ESCAPE Luxury and generosity combine in Cambodia.
A private-island resort in Cambodia balances luxury with generosity.
leave it to a former “organic stylist”—who once created exotic natural backdrops for fashion photo shoots—to transform a rundown and overgrown fishermen’s outpost into a rustic-luxe private resort with its own charitable foundation and Cambodia’s first marine reserve.
Yet nine years ago, even the idea wasn’t in the Hunters’—Melita, the stylist, and Rory, a former advertising executive— wildest dreams. At the time, the Australian-expat couple had been living in Cambodia for several years. While they were renovating and renting out French Colonial houses, they heard a rumour about an area off the coast of Sihanoukville, the country’s main port town, that supposedly had incredible white beaches—and not many foreigners or tourists. Determined to see it for themselves, they hired a fishing boat and set out on a two-week excursion to check out Koh Rong, Cambodia’s second-largest island—with few inhabitants and just four modest villages—as well as some surrounding islets.
On their first day out, the Hunters landed at a set of small islets that were being used as a fishing outpost. “It wasn’t beautiful by any means,” says Melita. But the moment they stepped onto the h
footprint- free powdery- white- sand beach, “it was a feeling of euphoria,” she says. That same day, a man named Vut, who was the head of the 65-person fishing village, came over to talk and asked, “Would you like to buy my islands?”
The couple was a bit taken aback by the offer, “but we said yes immediately,” says Melita, and they made a deal to buy the islets from the villagers. The Hunters moved to the bigger of the two islands to camp out and begin cleaning up decades worth of fishing nets—with the dream of one day opening a resort. They hired the former villagers as well as locals from Prek Svay on Koh Rong, just a five-minute boat ride away. Fast-forward through six years of planning, building and personal setbacks—during this time, Melita was diagnosed with (and overcame) cancer—and the twin-island resort, now called Song Saa, which is Khmer for “the sweethearts,” finally opened in 2012.
Just 27 immaculate rustic-modern villas, each with its own plunge pool, are carefully tucked into the lush vegetation on the main island, so it never feels crowded. Dinners are kept private at carefully spaced locations—one might be invited to a candlelit Kampot-pepperinfused seafood spread on the beach or a table set up in the shallow end of the main pool—where local Khmer dishes are served while you soak your feet. Private guided activities are also popular, such as kayak trips up a mangrovelined river on Koh Rong and snorkelling excursions around man-made reefs that were added to restore and protect the marine life. The Hunters worked to have the archipelago area declared the country’s first marine reserve. The resort’s non-profit Song Saa Foundation is now working to have it upgraded to a marine-protected area. The Hunters have taken special care to not only protect the environment but also help its local people, who are still facing many challenges following decades of war. Close to 20 percent of the resort’s staff are from Prek Svay, and the foundation is working closely with local leaders to provide a variety of support to the community. “We opened this resort with a belief and hope that Cambodia would sort itself out,” says Rory. “We want people to see that there is more to this country than the Khmer Rouge and Angkor Wat.” h
GOOD NEIGHBOURS Song Saa Private Island (top) works with the nearby fishing village of Prek Svay (above) through its non-profit Song Saa Foundation. “We talk to locals and ask ‘What do you need?’” says Ben Thorne, the foundation’s project director. So far, villagers have received help setting up a waste-reclamation system; assistance accessing much-needed medical care through International Medical Relief, which includes a vitamin distribution program; as well as educational guidance, seeds and supplies to plant dozens of vegetable gardens in an effort to improve nutrition and diversify an economy where 80 percent of residents rely on fishing to get by.
BEAUTIFUL RECYCLING The deck at Song Saa’s spa (top) is crafted from the reclaimed wood of old fishing boats. The Hunters went to local fishing villages
and paid the communities for the right to remove their old, rotting boats—which not only helped clean up the shorelines
but also provided easy access to (already wonderfully coloured) building
materials in a remote region.