|Under the Surface|
We look at why Poppies Resort has become a Samui legend, and dig down into its history – in more ways than one!
You’d never believe the way it was. Koh Samui, I mean. Yes, sure, there are lots of old pics but they don’t mean much. Fuzzy photos of empty beaches, or of some huts and palms; they could be anywhere. If I say that Chaweng once had one big muddy puddle right along the beach, that’s still not enough – even if it later became ‘Chaweng Beach Road’. If I told you that, 20 years ago, you could see the sea from almost all of this muddy lane, it’s not easy to grasp. What you need is something that’s side-by-side. Pictures before and after. And that’s where Poppies pops up.
Poppies Samui is unique, and in several different ways. To begin with it was the first privately-owned luxury bungalow resort on the island. It was also the first foreign-owned resort of this kind. And, accidentally, it also introduced a new term into the local hospitality jargon; boutique – although this was something that the owners didn’t conjure up or lay claim to. No, this was coined much later by the many admirers who needed something snappy-sounding to make their own little place stand out from the crowd.
Poppies took the idea of the beach hut and turned it into a brick-built cottage. These were expanded, styled and fitted to the highest European standards, yet still retained a charming flavour of Thai décor. A Balinese-style luxury open bathroom. European furniture and fittings. And all of them set in a luxuriant yet controlled riot of tropical bushes and blooms, with delightful water features and a very special site-design. This was achieved by something previously unknown in these parts; by constructing a mighty concrete shell that raised the slope of the whole plot up and on top of the street-fronting reception area – there are lush gardens and 10 full-size cottages up on top! But they’re hidden by the roofline at the front. It’s hardly surprising that just the layout alone took four years to perfect.
The story of how all of this came about is a sub-legend all of its own, because Poppies didn’t originate here. It emerged in the early 1970s, initially as a small and pleasant restaurant, set in a garden, close to the beach in Bali. The female owner, Zenik, had teamed up with the Englishman, John Taylor. Soon it became known as ‘Poppies Restaurant and Cottages’ as, in 1973, John and Zenik began to expand. In the early 1980s, John came to visit Samui, becoming a regular visitor over the next few years. On one of these trips he met an Irishman, David Hill and his Thai wife, who just happened to own a small but prime piece of beachfront land in Chaweng. John began to make plans for this rather unremarkable plot which had nothing on either side, and sloped down across untouched scrubland and sand towards the sea.
His aims were, firstly, to maximise the accommodation and yet still retain a sense of individual privacy within a rich garden ambiance. This was achieved not only by the ingenious creation of that extra ‘land’ above the frontage, but also by some very exhaustive design-work in the positioning of the cottages – the paths twist and turn back on themselves so that rarely is it possible to see either the boundary walls of the resort, or more than a few cottages at a time. One problem was the movement of the domestic staff as they serviced the accommodation during the day. With 24 precisely-placed bungalows, a sudden blitz of maids and trolleys would have been disruptive. The solution? An underground tunnel running alongside the restaurant and emerging into the car park at the front.
Planning began in 1989, but it wasn’t until 1994 that all the seeds had rooted, grown, finally blossomed, and Poppies Samui opened its doors. To correspond with this, the second and completely new idea that Poppies introduced to Samui was an on-site restaurant that didn’t merely exist to feed its guests. Right from the start the concept was that of a top-quality international-standard restaurant with a world-class chef to design the cuisine. The restaurant was open to the public, and outside diners were encouraged to venture in and experience their cuisine. Back then, this was unheard of.
Yes, certainly, it was accepted that the big city hotels did this. But a small island-bungalow resort? It was outrageous! And it was outrageously successful, too. Over the first dozen years there was a succession of renowned chefs who were teased away from their 5-star kitchens by the temptation of a ground-breaking concept, not to mention the lure of an idyllic island lifestyle. With them in the kitchen was a carefully selected handful of helpers and assistants, all of them Thai, and each of them keen to learn and master a new cuisine and the techniques that went with it. But that was then . . .
Today Poppies has changed – it’s become even better! It was a success right from the start. But as time has passed it’s continued to uphold its reputation as one of the nicest places to stay on the island, together with some of the best eating anywhere. One true measure of the integrity of a resort is the way it keeps its staff – in most places they move on after a year or so. Yet Khun Wan is in charge of the Thai kitchen, and she‘s been here right from the start - 22 years. Khun Noi handles the Western cuisine, and he’s benefitted from 18 years of study with all those international chefs. Altogether there are no fewer than 31 employees who have now been here for 10 years or more – that’s how loyal they all are.
Interestingly, the recently-appointed General Manager, James F. McManaman, has almost been here for 19 years – he was the third GM at Poppies back in 1997, and now he’s delighted to have been invited back again. He’s so pleased, in fact, that he’s got some really special plans for the next few months. I can’t tell you exactly what yet, but I can reveal that dining at Poppies in 2017 will be more distinctive and ‘memorable’ than ever – to give you a hint!
Rob De Wet