What makes the ideal escapist getaway?

How do ultra-escapist getaways around the world provide a respite from the stresses of everyday life? With a sense of awe, fantasy, or history – or with a total immersion in simplicity and nature, Dominic Lutyens contributes.

For many of us, burying our heads in a book and our toes in sand provides an escape from our hectic working lives. However, when it comes to some of the world’s most beautiful escapist getaways, ranging from hotels and private villas to entire resorts, a complex, multisensory slew of factors come into play.

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Storytelling is the interior design buzzword for creating spaces that imaginatively reference a venue’s location and history, creating a one-of-a-kind atmosphere. Such decors draw attention to the venue’s interesting history, whether overtly or subtly, and make guests’ stay more memorable.

When remodelling the interior of Troutbeck Hotel in New York’s Hudson Valley, a former inn with historical and literary associations, interior design firm Champalimaud Design prioritised storytelling. “We preserved the house’s historic aspects, such as its stained-glass windows and original fireplace,” says Champalimaud’s Ed Bakos. “Many of the fabrics used in the furnishings were accumulated over time. The goal is for guests to feel completely at ease in a multi-layered environment where they can explore and discover.”

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Escapist vacations can also include creative, witty touches that deviate from historical accuracy. These can still strengthen guests’ bonds with them while also improving their well-being. According to Pauline Sheldon, a University of Hawaii professor, “Wellness includes a sense of aliveness that is linked to creativity. A surprise element is important in the design of spaces. Something that inspires awe and brings the visitor back to the present moment is mentally soothing.”

The projects of California-born interior designer and landscape architect Bill Bensley, whose motto is the Indonesian phrase Lebih Gila Lebih Baik, are full of surprises (“the odder the better”). He founded his studios in Bangkok and Bali in 1989 and 1990, respectively, after studying urban design at Harvard. More Escapism: Hotels, Resorts, and Gardens, his new book, features 12 of his projects in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Laos. One of these, the beach resort JW Marriott Lamarck University in Phu Qoc, Vietnam, parodies its former life as a university (named after French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck).

“I don’t like big hotels – who does?” Bensley writes in his book. So, what should a designer like myself do? I decided I needed to invent a culture, divide the scale of a large hotel into a series of small ones, and create a place where people could laugh – why do hotels have to be so serious? I created a detailed script that includes a history of each building, including when it was built and for what purpose. I believe that a hotel should be like a movie, with a plot that makes it worthwhile to watch more than once.”

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He channelled the spirit of the former university campus in a playful, visually entertaining way, full of eye-catching details, in the event. Several of its structures were named after university departments, such as the “department of physical education” (spa and gym) and the “department of chemistry” (beach bar). Original etchings of natural studies, some dating back to 1760, can be found in the halls. “We collected about 3,000 antiques and vintage pieces over two years to give the university authenticity,” he says. There’s a 19th-century elevator, school bells on the reception desk, and sporting trophies strewn about a massive storage unit. “We try to delve into local history as much as we can and draw from it,” Bensley says. And Bensley admits that designers can fall into the trap of over-theming interiors to stultifying rather than inspiring effect – a theme-park look is best avoided, and is “the challenge with a strong narrative”.

Unexpected, surreal elements, a hallmark of many escapist getaways, are one antidote to predictable interiors. An antique rocking horse suspended above the bar at Shinta Mani Wild, a luxury camp in Cardamom Forest, Cambodia, appears to fly through the space – a wingless Pegasus perhaps. Elsewhere, armchairs and bookcases brimming with books allow guests to escape into the worlds of novelists or poets.

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Another distinguishing feature of ultra-escapist getaways is their proximity to nature. “Today’s tourists want to connect with local communities through their senses. They seek out environments that bring nature inside – green, planted walls, flowing water, pleasant, natural aromas, and so on “Sheldon says. “A restaurant in Slovenia has living plants on the tables for diners to pluck and enjoy. One critical component that is frequently overlooked is fresh air – the ability to breathe deeply without pollutants and air-conditioning is essential to health.”

Shinta Mani Wild’s bar has a roof but no walls, with its boundaries defined informally by a ruggedly raw boulder on one side and panoramic jungle views. The resort is situated in one of South East Asia’s last remaining intact rainforests. Visitors are completely immersed in nature. When asked what he looks for in a truly escapist hideaway, Bensley says, “True wilderness – my favourite escape” and “No wifi (or at least very limited)”. In his book, he mentions Shinta Mani Wild’s attractions, which include sounds from the forest, ranging from a thunderous, fast-flowing waterfall to serene birdsong. “Rhythmic sounds, such as crashing waves, improve wellness,” Sheldon says. “These can calm a racing mind, but silence is the best. However, silence should not be forced.”

Shinta Mani Wild, on the other hand, does not deprive its visitors of creature comforts. A restaurant tent appears to have been parachuted into an impenetrable forest, except that its décor is maximalist, sybaritic, and playful. There are stylish table settings with wine glasses and banquettes covered in a camouflage fabric, which is gleefully described as “camp” by the room’s interior designer. A daybed with a view of the jungle appears to invite post-dinner contemplation of the tropical wilds. Natural settings and luxurious furnishings are not mutually exclusive in Bensley’s world.

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