QUEEN of the desert by Steffi Kammerer | 31st August, 2018 | Personalities
It is a place that anyone who has ever visited will never forget. The tranquility, the colors of the desert, the rock formations that are hundreds of millions of years old – time capsules made of sand and stone. At the AMANGIRI resort in Utah, luxury is defined by minimalism. It is the manifestation of entrepreneur Christoph Henkel’s vision in concrete.
You could easily miss it. A weather-beaten sign stands at the side of the highway. Less than a meter wide, it features an arrow and the word “Amangiri” in narrow black letters. At the end of a long side road that seems to lead nowhere in particular, there is a rusty gate like the kind used for an animal enclosure. The intercom next to the gate is the only indicator that this is the way to one of the most spectacular resorts in the world, whose room rates start at around $1,500, even in the off season: You’re asked to explain exactly who you are and why you wish to enter. Nobody gets in without having made a reservation. The drive through the desert from Las Vegas to this part of Utah takes five hours. Those who can afford it – and many of the guests can – arrive by private jet. According to media reports, Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Drew Barrymore, the Kardashians, Gwyneth Paltrow and George Clooney have all stayed here before. The hotel itself would never divulge such information. Discretion is paramount. The colors, too, are discreet and understated: ochers and any sandy, muddy hue imaginable, just as the desert demands. The inside and outside of the building, rocks and concrete blend into one another. Each of the many windows is like a picture frame for the breathtaking landscape. It is a place that inspires ideas, makes you pause and reflect on your path in life. Those are the effects of the vastness, of the rock faces that stand as tall as skyscrapers, but also of the building with its well-defined shapes. As Kanye West posted on Twitter last spring: “We need to Amangiri the world.” Well, it wouldn’t be a bad first step for making the world a better place. The history of the establishment began in 1999 when German investor Christoph Henkel and his then business partner Bernt Kehlmann purchased the first 40 hectares of land here. The initial plan had been to develop real estate projects. “But the more time we spent there, the more we thought: It’s so beautiful, it doesn’t need civilizing,” Henkel remembers. At some point they realized that what was missing was, in fact, a high-end hotel. There was not a single one of those anywhere between the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. Together with Henkel’s wife Katrin, the two businessmen had already completed a rather quirky project in the American West, in Colorado to be precise. Near the town of Telluride, they had turned an abandoned gold-rush era camp into a unique luxury resort: Dunton Hot Springs. In Utah, they commissioned a survey, which found that the highway, next to which the Amangiri is now located, saw around two million car movements annually – a sufficiently high number to infer the presence of solvent, potential guests. When the study was repeated two years ago, the figure had already risen to 12.5 million cars. The number of Americans who travel to the West to discover their own country is growing, too. One of the unique selling points of Henkel’s piece of land in the desert was its existing water rights. There was also a nearby small town with decent infrastructure. Apart from that, there were no amenities: no phone lines, no roads. In the beginning, they worked out of Mongolian yurts. It may be no coincidence that a European, someone with an outsider’s view, built this temple in the desert. “When I was young, I – like many Germans – was naturally enthralled by the stories written by the author Karl May,” Henkel says. “Like my wife and my then business partner, I had a romanticized view of the American West. We were driving through it and thought we’d see Old Shatterhand (editor’s note: one of May’s fictional characters) coming around the next corner.” Today, the Amangiri comprises 34 suites with interior walls and floors made of exposed concrete. Everything is minimalist and luxurious in equal measure. Some of the suites have their own pools, but each has its own patio with a fireplace. In the mornings and evenings, guests can sit there and watch how dramatically the sunlight changes the color of the mountains to every conceivable shade from pink to deep red. It is a daily spectacle that never gets old, just like the clear, starry night skies and the occasional desert hare hopping past. The entrance to the resort features spectacular stairs. As soon as it gets dark, flickering candles line the way in, several dozens are lit every night. When you reach the top, a no less impressive, huge space opens up: It contains the reception and a library, an open kitchen, dining tables, extra-deep sofas and open fireplaces. Floor-to-ceiling windows give onto the desert and the swimming pool, which the Amangiri has been built around. The pool itself is only a backdrop for the huge, 165-million-year-old rock that protrudes into the water like a gigantic whale.
