x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Mesas and minimalism

Adriaane Pielou revels in the scenery and silence at a luxury escape deep in the Utah desert.

The mass of buildings that make up the Amangiri have an austere beauty from the exterior, set off by the stark but stunning surroundings of desert in Utah, US. Inside the resort, however, is pure, modern luxury.  Photos courtesy of Amanresorts
The mass of buildings that make up the Amangiri have an austere beauty from the exterior, set off by the stark but stunning surroundings of desert in Utah, US. Inside the resort, however, is pure, modern luxury. Photos courtesy of Amanresorts

At last. I’m on my way to my first Aman: the 34-room, $1,100 a night Amangiri, Utah, one of the 26 hotels that make up what’s generally agreed to be the best boutique group in the world. Things don’t get off to the best start, though.

In keeping with Aman’s policy of choosing only spectacular locations for their tranquil hotels, Amangiri is located in the desert of remotest southern Utah, a hard-to-reach, ancient region that is close to the Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, the Colorado River and Monument Valley, where dinosaur bones are regularly dug up. The final stretch of the journey is an hour’s flight on a 16-seat turboprop from Phoenix, Arizona, to the one-horse town of Page. With less than an hour’s transit time in Phoenix, and with my case checked through to Page, I rush breathlessly to the far-flung corner of the airport from where the Page flight departs, and I’m just buckling my seat belt, looking forward to aerial views of the Grand Canyon, when the pilot turns around in his seat and calls down the little plane to me. “Er, ma’am. A little bad news, I’m afraid. Your luggage hasn’t made it.”

He sounds so casual that, for a moment, I assume he’s joking. “But don’t you worry. We’ll get it to you on the next flight,” he says. Right, I think, resignedly, wondering for just how long I’ll be non-tranquilly walking around in creased jeans and blouse, living out of the contents of my handbag. The no-baggage scenario is clearly a common one, too, to judge from the comment that I overhear as I walk glumly into the little arrivals and departures lounge in Page. “Funny how all folks for Amangiri always look so [expletive] off when they arrive,” I hear a tubby airport worker say to another, laughing sarcastically.

Soon I’m feeling ashamed of being bothered by anything as minor as luggage, however. The landscape is just magnificent. “See the mesa? Three hundred million years old,” says the driver, as we traverse an arid plain, pointing to distant rocky plateaux. We pass through a valley, climb higher, round a bend – and, at first sight, Amangiri looks as brutal as a nuclear bunker. A series of single-storey concrete buildings, the pinkish-tan shade merges almost seamlessly into the surrounding lunar-like landscape.

Up close, however, the brutality has an austere beauty. As I climb out of the four-wheel drive – fascinated to have discovered from the driver that the CIA recruits a large number of its agents from among the non-drinking, hyper-law-abiding, non-bad-anything Mormon students at Utah’s Brigham Young University – I am met by the unexpected sound of seductively rippling water, cascading from an infinity pool. After exchanging super-happy grins with the staff who line up to meet each new arrival, I walk up the steps, through oversized, tall doors, and into one of those spaces where you involuntarily say “wow” before you can think of anything more original.

With pale, polished concrete walls and floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, the main pavilion houses an open kitchen area, a small indoor-outdoor restaurant, a raised lounge and library area with squashy sofas and stacks of photobooks and guides about the locale, and a little museum section of Indian artefacts discovered in the area. Dominating everything are CinemaScope views: the desert and distant mesa on one side, the pool, built around a looming vast, pale boulder, on the other. Spectacular.

I’m shown to my room – again, all bare concrete, wood, white cotton and minimalism, echoing the main pavilion with its floor-to-ceiling glass doors framing that dazzling desert view. The bed is emperor-size, positioned in the middle of the room to make the most of it, and has reading lights and plug points for phone charging conveniently positioned. A blissful bathroom is on the other side of the built -in wardrobe that acts as a room divider and also conceals the TV and minibar (whose soft drinks and salted caramel popcorn within are free). The counter is long – really super-usefully long – there is a large, open, twin shower and a bath that looks out over the desert. I love it. Everything’s comfortable and accessible and there’s nothing superfluous: not one of those little printed messages that some hotel groups like to dot around the place, either.

