This summer, we traveled to a place for “togethering”—a vacation concept that entails gathering your bff’s and traveling to a resort you treat like your home. The concept of “togethering” feels most like a group adventure over a mere vacation. Sure, you could just book a block of rooms in the same hotel, but there might be crowds there, there would be other people’s screaming kids, and there would be incidentals. At the particular “togethering” property we visited in Thailand’s Kao Yao Noi, the act of being together manifested itself with five-star-resort rooms (both beachfront, and poolside), some serious perks (all inclusive massages and a three-loop waterslide), with common areas (infinity pools with built in tables for afternoon chess matches or bottomless cocktails) and a private chef (who, twice weekly, curates a lobster infused beachside bbq and the most delicious homemade Pad Thai neatly enveloped within a paper thin omelette).
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“Ani” is a play on the Swahili word for journey, and our journey started when we first stepped foot in Thailand (after 27 hours of travel from Los Angeles, including a 11 hour layover in Shanghai). To access Ani Villas, we were taken by a tiny “private” speedboat, at midnight mind you, from the Phuket airport. The trip to Koh Yao Noi, a small indigenous island off of the Thai coast, took an hour in the pitch black ocean (talk about a real Tom Hank’s Captain Phillips moment, or a scene straight out of Survivor). But all was fine and all was worth it.
Founded by Tim Reynolds, Ani Villas can be found in Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Dominican Republic to their prime beneficiaries: Ani Art Academies. Every hotel has an art school that offers free tuition to all its students with the goal of creating sustainable local art markets. One graduate’s paintings pull $25,000, and students within a year of starting training have sold drawings in New York for as much as $2,000.
According to Reynolds, Ani’s guests range from professional athletes to international celebrities. Ani Villas Thailand is $7,700 a night in low season for 10 bedrooms (with a three-night minimum). Sure, that’s not an insignificant amount of money, but it’s also not a price tag only accessible to the super rich. Traveling with friends and staying at villas like Ani is actually more affordable than traveling alone, plus when traveling with a group of close friends, family members, or even a work retreat – the all inclusive (yes, that includes all drinks, bottomless cocktails, staff fees…and massages) the fee won’t break the bank (as long as you’re splitting the check).
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The food at Ani Villas was amazing. The highlight was definitely Chef Yao, who made us breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. He covers all the Thai bases, feeding us only traditional meals, and it was literally the best food we’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. The meals include local spices, like the fresh lemongrass grown in Chef Yao’s own garden, and menus curated with mouth-watering dishes designed to whet any palette. All of our dishes were made with items from the local markets, and the freshly-made coconut milks? To die for.
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That Koh Yao Noi is still such a relatively remote island helps promote togethering. And while we wish Ani luck at drawing in international influencers and creating a strong local arts community to start galleries, we also hope the island’s raw, unaltered beauty and inclusive spirit can withstand a tide of tourism. By our last night at Ani Villas, we were all teary-eyed to part ways with the incredible staff (especially the hotel’s property manager and resident “mama,” the beautiful Chaya) and with all of our togetherers. It’s true: traveling solo to big wig hotels can be overrated.
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