LEARN­ING TO RE­LAX

The JW Mar­riott on the peace­ful Viet­namese is­land of Phu Quoc has some­thing to teach us about the art of hol­i­day­mak­ing, writes JAN­ICE JANN

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TTHE FAN­TASY ABOUT slip­ping away to an is­land tucked into a hid­den cor­ner of the planet has been unattain­able for quite some time. Cheap air travel and Lonely Planet guides have meant South­east Asian beaches – such as those on Bo­ra­cay, Bali and Langkawi – are as well known for their touristy es­tab­lish­ments as they are for their fine sand. Ly­ing on your lounger try­ing to en­joy the view, it’s dif­fi­cult to find relief from the pesky tourists on selfie ram­pages by the wa­ter­line who per­sis­tently taint the pic­turesque scene. When I got wind of the sleepy south­ern Viet­namese is­land of Phu Quoc, I sat up and paid at­ten­tion. Phu Quoc is an is­land of peaks clad in lush, trop­i­cal green­ery, fringed with white sand. The is­land has been on the radar of sun­seek­ers for some time but de­vel­op­ment is tak­ing its sweet time, and there are a few more years to go be­fore other tourist at­trac­tions in­trude, such as the world’s longest ca­ble-car line. Get­ting to Phu Quoc means fly­ing to Ho Chi Minh City, where the hus­tle and bus­tle con­trast with the peace, tran­quil­lity and re­fresh­ing breeze that await you when a 45-minute on­ward flight de­liv­ers you to Phu Quoc In­ter­na­tional Air­port. A short drive along sun­lit roads takes you from the air­port to the south­ern tip of the is­land. There, at the JW Mar­riott Phu Quoc Emer­ald Bay Re­sort and Spa, two gar­gan­tuan bronze dogs greet you. If you are ex­pect­ing the typ­i­cal trop­i­cal is­land re­sort, you are in for a sur­prise. The ex­pan­sive lobby is in French Colo­nial style, dec­o­rated in a black and white check. Once you have checked in, when you are sit­ting un­der the canopy of a swing­ing bed, sip­ping a lemon­grass-in­fused wel­come drink, it’s as if you have been trans­ported to the 19th cen­tury. A heavy­weight among ar­chi­tects in the busi­ness of de­sign­ing Asian re­sorts, Bill Bens­ley led the plan­ning of the 244-room re­sort. Told that money was no ob­ject, Bens­ley based his de­sign on an imag­i­nary in­sti­tu­tion that he calls La­marck Univer­sity, af­ter Jean-Bap­tiste La­marck, a French nat­u­ral­ist and a pre­cur­sor to Charles Dar­win. Ev­ery part of the re­sort is based on an el­e­ment of the wildly colour­ful imag­i­nary cam­pus. The re­sult is at once whim­si­cal and awe­some, friv­o­lous and grand, lux­u­ri­ous and sen­si­ble. To bring his vi­sion to life, Bens­ley’s team of de­sign­ers trekked across Europe, scour­ing an­tique shops and mar­kets for the more than 5,000 gen­uine arte­facts in the re­sort.

No de­tail is mi­nor enough to es­cape at­ten­tion, whether it is the vin­tage books lin­ing the win­dowsills of the spa, the rows of scales on the shelves in the ho­tel cafe and bak­ery, or the loopy cal­lig­ra­phy on the cob­ble­stones in the main lane that con­nects the var­i­ous parts of the re­sort.

The de­sign and colours of the ac­com­mo­da­tion re­flect the var­i­ous dis­ci­plines stud­ied at the imag­i­nary univer­sity: zo­ol­ogy, con­chol­ogy, as­tron­omy, her­petol­ogy and so on.

The Rep­tiles Study, for in­stance, is a villa where the car­pets have a gecko pat­tern and where tow­er­ing stone stat­ues of a snake and a croc­o­dile face-off by the swim­ming pool. It’s ac­com­mo­da­tion for the ad­ven­tur­ous.

Which­ever field of study in­spires each villa, the colour scheme is vi­va­cious and the space ex­pan­sive. Each room has its own bal­cony and proper bath­tub. Af­ter a long day spent ex­plor­ing, there is noth­ing quite like a bliss­ful soak in a tub of wa­ter strewn with rose petals and sur­rounded by scented can­dles.

The JW Mar­riott Phu Quoc Emer­ald Bay is dif­fer­ent in many ways and the Chanterelle Spa is one of them.

