There’s something mesmerising about watching a pot being hand-thrown on a wheel. A huge weight of wet clay is fashioned into a ball, thrown hard against the turntable and then, gradually, something more recognisable appears. The clay is centred, opened, drawn upwards to create sides and then trimmed using simple tools, but mostly the hands of the potter. The wheel’s speed is controlled by a foot pedal. Eventually, a pot, bowl, dish or vase appears, still caked in the dark colour of clay. It ’s an ancient art – the earliest pots made this way date from thousands of years ago, and modern electric wheels aren’t very different from the ones used millennia ago, when a foot kept the wheel spinning. It looks easy when done well, yet if you try yourself it will likely result in a change of clothing.
Perhaps the most astonishing part is watching the artists at work, painting delicate f lowers on a large ceramic plate, following patterns sometimes, or on other occasions merely being inspired by a pattern from a book. It ’s a high-wire act – the pottery shop is full of ‘seconds’ where the f law would have to be pointed out to you. I was watching potters at the Prempracha Collection, one of Thailand’s leading ceramics factories, where people come from far and wide to see the latest designs. The factory employs more than 100 people on premises just outside Chiang Mai, and provides tableware for top-end restaurants, local private buyers and tourist gifts for visitors (shipping even the largest items home isn’t a problem).
Chiang Mai has long been known as an artistic centre. Though you can find every kind of art for sale as you wander this city in northern Thailand, from local handicrafts to pieces by Western artists who have set up home here, to gain access to some of the top studios you will need an appointment or guide or both. High-end hotels, such as Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, which arranged my tour, can help you gain access, as they have the contacts and know the sort of experiences their guests would be interested in. In turn, the galleries hope that if the guests are coming from a resort, where a room costs big money per night, there’s a fair chance of making a sale.
The tours the Four Seasons organises are pretty much bespoke, so if you want to brush up on your watercolour skills, you can, as the PR puts it, “Learn to wield the paintbrush with a classical Chiang Mai watercolourist… at her own private gallery.” Since I can’t paint or draw it would have been very dispiriting for both of us if I’d signed up for that, so instead I opted to look at the art of others, even if all of it was well beyond my pocket.
The MAIIAM gallery, which opened in 2016 in San Khampang, 15 minutes’ drive from Chiang Mai, is a converted warehouse rendered unrecognisable by a stunning façade by a Thai architectural firm. The gallery is run by Eric Bunnag Booth (Booth also runs the well-known Jim Thompson company) and his stepfather Jean Michel Beurdeley, and it houses the collection accumulated by them and Eric’s late mother Patsri Bunnag. The museum’s bistro restaurant, Kamphaeng Kaew, is also the venue for the lunch stop and there’s a private tour of the museum with the curator.
Other options include a longer Gallery Hopping Tour, which is a “curated itinerary of eight galleries”.
It ’s the sort of inside track offered by many luxury hotel chains, or by their loyalty programmes. On the following pages we give you a taste of the wide-ranging experiences you can expect to find at hotels throughout the globe.
BALINESE CULTURAL TOUR
The Chedi Club, Tanah Gajah, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
At this five-star hotel, guests can opt for the Explore in Style package – a day’s guided tour of nearby Goa Gajah, the Elephant Cave Temple, which features Hindu and Buddhist imagery and artefacts from the 11th century. After visiting the temple, there’s a scenic drive through nearby Pejeng village, where you can marvel at the sacred Moon of Pejeng, the largest single-cast bronze kettledrum in the world, created in 300BC. The evening ends with a Balinese dinner of nasi campur (a rice dish) and ayam sambal tomat (chicken in chilli and tomato sauce) and a performance of Kecak, a Balinese dance style developed in the 1930s that depicts the ancient Hindu epic the Ramayana.
INDIANA JONES TRAIL
Huus Gstaad, Switzerland
Daring travellers can channel their inner action hero by soaring on the f lying fox (ziplining) and abseiling down the Swiss Alps in a via ferrata, a protected route in which climbers attach themselves to a steel cable. If that excursion doesn’t satisfy your craving for adventure, the hotel also offers river rafting, canyoning, mountain climbing, mountain biking and alpine walking trails during the summer, as well as skiing and hiking in the winter, all included in the price of a room.
