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

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS - PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY FED­ERICO CIAMEI

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.

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