Hours from civilisation in a fantastic landscape of natural wonders, where epiphanies are as common as canyons, a pioneering hotel opens its doors. Brian Noone reports
An hour into the drive up Cottonwood Canyon in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the singletrack dirt road plunges into a surreal playground of pastel spires, flowering desert brush and seashell-white sandstone fins dozens of metres high. The sight is unexpectedly, jaw-droppingly beautiful, as if a technicolour meteor had broken open the night before. But it is only that – so we drive on. In this barely accessible corner of the American Southwest, one that pioneers steered around on their trek westward and that was fully mapped only last century, beauty is as ubiquitous as sunshine and nearly as banal.
Down the road we spot a sign for a hiking trail that appears to lead into solid rock. Parking in the single, superfluous space – we haven’t seen another car on the road – we squeeze through a crevice into an otherworldly chasm framed by jagged, 30m red walls. Reflected sunlight glows in the silence as a breeze too gentle for us to feel swirls dust up toward the blue sliver of sky. On the ground, pebbles of mauve, evergreen, cobalt, umber, robin-breast red and dozens of hues more compete for attention – each handful brings up a rainbow. As the canyon narrows from five metres across to two and then, in places, to one, claustrophobia and awe intermingle. We are walking through a natural Manhattan, a paradise of rock. And we have found what we are looking for, what nearly everyone who comes to the region looks for: the sublime.
The October opening of the 34-room Amangiri resort on a 243ha site 15 minutes outside Big Water, Utah, population 417, barely registered on the radar of most clued-up travellers. And with but a single palatable restaurant in a 200km radius and a four-hour drive to the nearest luxe hotel (in Las Vegas), the resort can hardly be accused of following a trend. But for those familiar with the Four Corners area, a phantasmagorical landscape of incandescent canyons, endless plateaus and dramatic escarpments at the junction of deserts and mountains, the arrival of a world-class retreat was less a surprise than an eventuality. So isolated and barren that inhabitants have always been sparse, the area remains one of the last places in the continental US where nature remains in its raw, unvarnished state.
It was precisely these qualities that caught the attention of Adrian Zecha, founder of Aman Resorts, whose out-of-the-way, service-oriented boutique properties include the first foreign-owned hotel in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Visiting southern Utah nearly a decade ago, he selected the two kilometre-wide amphitheatre where the hotel currently sits because it “is like a small isolated valley of its own, being almost entirely enclosed by the magnificent surrounding hills”. An act of Congress and a signature from President Bush in 2005 were needed to secure the land, which is not far from the region’s only airport, a dust-encircled landing strip flanked by a one-room terminal in Page, Arizona.
Amangiri’s most significant practical advantage, though, is its position in the geographic centre of the Grand Circle, the largest concentration of federally protected land in the US. It is less than two hours’ drive to four National Parks, three National Forests, ten State Parks, two National Recreation Areas, two Tribal Parks and nine aptly named National Monuments – an expanse, in total, larger than Switzerland. The system of reserving land for public enjoyment has been called the best idea the US government ever had. It was not an original one – the English poet Wordsworth wrote in 1810 that the Lake District ought to be a “sort of national property in which every man has a right” – but the Americans were the first to implement it in 1864, decades ahead of most European countries (the UK established its first national parks in 1949).
And Bryce Canyon, in Utah’s southeastern corner, is one of the most spectacular tracts in the country. Though its thousands of varicoloured limestone spires represent far less history than the nearby Grand Canyon’s two-billion-year-old walls, Bryce’s more human proportions evoke an exquisite, enchanted aura rare among the brute immensity of the surroundings. To descend into its lap, dodging under and around the majestic top-heavy towers, is to be Alice on a colossal chess board. The red queen melts into the white bishop, the tangerine pawns line up one next to the other, and the coral-hued king, Thor’s Hammer, stands tall above the rest.