The spa is a won­der­land of white and dewy, mus­tard hues. Like the Won­der­land Alice vis­ited, it plays tricks on your per­cep­tions, with its white, ar­caded hall­ways, high ceil­ings, paint­ings of mush­rooms and dis­pro­por­tion­ately huge lanterns. The fa­cil­i­ties com­prise treat­ment rooms for cou­ples, a body treat­ment suite, a hair sa­lon, a steam room and a sauna. The spa offers a range of ser­vices meant to re­lax the weary trav­eller. For 90 min­utes, thor­oughly qual­i­fied mas­sage ther­a­pists un­knot­ted the mus­cles in my stiff back and eased the sore­ness from my limbs, as light, Mid­dle Eastern-sound­ing mu­sic soothed my mind.

Other fea­tures of the JW Mar­riott Phu Quoc Emer­ald Bay in­clude a gym open around the clock, a run­ning track, and three swim­ming pools for com­mu­nal use. My favourite is the seashell pool, a stretch of sparkling blue wa­ter of in­ef­fa­ble charm.

The re­sort has plenty for its guests to do. In tune with the univer­sity theme, it offers classes of all sorts. I be­gan with a surf yoga ses­sion, do­ing re­ju­ve­nat­ing ex­er­cises in the clear, tran­quil wa­ter un­der the watch­ful eye of a cer­ti­fied in­struc­tor. The sun above was hot, but the sparkling, emer­ald-tinged sea all around cleared my mind of the last shred of those busy thoughts that be­set the city-dweller.

I took a class in mak­ing Hoi An lanterns, ac­quir­ing the craft of turn­ing beau­ti­fully colour­ful fab­rics and bam­boo frames into lu­mi­nes­cent lamp­shades, which guests can take home as sou­venirs. I took an evening class in mixol­ogy at the Depart­ment of Chem­istry. Ex­pert mixol­o­gists in lab coats let their stu­dents into the se­crets of con­coct­ing gin­gery cock­tails. And I took a cook­ing class, learn­ing how to roll fresh pro­duce into dar­ling Viet­namese spring rolls and turn eggs into crack­ling Viet­namese pan­cakes.

There are plenty of ex­tra­mu­ral ac­tiv­i­ties to en­joy, too. One day I ex­plored Phu Quoc on a bike. The ride took me to the dis­used but pre­served Co­conut Tree Prison, where pris­on­ers of war were held; to a fish sauce fac­tory; and to the An Thoi mar­ket. Again, the sun was hot. The low sea­son at the re­sort is the rainy sea­son on Phu Quoc, dur­ing the sum­mer months in the North­ern Hemi­sphere – al­though the rain is in­ter­mit­tent rather than con­stant.

On an­other clear day, I jumped aboard a John’s Is­land Tours boat to ex­plore the is­lands to the south of Phu Quoc. Along the way, I caught a few fish, went snorkelling at colour­ful coral reefs and gorged on a feast of seafood, all freshly pre­pared: grilled prawns, squid and sea urchin lightly toasted and topped with peanuts – a Phu Quoc spe­cial­ity. Much of the food was caught fresh and served only a few min­utes later. It was ac­com­pa­nied by that

divine Viet­namese green chilli sauce – a nov­elty to me and my favourite dis­cov­ery on Phu Quoc.

The JW Mar­riott Phu Quoc Emer­ald Bay seems de­ter­mined to send its guests home a few ki­los heav­ier. The re­sort has five places to eat, serv­ing many kinds of cui­sine. Tem­pus Fugit is open all day. The menu offers flavours from Viet­nam, Ja­pan and France. The high ceil­ings and wide win­dows give the place an at­mos­phere of cool com­fort. French & Co is a bak­ery and cafe which is great for a quick bite. Sim­ply in­hal­ing the aroma of bak­ing and see­ing the sight of the re­splen­dent crois­sants and pas­tries gives you a keener per­cep­tion of what joie de vivre is.

Din­ing on Phu Quoc is at its most de­light­ful at

Red Rum, a bustling al­fresco grill on the beach. There, suc­cu­lent seafood comes with freshly made sal­ads and sparkling wines. The ex­ec­u­tive chef, Sa­toru Takeuchi, is well versed in French cui­sine. Work­ing at the Park Hy­att Chicago ho­tel gave Takeuchi a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence and finely honed his ex­per­tise. An­other place to eat, Pink Pearl, will spe­cialise in Can­tonese food. It is due to open shortly.

No de­scrip­tion can do jus­tice to the seren­ity of the JW Mar­riott Phu Quoc Emer­ald Bay. Over the next few years it is bound to be­come the get­away of choice for those itch­ing to es­cape from the hus­tle and bus­tle of city life. Make a point of en­rolling as soon as you can for a term at this univer­sity of leisure.

Above: en­trance to the Tem­pus Fugit restau­rant

Clock­wise from top: villa ex­te­rior; the Depart­ment of Chem­istry bar; French & Co offers light meals; the liv­ing room of the Turquoise Suite

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