Hotels & Resorts

Why We See #Villalife in Your Future

Cocooning is a coming trend in luxury travel. Villa-management firms elevate private residences to six-star stays. Here's what it's like.

Villa Sapi, Lombok

Villa Sapi, Lombok, Indonesia. Courtesy of Elite Havens

By Jeninne Lee-St. John

Jul 28, 2021

COMING OUT OF LOCKDOWN is a bit like emerging from a cave after a full winter’s hibernation. In Thailand, after every full shutdown, the government slowly-slowly makes curfews later and increases the numbers of people allowed to gather in one place, alcohol sales go from banned to permitted in shops, to restaurants and finally bars, the last places that get the green light. All of which means we all, repeatedly, get very used to associating with very small numbers of people. Those people become our cocoons.

Most of us around the world have become accustomed to (though perhaps with decreasing sanity) the on-again-off-again Covid restrictions that have yo-yo-ed us through the past 16 months. Even when our social-media feeds cycle through highlighting the nouveau-novelty of hugging friends, sitting in stadiums, being near strangers, I’m betting the instinct to cocoon remains.

I’ve written about the trend of togethering before. The notion of getting away from it all with your family and friends, taking over a place you can treat as home, without any of the annoyances of actually being at home. Togethering was on the rise before, but the pandemic is giving it wings. Socializing sized-down. Let’s stay safe, but let’s please for the love of god have a change of scenery!

My friends and I have spent many a weekend renting villas, vacation homes found on sites like Airbnb or Booking.com. So much fun, but so much work – grocery shopping, ordering wine, organizing everyone’s transport, prepping, grilling, cooking, cleaning. Ugh, the cleaning. 

Ah, but there’s a better way! A way to capture the service conveniences of a resort but the privacy and personalization of a rental home. It’s not just about getting a villa, it’s about getting a house mom of sorts of the highest-end houses –- a get that’s increasing in popularity. The Luxury Signature, for example, has 10 residences in each of several countries across Asia for whom they act as travelers’ concierge, arranging your trips, transport and added experiences. Going a step further are villa management companies; much the same way, say, Four Seasons brings their standard of hospitality and quality to hotels whose physical properties are owned by someone else, villa-management companies do this for residences.

In Residence is a South Africa-based company that specializes in top-tier travel experiences – private helicopter rides, customized wine drives, safaris – and manages a network of jaw-dropping, privately owned vacation homes in their home country as well as Greece and Mexico, with expansion to Spain and France coming soon. Their big USP is fine art; one of the owners is a curator and consultant and not only are In Residence’s offerings filled with art, but they’ll also hang works from their private collection in your rental on request. 

Here on this side of the world, Elite Havens was one of the first players in this market, has such a great reputation for hospitality that they were recently acquired by Dusit International, and has assembled a stable of 300+ staffed, covet-worthy properties throughout Asia, offering families and groups sprawling pools, ridiculous views, impressive style including some architecture and landscaping by famous designers – plus space, privacy, flexibility and, crucially in Covid times, safety.

One weekend, seven friends and I headed from Bangkok to Phuket to an Elite Haven, at Sava Beach Villas. Everyone had different obligations, so everyone flew or ferried in at different times. No problem – all transfers organized individually, no lengthy waits. This is an important priority when you’re excited to get your vacation started. It’s extra important when you’re excited to get to your vacation villa and start enjoying it with your favorite people.

The property is extensive. Pull up to Villa Amarelo and the first thing you see directly in front of you is a shady green lawn with soccer nets, a backyard of envious proportions in any suburb. It speaks to the enormity of the space that we basically forgot about that whole area for all of our stay and everyone still spread their wings. 

The opening view is a stunner. The center of the house is the definition of a great room, with high ceilings, a pool table, a big comfy couch facing the 25-meter pool, surrounded by landscaped lawn and pointing straight out to the ocean beyond. One side holds the den, filled with bookshelves and board games; there’s a ping-pong table and a big TV on which we all watched American college football late one evening.

The other side has an airy open kitchen and a long dining table glassed in like a massive aquarium, the better to take in the morning sun, where we met at our leisure for bacon and eggs cooked to order along with sundry other American-diner staples, fresh-squeezed juice and croissants all courtesy of chef Lek. Lunches and dinners we usually took in sala outside next to the pool, which came complete with a 10-seater table with lazy Susan, ceiling fan, bar setup and sound system. Being at the beach, we asked chef to make a combination of our favorite dishes and seafood she found freshest at the market each day. Hence the piles and piles of crab every-which-way, oyster omelets, whole fish and… club sandwiches. (Hey, the heart wants what it wants.)

Sava Beach Villas, Phuket. Clockwise from top: Courtesy of Elite Havens (2); Jeninne Lee-St. John; Elite Havens

Villa Amarelo has six bedrooms: three on the ground floor, all of which open onto the pool, and three on the second floor, one of which affords a sweeping view of Natai Beach. The southern end of Natai holds crystal-clear tide pools perfect for kiddos to splash around and a fishing cove dotted with small boats; walk a bit north and you’ll hit Baba Beach Club.

But leaving property is pretty unnecessary in a place where you can order in massages (and babysitters, for that matter), and where the rolling lawn(s), abundance of sun loungers, and shady beachfront sala provide plenty of space for your entire group to spread out and leave each other to your own devices. Let’s put it this way: A group can be playing water polo in the deep end while two people are having a reiki healing session on the lanai undisturbed.

The process started smoothly and it was the easiest of rides all the way through. Prior to arrival, we received a long itemized spreadsheet of groceries and alcohol; everyone ticked what they wanted and if it wasn’t there, they wrote in a special request. The prices are straight from the store — Elite Havens just charges a small percentage service fee for the shopping. They’ll procure your alcohol the same way, if you like, but were equally happy to take delivery for us of a few cases from BottleGrotto, a natural-wine-focused distributor with outposts in Bangkok and Phuket. There was a menu of dishes chef Lek specialized in, or, again, requests could be made. Did we prefer Western or Asian food for breakfasts? Did we want to make our own bloody Marys, or teach the staff our recipe?

Aside from pouring drinks, manager Khun Apple and her team Khun Ya and Khun Dah kept themselves busy taking care of the little things that make a stay go smooth. For example, one afternoon while we were all in the ocean an unexpected rain shower hit. When I returned to find they’d rescued all our phones and electronics left strewn about outside, I was overjoyed – but I shouldn’t have been surprised. Not in this oh-so-hospitable haven. 

Elite Havens has properties in Bali, Lombok, Nusa Lembongan, Phuket, Koh Samui, Maldives, Japan, India and Sri Lanka. Check their website for information, prices and up-to-date deals.

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