It was a scenic 10 minute drive from Paro Airport to Uma by Como, Paro in Bhutan; possibly the shortest amount of time from touchdown to check-in in the history of this Mr & Mrs Smith. But those 10 minutes were pretty dramatic – the hairpin turns that were to become very much part of our experience of driving in this mountain kingdom saw us being thrown from one side of our car to the other. As we zipped past the picturesque archery field in the 38-acre compound, Mr Smith muttered something about putting his bow and arrow skills to the test, and using our driver as the target.
The chic, low-rise mountain lodge may not impress those expecting traditional architecture to complement the intricate local carvings and paintings on display, but this slick, darkwood-clad fantasy lodge is Bhutan as filtered through the vision of jet-setting international tastemaker Christina Ong. And that certainly appealed to this Mrs Smith.
I loved its tack of showcasing some, rather than all, of the beauty and complexity of the country, leaving the intrepid traveller to discover the rest for herself. It’s a far preferable approach than the force-feeding of history, culture and art we’ve experienced at other establishments. Mr Smith liked the trans-cultural, hip, yet surprisingly tranquil club tunes that filled the lobby, bar and cosy adjoining Bukhari restaurant. This was a space that embraces each guest with a warm welcome, irrespective of whether North Face or Prada is their label of choice; whether they are part of a lip-locked twosome or an easygoing family travelling the world. We were all made to feel cool, stylish and utterly in our element.
After nearly getting lost in the circle of interconnecting rooms in our one-bedrooom villa (which we did love, because it came with its own spa room), we made our way back to rustic-luxe Bukhari for lunch. The circular dining room, lined with floor-to-ceiling picture windows, offered a panoramic view of a valley framed by tall pine trees. Wood-fire stoves kept the intimate room pleasantly toasty. Outside, down by a cobblestoned garden path, a family of puppies frolicked in the sun, keeping us entertained throughout our meal.
Let it be known that I had low or rather no expectations of Bhutanese cuisine, given that food-obsessed Mr Smith (who first visited the country in 1997) and a certain internationally renowned American food critic had proclaimed dining in Bhutan to be unequivocally bad. So the wide range of Western classics, fusion dishes, Bhutanese specialities and Indian fare naturally exceeded expectations. In fact, the chefs at Uma Paro were exceptional by any standards. Their healthy, organic options enticed even spa cuisine unbeliever Mr Smith.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first meal of traditional buckwheat noodles with a contemporary twist. Tossed with broccolini, pine nuts and basil, then topped with grated cheese, it was packed with wholesome, unadulterated flavour. Mr Smith rapidly worked his way through a platter of vegetable dumplings with chilli sauce (tshey sey da datse momo) and made plans to try the scrumptious-sounding Indian menu that evening.
We were thrilled to discover complimentary high-speed WiFi available in the lobby and, when other guests loudly bemoaned the fact we were using our computers in their presence, we gladly swapped work for a short, guided acclimatisation walk (Smith tip: wear hiking boots, even for this little stroll). The air was crisp and the route unchallenging, which I was thankful for, given that even tottering across the street in Louboutins leaves me breathless. Although the bird’s eye view of the airport runway left us a tad unimpressed, the 45-minute hike inspired me enough to commit to the two-hour long Zuri Dzong hike the next day.
We made our way back to the hotel, carefully avoiding the cowpats, and sipped on freshly made fruit juices before Mr Smith headed over to the archery field. He didn’t leave much of an impression on the target, which he could hardly make out from 150 metres away, but he didn’t hit anyone in the vicinity either.
As we dined that evening, our discreetly ever-present personal butler lit a fire in our villa and set out a pot of hot masala tea for us. Exhausted from the day’s adventures, we stretched out on the comfortable daybed in our living room and watched flames dance in the hearth until Mr Smith could resist the call of the in-house DVD list no longer. The cavernous bathroom remained somewhat cold, even when every conceivable heating element was in use, but the intoxicating scent of Revitalise (a blend of geranium, lavender, peppermint and other essential oils) and the range of Como Shambhala toiletries provided more than made up for it.
At breakfast, I relished the delightfully tasty ham and cheese omelette. Be warned, though, that fat is prized in Bhutan and local chefs tend to not trim it off their generous helpings of ham or bacon. Then it was off for a a strenuous morning of trekking to Zuri Dzong and Ta Dzong, home to Bhutan’s National Museum. At lunchtime, tiredness seeping through our bodies, we unpacked our lodge-supplied picnic of sandwiches, salads, trail mix and biscuits at a pretty vantage point and shared a few choice morsels of our glorious meal with the neighbourhood’s friendly dogs.
A short drive later, we were back at Uma, which I was reluctant to leave for the remainder of our stay. This Mrs Smith was not ready to brave the vertiginous route to the much talked about Tiger’s Nest. We agreed that we would tackle it on our next visit – which, given how much this mountain lodge had impressed me, I made Mr Smith agree to plan in the very near future.