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Beth Weitzman | Photo: Christopher Cypert, Lee Jongkeun and Beth Weitzman | February 21, 2013
Fulfilling its luxurious Eastern promise, Korean Air’s elite-fleet standout, the A380, lands in Asia, where worldly indulgence emerges at The Ritz-Carlton, Seoul and Phulay Bay, the debut property in the new Ritz-Carlton Reserve portfolio.
There was certainly buzz surrounding the launch of Korean Air’s new AIRBUS A380 (koreanair.com). Even I, perennially in the sky, admit to having had steep anticipation for my trip aboard this megajet en route to Asia—our first stop was in Seoul, Korea, for 48 hours, then on to ultraluxe Phulay Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve (ritzcarltonreserve.com), the first property to debut in the Ritz-Carlton Reserve portfolio, located in Krabi, Thailand. Suffice it to say, the makings of a memorable trip are all there, and then some.
The first sign I’m in for a good flight is an ample preflight relaxation lineup at the Korean Air Business Class lounge; the second is revealed at boarding, when a hospitable Korean Air crew welcomes me up a spiral staircase to the A380 AIRBUS’ top-floor business class level. With only 94 seats in this section, it’s incredibly spacious. Once airborne, I kick back, living room-style, and relish unparalleled service; delicious meals and spirits; a unique, amenities-filled, duty-free showcase; an extensive media library; and full-recline seating.
Feeling great at 5:20pm touchdown in Korea, the only thing left on the agenda after check-in at The Ritz-Carlton, Seoul, located in the economic epicenter of South Korea, is dinner at authentic on-site Japanese eatery Hanazono. After indulging in succulently fresh sushi and seafood paired with worldly wines, I eagerly snuggle into one of The Ritz-Carlton’s famously comfortable beds.
Bright and early, after breakfast and before departing the 375-room hotel—comprised of 47 luxury hotel suites and 75 Club Level rooms—my group glimpses the property in full, including its impressive fifth-floor outdoor golf driving range with artificial turf and city views, along with an indoor practice facility. Its prime address also provides ideal proximity to the sights of Seoul.
Accompanied by The Ritz-Carlton hosts, we stop at the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple—the representative spiritual center of Korean Buddhism and the only traditional sanctuary in central Seoul (its welcoming Great Hero Hall is always open)—and, later, at Gyeongbokgung Palace, which hosts re-enactments of the ancient royal guard-changing ceremony, and the National Folk Museum of Korea.
Seoul is also exceedingly fashion-aware. I am delighted to find the shopping scene totally on trend. At main retailing district Myeongdong, familiar brands Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton join mega-department stores like Lotto and assorted dining and entertainment options (à la shop-after-shop Times Square). Equally buzzing are lively local markets teeming with authentic street food, artisan wares, locally designed clothing, endless knockoffs and more. And not too far away, as Korea’s largest wholesale and retail center, Dongdaemun Market (Great East Gate) boasts a whopping 26 shopping malls, 30,000 specialty shops and 50,000 manufacturers. Within 10 blocks, find a gamut of goods and many establishments open nearly 24 hours. As for dining, Seoul bursts with diverse possibilities—source vegetarian dishes at Sanchon and Korean fusion fare at Min’s Club.
Back at the hotel, indulgent dining options also await including bites from Cheehong, which alone has 12 private dining rooms in addition to one large dining hall. Here, Chinese dishes like Cantonese-style beef sirloin, Wok-fried chicken with cashew and other zesty selections top my seriously satisfying stay in Korea.
Next stop: Thailand.
Clocking in at just under seven hours, the flight to Phuket feels relatively short after the longer hop to Korea, and I’m soon zipping toward Phulay Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve property making its buzzed-about debut in Krabi, Southern Thailand. Well acquainted with The Ritz-Carlton’s unbeatable service, my anticipation to experience the brand’s even more exclusive offshoot has reached its zenith. This resort, like upcoming Reserve brand properties, is set in a remote location and features unique style reflecting local environments and heritage, down-to-the-detail service and bespoke experiences. An hour and a half later and my fever-pitch expectations are confirmed.
Arriving at 1am to a gracious greeting by the Phulay Bay team, we pass through a large door situated in the middle of 20-foot-high aubergine walls and “hedges” made from indigenous trees. From the outside, no one would guess the inspiration that exists inside, or that the time here would prove singular in all ways. Illuminated by the flicker of 2,000 candles, a stepping-stone pathway leads to a grand, pitched-roof Thai pavilion situated on its own island. Amid stunning surroundings, permeating calm and signature aromatics, I’m presented with an icy-cold refresher, and the maxim “you’ve arrived” hits home in earnest.