MAORI TRIBE CULTURAL EXPERIENCE
Huka Lodge, Huka Falls, Lake Taupo, New Zealand
According to Maori legend, Lake Taupo is the beating heart of the North Island. It therefore makes sense that guests should learn about the area surrounding Huka Falls, New Zealand’s most famous natural wonder, from a Maori tribesman. This day-long excursion is available via the Atamai package, with a tribesman taking guests on a scenic walk through Spa Park, home to natural geothermal hot springs. Lunch of a Maori picnic cooked in a geothermal geyser is followed by a visit to Opotaka village, home of the famous Ka Mate haka dance that the national rugby team performs before matches. Guests also get a souvenir piece of pounamu (jade), which will have been blessed during the excursion.
TEQUILA TALK AND TASTING
Four Seasons Punta Mita, Nayarit, Mexico
Is a trip to Mexico complete if you don’t try tequila? Guests staying at Four Seasons Punta Mita can visit a tequila distillery and learn about the history of the Mexican drink, which can be traced back to the Aztecs. The visit will teach guests how to distinguish the different types of tequila and give tips on how to drink it. Other experiences offered include Spanish lessons and a lecture about the indigenous Huichol people, an ancient tribe that has been living in the Sierra Madre mountain range since before the 1500s.
MURDER MYSTERY WEEKEND
Bailbrook House Hotel, Bath, United Kingdom
Guests can step into a real-life Agatha Christie story without leaving their hotel. The plot unfolds in three stages: kicking off with Saturday afternoon tea, through dinner in the evening, and concluding at breakfast the next day. Actors are concealed among the guests so they can’t be immediately recognised, adding to the mystery.
NORTHERN LIGHTS EXCURSION
Icehotel, Jukkasjarvi, Sweden
This excursion involves a wilderness dinner by the campfire and a Northern Lights safari offering several photo opportunities. Icehotel’s location on the Torne River in Swedish Lapland, the northernmost province of the country, puts it in a prime location for watching the Aurora Borealis. The experience also includes a snowmobile trip into the wilderness and a night in an ice room (thermal clothing is provided, as well as a lesson on how to get to sleep in sub-zero temperatures).
Listel Hotel, Vancouver, Canada
A growing trend that’s been popping up in cities all over the world is available as part of a package at this Canadian hotel: escape rooms. These hands-on adventure games place two to six people in a themed room, where they have 45 minutes to an hour to escape by solving puzzles and clues hidden throughout the room. Participants follow a narrative, which can help lead to the discovery of more clues. The scenarios vary in difficulty and some require more teamwork to solve than others. Listel Hotel offers four different escape rooms: Pirate Ship, Lost Tomb, Buried Cabin and Rabbit Hole.
ST THOMAS MONASTERY TOUR
Augustine Hotel, Prague, Czech Republic
Travellers staying in this luxury hotel across the river from the Old Town Square can take a guided tour through the nearby monastery, which was established – along with a Gothic church – in 1285 on the site of a much older Romanesque church by King Wenceslaus II of Bohemia. The building wasn’t finished until 1379 and was subsequently damaged over the centuries by fires. In the 1720s it was rebuilt in the Baroque style that survives today. In addition to the tour, the package includes a trip to a spa, breakfast and a cocktail tasting.
A SPIN ON THE AUTOBAHN
The Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg, Germany
Those who purchase this package can zoom into their holidays in an Audi RS6 Performance. The hotel loans the car, with guests free to borrow it to cruise along one of Germany’s famous motorways, including the no-speed-limit stretches. Also included is admission and a guided tour of the Audi Pavilion at the Autostadt museum and theme park next to the Volkswagen factory. At the end of the day, the Ritz-Carlton spa is available to those wanting to wind down after the day of revving up.
RED PYRAMID OF SNEFRU
Conrad Hotel, Cairo, Egypt
Everyone knows the Pyramids of Giza, but the Red Pyramid of Snefru at Dahshur is little visited, even by locals. It was built by the Egyptian king Khufu’s father and gets its common name from the reddish limestone used to build most of its core. Sometimes referred to as the Shining or Northern Pyramid it is a short distance from Saqqara and, astonishingly, can be fully accessed so you can enter the burial chamber and explore the cold and silent passageways inside the pyramid, free of the normal hordes of tourists.