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Where are Asia's grandest design-inspired hotels and lodges?

Chinmay Vasavada By Chinmay Vasavada
30 Nov 2021
Vietnam exterior architecture - Hotel de Coupole Sapa-.jpg

Those of you who have already travelled to Asia would know that it is a land of great contrasts and diversity. Its rapidly changing social and economic outlooks have not altered people’s unwavering belief in ancient cultural traditions. This unique harmony is reflected in all aspects of daily life from food and fashion to architecture and education.

Following our recent feature on Africa’s top ‘Grand Design’ safari properties, I have put together a list of some of my favourite design- and art-inspired luxury hotels and resorts that would be wonderful places to stay on your vacation in Asia.

The properties that I have featured below brilliantly showcase Asia’s tremendous zeal for modernity combined with its rich cultural heritage. As very aptly described by Norman Foster, “As an architect, you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown”.

 


Okcs Retreat Setouchi Aonagi, Matsuyama, Japan

Originally designed as a private guesthouse and later converted into a small contemporary art museum, okcs Retreat Setouchi Aonagi was officially launched as a small luxury hotel in December 2015. Designed by Tadao Ando and located on the outskirts of Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, this architectural masterpiece overlooks Seto Inland Sea and celebrates the region’s pristine natural beauty complemented by sublime minimalist luxury.

A self-taught and pioneering architect, Tadao Ando has been a figurehead of Japanese contemporary architecture for over four decades. The hotel features just seven suites with floor-to-ceiling windows affording gorgeous views, designer wood furnishings, and exquisite artworks by Japanese and international artists such as Rieko Kawabe and Frank Stella. There are two pools, a hot spring jacuzzi, a sauna, a dining room, a spa, and an art gallery.

 


If, like me, you are keen on seeing culture and architecture during your holiday, you will love Matsuyama! There is Matsuyama Castle built on top of a steep hill in the heart of the city, which is one of Japan’s twelve “original castles”; Saka no Ue no Kumo Museum, which is designed by Tadao Ando and based on a famous novel written by Ryōtarō Shiba; Ishiteji Temple – a national treasure thought to have been first built in the year 728; and the legendary Dogo Onsen Honkan – a magnificent multi-story wooden bathhouse, which is believed to have been in use for over 1,000 years, making it the oldest onsen in Japan.

 


For the fans of Studio Ghibli animation films, the bathhouse featured in Hayao Miyazaki’s Oscar-winning film ‘Spirited Away’ is based on Dogo Onsen. Furthermore, to delve into the realm of Japanese arts and crafts, I would highly recommend visiting Uchiko, which thrived from late Edo period through Meiji era as the centre of traditional wax and papermaking.

There is also a beautiful wooden theatre where popular performances of Kabuki, Bunraku and Rakugo used to be staged. The town’s old quarter with white quaint merchant houses exudes traditional charm and is still reminiscent of its glorious past.

 


Shinta Mani Wild, Cardamom Mountains, Cambodia

Designed by the famous American architect and designer Bill Bensley, Shinta Mani Wild is an ultra-luxury eco-camp offering an exclusive and most authentic glamping safari experience focused on nature and wildlife conservation in one of Cambodia’s remotest corners.

Located in a pristine 865-acre private concession connecting the Bokor National Park and Kirirom National Park on the southern border of the Cardamom National Forest, Shinta Mani Wild consists of 15 custom-designed, uber-chic tents set along 1.5 kilometres of river and waterfalls with plush accommodations and unparalleled views.

 


Since the beginning, Bensley’s core mission has been to protect this beautiful forest from illegal logging and poaching activities. The camp works in close partnership with Wildlife Alliance and the profits generated by your vacation at Shinta Mani Wild fund a dedicated ranger station in the park.

Guests are encouraged to join the rangers in anti-poaching and anti-logging patrols, removal of snares, setting up of camera traps, and catching and rehabilitation of vulnerable animals, allowing an in-depth insight into the regional flora and fauna, as well as making the whole experience thoroughly meaningful and sustainable.