With nothing to unpack, however, and eager to get out of my travelling clothes, I book myself a massage. After a glass of the resort’s speciality cold drink, sage lemonade, by the pool – with sunbeds shaded by cherry trees – I head for the spa as the sun starts to sink. At the entrance, I push open another oversized iron door, so heavy and tall that it looks like the entrance to some super-secret government bolthole. Inside, I find myself in a dimly lit, subtly scented world with a fireplace where candles burn in two-feet-tall metal lanterns, an ornamental pool glimmers inside a floor-to-ceiling shuttered area and a series of changing and treatment rooms open off a central courtyard. I slip into a robe and am soon sinking back onto a heated massage bed. The treatment room follows the resort’s design ethos of stark simplicity. Walnut-panelled walls, slate floor; nothing on show, except the bed and three flickering candles, and around the corner a steam shower. Haunting Native American music plays quietly, barely audible. The therapist has a firm, capable touch. I have to struggle to stay awake, but a US$150 (Dh550) massage is not one that I want to sleep though.

At about 9pm, laid waste by the facial that follows the massage, I pad back through the main pavilion, down the steps, past the living wall of moss and along the open-air path to my room. And there is my case. It’s a joyful reunion. I light the candle by the bath and lie in deep, hot water, looking out at the dimly discernible desert and starry sky, feeling entirely at peace with the world.

Early the next morning, my alarm goes off at 5am – a good thing, as the alarm call I’d ordered from reception doesn’t happen. I take a pillow and the creamy, thick-knit blanket from the sofa onto the daybed on the terrace, and lie there waiting to watch the sun rise. As the sky becomes more streaked and a few birds burst into song, it feels like being alive at the beginning of time, but more cosy. After an hour back in bed, I am up again to meet the guide for a 7.30am walk into the desert while the day is still cool.

One striking aspect of this devastating landscape is the silence. No birdsong, now; no sound of wind rustling leaves – just zero-decibel silence. The age and geology of the place are mind-bending. Dan, the fifty-something guide, worked for America’s National Parks Board before coming here, making documentaries about the American south-west, and brims with facts and figures about the landscape. Three hundred million years ago, he says, the rocks that we’re looking at were seabed. I can almost feel my brain squirm at that, unable to comprehend. For the first time in my life, I try a bit of rock climbing, hauling myself up a boulder using an iron rung drilled into the rock face. Dan describes the two via ferrata – metal rungs screwed into the rock face that even completely inexperienced climbers can use as hand and footholds – that have been set up on steeper rock faces here. As we stand in a vast cave, I’m instructed to look up, and there, far above, are smoke stains on the cavern roof left by the Navajo and Hopi tribes, who were still roaming this region 100 years ago. Dan says that one of their desendents now comes to Amangiri once a week to play the flute and talk about his people’s history.

Back in the resort, I settle down for breakfast by the pool with a guidebook to the area and plan the rest of my stay. Should I go riding in the desert? Jet-ski on nearby Lake Powell? Join a slot canyon tour? Explore an ancient Navajo settlement? Possibly. But, actually, all I want to do is work my way through the resort’s books about this extraordinary region, and lie by the pool or on my terrace just looking at the scenery.

Amagiri isn’t perfect. The service could be much speedier, for instance. The earnest young staff, who are largely local, are eager to please, but inexperienced. My bison steak that night is meltingly Wagyu-like, but takes 45 minutes to arrive, and during my stay I’m continually aware of guests that are having to ask for things twice. At breakfast each day, the display of buffet items is so meagre that I feel as if I’ve arrived at the end of service rather than in the middle. And the menu is more ambitious than necessary. “Do you have porridge?” I ask one of the chefs at breakfast on my last day. His face lights up. “We do! Ours is very special, served with chicken and seafood,” he says. My stomach churns. What about porridge that’s just oats and milk? He smiles bravely. “Oh, sure, of course.” But to stay in an utterly spectacular landscape in a place where the design equals its setting is a delight. To explore that landscape with deeply knowledgeable guides is a true luxury. And although the 32 rooms are entirely satisfying, the two suites with their pool and sky lounge terrace with a daybed that the staff will make up so that you can spend the night there are, well, out of this world.

Just remember to travel with some hand luggage.

weekend@thenational.ae

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