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  • Andrea Black

Mad Skills

The latest bragging point for luxury resorts isn’t thread counts or the size of the plunge pools but cultural experiences that leave guests with artisanal skills, beautiful products and a tale to tell, writes Andrea Black.

Sure, taking in a sweeping vista, surrendering to an exceptional spa treatment and lolling on a perfectly placed poolside cabana are all pleasurable ways to pass a resort stay. Increasingly, however, guests are seeking more. They want unique, immersive experiences, to perhaps master a new skill learning from the best. It’s a growing trend in boutique and luxury hotels. What stayed with me after a weekend at qualia on Hamilton Island wasn’t the private plunge pool in my pavilion or the spectacular views across the eucalypts to the Coral Sea, though both were wonderful. It was the opportunity to take a class in candlemaking with Elise Pioch Balzac from Maison Balzac and tame small shrubs of wildflowers, billy buttons, gumnuts and orchids into a bouquet with florist Saskia Havekes from Grandiflora. These personalised experiences taught by passionate experts make for a more meaningful journey, often experienced with like-minded creators keen to expand their cultural consciousness. Here are some of the retreats taking guest experiences to the next level.

With its working mezcal distillery, Casa Silencio educates guests in artisanal spirit production. Photography courtesy of Casa Silenci.o

Distil mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico

Located in Mexico’s Valley of Xaagá, about an hour’s drive from Oaxaca City, the new boutique hotel Casa Silencio is housed within a sprawling working distillery owned by the El Silencio mezcal brand. Among agave-studded valleys, guests are afforded the opportunity to take a deep dive into the process of distilling mezcal. From chopping up agave to touring the palenque’s tahona wheel, fermentation and distillation areas, the distillers guide guests through the entire spirit production process. Afterwards, step into the tasting room to sample Silencio special-edition mezcals before sitting down to a five-course dinner at sunset prepared by executive chef Daniel Robles Sumano, followed by cocktails around the fire pit under the desert stars. Retreat to one of six two-storey suites, all constructed with a handmade philosophy from rustic rammed earth, reclaimed Oaxacan timber and tile. Casa Silencio is powered by solar energy and has a no-waste policy.

Making custom sandles at Le Mastro, Rome. Photography courtesy of Rome Cavalieri.

Fashion a pair of sandals in Rome

With panoramic views across the Italian capital, a three-Michelin-star restaurant on site and Green Key sustainability certification (a first for a Roman hotel), Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf Astoria Hotel, is an alluring prospect. Add to this its Made in Italy by You program, which includes the opportunity to craft a pair of sandals in a class run by the shoemaker Le Mastro. Guests will be transported to a traditional workshop in a quiet residential street where, under the tutelage of a skilled expert, they will design and make their own handcrafted leather footwear to take home. Not only is this the perfect keepsake, it’s an artisanal experience offering a rare new skill, namely the art of cobbling passed down through generations. Rome Cavalieri also offers a workshop in hand-making a fedora at Antica Manifattura Cappelli, a hatmaker established in 1930.

Photography courtesy of Costa Navarino.

Make cheese at Costa Navarino, Greece

The turquoise waters of Costa Navarino is not the only reason travellers are lured to this sustainable destination in the southwest Peloponnese. Those staying at the new W Costa Navarino, which opened in August, can book in for a cheese tasting and making experience in Messinia. Learn about the region’s cheesemaking tradition as local artisans reveal the secrets of their time-honoured methods. Groups will watch and partake in making soft xynomyzithra from fresh goat’s milk, which will then be served with honey and cinnamon, and regional wine and seasonal fruits to match. It’s just one of the tailor-made Greek cultural adventures on offer at the beachfront resort, which include masterclasses in cooking, winemaking and olive harvesting. Add to this hiking, sailing, rock-climbing and biking in or around the verdant 13-hectare grounds.

Take a sabrage masterclass in New York

The tradition of sabrage, a technique for opening a champagne bottle with a saber, has long been celebrated in St Regis hotels, and now St Regis butlers are imparting their expertise to guests in a private champagne sabrage masterclass. The cherished ritual dates back to 1904, when St Regis New York hotel founder John Jacob Astor IV would nightly have a bottle sabered on-property to celebrate the transition from day to night. It’s a tradition that continues to this day. In the masterclass, guests learn how to safely open champagne using a backsword with a curved blade — a striking way to celebrate a soiree or toast a milestone. Classes take each participant through the history of the technique before allowing them to try their hand. After celebrating with a glass of the finest bubbles, guests might retreat to the cocktail lounge, King Cole Bar, home of the original bloody mary and the bar where Salvador Dalí would take a seat with his pet ocelot, Babou. St Regis New York also offers the opportunity to create a signature custom fragrance with the scent designer and founder of Arquiste, Carlos Huber.

Blacksmith Neil Kamimura. Photography courtesy Four Seasons Resort.

Craft a knife in Hawaii

Surrounded by beaches and black-lava landscapes, Four Seasons Resort Hualalai on the Kona side of Hawaii (aka the Big Island) is perfectly situated for swimming, diving and hiking adventures. But it’s up in the hills in a small workshop on a coffee farm where guests can sample a truly immersive experience, with the bonus of a memento to take home. The resort offers “Only at Hualalai” exclusive experiences connecting guests to people and places throughout Hawaii Island, including the chance to learn from Hawaii Island-born blacksmith Neil Kamimura, who makes state-of-the-art specialty knives. Guests spend a full day with the knife master learning about the trade and his distinctive techniques. After an initial consultation, Kamimura will help guests create a unique, personalised chef’s knife including forging, pounding and adding a custom handle. The blacksmith’s signature is using metal recycled from used cars and machinery for the blade and unique natural elements including petrified wood, bone and semiprecious stones for the handle. Afterwards, guests return to the resort to take part in a knife-skills cooking class with a resort chef, using their unique creation for the first time.

Soulshine Bali owners Michael and Sara Agah Franti in the Panorama Suite. Photography courtesy of Courtesy of Soulshine Bali.

Jam with a world-renowned musician in Bali

Soulshine Bali is no ordinary Ubud retreat. It’s run by the world-renowned musician Michael Franti from Spearhead and his wife, Sara, and they bring their wisdom and taste to the design and experiences available. Their Soulrocker Retreats include time on the yoga mat as well as cycling, surfing or indulging in a treatment, with the bonus of experiencing a live performance by Franti and a DJ dance night. For the bold, there’s also the chance to perform with the musician who was also the frontman of Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on a karaoke night. There’s even a Q&A session. As for the resort itself, it features handcrafted furniture, artworks celebrating such icons as John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix, in-room turntables and records, an infinity pool and an overall calming vibe.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 156 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Mad Skills”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.


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