 


This is one of my favourite hidden gems in Cambodia and it is a must-visit destination for active and intrepid travellers looking for amazing outdoor adventures. From birdwatching, expedition boats on the river, foraging and cooking, hiking, and mountain biking to picnics at waterfalls, sustainable fishing, kayaking, and ziplining – you will get to immerse yourself in one of Southeast Asia’s finest wilderness experiences well away from the touristy trails of Siem Reap and Phnom Penh.

Rosewood Luang Prabang, Laos

Another marvellous sanctuary created by Bill Bensley, Rosewood’s first resort in Laos is located on the outskirts of the historic town of Luang Prabang – a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Staying true to Laos' ancient and more recent heritage, the resort is adorned with a fabulous fusion of traditional Laotian and French colonial elements.

 


There are 23 rooms including unique hilltop tents overlooking the lush mountains that offer a one-of-a-kind “glamping” experience. There is a gorgeous outdoor swimming pool, two restaurants, a spa and a former elephant bridge that has been converted into a cosy bar. It’s incredibly serene and relaxing.

Laos is full of serendipity no matter which corner you travel to, and like Bhutan, it is one of Asia’s least populated countries. It is also one of the most underrated destinations, which means it has remained relatively untouched by the masses of tourists that flock neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

 


Meaning the ‘Land of a Million Elephants’, this ancient royal settlement has an irresistible regal charm and idyllic vibe to it that I find totally captivating. I could happily spend days in Luang Prabang admiring its beautiful tapestry of French colonial and traditional Laotian architecture; gorging on sumptuous local cuisine – my favourites are sticky rice, vegetable curry and green papaya salad; meandering through the lush countryside; and taking leisurely boat rides on the Mekong discovering historic cave complexes and beautiful rural communities.

 


Oh, and did I mention café Laos? If you like your coffee strong and full-bodied, you will love Laos coffee, which is traditionally brewed in a cloth filter sock. If you are feeling adventurous, you can also have it the way the locals do with a generous lashing of condensed milk!

One of my favourite memories of my own holiday in Luang Prabang is the sight of Buddhist monks dressed in saffron-coloured robes walking against a backdrop of white and wooden buildings collecting alms offered by local devotees. This early morning tradition has been continuing since time immemorial and it is a profoundly spiritual experience.

 


Hotel Keyforest Hokuto, Kobuchizawa, Japan

Nestled in the foothills of the Japanese Alps between the provinces of Yamanashi and Nagano, Kobuchizawa offers an unrivalled travel experience focused on art and nature. Just a two-hour train ride from Tokyo, this region is home to stunning natural scenery, ancient Jomon heritage, and a truly extraordinary project that celebrates harmonious amalgamation of opposing elements (how very Japanese!), such as ‘architecture and nature’ and ‘contemporary and ancient’- incredibly surreal yet delightfully complementary!

Designed by the famous Japanese architect Atsushi Kitagawara, Hotel Keyforest Hokuto is part of a private complex that houses the superb Nakamura Keith Haring Collection – the only museum in the world dedicated to the works of the famous New York street artist from the ‘80s. The museum and hotel are owned by Nakamura Kazuo, who has been collecting Keith Haring’s works since 1987 and now has more than 190 pieces.

 


The hotel features six spacious and well-appointed rooms, each named after the key natural elements from Woshite Bunken, an ancient manuscript written in the language of the Jomon people, which is believed to be the origin of the Japanese language. The post-modernist design of the hotel stands out against the pristine forest backdrop with inspirations from Jomon culture and local natural elements masterfully incorporated.

Beyond the hotel and museum, Kobuchizawa is a nature-lover’s paradise, and its lush forest setting offers abundant opportunities for an active holiday with hiking and horse riding. There are several villages nearby where you could spend time with expert artisans or indulge in immersive cooking classes with local families.

 


For those with a taste for whiskey, Kobuchizawa is home to the award-winning Suntory Hakushu Distillery. Matsumoto with its beautiful castle, amazing museums – Japan Ukiyo-e Museum features world’s largest collection of Japanese woodblock prints, and wasabi farms is just an hour away.

