Not long ago, overnight visitors to the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc had little choice but to stay in beach shacks, where bedding down meant sleeping in a hammock.
Since JW Marriott opened its Emerald Bay Resort & Spa – a 234-room luxury establishment on the southeastern tip of the island – three years ago, they have had another, especially upscale, option. And during the five days that my husband and I spent there this month, a Shanghai family was camped out, in a matter of speaking, at the resort, as they had been for several weeks.
The cancelation of two daily AirAsia flights between Guangzhou, China and Phu Quoc – part of an effort to contain the coronavirus known as Covid-19 – has hurt hotels and left some visitors, Casablanca-style, stranded in paradise. But as one who returned there for the second consecutive year, I can think of worse places to wait for letters of transit.
Phu Quoc, situated less than ten miles off the coast of Cambodia, on the Gulf of Thailand, was our fifth stop on a six-week sojourn through Southeast Asia, planned many months in advance. Far from the virus epicenter, in Wuhan, China, we continued our journey undeterred. As daily news reports suggest, there is no refuge from this worldwide health crisis, much as we wish things were otherwise. Still, the virus has been a subtext everywhere we have gone.
It took us two short flights on Air Asia to reach Phu Quoc from our previous destination, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. When checking in for the first of them, to Bangkok, the clerk asked, “Were you on the ship?” She didn’t need to say which one. Five days earlier Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister, allowed the Holland America cruise ship MS Westerdam to dock in Sihanoukville after it had been turned away by ports in Guam, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand.
Despite assurances that no one onboard was sick, after more than 1,000 of the passengers, who came from 41 countries, had dispersed, the news broke that one of them had the coronavirus. The airline clerk’s question, being asked of everyone who checked in for a flight on February 18, was part of an effort to locate other passengers from the Westerdam.
Both that flight, on an aircraft that holds 163, and our connecting one, on a smaller plane from Bangkok to Phu Quoc, were only about one-third full. Some of the other passengers boarded wearing face masks, which they pulled down under their chins when the in-flight snack was served. No one at the JW Marriott wore masks, but occupancy was only 25 percent, and we arrived to find it noticeably less busy than it was during our previous stay, at the same time last year.
The resort is brilliantly conceived to make maximum use of a tiny crescent-shaped beach. It takes less than ten minutes to leisurely stroll along the shore from one end of the property to the other. Three enormous infinity pools – one for adults only – face the bay. Beyond them, the resort fans out, through many acres of meticulously tended tropical vegetation and paths lined with palm, mango and tamarind trees.
Our deluxe Emerald Bay-view room, on the fourth floor of a five-story building, measured slightly less than 400 square feet, including an ample marble bathroom with two vanities, rain shower and separate tub. But the lodgings gave the appearance of being even larger. That’s an effect achieved with a long, narrow entranceway; 12-foot ceilings; a liberal use of mirrors; and a floor-to-ceiling picture window with a view of the water.
A porch as wide as the room, furnished with a sofa and cooled by a ceiling fan, gave us additional outdoor living space. From there we could see the sunrise in the morning and spend sultry evenings watching the twinkling lights of fishing boats on the horizon.
That, plus swimming, reading and writing, gave me plenty to do. For those who crave more structure, the JW Marriott offers an assortment of activities, most of which are free, from bike tours to beer yoga.
At check-in, each guest receives a “Student Book” with two foldout calendars – one for adults and the other for kids. The booklet explains the theme of the place: a fictitious university built in the 1920s to educate wealthy locals and the children of colonialists. It’s named for Jean-Baptiste Lamarck – a French biologist and early evolutionist who died in 1829.
Buildings are adorned with vintage and custom-made paraphernalia in keeping with each one’s motif. The Architecture Department, which houses one of the three restaurants, is decorated with mechanical drawings on some of the tabletops, and miniature wooden staircases that lead to nowhere. In the Department of Chemistry, which operates as a bar, there are pedestals made to look like entries from the Periodic Table of Elements; the ceiling is lined with chalkboards scribbled with chemical equations; and the peanuts served during happy hour arrive in test tubes.