Passing 800-year-old ponderosa pines and getting lost in the kilometres of hoodoos, as the fairy chimneys are called, they start to resemble the columns and minarets of a great cathedral, one far more ornate and perfect than man has ever built. It becomes easy to understand the penchant of those living here for integrating nature into their religion, whether it is the Navajo revering the anomalous dome of Navajo Mountain as the head of the world, or the adrenaline-junkie guide who said, hardly joking as he navigated his Hummer over untamed desert brush, that he counts himself a “member of the Church of God. G-O-D – the Great Outdoors”.
The resort is, in its own way, a temple to the same deity. Built to maximise the unbroken views from the floor-to-ceiling windows that are part of every room, the style of the construction bears little resemblance to other structures in the region. Rather than imitate the faux-native adobe look of the area’s houses or adopt the clichés of the weathered-timber prairie home, Aman has built the entire resort with the most prosaic of materials, concrete. And, as in the best of the 1950s Brutalist edifices, it might not be right for every situation but here it works splendidly. Three months were required to dye the concrete to match the shades of the motley rock walls that cocoon the resort, and the resulting structure neither hides from view, nor, more importantly, distracts from the awe-inspiring surroundings.
The surroundings do, however, impinge on the resort – most notably in the form of a white monolith that soars up through the centre of the U-shaped swimming pool and gazes over the spartan, rectilinear lines of the resort’s buildings. Inside, the rooms’ raw-boned simplicity complements that of the exterior, set apart by bespoke furnishings – designed, like the concrete, to enhance the landscape – which come from the most varied of sources: bed linens from Italy, crockery from Bali, aluminium tables from a craftsman in Colorado.
And while one could spend whole days soaking in the oversized, desertview bathtubs, leaving the room is almost always the better choice, whether to fly over the cavernous beginnings of the Grand Canyon in a hot-air balloon, to ride across Monument Valley (made famous in John Wayne’s films) on a non-bucking bronco or simply to go on a backcountry trek. The multiple on-property hikes also reward amply, but for all the well-informed recommendations and careful guiding by the Amangiri staff, there are few experiences to rival taking one of the on-site cabriolets for a self-guided exploration.
Decompressing is best saved for afternoons in the expansive, airy spa, which dedicates much of its 2,322sq m to hydrotherapy. With a Watsu pool set directly into the rock face and a plunge pool whose steps wander into its limestone backdrop, the serene seven-room retreat also features a fitness centre, beauty salon and stunning yoga pavilion with gold-framed wooden shutters that fold open to reveal a breathtaking panorama.
Eventually – and this happens to nearly everyone – one’s jaw tires of dropping and one’s breath has been taken too many times: the gargantuan landscape, for all its beauty, begins to overwhelm. That’s when the warm, communal part of the property, the open-plan lounge, library and restaurant, offers welcome respite. And while poring over maps next to a crackling fire or paging through the hand-picked selection of books amuses and stimulates, the true highlights are the meals. Even then, the food – more international fusion than Tex-Mex, light yet satisfying and superbly prepared primarily from local produce – is still not the main attraction. It is the buoyant laughter of the other guests, the sight of knives glinting in the open-air kitchen, the warm-eyed smile of the pastry chef, Frances, in her dedicated corner, the toothsome aromas wafting from the wood-fire oven. In all of this there appears, against expectation and by some inexplicable sleight of hand, a moment of the sublime whose proportions are wholly different from the landscape: they are human.
There are direct flights to both Phoenix and Denver from London. Then it’s a one- or two-hour flight in a 19-seat puddlejumper to Page, Arizona. This is far preferable to the head-splitting four-hour drive from Phoenix or Las Vegas. Hiring a car is unnecessary in any case, as Amangiri has drivers waiting round the clock and cars available for guests to drive themselves.
The resort is open year-round – rock is beautiful in all seasons – but the backcountry dirt roads are more likely to be passable in the warmer months. Rooms from $800-$3,150; amangiri.com.
Centurion, Q4, 2009