The Opposite House, Beijing, China

Another Asian behemoth that is pushing the boundaries in terms of contemporary design and architecture is China. Bold and exciting - one of my favourite art- and design-inspired hotels in the country is The Opposite House in Beijing. This year, Travel + Leisure has ranked it 3rd on its list of the world’s top 100 hotels and as number 1 in China.

 


Aptly described as the “House of Art”, the hotel is located in the capital’s trendiest neighbourhood of Sanlitun and is designed as a contemporary art gallery, showcasing the work of exciting regional and international artists as well as pop-ups for fashion brands. Brainchild of acclaimed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, the hotel features an iconic emerald glass exterior, an airy atrium where rotating art exhibitions are presented each season under monumental drapes that create a screen of light, and an imaginative Origami installation in the lobby serving as the main reception wall.

 


The hotel consists of 99 guest studios including nine suites and a penthouse duplex with a large roof terrace. There is a stunning 22-metre stainless steel indoor swimming pool in the basement with overhanging fibre optic stars. You would feel as if you were swimming under a starlit sky!

Beijing is filled with historic marvels and UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Whether you wish to hike on the majestic ramparts of the Great Wall and indulge in a sublime champagne lunch with hardly another soul in sight; learn the art of Tai chi from a local master in the serene gardens of the Temple of Heaven; enjoy exclusive access to parts of the iconic Forbidden City and Summer Palace; mingle with delightful locals in the city’s ancient hutongs; discover avant-garde exhibitions at 798 Art District accompanied by a local artist; or indulge in superb culinary flair at award-winning restaurants – Beijing is without a doubt one of Asia’s most striking capitals.

 


Hotel De La Coupole, Sapa, Vietnam

Yet another feather in Bensley’s cap, Hotel De La Coupole oozes glamour and sophistication. Inspired by French haute-couture from the classic French Indochine era as well as Sapa’s ethnic hill-tribe heritage, the hotel’s extravagant and dazzling interiors juxtaposed against emerald, green rice paddies and lush mountainous landscape create a truly fascinating feast for the senses.

There are 249 luxurious rooms and suites featuring bold colours, playful design and art deco elements. One of the star features of the hotel is its heated indoor swimming pool surrounded by jade green marble columns, bronze statues, and pink chandeliers. Lounging by the pool, you would feel as if you have entered an Art Nouveau painting!

 


To me Sapa is all about its stunning landscapes, superb hiking and trekking, and intriguing hill-tribe culture. The French used to call it the ‘Tonkinese Alps’ and although it has become a rather popular tourist destination due to easy access from Hanoi, it still offers incredibly immersive and authentic opportunities to discover along with world-class accommodation options.

Hotel De La Coupole offers direct access to the Fansipan Legend Cable Car, which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest non-stop three-rope cable car. Beyond the main town, you could spend your time visiting remote ethnic hill-tribe communities and their traditional markets, or even embark on a multiple-day trek staying in simple village homes and guesthouses.

 


I would highly recommend visiting Bac Ha’s Sunday market, which is the largest ethnic market in the region and an excellent place to admire people from various ethnic communities dressed in their colourful attires. It’s a real feast for photographers!

Wild Coast Lodge, Yala, Sri Lanka

Set on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, close to renowned Yala National Park, Resplendent Ceylon’s Wild Coast Tented Lodge is one of the most unique and imaginative camps in South Asia. Designed by Netherlands based Nomadic Resorts and Bo Reudler Studio, the camp’s design and architecture are inspired by Yala’s unique natural attributes including its dense dryland forest that merges into rugged boulder strewn coastline.

 


The luxury eco-camp is built using sensitively selected natural materials and features 36 safari-style tents that resemble the rocks and boulders on the beach. Also, the camp’s layout resembles the shape of a leopard’s paw print, which celebrates Yala’s most famous resident.

The camp’s central feature is its enormous open-air bar and dining pavilion made of bamboo that wraps around the gorgeous free-form swimming pool overlooking the golden sandy beach that is often roamed by wild elephants. The sound of the waves crashing on the rocks and boulders is simply entrancing!

