“Is that trash, ma’am?” one of the six mask-wearing concierges asked, gesturing towards the bag in my hand, as I took my first steps out of the car and into the 40C desert heat. “Errr, no that’s . . . actually some of my luggage,” I winced.
My partner and I had just arrived at Amangiri — a hotel deep in the wilderness of southern Utah — after an eight-hour road trip from California. The resort, which encompasses 1,500 acres of desert encircled by majestic rock formations and national parks, opened in 2009 and has become a popular destination for LA’s celebrities and influencers, desperate for an unusually eye-catching backdrop in an age of relentless and competitive self-broadcasting.
But while visits from Kim Kardashian have been well documented, the site has also quietly become a hotspot for Silicon Valley’s billionaires seeking tranquillity (Amangiri is Sanskrit for “peaceful mountain”), privacy and easy escape from city living and the digital world, only a short private-jet charter away.
We had been invited to be among the first guests of Camp Sarika, a new outpost which opened last week in its own 135-acre enclave, offering even greater peace and seclusion — and perhaps one of the world’s most glamorous “camping” experiences; rates start at $3,500 per night. The concept seems to chime with the tech elite’s tendency towards lavish understatedness (consider too their liking for Brunello Cucinelli T-shirts that are plain black but cost $500). At a time of coronavirus travel bans, social distancing and internet-mob pile-ons of those who disregard it, does one want to be spied in a bustling, ritzy beach club? Absolutely not. A meaningful and mindful retreat deeper into isolation? Far more on brand.
But there is such a thing as too understated. I should have known better, I thought, as we were ushered by the concierges towards the fleet of sleek BMWs and hulking Chevrolet Suburbans, one of which would ferry us to the camp. For all of Silicon Valley’s self-professed casualness, the white plastic bag, in which I had hastily shoved an extra pair of trainers and jacket on leaving my apartment, did not quite meet the Aman mark.
Founded in 1988, Singapore-headquartered Aman has built a reputation for hotels that are havens of serenity, often in remote locations, with subtle, minimalist design but reassuringly expensive rates. The story goes that when Aman bought the land in Utah, one of the original investors lived here in a yurt for three weeks, trying to work out what to do with it. Perhaps Camp Sarika draws inspiration from that experience but this is a camp in only the very loosest sense, geared to those seeking something more spa-orientated than spartan.
I’m told its birth had several false starts; architects initially trialled luxury tepees, but found they could not withstand the high winds and temperatures. Entering my accommodation, “Camp Nine” (out of 10 in total), I found it had solid concrete walls, albeit draped in a tent-like canvas, beneath a canvas roof canopy woven from recycled plastic bottles. There was a generous living and dining area, an outdoor terrace and plunge pool.
One side of what the staff painstakingly referred to as “the pavilion” was a wall of windows, looking straight out on to a golden desert peppered with wiry shrubs and the occasional big-eared jackrabbit. The set-up yielded multiple spots from which to gaze at the surroundings: the cream living-room sofa, the king-size bed, or the bathroom’s huge freestanding tub. And, of course, the closest thing to an authentic camping experience: the rustic outdoor shower, just a sliding door away from its indoor equivalent.
From the plunge pool on my first evening, I marvelled at the stars and the drama of the sandstone formations that border the resort. Splendid buttes and mesas in a shifting palette of greys, pinks and oranges jutted up on the horizon, sculpted over the course of 165m years — surely enough to make even the most eminent guests feel humble.
But to enjoy this ever so comfortable set-up, one has to be especially comfortable with oneself. The pavilions, some of which are designed for families and have two bedrooms, are spread out along a winding dirt track, each one at least several hundred yards apart. Adding to the seclusion this summer, the camp is currently running at half capacity to aid social distancing. The stillness is delicate and unnerving; the silence, truly deafening, aside from the occasional creak of grasshoppers. At first, the absence of sound and movement was so disconcerting that my partner and I whispered for a full hour, as if we could be overheard by the cacti or were somehow disturbing the nothingness. By the end of the stay, when we were suitably relaxed and awash with Zen, loud noises made us wince.
Still, the accommodation was not without its glitches. Some of these could be put down to this being the debut of the facilities. In other instances, the designers appeared to have overcompensated for the minimalist decor with bewilderingly high-tech amenities. The futuristic Japanese-style electric toilet was as baffling as it was bottom-warming; the air conditioning took a good day (and a couple of handymen) to stir. “I think I’ve spent half the time trying to work out which buttons to use to turn things on,” my partner complained, as he wielded multiple remote controls in a bid to raise the gargantuan flatscreen television from the box on the wall where we had been told it lived.
There are communal areas but you shouldn’t come here hoping to hobnob in a thronging hotel lobby. Both Amangiri and Camp Sarika (a five-minute drive or 30-minute walk apart) have restaurants, spas and pools flanked by pristine white beds. Camp Sarika’s pool area was still being finished during our stay but at the main hotel the vibe was more introspective lounging than boozy pool party.
Outside, however, activities are plentiful. “A typical stay starts with a hearty breakfast, activity in the morning, relaxation in the afternoon and an early bedtime,” said Amangiri’s general manager Julien Surget over one such hearty breakfast, complete with sweet potato pancakes, freshly baked pastries and a fruit board, all washed down with the Amangiri’s own spring water (there are three wells on site). “It’s very active, you feel good about yourself,” he said, noting that on last New Year’s Eve, the guests retired just after 9pm, happily working to the timetable of an earlier East Coast midnight countdown.
We had been handed a jam-packed schedule, including horse riding in the desert basin, private yoga sessions with crystal sound bowls, and via ferrata-style rock climbing up some of the dizzying sandstone formations. With my partner and I both slightly scared of heights, and of horses, we told Julien of our trepidation. “That’s the point — you should be,” he said.
I was given Moon, a well-behaved former ranch horse whose only fault was to stop to rub her belly on the desert sagebrush. The ride — though perhaps stroll is a more appropriate characterisation — allowed us to look back on Camp Sarika from afar, and see that the pavilions blend in with the rocky surroundings, as they were designed to do.
But while the ride was enjoyable, it was overshadowed by the unexpectedly satisfying challenge of the Hoodoo Via Ferrata. Using cables and rungs attached to the rock, we scaled one of the weathered formations, a climb culminating in the thrilling crossing of a 238ft-long, 18in-wide steel suspension bridge, swaying over a 600ft gorge. From atop the Hoodoo, we could see for miles — over national parks and canyons, with the empty horizon eventually interrupted by the looming Navajo Mountain. Gazing out, our climbing guide explained that he had hardly noticed the lockdown: “Social distancing for us is a lifestyle,” he said.
Hannah Murphy is an FT technology correspondent based in San Francisco
Hannah Murphy was a guest of Camp Sarika by Amangiri, where rates start at $3,500 per room per night full-board, including airport transfers from Page, Arizona. Abercrombie & Kent offers a five-night stay from £8,250 per person, including flights from London and accommodation on a bed-and-breakfast basis. Camp Sarika is in Kane County, which is currently rated green, the lowest risk, in Utah’s Covid-19 guidance system; see coronavirus.utah.gov for details
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