Parrot Cay is rewriting the score when it comes to the exclusive resort experience
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Luxury in a New Key: Parrot Cay
By Gary Walther
January / February 2005
If a resort could have a resting heart rate, Parrot Cay's would be in the 30s. At this 1,000-acre private-island hideaway in the Turks and Caicos, a 40-island British colony in the Atlantic just south of the Bahamas, the atmosphere is one of perpetual intermission, of animation suspended. Here purpose seems to have been given a furlough, cell-phone reception is nil, and the essential accessories are a good book and an appointment at the newly enlarged (and excellent) spa. Here the staff is instructed never to ask a guest what he does for a living, lest it rouse the very thoughts that the resort aims to bury temporarily. Here the siren song is so low key that it's played in an octave all its own.
Parrot Cay is the creation of Christina Ong--that's Mrs. Ong to you, me, and just about everyone else, including the hotel's general manager. She is one of Asia's style icons, the chatelaine of a fashion empire that includes ownership of the licenses for Jil Sander and Issey Miyake in Asia, Giorgio Armani in Australia, and Donna Karan in Britain. Her husband, real estate baron B. S. Ong, is a major investor in Four Seasons Hotels--he owns five of them--and Mrs. Ong is now in the hotel business, too, as the head of COMO Hotels and Resorts. (The name is an acronym for Christina Ong Melissa Ong, the latter being her daughter, who discovered the then derelict Parrot Cay on a diving trip in 1997.) The brand's far-flung stable consists of the Halkin and the Metropolitan in London, the Metropolitan in Bangkok, Begawan Giri and Uma Ubud in Bali, Uma Paro in Bhutan, and Cocoa Island in the Maldives. COMO has also created its own spa brand, Shambhala, which means "center of peace and harmony" in Sanskrit.
The COMO Hotel network (and the Ongs' other hotel-world connections) are the key to Parrot Cay, because it has given management access to a corps of well-trained, experienced Asian staff. They compose 50 percent of the resort's personnel, filling most of the positions, for instance, waiting tables in the two restaurants, that make or break the guest experience. Thus Monica Barter, the Singaporean spa director, was the assistant health club manager at the Metropolitan in London, and spa supervisor Juliet Ng was at the Concord Hotel in Malaysia, an Ong property. Mrs. Ong's business relationships also come into play in maintaining quality. Donna Karan's private chef, Jill Pettijohn, had a big hand in developing the organic, nondairy Shambhala menu, according to Parrot Cay's recently departed chef, Claudia Dunlop. "Pettijohn sources way-out ingredients like agave syrup and has actually taught us a lot," says Dunlop, adding that "Donna and Mrs. Ong are very close."
The Asian connection is particularly evident in the spa, which offers not only a pan-Asian menu of massage, from Thai to tui na, but therapists from almost every treatment's country of origin to perform it. The Thai-massage therapist, Aire Anongnaut, was trained at the Old Medicine Hospital in Bangkok, the Harvard of Thai massage, and Ayu, from Java, does the Indonesian massage, which relies on skin-rolling techniques to get the blood to rise to the surface. The acupuncturist, Satoshi Hashimoto, is from Japan, and then there's Oka from Bali, who is a kind of utility infielder, doing tui na (Chinese for "push and grab") and a great riff on hot stone, as well as Balinese treatments. Some 20 percent of the staff is from Bali, in fact, which goes some way toward explaining the serene vibe permeating the property.
At Parrot Cay, as at all her resorts, Mrs. Ong is coining a new language of luxury. She eschews the traditional signifiers--marble, silk, grand spaces, and gilt--and the hackneyed contemporary one, that international minimalist vocabulary that runs the gamut from Starck to stark. Instead, she offers a pared-down but eloquent idiom of white, light, and weathered wood that meshes perfectly with the high skies and low-slung horizons of the Turks and Caicos.
She accessorized the six Beach Houses and six Beach Villas, the most private accommodations, perfectly: screened-in porches with Balinese daybeds, hammocks, and old-fashioned whistle-pull showers beside the pools. (They evoked the same delight in me that the bunk beds in our Maine vacation cabin did when I was a kid.) The 42 double rooms and four one-bedroom suites, which are in eight two-story buildings on a hillside, adhere to the same aesthetic--white walls, canopy beds, understated furniture--with the second-story rooms having generous terraces to boot. It's an aesthetic that seeps into you, apparently. One guest told me she actually preferred the double rooms because they kept everything simple. "The Beach House is too much space," she said. "I wouldn't want some of my things in another room." (You get used to it.)