There were numerous attempts to talk Henkel out of the mammoth project. “Don’t do it,” said many friends and acquaintances, “a luxury hotel in the middle of nowhere will never work.” They even took his wife aside, saying: “Christoph has lost it, he’s nuts.” But Henkel never considered quitting. “I was always full of optimism. I was inspired by the tremendous idea of creating something there.” The desert, “this great blank canvass,” represented a challenge to him, he says. “You cannot really imagine this happening in Tyrol,” Henkel adds, laughing. He grew up in the Austrian Alps, which explains his love for the mountains. At some point, he realized that he would have to join forces with a really big brand. His current business partner Homi Vazifdar put him in touch with Adrian Zecha, the visionary founder of the Aman group, which operates minimalist luxury hotels in some of the world’s most beautiful places. They arranged their first big meeting in Wyoming for September 11, 2001, of all days. They followed the dramatic news reports from the East Coast on TV. When it became clear that they would not be able to fly anywhere that day, they got into the car and started driving towards the desert. When they arrived, Zecha pointed to the exact spot that the Amangiri occupies today. Couldn’t it be built there? It was, however, precisely this piece of land that Henkel did not own. There followed several years of negotiations with the owner, the state of Utah, at the end of which he was finally able to swap the plot for another he owned. He also bought additional land. Today, the property comprises a total of 242 hectares. In any case, Zecha came on board. Today the hotel is managed by Aman and belongs to Henkel, together with some other investors. After ten long years, the Amangiri finally opened in 2009, with shamans bearing incense in attendance. Henkel summarizes the process up to this point as “money, sweat and near-heart attacks.” He says he cannot take sole credit for the fact that the story ended as well as it did. This is important to him. “Many people have contributed, starting with the banks who helped finance the project. The whole thing is like a big movie production, and I’m a kind of producer.” They spent hundreds of hours pouring over the architectural plans alone. Many designs were discarded. Henkel wanted a modern structure that would fit into the landscape: “Our aim was to create something understated despite all the concrete, which does have a certain monumental quality to it.” They also wanted as few distractions from the spectacular backdrop as possible. The result looks as though the Amangiri had been hewn into the rock. Three architects worked on the project, led by Rick Joy from Tucson. The hotel’s interiors were conceived by renowned architect Annabelle Selldorf, who is an old friend of Henkel’s. She also designed a stand-alone villa further up from the hotel. It is used to accommodate guests who would prefer to enjoy the utmost privacy and not be seen by anyone. At some point, other villas will be added, but there is no rush, Henkel says. “There is no pressure. Any growth should be organic.”
Around the same time that he founded the Amangiri, Henkel – together with experienced climber Mike Friedman – also created the Adventure Partners company. Mountain guides take guests to the most remote, least explored corners of the desert and into the mountains. The tours that give you the ultimate adrenaline kick start only a few minutes from the hotel: You can clamber up petrified sand dunes and climb through narrow canyons, carved out by wind and water where an ocean used to roar in ancient times. To facilitate this, the adventure entrepreneurs have built half a dozen via ferratas, which roughly translates as “iron street.” The Italians came up with the concept in World War I: metal footholds that are securely anchored in the rock, as well as steel ropes on which you secure yourself with the aid of a snap hook. “We enable people who have never moved around a vertical environment to go all the way to the top,” says Christian Seamans, who manages the mountain guides and designed all the via ferratas down to the last foothold. “Many of our guests would have never even dreamt of being able to manage such an ascent. And it gets them thinking: If I can do this, what else could I achieve in life?” The beginner’s course is called “Hoodoo Via Ferrata.” At its end, another challenge awaits: a suspension bridge, only 45 centimeters wide, which stretches over a 180-meter deep gorge. At its sides are a few steel bars, but apart from that there is only the clear view into the abyss. Especially in windy weather, the bridge sways considerably. Even a few top executives have been known to stand in front of it, their knees trembling with fear. The hotel offers all-inclusive daily packages, such as “Desert Fire,” which consists of yoga, a via ferrata excursion including the suspension bridge, hydrotherapy, Thai massage and a sound bath for around $1,500. According to Julien Surget, the manager of the hotel, it is all about “transformative experiences. Our guests want to really experience the environment.” And the Amangiri does not cut any corners: yoga by the light of a full moon or at sunrise. As an extra treat, guests can also set off to a yoga session by helicopter from the hotel’s own helipad. On a hill, roughly 300 meters above Lake Powell, you can unroll your yoga mat and practice without any interruptions – guaranteed. How about a private, romantic dinner? This can be served in the wilderness along the Sunset Trail. Staff will transport chairs and food up the mountain for you. Those who are interested in science can help paleontologists excavate dinosaur bones. There are actually more of those in the area than almost anywhere else in the world and new species keep being discovered. And then there are the special activities for kids: cooking classes, yoga and horseback riding in the desert. Children who are six and over can climb up a miniature via ferrata on a 15-meter, steep rock face. There are also four different suspension bridges that the small mountaineers are allowed to clamber over, as their proud parents stand by with the camera. Plus a deceptively genuine looking dinosaur skeleton made of gypsum, parts of which can be dug up using small spades. It comes as a surprise at first that infants and children are actually welcome at such a quiet, exclusive place as Amangiri. It is a growing market, in fact, and guests with the necessary funds are getting younger, many of them from Los Angeles or Silicon Valley. Grandparents often take their grandchildren, especially around the holiday period and in the summertime. High season at the Amangiri is from March to November. The hotel is fully booked during that time, despite outside temperatures of up to 45°C. However, the possible presence of screaming kids who could put off other guests is not something that worries hotel manager Surget. There have never been any problems, he says. “Our guests are seasoned travelers who know when it’s time to take their children outside.”