Feb 15, 2021
“BEING ON YOUR OWN IS OVERRATED. We thrive when we’re with others,” says Tim Reynolds, founder of both international, billions-of-dollars-a-day trading firm Jane Street Capital, and of Ani Villas, a group of buy-out-only boutique resorts with all-inclusive amenities on four off-the-beaten-path islands. The Ani brand was born of a combination of Reynolds’s need for a vacation home, his passion for art, and his long-time desire to open schools in the developing world. Ani Villas is a place for “togethering”—a vacation concept that entails gathering your nearest and dearest and absconding to a resort you treat like your home. Maybe it’s a wedding, big birthday, family reunion, or maybe it’s just a great vacation. Sure, you could just book a block of rooms in the same hotel, but there would be strangers there, there would be bills, there would be inhibitions. Togethering properties offer five-star-resort rooms (some at Ani Villas Thailand, which I visited, have their own plunge pools) and bells and whistles (there’s a three-loop waterslide), with common areas (chess and checkers tables in the main pool) and communal meals (at a long table bowed at the center to facilitate conversation) meant to maximize interaction and grant the freedom to do with the place what you please.
Like at the first Ani Villas, in Anguilla, which opened in 2011, the community ideal spills from the resorts in Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Dominican Republic to their prime beneficiaries: Ani Art Academies. Every hotel has a sister school that offers free tuition to all its students in the hopes of not only spurring sustainable local art markets, but also ginning out international-caliber fine artists and creative stars in fields from textile design to video-game development. One graduate’s paintings pull US$25,000, and students within a year of starting training have sold drawings in New York for as much as US$2,000.
“Ani” is a play on a Swahili word that means to be on a path or a journey. Reynolds thought it was appropriate “for artists just setting out on their journey,” he says, and “people who wanted more than just a vacation.” Which is how I found myself in a togethering simulation on Koh Yao Noi, a little island halfway between Phuket and Krabi. It’s rare that I get to spend time alone with my brothers these days—we’re all in different countries—so I am psyched to bring the one who lives in Shanghai on this trip. Jaysen flies down to meet me for a week of what I’ve billed as an open-bar, boat-trip-filled, karst-climbing sibling-bonding beach trip.
On arrival, we meet a Singaporean writer and her husband. And a father and son from Bahrain. Then a writer from Hong Kong whose best friend has traveled from the U.S. to be her plus-one. This is sounding more like togethering. Then, who is this doing flips into the pool and scampering en masse down to the beach to take out the paddleboards? Americans from L.A., an actor and five friends (some also actors, natch), all on their first visit to Thailand, all managing to both brim with excitement about their island adventures and look completely at home on the property.
Well, of course. Celebrities in their need for privacy were togethering pioneers. Reynolds says professional athletes are a distinctive chunk of Ani guests. Justin Bieber made the news this year when he booked out the Lodge at The Hills outside Queenstown, after his Auckland concert. The six-bedroom Lodge includes a chef, grass tennis court, heated pool and access to the golf course that hosts the New Zealand Open, for NZ$28,000 a night in low season (with a five-night minimum).
Ani Villas Thailand is US$7,700 a night in low season for 10 bedrooms (with a three-night minimum). Sure, that’s not an insignificant amount of money, but it’s also not a price tag only accessible to the super rich. “Traveling with friends and staying at villas like Ani is actually more affordable than traveling alone,” says Andrew Wise, founder of online magazine Life, Tailored, who lives in New York City with his wife Stephanie and has made togethering an annual tradition. After getting married at Ani Villas Anguilla (with vows performed by head butler, Felix), they rented a villa in the Dominican Republic the next year, then came with the same group to Ani Thailand. They were “the best weeks of our lives,” Wise says.
ON AN OBSCENELY BLUE-SKY day on a fruit-bowl tropical island, I find myself in a long, dark room with the windows blacked out, sitting at an easel trying to draw lines with a charcoal pencil. My orders: make a series of dots at random, then connect them with as light and as straight of lines as possible. I do this for 15 minutes, my face scrunching up, my mind tensing, my wrist jumping. Most of my lines are too dark, some veer off course like a drunk; the page looks like a blind man’s connect-the-dots. Instructor Rodney O’Dell Davis, originally from Orlando, tells me I’m holding the pencil wrong, points out the few lines that are “not too bad,” and reminds me that if I were a student here, I’d be doing this all day. And all tomorrow.
