Review: Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai

One of northern Thailand's iconic resorts, Four Seasons shows staycations should also deliver a sense of discovery. By Jeninne Lee-St. John.

Nov 11, 2020

The good life is about finding balance. If you’ve ever ridden a pink water buffalo, you’ll know that’s also about balance—in your core, for sure, but if you’ll allow me a little cheese, also in your heart and your sense of adventure.

They like to say Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai is nestled in rice paddies. But that doesn’t begin to describe the lush setting of this farmlands-chic resort in the Mai Rim Valley, with Doi Suthep mountain in the distance, tiers of emerald everywhere you cast your eye. With 98 pavilion rooms, pool villas and residences ringing central fields and ponds, a watermill here, a wooden bridge there, it’s village living at the highest level. The sun sets a cotton-candy pink over the ridge beyond the paddocks through which a procession of local musicians rings out each day, and if you don’t have a glass of bubbles in hand to toast this bucolic scene and yourself for already forgetting the hard edges of the city from whence you came, I’m not even sure what you’re doing here.

They’re recently introduced new wellness and dining menus with emphases on finding balance, so on a long weekend not so long ago, a friend and I checked in to one of the resort’s 12 pool villas, lengthy homes that take their feng shui seriously. Water flows on three sides, from the frond-adorned outdoor shower through the sizable bathroom/dressing room-in-the-round, right on past the elevated king bed facing out over your sofa onto the purpose of this place: the verandah and garden with private pool overlooking a soothing waterfall in the woods. With the swinging daybed, the gazebo with sunken seating, the sun loungers and the bench in the jacuzzi, you’ve got no shortage of spaces to laze—or to take your room service degustation menu. The amenable waitstaff will happily pour you a drink in any perch.

The problem with pool villas, especially impossibly idyllic ones in which your every desire is literally at your fingertips via the super convenient Four Seasons app and Whatsapp channel that are both manned 24/7 by someone on site, is making yourself leave. Luckily, each comes with a pair of bikes for tooling around the great outdoors. And the resort offers immersive off-site excursions that appeal even to seen-it-all locals. Ziplining, ATVing and good old fashioned hiking are available, weather-permitting.

You might also take a painting lesson with a local artist or hang out with silversmiths. Four Seasons arranged for Marisa Marchitelli, a filmmaker, photographer and local organizer of Thai-Italian background who has lived in Chiang Mai for years, to show me her creative hit list in town. We went by In Clay Pottery, a hand-made brand beloved by the big hitters (Gaggan Anand had just been shopping there the day before) where friendly members of the studio sit in a garden in gab while getting their hands dirty. It took all my willpower not to tie on an apron and plop down behind a wheel for a few hours of clay-throwing Zen.

Among our other stops was Sop Moei Arts, one of those way-more-than-a-souvenir-shops you always hope to find whether on vacation or just looking to celebrate the beauty of your home country. It’s a non-profit that presents the traditional handiwork of a local minority group—the Pwo Karen from Mae Hong Son—with a dash of modern style, ensuring there’s a hungry market for the work of their weavers, basket-makers, indigo-dyers and other artisans to help support the community and keep their crafts alive. My couch is now covered in their vibrant cushions.

It’s nice when shopping is good for the soul, and as self-nourishment was my main underlying goal for this trip, I made sure to get in a lot of spa time. You would too, if you saw the spa. Its most visible portion is the yoga sala, a two-story stilted house in the resort’s lilypad-topped lake. An early-morning session with gentle naturopath Sudha Nair kicked the kinks out of my joints and enlivened me for the day ahead. Wara Cheewa Spa itself, tucked a bit uphill from there, is in a stunning old-Lanna villa with spiral staircases and wooden turrets and wonderful picture windows. To enter you must cross a wooden gangplank out of a fairytale, and after my lymphatic drainage massage—meant to wipe out negativity along with all those toxins in my body—it did feel like I had entered another realm. They’ve recently retooled their spa menu to offer solutions for physical, emotional, social and nutritive needs.

My nutritive needs, of course and with apologies, are usually accompanied by the reintroduction of toxins, you know, of the behind-the-bar variety. In a bid to lure the local movers-and-drinkers to within their rarefied walls, Four Seasons has recently launched a lively Sunday brunch in their central, open-air restaurant, North, complete with live music and live flames. The firepit is the glammest grill you’ve ever seen, designed as it was by Bill Bensley (who also did the whole property’s landscaping) with an ornate lotus-flower-engraved hood taking center stage. The afternoon is an all-you-can-eat a la carte affair in which I doubt the accounting department was pleased with just how many Maine lobsters I could in fact eat. It’s the brunch one always wants in Bangkok: breezy, clubhouse-casual, poolside and prosecco-fueled.

All photos courtesy of Four Seasons.

It was also, for me that day, followed hilariously by some buffalo washing. It might seem incongruous, but doesn’t everyone like a little bubbly with their bubble bath? My friend and I donned some denim pjs and trailed the farmers out to the barn. Using organic loofahs and garden hoses, we soaped up a black then a pink buffalo, both of whom continually chewed leaves and seemed completely oblivious to our presence rubbing their tummies and scrubbing their hooves and even climbing on their backs to pretend we were going to plow to fields. Their backs are broad; it’s not as tricky of a balancing act as it looks, promise.

The mother-and-adult-daughter duo who bathed the buffaloes before us were sporting Chanel and diamonds with their farmer gear, and giggling considerably as dad snapped pics with his latest-version iPhone. They said they were staycationing here from Bangkok, too, and, no, had never done an activity like this before either, but, yes, they were having the best time both with these big beasts and at the resort. Which just goes to show that even for the most fortunate among us, sometimes the most fun to be had is in your own backyard.

fourseasons.com/chiangmai/; doubles from Bt15,300. New staycation package December 1–31, 2020: Bt12,000 per night for a minimum two-night stay, including daily breakfast; a poolside barbecue lunch; guaranteed room upgrade; 30 percent off food, beverages, and spa treatments; and other perks.

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