Unveiling the essence of Asia

Secret Retreats’ Captivating Destinations and Their Visionary Founders (Part 4)


Meet the Visionary Founders (Part 4)

If there is one thing the 21st Century has taught us so far, it is that life is change, nothing is permanent and unshakeable, and survival is about the ability to be flexible, to be adaptable, and being always ready to seek out and welcome new opportunities. This is a grist to the mill for the visionary thinkers in today’s newsletter. Boutique hoteliers are a rare bunch. They are unique individuals who are certainly not the kind of characters that are easily fazed by the challenges of life. Following a vision, a passion, and never looking for an easy route to financial success, they often base their businesses in far flung and remote destinations. Breaking the mould that has long been set by the big brands and corporate hospitality engines who put profit first and funnel resources out of the destinations they base themselves in for the good of the group entity, the boutique hotelier breaks all of these ‘business’ rules. Their vision is never profit in a monetary sense. The profit they seek is measured in a more Bhutanese style, that metric all too rare in big business, a metric of happiness in what you can give (as much to their local community and their staff, as to their guests and their travel trade partners) rather than looking for what you can receive, where the whole experience counts and not simply the bottom line; concepts that are deeply valued and deeply rooted in Asian cultures, and embodied in the community of Secret Retreats, in what is a quintessentially Asian business.

Putting people-based values first is something that rings true for every Secret Retreats’ boutique hotel and restaurant member. Employing and developing staff from within the local community. Encouraging initiative from within the community by supporting grassroots businesses, including those of staff and ex-staff members’ and their families to encourage a true and sincerely supportive community spirit. Working with local farmers and growers to encourage more sustainable and organic methods ensuring the longevity and yield of their soils while assuring them of a profitable marketplace – and as a happy and direct consequence assuring the hotel or restaurant, and community, with excellent, clean, sustainable produce throughout the seasons, as who doesn’t love gorgeously fresh, clean and organic seasonal produce, right? The base of this vision allows for further development to be accepted within the wider community as sustainable and regenerative businesses practices are adopted, where the true value will only occur when these ideals and their practical applications are adopted within the wider community outside of the hospitality business, that is or should be an intrinsic part of the community, that spawned and inspired them.

This is a profit, a successful outcome in itself, but no business can survive simply on goodwill and community spirit alone. The business models of these visionary founders also provide wonderful guest experiences, where every guest dollar goes both to support the business and these regenerative practices, in supporting the business each guest or diner supports the local community and helps to preserve the local culture and local environment too. This regenerative approach to business in keeping it local, keeping the focus local, provides longevity for the destination’s place as a great place to visit, and yes ensuring the footfall of visitors for years to come but without the erosion of culture and destruction of the environment so typical of that which mass tourism resulted in through the sponsorship of dollar-profit-first travel as inspired by the ‘big travel incorporated’ et al.

Travel is important. Travel is necessary. We need to travel, it links our communities in a way that no digitized community or tribe can ever replicate. Travel promotes understanding, it opens eyes and hearts to new ways of seeing and experiencing our beautiful blue marble. We are all sailing this ship through the stars together, and togetherness can only be truly achieved through understanding, through caring (more than that which is demonstrated in 280characters or less, and something that can only be shared through real human contact, a basic human need that I am sure we have all sorely missed these past 12months) and through shared visions as inspired by the kind of people in today’s newsletter, the visionary founders behind Secret Retreats boutique hotels and restaurants.
Our founders and teams look forward to welcoming you back to your homes from home in Asia soon. Thank-you for your valued support past, present and future.

Joji Kanaya – “Carrying on the Family Legacy”
Kinugawa Kanaya Hotel – Kinugawa, Japan

Joji Kanaya comes from a long lineage of leaders and visionaries in Japan’s service and hospitality industry. His great grandfather was Zenichiro Kanaya the founder of one of Japan’s first and probably most illustrious hotels, the renowned Nikko Kanaya Hotel. Founded in 1893 only a short time after Japan opened its doors to international visitors in 1853, Zenichiro Kanaya played host to a long and illustrious guest list in those fledgling years of Japan’s hospitality industry that welcomed international guests. From royalty to visionaries of the western world, the Nikko Kanaya Hotel’s guest book was a who’s who of its day, including as it did such names as Frank Lloyd-Wright, Helen Keller and Albert Einstein. From Father to Son, the heritage continued, and Senji “John” Kanaya studied English in Tokyo before embarking on his career in the family business. As much of a visionary as his father was, on returning to Nikko he realized electricity would be essential for their hotel to stay competitive, and in 1908 he built and installed a hydro-electric generator to power the hotel. As is the way with the Kanaya family, Senji was soon looking towards the newest technology available that would enhance his guests’ stay and in 1914 he bought a used Ford motorcar. Proving very popular with guests he flew to Detroit to meet with Henry Ford and struck a deal for 14 cars to start an automobile business in Nikko and transformed transportation almost overnight in his hometown. Senji Kanaya also became the first president of the Kinugawa Onsen Hotel and then founded the Kinugawa Kanaya Hotel.