Though it’s dark when I’m escorted to my ocean pavilion—via golf cart by my personal butler, the wonderful J.B., who is available 24/7—I detect a pretty fabulous façade. The resort, conceived by Thai architect Lek Bunnag, combines modern style with Thai, Middle Eastern and Moroccan design influences. At my residence, wooden stairs lead to even more timber: a lovely exterior living space with loungers and a dining table. In conjunction with Bunnag, Thai designer IA49 helmed the interiors, including show-stopping sliding glass doors that open to an unbelievable space anchored by an oversize bed. Like nothing I’ve ever seen or slept in, “comfortable” doesn’t even begin to cover it, but pillows on both sides do. Essentially moonlighting as two king beds joined together, you could sleep myriad ways for a week.
Thai touches, from 100 percent silk-soft furnishings to storytelling Lanna art, are everywhere, even in the mammoth bathroom, which beckons with a deep sunken bathtub, glass-enclosed shower and, at its center, a circular vanity area and large walk-in closet. With no accommodation identical (30 luxurious Villas join 24 indulgent pavilions) every refined room is unique. Some boast a private lap pool and lawn area; others, a private rooftop and secluded pool bathing area. I can’t get over my suite—it’s so fabulous I don’t want to sleep (even with that bed!), but the thought of the sun rising lulls me from dreamland to dreamville.
Purposefully leaving the curtains open proves a grand idea. As suspected, nature’s surreal beauty awakens me with a kiss of sunshine. I open the sliding glass doors to the soft perfume of flora, the elegant rustle of swaying trees and panoramas of the fantasy-blue Andaman Sea—the resort sits smack on its amazing shoreline. Deciding it’s the ideal backdrop for breakfast, I do what becomes a blueprint for the rest of my stay: I call J.B., who sees that my Asian breakfast is promptly delivered. While I contemplate stir-fried noodles, I opt for something unique and select the congee entrée, composed of a porridge of white jasmine rice, spring onion and crispy garlic. A perfect way to start the day. I head out and am instantly stunned by the striking limestone karst geological formations set in the Andaman Sea (characteristic in this part of Thailand). I take note of the lush grounds, appreciating the generous green space and water features throughout. Stopping to enjoy fresh coconut water at the vast infinity pool lined with cabanas and loungers (though tempted to stay, I’m due for lunch poolside at Plai Fah), I am excited for my first dose of authentic tom yum soup and pad thai.
It doesn’t get any better than indigenous cuisine, engaging conversation and beach time—unless it’s the resort’s ESPA spa (the first destination spa for the brand in Thailand)—where I’m expected for an authentic Thai massage. A star attraction, this restorative refuge offers nourishing spa treatments and boasts 11 treatment rooms, a spa vitality pool, areas for relaxing and VIP pampering, and a RAW spa café. Amid this Zenlike oasis, I prepare for indulgence, changing into the most luxurious silk pajamas I have ever adorned (or subsequently purchased). Both the setting (serene) and the massage (outstanding) are sublime, as is the comedown: a tea-sipping repose in the relaxation room, which idyllically overlooks plush gardens of the mangrove jungle. Although more pulse-racing activities are on offer in the fitness center, and centering exercises like yoga take place on the beach, much of this experience is about relaxing and ridding yourself from unwanted city stress.
For me, this means a quick shower and a date for afternoon cocktails at Chomtawan, where dynamic views never produce anything less than complete wonder. Evening brings rain and thus a change of plans; presto, our arranged beach dinner trades places with Jampoon. It boasts a menu filled with diverse Mediterranean-inspired cuisine, including favorites like the Andaman tiger prawn cocktail to start and Tajima wagyu strip loin entrée. Dinner is also on offer at the traditional Thai standout Sri Trang, where memorable, mouthwatering, authentic cuisine is served; and Lae Lay seafood grill, supplying signature dishes such as vanilla-flavored butter poached lobster and Andaman blue crab crusted red snapper. Service at all the dining outposts is attentive but not intrusive, and dishes feature locally sourced ingredients.
Sunshine, perfect water and views beyond words christen the next day’s island-hopping boating experience, which sees stops at Phi Phi and Hong islands for snorkeling and a picnic lunch. The views are simply unreal. Upon return, a unanimous vote finds our group splitting off to peacefully reboot in our villas. That evening, in true Ritz-Carlton style, the chef prepares a special off-menu meal that’s delish. The cuisine here is really something special.
Equally delightful is the following day’s elephant trek, a journey through jungle-type terrain atop nature’s magnificent creature—definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience—before it’s back to Phulay Bay for bites and cocktails at Plai Fah. Here we meet Koko, the resort’s 2-year-old baby elephant and the star of the resort’s cultural immersion program. Although a resident of a nearby camp, Koko interacts with guests twice weekly at sunset. Another highlight of this one-of-a-kind program, which avails itself this very afternoon, is a chef-led cooking class, which proves plenty palate-tempting.
Last-day luxuries involve more sips and savories, and space in a specially reserved cabana. When evening comes, a decadent beach barbecue provides the perfect last night send-off.
While the external elements combine to make Phulay Bay otherworldly, it’s the personal touches of its team that fulfill its bespoke promise. Amenities and setting stand on their own as unique, but, as always, it comes down to service. Here, it’s both unrivaled and unmissable. And, oh, how it’s missed!