The Waichulis curriculum of hyperrealism, created by Pennsylvania artist Anthony Waichulis, is a deliberate practice, skills-base process rooted in part in 19th-century French artistic training. It’s all repetition. You do one exercise until you’ve perfected it, then move on to the next, which builds on all those that came before. Straight lines are lesson No. 1 because they’re the building blocks of everything, even spheres, a fact that blows my mind. O’Dell Davis nods—“spheres kicked my ass”—but waves off my wonder. “You learn to break things down into the simplest forms.”
“Being on an island is conducive to education,” he says. “There are not a lot of distractions.” That’s a dubious claim to a beach bum like me, especially considering how impressive the arrival at Ani Art Academy is. The vista under the grand peaked roof looks across verdant rice paddies, low rolling hills and out to the sea beyond. But this is intended as a source of fleeting inspiration at most, for the students will spend 3 1/2 years (two years of drawing, 18 months of painting) minimum, eight hours a day average, in the classrooms under a stringent program of hyperrealism.
It’s not exactly the art form you’d expect springing up on an Asian isle. But take a peek over the shoulder of one student, Yos. The 40-year-old from a nearby province has been studying here since its opening two years ago and is creating his own version of a photograph of a traditional Thai building in foliage. Glancing between the photo and his drawing, it’s impossible to know which is which. In fact, in some ways, his drawing looks more like a photo. It’s uncanny.
“I don’t believe in talent; I believe in innate ability,” O’Dell Davis tells me, explaining that he admits students based on personality and dedication, not whether they’ve ever held a brush. “It all comes down to work ethic. Most people think artists live a bohemian lifestyle, get up at noon, splash some paint on the wall, call it a day. The reality is most artists clock 30 to 60 hours a week. When they really see what a solitary life it is, they say it’s not for them.”
The day I visit happens to be the first day of class for Robyn, an Australian who learned about Ani Art Academy when her daughter had the first wedding ever at Ani Villas Thailand. A self-described dabbler, Robyn found herself “uninspired with my own artwork,” so sold her house and moved to Thailand this year. That plus the three pages of lines she’d drawn so far seems like dedication to me.
BEFORE WE MET OUR FELLOW guests at Ani Villas, the jovial property manager Chaya told me and Jaysen that everyone already had been engaging in a bunch of prosecco-filled raucous antics. “You mean, together?” I asked, still not getting it. But it is quickly apparent that everyone’s in this party ensemble—including the staff, who are plentiful and discreet. If the bartender’s away, feel free to jump behind the bar and whip up some piña coladas or pop some bubbly. It’s all included anyway.
So is the spa, where nearly everyone gets a treatment per day. Chef Yao makes delicious classic Thai food served family style—and, since he’s also a trained florist, he can render a fairy-lit barbecue banquet magical with 100 chains of hand-strung flowers. (Guests may, of course, bring their own chefs, or make special requests. Ani has flown rabbis down from Bangkok to make the kitchen kosher.)
The art from the Academy that Yos and other students are creating will perfectly complement the natural beauty here. The porches of our suites, the lawns, library and pool all point towards the mossy, jagged teeth of Phang Nga Bay, and it’s tempting to just lie on a sunbed all day, but there are adventures to be had. “Hollywood,” which my brother takes to calling the Americans collectively and affectionately, have already fallen in love with the beasts at Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, and earned war wounds from learning to scale a coconut tree. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s no chore to share a speedboat to Krabi to climb Railay Bay’s iconic rocks, or long-tail boats deep into Phang Nga to examine karsts up close. In fact, when one of the two long-tail engines stalls, forcing us to do a mid-ocean transfer of troops, everyone piles onto one vessel shouting, “Yay! Together again… Err, don’t forget that other cooler of beers.”
That Koh Yao Noi is still such a relatively remote island helps promote togethering. And while I wish Ani luck creating a strong local arts community to start galleries, I also hope the island’s sleepy soul and the hotel’s inclusive spirit can withstand a tide of tourism. By our last night at Ani Villas, I’m pleasantly surprised at how sad I am to part ways with all of our co-togetherers. “You guys really screwed with my brother-sister bonding trip,” I tell Hollywood, wondering how five days flew by so fast. It’s true: being alone is overrated.
Ani Villas Thailand, Koh Yao Noi, sleeps 20 in 10 bedrooms. Rates range from US$5,500 for six bedrooms in low season to US$15,000 for 10 bedrooms in peak season. All bookings give you complete buy-out of the resort with all-inclusive food, drinks, spa, cooking classes, laundry and round-trip transfers from Phuket or Krabi airports. Visit anivillas.com for information on this resort and the properties in Sri Lanka, Anguilla and Dominican Republic, and aniartacademies.org to learn about the schools.