Thinking Outside the Box
A radical new project named 700,000 Heures is poised to disrupt the way we think about hotels. Lee Marshall meets the charismatic Frenchman who, armed with a set of elegant trunks, is offering some of the world's most exclusive travel experiences— from It
A radical new project named 700,000 Heures is poised to disrupt the way we think about taking a vacation.
ON A DAY AS BRIGHT AND CLEAN as a scrubbed deck, I was sitting in a sky-blue fishing boat anchored in a cove just off the coast of southern Puglia, where the heel of the Italian boot points into the Mediterranean. I’d just been for a swim in the translucent water and was eating the coral-colored roe of a sea urchin that, 10 minutes earlier, had been clamped to a rock beneath the waves.
A stocky, tanned 17-year-old named Giuseppe—one of those rare blond southern Italians—had dived for the urchins. Back on the boat, his father, Rocco, split open each spiny black ball with a pocket knife. Then he’d grabbed a handful of friselle (a type of Puglian dried roll) and served them topped with the scooped-out roe, some halved tomatoes, and a spiral of olive oil. As I ate, I felt the tingle of sea salt crystallizing on my back. No Michelin-starred restaurant could have bettered this—it was perfect.
Italy is good at these serendipitous moments, but this one wasn’t quite as spontaneous as it seemed. All of a sudden I remembered something my host in Puglia, a genial Frenchman named Thierry
Teyssier, had said to me on the phone 10 days earlier. “When I discover a beach, or a cave, or a boat,” he said, “I picture your entire moment. Something new on the plate in front of you is as important as the boat, the fisherman. Everything must be part of the scene.”
At the time, it had sounded like a metaphor to illustrate the importance of detail in the planning of Teyssier’s new travel project: 700,000 Heures. Now I realized he had been thinking of a real boat, a real fisherman, and a real “something new on the plate.” Oh, and a real cave, too. On our way to lunch, the boat had entered a sea cave, a Blue Grotto without the tourists, alive with shards of light.
The name 700,000 Heures derives from the amount of time the average person in the developed world spends on earth (it’s a shade less than 80 years, but somehow it seems shockingly brief when expressed in hours). Teyssier describes his new venture as “the first wandering hotel in the world.” It involves taking over existing properties for months at a time, often renting them from owners who are already considering turning their homes into hotels or guest houses, and creating a range of experiences both inside and outside their walls.
Teyssier is the visionary behind Dar Ahlam, a maison d’hôte in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. Since opening in 2002, the property has become one of the most influential hotels of the 21st century. It’s not the stunning casbah setting or the perfectly pared-back décor that makes it so: plenty of other hotels do nice locations and nice interiors. At Dar Ahlam (which means “house of dreams” in Arabic), it’s the way the guest experience is laced with surprises that has made it such a bucket-list legend. Famously, the hotel has no restaurant—because guests rarely eat any two meals in the same place. Instead, staff whisk them from one immaculately staged romantic setting to the next.
It comes as no surprise to discover that Teyssier has a background in theater design, later parlayed into a career in events management. In the wake of Dar Ahlam’s success, he has extended the formula to create a four-day journey, La Route du Sud, through the ravishingly stark landscapes of southern Morocco, as well as to open temporary hotels in Paraty, Brazil, and Portugal’s Douro Valley.
Teyssier is running 700,000 Heures as a club, with membership available from its website (guests who prefer not to join can book via one of 50 approved travel agents). The most basic level of membership costs just under US$3,000 for two people—an annual charge of US$585 plus a US$2,340 one-off entry fee. This amount is then gradually deducted from the cost of the trips you take, in the form of a 20 percent discount each time you check out of a 700,000 Heures property. “For me,” Teyssier explained, “it’s just money you put in our company to spend on holidays with us.”
Over the years, Teyssier’s most loyal clients have come to regard him as an important part of the experience. So he will be in permanent residence at each 700,000 Heures location, serving partly as general manager, partly as master of ceremonies. He has also devised a series of elements that will recur in every
place. These include a range of fragrances from perfumer Olivia Giacobetti and a set of trunks, made by the artisans of L’Atelier de Manue in Agadir, Morocco, which open to reveal portable seats, tables, cocktail bars, massage beds, kids’ play supplies, even camp toilets and showers— all of which will be used to create Teyssier’s trademark surprise excursions.
