Amangiri, A Billionaire Enclave In The High Desert Of Utah- by Gary Walther
The Colorado Plateau is a broad, high tableland that sprawls around the Four Corners, the Euclidean point where Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico touch right angles. It’s a land of spectacular eroded rock formations, pages of the geological past stretching back 180 million years. They reveal (to the trained eye) the violent upthrusting and relentless weathering that created this vast geological zoo—pinnacles, hoodoos (mushroom hooded rock towers), benches, terraces like the upper deck of a stadium, and mesas flat as a marine haircut. They are why the region contains the greatest concentration of National Parks and National Monuments in the country.
What brought The Hotel Detective to the Plateau is Amangiri, a resort that puts you right in the middle of this ancient splendor while offering a contemporary take on luxury in its accommodation, service, and food. Amangiri, which means “peaceful mountain,” is one of the newest outposts of Aman Resorts, the Singapore-based company that specializes in developing small, exclusive resorts in extraordinary and often out-of-the-way places. Adrian Zecha, its founder and a native of Indonesia, changed the face of resort conception and design in Asia and, through copy-cats, throughout the world. When the history of 20th-century luxury travel is written, Aman will have a chapter to itself.
Not that this Aman resort is remote: It’s only a 20-minute drive from the Glen Canyon Dam end of Lake Powell and a 4.5-hour-drive (reportedly gorgeous) from Las Vegas. Private is more like it. The resort sits in a cliff-curve—curl your hand and place it on its side and you’ll have a good idea of the locale—and the rooms look out across a sea of sand billows to Studhorse Mesa and, in the distance, the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a distance of some 50-80 million years, geologically speaking. Even if you haven’t been here you may have seen the property, as it was used as a setting in “Broken Arrow,” in which a renegade strategic bomber pilot (John Travolta) highjacks a nuclear weapon and then tries to use it to blackmail the US government.
As old as this west is, there’s nothing old west about the architecture and design of Amangiri (no bleached cattle skulls here). It’s a resort of concrete geometric planes that stand out against the swerving shoulders of rock, but seems perfectly in place. The concrete has been subtly tinted with pink, ocher, and light yellow, among the dominant hues in the surrounding cliffs, to soften its profile. The architects deftly used the geometry, often slanting walls toward each other to provide “slot canyon” views of the desert and mesa. When they could they also used the setting to great advantage, for example, curving the pool around a muscular bullnose outcrop of rock.
The centerpiece of the resort is a great room that serves as reception, dining room, and living room. It has four fire-place niches—a kind of conversation pit writ large, with comfortable couches and arm chairs arranged around leather-covered cubes that together or separately can be used to rest drinks and small plates. This is the place to be as the sun sets and the flaming cliffs slowly fade to black silhouettes. On the opposite side of the room, facing the pool, is the restaurant. (Guests can also sit at bar and watch the chefs work the wood-burning oven.) In the center is a long space flanked by banquettes done in black, one of the few dashes of dramatic color, with a small library at one end. It’s a good place for an aperitif or to bone up on the geology before setting out to hike the resort’s 2.5-mile Hoodoo Trail.The guest rooms are marvels of monotone—concrete walls, blonde wood, raffia, white leather, with a touch of color: sage tiles in the spacious bath and double shower. Some might think the color scheme bland; I found it soothing. The top suites here are the Girijaala and Amangiri Suites, which are oases of privacy in this stern desert landscape. The former has a 46-foot-long pool and the latter a 60-foot long one.
THD stayed in a Mesa View Suite, the next-to-lowest room and thought it was grand, courtesy of the view. But out here, the night sky is the thing—a pinwheel of stars. The place to contemplate it is from the sky terrace of a Desert Pool or Mesa Pool Suite. You get a 16-foot-long pool in the bargain, but the resort pool was good enough for THD.
At some point—and not very long after arriving—staring at those stone stacks is not enough. You want to get out there and see them up close. The resort has a long menu of adventure experiences—hot air ballooning, helicopter rides, equestrian excursions that depart from the front door, as well as a guide service, Adventure Partners, standing by to take hikers and climbers on half- and full-day trips.
But there’s a fine excursion that begins just a 10-minute drive from reception. It’s the Via Ferrata, which is Italian for “iron road” and refers to a stretch of rock that is climbed, part of the way, using fixed cables and metal rungs driven into the face. Mike Friedman, Adventure Partners’ managing partner, persuaded THD to do it—he’s terrified of heights. The trail climbs up a flume-like opening in Studhorse Mesa, going back and forth across a field of fallen boulders and up along slip rock, where Mike imparted the technique of standing upright (instead of ballasting forward) and climbing on the balls of your feet. “Trust your shoes,” he keeps saying, to which THD muttered, “That’s a lot of faith to put in footwear.”
Finally, it’s time for THD to man up—hook his caribiner to a 20-foot stretch of aircraft cable and pull himself up and across the slip rock, using the tiny tiers of crossbedding for traction. From there, he follows Mike up the metal rungs on a slanted rock face, staring straight ahead and corralling his rising fear. It bolts clean away at the top, where THD sees another, steeper stretch of cable and rungs going up a near vertical face. Friedman is waiting with soothing patter, and this time he goes first so that he can have THD on the end of a safety rope.
It all happens fast—THD pulls himself up over the final rung, hooking on to another cable, and crab-scrabbling along a 2.5-foot-high corridor of stone. At the end of it, with one more pull, he heaves himself up and over the mesa lip.
From here the landscape unfolds like origami: Lake Powell reaching its fingers deep into canyons, the road north to Kanab etched across the flats in dry point, the red slab cliffs of Bryce Canyon, and right down there, a convex curve of matte-white buildings that looks like a scattering of dice. Height equals time here: In climbing up 500 feet, THD has some 60 million years. The immensity of the view quickly depletes his storehouse of similes and superlatives. But Friedman gets at the big picture with admirable simplicity: “It’s America’s great contribution to geology.”