had ice cubes made of tea so that as they melted, the drink would not get diluted. As we cracked open our books and leaned back in our chairs, instrumental jazz music began playing overhead. Apparently, we had just checked into heaven.

We had dinner at Amangani’s dining room on our first evening, fully intending to head into Jackson Hole for the other evenings during our stay. Then a dilemma emerged: the food was so delicious, and the wait staff so sweet, that we seriously considered becoming hermits and taking all our meals at the hotel. The beef served is from the cattle ranch located just below the resort (pasture to table), and the trout served is fresh from the Idaho River. The desserts are fantastic (we highly recommend the apple crisp and the “tuxedo” chocolate mousse.) Part of what makes the hotel feel like a private home is that you’re never asked to sign for anything – when you finish a meal, you leave at your leisure, and the charge ends up on your final bill. No tipping is allowed.

Breakfast is included in the room rate, and since most mornings we were up and out before dawn, we were treated to the hotel’s “takeaway” breakfast: hot strong coffee and freshly-baked muffins and pastries still warm from the oven. Are you kidding? At that point, we decided that we wanted to live there. Like forever. Guests can dine at any time of day, pretty well anywhere at the resort. Many of our fellow guests took their meals at tables on the outdoor terrace, or poolside.

In the interests of full reporting, of course we had to check out the spa. It’s small and serene, and we had an outstanding facial and hot-stone massage. There are yoga classes and a small but well-equipped fitness center adjacent to the spa and the pool.

Other small things that added up to a truly luxurious experience at Amangani? Our requested daily newspapers were always delivered on time. The staff seemed genuinely interested in knowing our names and anticipating how they could help us. There’s live folk music in the lobby lounge on the weekends. The excursions the hotel planned for us were excellent; the vendors they used were knowledgeable and professional.

Of course there were little misses (like bringing hot milk when I asked for cold for my coffee); and some of Amangani’s offerings are frankly overpriced (if you order a takeaway lunch to consume while touring the nearby area, it’ll cost $30 per person for a perfectly fine but not life-changing sandwich and a beverage). Should you choose to buy an Amangani baseball cap (in either black or taupe) it will run you $25.

But on balance, we say “thumbs up.” Anytime we heard a fellow guest raise an issue, it was immediately and cheerfully addressed. The staff is young and very eager to please. The morning wake-up call transmitted by the phone on the bedside table is the gentlest one I have ever heard. At dusk, it’s delightful to just watch the sunset from your private terrace, with only the sounds of lowing cows and twittering birds to distract you from your thoughts.

For comparison’s sake, we stopped by the Four Seasons Jackson Hole in Teton Village to see what it was like. It was pretty great from everything we could see: it’s large and gorgeously decorated, and the exemplary Four Seasons service level is apparent from the moment you enter the lobby. Having asked a few friends, the consensus seems to be that in winter, if you’re skiing, you’re going to be happier at the Four Seasons Jackson Hole, which is truly ski-in, ski-out.

But in the summer, you might be best served by Amangani — a perch from which to explore all of the summer activities available in the mountains and valleys — or not. As you like. It’s a hilltop retreat far away from the frenzy. You could happily just hole up and not actually spend much time in Jackson Hole (pun fully intended).

As for Aman resorts overall? The inside view from those who have stayed at multiple properties is that the ones based in Asia are more special than the newer ones in other regions. The collection in Bali gets raves from lots of people. One of my fellow guests at Amangani (a chic New Yorker) highly recommended the Aman in Turks and Caicos. Those who have stayed at the one in Tokyo lament that it lacks the local personality of the more remote resort locations.

As it approaches its 30th anniversary next year, the Aman group seems to be at a turning point — seeking rapid growth while maintaining the unique core essence of the brand. The jury is still out on whether or not that will be possible.

Growth plans include building new properties sufficiently close to the existing ones that travelers can do a “circuit” of Aman properties in a given country, allowing them to experience the local culture fully without so many of the hassles of changing hotels. There will also be a new culinary concept to capitalize on the growing global population of traveling foodies. It will start with the opening of a new Japanese restaurant, Nama, at the original Amanpuri resort on Phuket.

Watch this space for updates on how all of that turns out. In the meantime, without question, it’s worth trying an Aman property if you haven’t. For the right trip at the right time, it could be an answered prayer.

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