I was in Puglia to check out the first of Teyssier’s nomadic hotels (he dislikes the term pop-up), which opened last month and runs until the end of October, in the town of Gagliano del Capo. That’s why I was on that tiny fishing boat eating sea urchin roe, sampling one of the excursions that 700,000 Heures members will be able to choose from during their stay. Others include jaunts in a vintage Fiat 500, breakfast in a cave overlooking the sea, and a wine tasting in a cellar that dates back to 1878. Our base in sleepy Gagliano was Palazzo Daniele, a frescoed mansion on the main piazza. Arranged around a handsome, archlined courtyard that looks like something out of The Leopard, Luchino Visconti’s iconic twilight-of-the-aristocracy movie, it was built in 1861 by the family of Francesco Petrucci, a contemporary art curator who now hosts artist residencies in the property. At Palazzo Daniele, 700,000 Heures guests will find beds made up with linens from Chez Zoé in Marrakesh placed in the center of airy, high-ceilinged rooms, some of them frescoed. The mood is simple, not opulent, but the details are telling: water jugs and serving bowls made in Grottaglie by ceramist Nicola Fasano (a name in every Puglian interior designer’s little black book); copper tea and coffee caddies made by cult artisanal workshop Kaikado, in Kyoto. Out in the palazzo garden, I encountered Teyssier in rehearsal mode, stage-directing his upcoming show. The Frenchman jumped down a couple of steps to where I was standing and gestured at the kitchen, where resident chef Rosa Vanina Pavone was making lunch with a couple of helpers, the whole busy scene framed by a tall arched window. “Look!” he exclaimed. “It’s a theater!” I followed him as he strode into a walled citrus garden and glanced around critically. “Bof,” he said. “Can’t do anything here.” We marched back into the kitchen just as Giuseppe Battocchio, a local organic farmer and proponent of the region’s growing number of Slow Food–style producers, made an entrance. He was bearing a huge basket of specialty breads from a nearby bakery and a tray full of fresh pecorino. Soon an impromptu tasting session was under way, and Teyssier was almost gurgling with joy: he had found another experience. Later that day, we visited the location for one of the surprise dinner extravaganzas Teyssier is planning to incorporate into his Puglian show—the factory of a family-run company that makes luminarie, those traditional Puglian lighting installations that turn village fairs into enchanted kingdoms. >>
Teyssier sees the hotel as a hub for a local network that extends far beyond its gates
Back at the palazzo, Teyssier told me the question What is a hotel? has been much on his mind recently. He believes it no longer needs to be a physical space with “four walls, a roof, rooms.” Instead, he advises hoteliers to literally think outside of the box, to imagine their hotel as the hub for a local network—of people, food, crafts and excursions—that extends far beyond its gates. Searching for an example, his eyes light up. “Giuseppe and the pecorino this morning. That’s my deal.”
After my stay, Teyssier and his team decamped to Cambodia to plan an experience that will accommodate guests in a traditional Khmer house in Siem Reap, as well as a fisherman’s house on the Tonle Sap lake. Further destinations will open at the rate of two or three a year, and are likely to include Scandinavia, Central America and Japan.
Many of Teyssier’s hotel regulars have become friends over the years, and the highest tier of 700,000 Heures membership will allow guests to help him scout new destinations, plan experiences, and even get involved in offering them. He told me of one member who loves to cook, so she will be doing just that for the other guests when she comes to stay.
I found it hard not to think of Tom Sawyer’s fine ruse, when he made whitewashing a fence seem like the best fun in the world—and charged his friends for the privilege. But as the “great law of human action” uncovered by Mark Twain’s hero at the end of this famous scene decrees, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
Hotel impresario Thierry Teyssier (left) and a friend enjoy a seaside aperitivo in Puglia, Italy, where the first of his roving hotels launched last month.
Dinner in a lighting factory is one of the unusual moments offered at the hotel.
Palazzo Daniele in Gagliano del Capo, Puglia—the site of the first 700,000 Heures temporary hotel.
Fresh sea urchin roe, bread, and tomatoes, served on a boat trip at 700,000 Heures.
A prelunch swim off the boat.
Breakfast at the entrance to a cave, another surprise offered to guests at 700,000 Heures in Puglia.