Thursday 23 December 2010

The Art and Craft of hospitality

What do you do when you're a retired oil trader and a former Citibank systems executive who want to get out of the rat race?

Why, you buy 4 rai of land, spend 6 years building The Heritage House and Garden, and introduce yourselves to 16-hour working days in service of your guests, of course.

That's what Charles and Aunchan Sands did. They were visiting Chiang Mai when a friend in the real estate game asked if they were interested in looking at some property on the Samoeng Road, behind Doi Suthep. "Yeah, maybe if see something we like ...," laughs Charlie. "Well, we bought the land the day we saw it." And who can blame them -- a nice acreage in a quiet and secluded valley, with a stream running though it, and a meditation centre across the way.

That was six years ago, and they've just opened for business now, jing jing. "We talked about a bed-and-breakfast concept, because we lived in the UK for six years," explains the upstate New Yorker, "and we wanted to include the Arts and Craft Movement. I never imagined we'd undertake anything like this" -- he surveys the stately Provencale-style Manor House behind him -- "but we got sucked into it."

In front across the sprawling lawn is Dragonfly Cottage, and to his left is the Tuscan cottage. Five habitable buildings on the property in all, including their own residence. "We ended up with a small village," he smiles in wonder.

The Arts and Craft Movement is a recurring theme. "Restraint is the mark of good design," says Charlie. Books by William Morris, Charles Rennie McIntosh (the forerunner of the art nouveau movement) and Frank Lloyd Wright are among the extensive library collection, which also features numerous architecture and gardening titles. The Library is a room that makes you want to slouch in a big comfy chair while the fireplace crackles in the corner.

"Chiang Mai's climate is similar and suitable for Provencale inspiration," says Charlie, "but we don't have the Mistral here thank God."

The couple had a local stone-worker toiling for 4 years, and all the stones were sourced from neighbouring village, Ban Pong. Stained glass, used heavily, was sourced from the USA.Tromp l'oeil paintings, usually of grapes and vines, adorn many walls. Antique furniture came from nearby Ban Tawai village and as far away as Rajahstan -- and some from the internet -- each piece lovingly selected and procured by the pedantic couple for a particular space.

Each of the 8 suites is done out in a distinctively different style. There's the soft pink Sunflower room decorated with cherubs, the English Country room all floral (Aunchan's choices), the Chinese suite in rich velvety plum, a Thai suite, a French Aristocratic suite in red and gold (with a Monet reproduction), a more rustic French room, and the top Wisteria suite which features windows on all sides, a terrace, and an 'eagles nest' lookout.

A grand 10-seater dining table lords over the dining area, with its soaring cathedral ceilings.

The attention to detail is splendid; and tiring just to listen to the amount of work that went into each fitting. "It wasn't like doing a Holiday Inn," laughs Charlie.

Outside, the constant trickle of water from the stream and fountains is pleasingly soothing, complementing the calming nature of the lush English/ French gardens. "I was influenced by the lovely English gardens we saw, the National Trust Gardens," says the charming Thai hostess, Aunchan.

It's so utterly convincing in its style, you forget where you are. But, just on sunset, I hear a sound: Waaaa-Eaw! Waaaa-Eaw! Ah, the unmistakable call of the jing jok lizard.

So, we are in Thailand after all.

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