Our room this year was in the Zoology building, its gateway framed with larger-than-life sculptures of two white elephants. That seems an apt metaphor for a place where the cheerful, mostly Vietnamese, staff wear 1920s-style Western clothing and shoes as their uniforms.
Though I admire the creativity of Bill Bensley, the architect, it all seems very forced and takes too much explaining. Nor does the idea of going to a make-believe school fit my notion of the ideal vacation. That said, the public spaces are as lavishly appointed as the rooms, and most offer plenty of nooks and crannies where one can sit undisturbed.
That is, except for the areas where food and beverages are served. There, especially now, one becomes a captive audience for staff members cross-selling the next meal, paid activity or tour. The most aggressive pitch came from the director of food service, who approached us in a quiet corner of the Chemistry Bar while we were sipping mojitos, to hand us a flyer for a $163-per-head five-course dinner that night at the Pink Pearl – the resort’s French restaurant. He had an air of desperation, which we attributed to an ill-timed visit by a guest chef; he was trying to drive traffic that way.
The best meal deal, for those with a hearty morning appetite, is the international buffet breakfast. (It is included in the room rate, or $30 per person for those like us who redeem Marriott points for the stay.) Though most guests opt for traditional Western fare, it includes such luxury items as roast duck, smoked fish and French cheeses. In lieu of the buffet, there is also an à la carte breakfast menu.
For guests who prefer to dine off campus, most options require a costly taxi ride. We walked two miles, round-trip, one evening to the food stalls down the road from the resort entrance and were disappointed. Though we are aficionados of Vietnamese street food, we found these places either busy and filthy, or not bustling enough to make us confident that the food would be fresh. On Sunday evenings, the resort stages a much-sanitized “night market,” with Vietnamese street food, for about three times what it typically costs.
A welcome addition since last year is Carlos Bravo, a chef from Mexico City, who’s in charge of the resort’s beachside Red Rum restaurant. We met him at the Friday night barbecue buffet, featuring the island’s famous seafood – sea urchin, tiger prawns, crawfish and cobia. The homemade paleta, or Popsicle, that he offered for dessert awakened memories for me of being on an exchange program in Mexico, except that this version was made with Vietnamese passion fruit.
We returned the following day at lunchtime to sample pho pizza, another of his fusion creations. In lieu of using tomato sauce as a base, he makes a reduction of the Vietnamese beef soup known as pho, and thickens it with bean paste. That’s spread on a thin crust, topped with grated mozzarella and cheddar cheese, and baked. The next layer is essentially a Vietnamese salad: grilled flap steak and raw vegetables – bean sprouts, chopped cilantro and paper-thin slices of red onion. A squirt of lime, served as a garnish, is optional but recommended.
When, at checkout, I heard about the stranded Shanghai family, I felt a twinge of envy. This piece of paradise seems so fragile that I, too, wanted an excuse to linger. The JW Marriott staff fights a constant battle against the elements; though furniture can be reupholstered, cracked walkways and mildewed buildings that have developed, just three years after the resort’s much-ballyhooed opening, are harder to address.
More significantly, from the fourth-floor terraced walkway that led to our room, we could observe a building boom, even since last year. As beach shacks yield to many new luxury establishments, sustainability is likely to become an issue.
Flotsam and jetsam washing up on the shore is already such a problem, that the JW Marriott wages a full-court press against it. All staff not assigned to breakfast duty are required to spend one predawn hour, as necessary, cleaning the beach. The landscape team continues the effort throughout the day.
Whether it came from the mainland, according to the official story, or from closer by, there was a small quantity of drifting debris each time we took an ocean dip. That said, based on the appearance of the beach, the JW Marriott seems to be much more diligent than the owner of an adjacent property about addressing the issue.
To encourage visitors, Phu Quoc has been designated a special economic zone. That means no Vietnamese visa is required for those who arrive from a foreign country and then depart to another international destination without traveling elsewhere in Vietnam. For last-minute travelers, JW Marriott is offering special incentives right now, including free airport transfers and a 25 percent discount on food and beverages. It’s a sweet deal whether one is marooned on this island, or lingers by choice.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home. All her travel is self-financed. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.