When the launch that makes the 30-minute dash from Sihanoukville on Cambodia's southern coast ties up at the wharf at Song Saa, Greg Williams, the resort's Aussie general manager, is there to meet arriving guests. Williams is barefoot. Even at luxury resorts that put relaxation at the top of their three Rs, GMs do not usually get around barefoot, yet it is by such small signals that Song Saa telegraphs its intentions. Take off your shoes, kick back, chill out and enjoy. You've cast yourself off from the world and entered a calmer version of real.
Even time on Song Saa is different, an hour ahead of the rest of Cambodia, a subtle manipulation that gives you an extra hour of darkness for snoozing, and another hour of light at the end of the day. Not that it matters. Nobody wears a watch.
Song Saa is the creation of Rory and Melita Hunter, a former adman and a stylist, and it has had an unusual gestation. En route from Australia to a job in New York, they stopped off in Cambodia and took a fork in life's road.
Sensing an opportunity, they began renovating and restoring French colonial buildings in Phnom Penh, creating luxury apartments for investors and expats who were trickling back to the Cambodian capital. And then one day they hired a boat, set off from Sihanoukville and found the tiny twin islands of Koh Ouen and Koh Bong. The location was ideal.
The chunky island of Koh Rong wraps Song Saa in an encircling arm, protecting it from the winds and seas of the Gulf of Thailand. This, they thought, would be the perfect spot to build Cambodia's first luxury private island resort. Apart from Melita's strong background in design, they had no experience in building a resort in a remote, third-world location. Yet because they came at it from the oblique angle of people who love great design and who love Cambodia and have made it their home - even to the extent of adopting a Cambodian child - this is a resort that doesn't feel formulaic.
About a third of Song Saa's villas are overwater bungalows. Another seven are on dry land, overlooking the sea. The rest are scattered among the rainforest that caps the tiny island and they're all huge and brilliantly designed to make the most of the natural surroundings. The style is silk cocoon with rustic edges.
Alongside the espresso machine, Aesop bathroom condiments, Dammann Freres teas, canopied bed with wafty white curtains and the personal iPod with a Bose sound system, is a rough-hewn aesthetic that takes its cues from local village architecture. The stone slabs that support the his'n'hers washbasins in the bathroom sit on tree trunks.
In the outside shower, water spouts from a hole drilled through a tree branch. The cabana beside your personal plunge pool is shaded by a canopy made from twining tendrils of jungle vine. Light coverings are made from tin that has been cut from rusting, weathered drums. Even for a luxury resort, this is no standard build. One wall is stacked sandstone rocks, all hand chiselled. Several hundred thatchers were employed for many months just to provide the panels required for roofing. The granite tiles that line the plunge pools were all cut by hand. The bean counters, who usually exercise a restraining hand over the designers, would tell you this is no way to build a resort, but in the case of Song Saa, there were no bean counters. Just a vision to be made flesh.
Food was always going to be a big part of Rory and Melita's vision for the island and, by chance, Neil Wager, the chef at the lauded North Island in the Seychelles, was looking for a resort in start-up phase where he could develop a new menu from scratch. He Googled, Song Saa came up, and Wager is now in charge of the kitchen, where he creates mouth-pleasing miracles that would credit any inner-city bistro.
The dinner menu on my first night features an entree "All About Tomatoes", three golfball-size amuses bouche, each one a variation on the tomato theme. Dessert is a deconstructed doughnut.
Dinners are choreographed for fun. Every evening, staff set up a series of romantic corners just for two with white linen and glassware that twinkles in the light of flaming torches - on the beach, or by the Driftwood Bar. One night I dine under the spreading limbs of a giant fig, lit by dozens of flickering candles with the sound of waves nibbling at the beach below.
Activities fall into the gently self-improving genre. Take the Hobie Bravo out for a spin. Kayak around the island, or paddle through the mangroves with the resident marine biologist. Borrow a mask and snorkel and admire the corals and tropical fish in the marine protection zone that encircles the island. Sign up for a sunrise yoga session by the water or a metta massage in the spa - and even the massage couches here wear the "Made in Heaven" brand name. Or just sprawl in the private domain of your poolside cabana, by the beach or the infinity pool, watching the puttering fishing boats that furrow the still, green sea. It's relaxation with the pedal to the metal, if you know what I mean. Everything here is calculated to make you slow down.
One afternoon, we boat across to the village of Prek Svay on Koh Rong. After wandering around the village, we board a creaking ox cart and set off for a cross-country jaunt.
It's the slow-moving, grassroots version of a third-world fishing village, but life here has been changed by its pint-sized neighbour with its alien culture and unimaginable wealth. Core to the Song Saa ethos is a desire to make life better for the people of Cambodia. During its construction phase, the resort employed up to 900 Cambodians on site, many of them locals. Since completion in December 2010, Song Saa has given them an opportunity to engage with an industry that provides them with a steady income and a brighter future than fishing.
Even those who choose a traditional lifestyle benefit.
Through its village liaison officer, Song Saa has established vegetable gardens on Koh Rong, a recycling program and helped some village families set themselves up as pig farmers. One aspiring capitalist has established a fish farm.
Halfway through my stay, an acupuncturist arrives from Britain for a two-week stay. It's part of the resort's efforts to reach out to the local villagers, for whom acupuncture is a new and irresistible form of treatment. On his first day, he sees 40 villagers, with everything from headaches to hangovers to sore backs.
As a spinoff, guests get to share in the feel-good glow, knowing that much of the daily room rate will filter through the local community, and it works. Every guest who stays in a privileged domain in a third-world setting should feel this good. Barefoot luxury in this context does not come cheap. Including taxes, the rate for a one-bedroom villa for two starts at almost $1600 a night in low season. That covers everything - all food, drinks, the mini bar in your room, guided tours and sports equipment, high-speed internet, transfers from the mainland and even international calls from the VoIP phone in your room.
Spa treatments are about the only extra charge. The price tag puts it into the celebration category for most of us. A honeymoon, a birthday or anniversary with a zero at the end of it are all the excuse you need, and if you're looking for somewhere special to pop a few champagne corks, Song Saa truly shines.
The writer travelled as a guest of Singapore Airlines and Song Saa.
Singapore Airlines has several flights daily to Singapore from New Zealand, with connecting flights via SilkAir to Phnom Penh. singaporeair.com.
The drive from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville takes about three hours by private car. Helicopter transfers are also available. Song Saa can arrange either.
An overnight stay in Phnom Penh is required and the premium choice is Raffles Hotel Le Royal, a luxury property that makes the most of its French colonial heritage. The room rate starts at about $NZ330, including breakfast. raffles.com.
The room rate for a jungle villa at Song Saa starts at $US1336 ($NZ1628) a night in low season, plus 22 per cent taxes. Low season falls between June 1 and October 31. During high season, the rate starts at $NZ1994 a night. songsaa.com.
- Sydney Morning Herald