 


Besides 4x4 game drives in the national park, the camp’s expert naturalists can take you on guided nature walks, rural bike explorations, birdwatching explorations at a nearby Ramsar Wetland in Bundala National Park, or to the excellent Elephant Transit Home at Uda Walawe National Park. You could also indulge in bespoke culinary experiences and relaxing spa treatments when you feel like taking a break from the outdoor activities.

Capella Hanoi, Hanoi, Vietnam

One of Hanoi’s landmarks is the beautiful Opera House built by the French in 1911. At the time, it was considered to be the finest opera house in Southeast Asia and various visiting artists have performed here during the French colonial era. Capella Hanoi pays tribute to this rich legacy.

 


Created by Bill Bensley, the hotel has been imagined as “Une Petite Auberge”, which could have been a coveted rendezvous spot for opera’s greatest artists after the final curtain call. There are 47 rooms and suites adorned with historical opera ornaments and portraiture art by Kate Spencer that would transport you back to the glorious era. The hotel features an ultra-modern all season swimming pool and a beautiful spa featuring regal Vietnamese imperial décor.

Centrally located close to the Opera House, Capella Hanoi is an excellent base to experience Hanoi’s traditional charm. One of my favourite things to do when visiting the city is to meander through the congested streets of the Old Quarter, which is made up of many streets specialising in traditional crafts, and people-watching whilst enjoying a refreshing pint of a local craft beer or Vietnamese iced coffee.

 


If you are an early riser, you could join the locals in a park in their Tai Chi and aerobics routine followed by a traditional breakfast of pho, bun cha or congee. For a touch of history, visit the Temple of Literature – Vietnam’s first university established in 1076, picturesque Ngoc Son Temple, and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which is modelled after Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow.

Hanoi’s contemporary art scene is also exciting and there are superb art galleries in the city that feature well-known local and regional artists.

 


Six Senses Bumthang, Bumthang, Bhutan

Inspired by surrounding blue pine forests, and set in the spiritual heart of Bhutan, Six Senses Bumthang has earned the nickname of ‘Forest within a Forest’. Designed by Bangkok based Habitat Architects, the lodge has beautifully incorporated its pristine natural elements into its sensitively designed wooden structures, with living pine trees growing through the arrival deck and each of the eight suites and the two-bedroom villa featuring its own courtyard with a pine tree planted in the centre.

Furthermore, the guestrooms have a large outdoor deck that acts as an extension of the forest providing an exceptionally immersive experience. Wood is a major feature on the inside too taking on different forms in random patterns, as found in nature. Furthermore, the rugs take inspiration from the foliage and flowers of the surrounding valleys.

 


Six Senses has a stellar reputation when it comes to sustainability and nature conservation. This is reflected in each and every aspect of the lodge from its design and architecture to the way they manage energy and water usage, disposal and treatment of waste, sourcing of local produce, and the way they engage with the local community.

Bumthang is one of my favourite places in Bhutan. Boasting some of the most historic monasteries and sacred temples, it is also one of the remotest valleys, as it was only accessible by horse or on foot until the 1970s.

Besides the cultural highlights such as the mighty Jakar Dzong – the largest fortress in Bhutan, and Wangdicholing Palace – the former residence of the royal family, the four valleys surrounding Bumthang offer amazing opportunities for trekking and hiking on your vacation to Bhutan. If you feel like a refreshing pint, head to the Red Panda Brewery where you can enjoy a tour and tasting of Bhutan’s oldest microbrewery – the Red Panda Brewery.

 


Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace, Hampi, India

Surreal and mesmerising, Hampi in South India is an open museum of architecture, history and culture unlike anywhere else in Asia. It is a fantastical place where magnificent palaces, temples and ancient city ruins are scattered amidst a stunning landscape of lush green paddy fields, banana plantations and palm groves splashed between heaps of giant boulders that are thought to be among the oldest on our planet. Since my very first visit more than a decade ago, I have remained utterly awestruck by Hampi’s scale and beauty.

Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace, envisioned by the group’s managing director George Ramapuram, pays homage to this UNESCO World Heritage Site, which used to be the capital of the 14th century Vijayanagara Empire, and allows you to experience Hampi’s charm and splendour from its halcyon days.

 


The resort’s fort like entrance is inspired by Hampi’s Anegundi Fort; the main driveway resembles the cobbled boulevards leading to ancient temples; regal interiors reflect inspirations from various local monuments, especially the Royal Enclosure and the Queens Quarters, featuring Indo-Islamic style arches, water features and open-to-sky central courtyards; and the boundary walls are modelled after the seven stone walls that provided the fortification of the ancient capital.

Also, the building housing the lounge and spa resembles the beautiful monument of Lotus Mahal. There are 46 guestrooms in total including 37 suites and 9 private pool villas.

 


The best way to enjoy Hampi as part of your holiday to India is to explore on foot. There are incredible trails combining magnificent monuments with sublime natural scenery, as well as quality birdwatching on the backwaters of Tungabhadra River. For a deeper insight into the area’s history and archaeological conservation, I would highly recommend visiting Kaladham, a small museum set up by two local historians who have spent years researching and documenting the ruins using modern interactive technologies and panoramic 3D photography.

 


Patina Maldives, Fari Islands, Maldives

As one of the world’s finest and most exclusive private island destinations, the Maldives is not short of uber-trendy resorts. Designed by renowned Brazilian architect Marcio Kogan, Patina Maldives is one of the most exciting new additions to the archipelago’s boutique luxury resort space. Set in the Fari Islands in North Male Atoll, this unique resort is a part of an extraordinary concept that celebrates nature, craft and connection.

Accessed by a 45-minute private speedboat transfer from Male’s international airport, Patina Maldives features 90 exquisitely appointed one-, two- and three-bedroom beach and water villas, as well as 20 Fari Studios. There is everything here that you would expect to find in a five-star luxury resort, including a superb wellness centre, two outdoor swimming pools and a cutting-edge trimaran called Adastra that looks like a vessel straight out of a futuristic sci-fi film!

 


Furthermore, guests staying at Patina have access to the Fari Marina Village, which is also open to guests from the other two resorts in Fari Islands archipelago – Capella and Ritz-Carlton, offering an extraordinary choice of lifestyle, art and gastronomic experiences in spaces designed by illustrious architects including Kengo Kuma, Kerry Hill Architects and Marcio Kogan.

Art is an intrinsic part of the Patina and Fari Islands concept. Wherever you look, you will witness a fine theatre of intriguing works of art interacting with core natural elements of light, space and water, stimulating your creative energy and creating a deeper sense of belonging. It’s one of the finest luxury resorts for the creatively inclined and those looking for a chic, contemporary retreat.

 


The Maldives is hard to beat for water sports and underwater adventures. It is one of the finest snorkelling and scuba diving destinations in the world with access to thriving coral reefs and an incredibly rich marine biodiversity. At Patina, you can immerse yourself in highly engaging experiences focused on ocean conservancy and enrichment.

Whether you want to seed coral reefs or adopt a sea turtle; go big game fishing, night snorkelling or scuba diving; sail into the romantic Maldivian sunset with a glass of champagne in your hand; or enjoy an idyllic castaway experience on a deserted island – Patina’s 5-star PADI certified dive centre staff can tailor a huge range of experiences to suit your particular requirements. On land, you could relax on the stunning beach and enjoy an extensive range of expertly curated experiences focused on art, music, wellness and food.

 


Please do feel free to get in touch with me to discuss any of these design properties or indeed to find out more about any of the locations mentioned here. I would be delighted to chat to you. You can also find out more about luxury holidays and safaris to Africa, Latin America or the Polar Regions, or, if you would just like to dream for now you can do so by visiting our Video Library.

Images by kind courtesy of: Six Senses Bhutan, Shinta Mani Wild and Elise Hassey, The Opposite House, Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace, Setouchi Aonagi, Keyforest Hokuto, Rosewood Hotels, Patina Maldives, Wild Coast Lodge, Capella Hanoi, Hotel de Coupole Sapa.

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