As I researched my visit to Song Saa, Cambodia’s first luxury private island resort, I found myself dreaming of Thailand 30 years ago. In 1985, islands such as Phuket and Koh Samui were almost untouched. The first Amanresort, Amanpuri, opened on Phuket in 1988. Maybe Cambodia today will be like Thailand was back then, I thought.
A 35-minute speedboat ride from Sihanoukville on the country’s west coast — a city three-and-a-half hours by road or 40 minutes by air from Phnom Penh — Song Saa lies in the pristine Koh Rong archipelago. The resort’s name means “The Sweethearts” in Khmer, a reference to the paired islets, Koh Ouen and Koh Bong, that comprise the property. The exquisite beauty of the natural setting inspired an Australian couple who were sailing through the islands in 2006 to construct the hotel. Rory and Melita Hunter were ideally suited to the task: he with a background in property development; she in interior design. Their brainchild, with its 27 villas, opened in early 2012.
Aboard the launch, my first glimpse of the island filled me with hope. It looked idyllic.
Aboard the launch, my first glimpse of the island filled me with hope. It looked idyllic. Greeting us, manager Bradlie Goian, dressed in long shorts and white shirt, set the prevailing tone of casual elegance. A member of staff escorted us along a sand pathway through the verdant landscaping to our 2,475-square-foot Ocean View Villa. With soaring ceilings, its main room displayed a skillful combination of materials and fabrics, with one stone accent wall, wood floors and a thatched ceiling. Local art helped to create an air of authenticity. My favorite example was a framed aggregation of faded planks salvaged from area fishing boats. A few steps beyond the large four-poster bed, a sunken seating area opened onto a wooden deck and a private infinity pool. The bath comprised a bathing area with walk-in shower, soaking tub and a door leading to an outdoor shower.
There are two other villa categories at Song Saa: 11 Jungle Villas nestled on the central hill afford splendid views of the surrounding islands and waters, while eight Overwater Villas enable guests to step directly into the ocean from private balconies. Two two-bedroom Overwater Villas (3,240 square feet) come with indoor dining areas with seating for 12, and private chefs.
Although in-villa dining is an attractive option, we loved going to the resort’s two restaurants. At Vista, set just off the shoreline, we enjoyed dishes such as spring rolls with local crab and fresh vegetables, and marinated chicken breast with a mint-cream sauce and couscous. The culinary highlight of our stay, however, was a Khmer feast, which included superb beef lok lak, stir-fried chicken with ginger and spring onion, and prawns with Kampot pepper. At lunch, we invariably found our way to the casual Driftwood Bar, which offers a tapas-style menu as well as pizzas (our favorite of which was topped with duck and hoisin sauce).
Spa cuisine is also available at Song Saa in conjunction with the resort’s extensive wellness programs. Although there is no centralized spa facility, outdoor salas and treatment villas are scattered through the rain forest and along the ocean shore. Individual treatment schedules, constructed after consultation with the “Head of Wellness,” combine traditional Khmer techniques with Ayurvedic principles. Yoga and meditation are also available.
The atmosphere is blissfully relaxing and otherworldly. This is a truly exceptional hideaway.
Activities at Song Saa include kayaking in the surrounding archipelago, rain forest tours guided by a member of the resort’s Conservation Team and snorkeling trips through nearby coral gardens led by a marine biologist. It is impossible not to be impressed by the Hunters’ commitment to the local community, as well as to environmental conservation. Their Song Saa Foundation now supports marine sustainability, reforestation and mangrove restoration, an organic gardening and plant propagation center, and an educational outreach program.
I loved everything I saw and experienced at Song Saa. In many ways, its serenity and aesthetic refinement reminded me of an Aman resort. The atmosphere is blissfully relaxing and otherworldly. This is a truly exceptional hideaway.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The feeling of being utterly removed from the world and sequestered on an idyllic desert island.
DISLIKE: The long drive from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville — for which we engaged a chauffeur — is not for nervous passengers.
GOOD TO KNOW: For those who don’t want to drive, a helicopter transfer can be arranged. Since April 2015, domestic flights have been available from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville airport, from where it is a 20-minute drive to the port.
Song Saa 97 Jungle Villa, $1,560; Ocean View Villa, $2,175; Overwater Villa, $2,690. Rates include all meals, house wines and spirits, speedboat transfers, laundry, yoga classes, use of water sports equipment and guided marine and terrestrial tours. Koh Ouen, Koh Rong Archipelago. Tel. (855) 23-886-750.