I let out a ‘Who-o-oa,’ which Ms Smith echoes with a whispered ‘Wow.’ We’re in southern Utah, a few miles from the Arizona border. High desert canyons hundreds of millions of years old stretch away in every direction. We – uncharacteristically – cannot get past whoa and wow, moved to inarticulateness by the cornucopia of geological splendor.
We’ve just set off from Amangiri, one of the famously decadent Aman resorts, and we’re hiking up a sand dune and gazing at a mesa, a terracotta-toned flat-topped mountain that our guide tells us is evidence that this rolling land was once undersea. Gazing at this chameleon landscape – ochre in some lights, bright pink in others – it’s not unusual for guests from the resort to have an epiphany, our guide tells us. ‘Granted this is all pretty soul-uplifting,’ murmurs Ms Smith, ‘but epiphany?’
On a just-us-girls getaway, we’re aiming for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure packed into one long weekend. Our husbands, brimming with wit, have nicknamed it the Thelma and Louise trip. Although this resort, the only bit of high luxe for hundreds and hundreds of miles, is to die for, we’re not about to drive off the lip of a canyon. Life’s too good here.
It’s an all-day trip to Amangiri from the East Coast – you get yourself to Phoenix and then pick up a Great Lakes Airways 19-seater plane to Page, Arizona, a town spawned by the building of the 708-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam. There, we are met by an air-conned glossy black BMW SUV. ‘No wonder people become Aman Junkies,’ coos Ms Smith.
Amangiri, which means ‘peaceful mountain,’ emerges discretely and organically against a dramatic mesa – architecture rarely manages to be so iconic yet humble. 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 setting – and the rooms look out across a sea of sand billows to Studhorse Mesa and, farther off, 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 John Travolta stars as a renegade strategic bomber pilot. Not the best film, though, so don’t rush to see it if you missed it.
Amangiri is a resort of concrete geometric planes. They stand out against the swerving shoulders of rock all around, but still seem perfectly suited to the setting. The concrete has been subtly tinted with pink, ochre, 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 the 'pavilion,' which serves as reception, dining room and living room. It has three fireplace niches furnished with comfortable couches and armchairs. 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 the chef's counter and watch the chefs work the wood-burning oven.) In the centre of the room is a long space flanked by banquettes done in black (one of the few dashes of bold 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.
Everywhere we walk, grand sweeping views give way to sliver-glimpses of the desert, or a ceiling shaft (purposely placed) casts light on a small fountain. Our suite is no different. Huge picture windows open onto a private terrace with an open fireplace. It is all too perfect, serene and – dare we say it – romantic. ‘We might have to fall in love,’ quips Ms Smith.
We immediately set about inspecting our abode, trying the delicious-smelling body lotion, sniffing the bath salts, scanning the spa menu. Every detail, from the woven horsehair keychain on the room key to the hanging, hammered brass lamps, feels harmonious, conveying a sense of the ancient into a modern setting. Even a straw hat manages to be elegant. The only thing wanting is alcohol in the complimentary minibar, as Utah is a dry state. (Don’t worry, you can always ring room service for boozy tipples.) So we battened on the cruelly delicious caramel corn with almonds. Finish one jar and the room fairies instantly replenish it.
Soon we were settled in the main lounge for sunset, the canyon glowing apricot and laid out in wide screen through the huge picture windows. We swooned and ordered cocktails. Our goal had been to recharge our batteries here, with a chaser of wellness, but how could we resist prickly pear margaritas? Teamed with those Southwest staples, fresh-from-the-oven chips and roasted tomato salsa, the crisp Tex-Mex tequila-based drink hit the tongue deliciously sweet and finished with a good-for-you clean aftertaste. We progressed to a bottle of Washington State white wine and ordered more of those chips – perhaps that 8am yoga class was a bit too ambitious on our part.
The next morning, compensating for doing supine rather than downward dogs, we showed up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the complimentary hike – really, an encounter with creation. The geological history of the area is laid out in striations across the massive red, brown, beige, and black outcrops – hundreds of millions of years of life visible, tactile, and right in front of us. The huge cave in the mesa facing the property proves a time machine, with 5,000-year-old carvings of goats and a shelter where traces of ancient fires are still visible on the ceiling. Whoa. Even cynical Ms Smith is having a moment.
We hike farther into the desert and while I don’t want to sound like someone on magic mushrooms, I start to feel like I’m tripping. I’m picturing myself at the bottom of what was once an ocean, powerful currents mirrored in the undulating shapes of the rock. And then I’m picturing massive dinosaurs lumbering across the plain, and jump-cutting to ancient people working with stone tools. I’ve never felt like such a blip in the time.
So now where to? A spell in the holistic and Native American-inspired spa and water pavilion seemed fitting, so we book a ‘journey’ incorporating a massage and scrub. Then after some sunning poolside, we take turns soaking in our bathroom, which is pretty close to a spa itself. Spruced up for supper (fleeces or Ferragamo – anything goes) we wander into the by now low-lit lounge. ‘Is that Anne Hathaway?’ Ms Smith mutters. I roll my eyes. And then I do a double-take – it is.
We take up perches at the sleek ebony bar. The best thing about this open-kitchen corner is the dishes on the house. A spell at Amangiri is undeniably an extravagance, but also a one-in-a-million experience. ‘To epiphanies,’ we toast. And you’ll be proud of us – we made yoga the next morning.