There are places around the world in which one
can be surrounded by nature and yet still indulge in
the finer things of life. You just have to know where
to find them. Lisa Grainger is our expert guide
Illustrations: Philip Bannister
Royal Mansour, Morocco
The Royal Mansour is not only the retreat of kings, it is also owned by one: Mohammed VI of Morocco. Built beside Marrakech’s city walls, the property’s 53 private riads are linked by an underground network of staff tunnels, so staff are neither seen nor heard. Although the service is regal, it is the décor that is the most dazzling: the country’s leading craftsmen have embellished local architecture with marble-like tadelakt plaster, intricate zellige tiles, elaborately carved wood and moulded plasterwork.
Fires burn with deliciously scented cedar logs, breakfast is a feast of delicacies (ripe figs, thick orange juice, Parisian pastries, perfect eggs Benedict), and the spa is the most professional in the city, with a cathedral-like marble hammam staffed by locals who have attended the royal family for generations. Evening treats include a restaurant overseen by the Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alleno, an elegant piano bar and a well-stocked cigar bar. www.royalmansour.com
Sal Salis, Australia
You don’t come to this camp for glamorous interiors or pampering (although the nine canvas tents house such welcome extras as solar-powered showers and 500-threadcount sheets). You come because Sal Salis (pictured above) is the only camp for hundreds of miles in the wild and very beautiful Cape Range National Park in northwest Australia while the Ningaloo Reef is right off its shore. Two currents collide here, which mean it’s one of the richest places for marine life: home to more than 500 species of fish and 250 kinds of coral. Best of all, it’s where whale sharks come to breed, and here it is possible to snorkel right up to these gentle giants of the sea.
Like most top Australian establishments, the food is fresh and delicious (prosciutto-wrapped scallops on pea purée and crisp pork belly with beetroot slaw, for instance), and guides are wild about their wildlife (this is a place you need to keep your tent closed, unless you want kangaroo visitors). The closest thing Australia has to a luxury safari camp. www.salsalis.com.au
The Serai, India
There are plenty of palatial residences from which to explore 12th-century Jaisalmer in Rajasthan: the magical hilltop fort and the world’s largest living citadel. However, there are few places from which guests can explore the dry expanses of the Thar Desert, too. The owners of The Serai—the Indian aristocrats Jaisal and Anjali Singh, whose ancestors worked with Sir Edwin Lutyens to plan New Delhi —understand what makes a luxury experience extraordinary, hence the thought that has gone into this 21-tent desert camp.
Tents are decorated in colonial style, with little touches such as fresh roses and soft saffron robes. There are plunge pools and a Raison d’Etre spa for ayurvedic treatments, Jeep trips in the morning, camel excursions in the evening, and star-lit dinners serenaded by Manganiar musicians at night. A camp that combines both regal pleasures and Indian soul. www.sujanluxury.com
Babylonstoren, South Africa
Cape Town has several more polished, glitzier spots than this, but none with as much character or earthy charm as this refurbished 17th-century wine estate (pictured right). Owned by a telecommunications mogul and his magazine-editor wife, the farm’s 200 acres of vineyards are planted around glorious French-style gardens, elegant whitewashed farm cottages decorated in an understated Conranesque style and a private homestead filled with Cape Dutch antiques and super-modern treasures.
Although a small spa, a fresh-spring pool, pretty farm shop, strolling through the estate’s vines and orchards and sampling the finest wines in the region are interesting diversions, a highlight of any stay is the restaurant. Housed in the farm’s former cowshed, it elegantly serves local delicacies, from salads inspired by colourful edible flowers and just-picked fruit juice to spicy lamb-and-apricot stews. A handful of vineyards are a short drive away, as is the historic town of Franschhoek. www.babylonstoren.com
Ariara Island, Philippines
This is the private retreat of British couple Charlie and Carrie McCulloch, who visited the Palawan area of the Philippines in 2005, returned to buy five islands, and built their own home there. Their 125 acres of hilly tropical forest is fringed with long, powdery-white beaches and faces a sea where water-toys beckon—jet skis, a dive boat, a RIB, and a comfortable trimaran cruiser on which local islands can be explored.
The chef, Jonnel Sotto, came from the Amanpulo Resort in the Philippines, and can whip up anything, from Peruvian ceviche to South Indian curries. And because this is a private island rather than a hotel, activities—from meal times to island excursions—are dictated by guests. There are eight bedrooms—some capacious suites, some simple doubles—in traditional wooden buildings, with such surprises as outdoor baths hewn from granite boulders. The greatest thrill? The creatures teeming in the Evian-clear sea: a world-class destination for divers. www.ariaraisland.com
The Farm, Cape Kidnappers, New Zealand
A 6,000-acre sheep-and-cattle farm isn’t the most obvious place for a spa and golf course. Neither does it sound particularly special. Yet The Farm at Cape Kidnappers (pictured above) is a place about which every visitor raves. Overlooking the spectacular Hawke’s Bay, this sumptuous farmhouse is surrounded by rolling hills and fronted by a magnificent coastline. Interiors are crafted from simple stone, wood and natural fabrics, and enriched by books, art and music.
Food is by a British chef, Dale Gartland, who spent four years training with Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park (his bread and chocolates are particularly moreish). The Owner’s Cottage is the most sought-after room, with glorious sea views, although most guests spend their time outside, enjoying some of the freshest air in the world and indulging in spa treatments, games of golf, walks and horse treks. www.capekidnappers.com
Korakia Pensione, United States
Until 1989 this trio of Palm Beach houses—a 1918 adobe, a 1924 bungalow and a 1930s villa—were private residences: the hangout of European artists, musicians and such screen stars as Rudolph Valentino and Errol Flynn. Today, they have been amalgamated into a Moroccan-cum-Mediterranean desert escape, where glorious keyhole-shaped gateways and Italian-style fountains meet amid 1.5 acres of landscaped gardens. The pleasures here are visual and experiential: Moroccan tea is served in hand-painted glasses; yoga classes are held in outdoor spots with views of the Californian desert; there’s bocce ball outside and vintage board games inside. You may recognise the Palm Beach property from somewhere as it has long been a favourite location for such leading fashion and lifestyle photographers as Annie Leibovitz and Bruce Weber, who both clearly take delight in the building’s rustic architecture and warm aesthetics. It has also been the striking venue for the recent global media launch of the V12 Vantage S and the Vanquish Volante. www.korakia.com