We talk to the man behind some of Asia's most 'out there' wilderness retreats
You trained as an architect at Harvard. Were you interested in hotel design then, or did that come later?
When I was at Harvard, I couldn’t even afford to stay at a budget motel. Then just after graduation, I landed a job in Singapore and a week later I was on a plane to Bali to design a pool and the gardens for the Bali Hyatt. I was instantly smitten.
Imagine you met someone who has never stayed in one of your hotels. Which hotel would you recommend to get a true flavour of the Bensley style?
Shinta Mani Wild in the jungles of Cambodia presses all the Bensley buttons: conservation, wildlife protection, social responsibility, education of both guests and villagers, employment, and romantic story-telling.
How important do you think sustainability is?
It is paramount to our existence on our planet. I was born in California to English immigrants and my family had a small farm where we were pretty much self-sustaining. I raised bees, quails, chickens, ducks and rabbits, and grew mushrooms, a huge variety of veggies and of course kept a compost heap. We would travel with our little family trailer almost every weekend to a camp spot, so I grew up with a great love for the wilderness and certainly learnt how to provide our family with food. It makes me smile to hear the word sustainability used so frequently these days, as though it is a new idea.
Do you think sustainability is just a trend, or here to stay?
I think the use of the word is trendy and we will move on to better and bigger words, but I think the general public’s understanding of the importance of environmental stewardship is here to stay and will increase exponentially.
Everyone is talking about Shinta Mani Wild. What came first, a desire to protect the Cardamom National Park or the need to create something utterly unique?
A desire to protect the Cardamom National Park. These days I only take on projects that have purpose and real meaning. It can be as simple as educating a single guest about a part of local history, or as complex as educating a whole village of children. I am driven to use hospitality for purposeful objectives like conservation, wildlife protection, cleaner water and higher education. I have done lots of unique hotels. Now I want to do unique hotels with a purpose.
What kind of person would enjoy Shinta Mani Wild?
Gosh, good question. My 75-year-old big sister just loved it and made five rounds of the zip-line course in a day (guests can choose to enter the hotel via a zip-line through the forest). She holds the record for the oldest zipper. In truth we get everyone from super athletic types doing triple somersaults off the five-storey waterfall followed by five hours of mountain biking and kayaking, to those who simply like to read in the bath on their porch overlooking the rapids.
You cite travel as an inspiration. Where have you not travelled to that you long to visit?
One would think that a person who has travelled to 94 countries would be running out of places to go. No way baby! The more I travel the more I want to explore new places, like Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Zambia, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tunisia, Malta, Romania, Jordan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Iran, Oman, Yemen, Venezuela, the South Sandwich Islands, Vanuatu, the Nicobar Islands, Reunion, Belize, Costa Rica… the list goes on. Most of these countries I have planned to visit in the past but ended up somewhere else. In some cases, I already have the visas in my passport and am just waiting for the day they’ll be used.
You quote that ‘nature is the ultimate designer’. How does nature feature in your hotels?
As a landscape architect, before I graduated to hotel design, I learnt the principles of the stewardship of the earth, and those principles apply to every single one of our projects. When I am working with a natural environment, I know I can only make things worse, because Mother Nature is the ultimate designer. No matter how beautiful my hotel is, it can never compete with nature, so the key is damage control. I think I have learnt how to do this very well over the past 35 years.
I’m working on a three-pronged experiential stay in a national park in Quannan County, China, encompassing stilted villas, butler-staffed houseboats and Ming Dynasty houses.
The next few years will also be busy for us in Thailand with a new Six Senses hill station in railway carriages, a Four Seasons ‘Plantation’ in Koh Samui with farmhouses set in a working farm, and L’escape, Koh Samui – a spectacular 40-room oceanfront King Rama IV cum Dorothy Draper extravaganza.
Other projects on the horizon include themes on a Buddhist complex, a Vietnamese opera house and ancient civilisations. These ideas may seem unconventional, but wait and see how they translate to wow-factor hotels that have the utmost care for the environment. You won’t be disappointed.
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