As chairman of the Japan Hotel Association, Senji Kanaya helped modernize Japan’s hotel and tourism industry and is remembered in Japan as a true visionary of Japan’s hotel industry.
Carrying on his grandfather’s spirit and vision, Joji Kanaya continues to offer world-class facilities and services that combine the very best experiences and service standards of both Japanese and Western cultures. Joji and his family, it remains very much a family business to this day, have continually updated the hotel to suit the times while remaining true to Kanaya’s management philosophy, fusing the relaxed atmosphere and personal attention reminiscent of a private villa with the convenience of a contemporary hotel and the charm that only a seasoned successful doyen of hospitality can share with its guests. Today, the rich history of the Kanaya family’s long legacy of luxury hospitality infuses each guest stay with a strong sense of place, one where they haven’t lost sight of the smallest details, where tradition is as important as modernity, and where guests are assured of quality hospitality whether enjoying the traditional onsen baths, relaxing in the elegant cigar salon or marveling at the view of the Kinugawa River from their guest suite.


Marcus Cotton and Jhalak Raj Chaudary – “Dedicated to Regenerative and Responsible Tourism”
Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge – Pokhara Valley, Nepal

In Nepal it is said, ‘Atithi Deva Bhava’, the Guests are Gods, can there be a better place to start when building a hospitality business than from this premise? Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge was founded in 1998 on a site identified by a locally legendary figure of Nepal’s hospitality business, Lt. Col. Jimmy Roberts, as he sketched out routes for a Royal Trek for the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1979. Set on ridge that overlooks the Pokhara Valley and enjoys a magnificent Himalayan Backdrop of the Annapurna Range.

Marcus, originally from the UK, has lived and worked in Nepal since 1987. Coming from the agricultural background of his family’s farm in England, working with rather than taking advantage of the environment has always been of great importance to Marcus. Yes we need business, yes we need leisure based international travel, but it should be as much of a benefit to the community and environment in which it visits, as it benefits the traveller with rewarding and relaxing experiences. Marcus cut his teeth in wildlife tourism in Nepal with Tiger Tops, a company that pioneered eco-sensitive tourism in the 1960s and continues to inspire environmentally sensitive travel and tourism in Nepal’s, and wider Asia’s, hospitality industry today.

When Tiger Mountain Pokhara Lodge was founded it was Marcus’s plan to ensure that it would be a team effort from the start, a visionary decision that he knew would pay dividends for his goals in sustainable and regenerative tourism down the line. Jhalak Raj Chaudhary was born and raised in Meghauli Village on the edge of the Chitwan National Park in Nepal and shared Marcus’s vision from the start. Passionate about wildlife and his local heritage Jhalak wholly embraced the vision for regenerative tourism and working with Marcus they effectively translated this passion to the Lodge team. Working closely with their team, the staff loyalty is quite extraordinary as this family of workers is largely unchanged since the founding of the Lodge more than 20years ago. Jhalak and Marcus are constantly seeking out ways to ensure that the impact of their operations and from their guests is as positive and regenerative as is possible. Their greatest success is however possibly their staff engagement as this ensures the longevity of each action and working practice and also increases the effectiveness of each initiative as the staff take the ideas home and practice them within the community. It is only when we all feel personally invested in the actions and practices that can and do protect, preserve and regenerate the local environment that the actions’ effectiveness goes beyond the buzzwords of the majority of greenwashing businesses and actually effects real positive regenerative change – as has been the vision of these two chaps, who are truly passionate about sharing their Himalayan home with the travelling world, but equally passionate that each step made by their guests and the workings of their lodge gives back more than it takes. And in so doing these two visionaries and their team are protecting the delicate environment of their mountain home for future generations of travellers and the local community to continue to cherish and enjoy for many years to come.


Darshan Dudhoria – “Preservation of India’s heritage and culture”
Bari Kothi – Murshidabad, Bengal, India

It is perhaps surprising to hear that Murshidabad, now a part of rural Bengal, once contributed to 5% of the GDP of the World during the mid-1700s. Yes, 5% of the world’s business was generated in Murshidabad, a humble district in Bengal located 4 hours from the City of Joy, or Calcutta as it was known then. And in light of this business boom, many families saw great success and built great homes and palaces as testament to their family’s wealth and business acumen. Over time fortunes rise and fall, and sadly with the decline in importance of Bengal on the world’s business stage, many great family homes and palaces, perhaps too expensive to maintain, fell into ruin and Bari Kothi was one such palace.

Lawyer turned entrepreneur and heritage custodian Darshan Dudhoria worried that his children and the generations to follow would not know of their heritage if these great houses were left to disappear and working with Mr Sudip Kumar Sing Dudhoria a dream project was born to revive and breathe life back into the palace of Bari Kothi. Lead by a Canadian restoration specialist architect, Dr. Samar Chandra, and assisted and project managed by Darshan and his sister, Lipika, with a dedicated team of 150 local artisans, Bari Kothi was sensitively restored over 5years to its former glory. From the outset the 3 keys to this restoration and the high ideals of the project were Heritage, Hospitality and Humanity. It was never the goal to simply create a wonderful heritage boutique hotel, though create one they have, but to connect to the community, to celebrate, preserve and share the heritage, and at the same time return to being an integral working property within the community, providing livelihoods and support to local families, offering opportunity and inspiration, as well as providing a wonderful heritage boutique hotel to share the stories of Bari Kothi and Murshidabad with the travelling world.

The property is located on the banks of the river Ganges and set within more than an acre of grounds. With 3 delightful gardens, 7 courtyards and 15 suites guests of Bari Kothi are guaranteed a sense of the opulent lives of the grand families that called Bari Kothi home for the past 250years. Keen to share a truly immersive local experience with guests Darshan and his team have created 35 curated experiences to help guests discover the heritage, history and community around Bari Kothi. So much more than a boutique hotel, a stay at Bari Kothi shares it’s deep history and heritage, an unrivalled hospitality and rich cuisine, and a unique warmth and personality that is only experienced when staying at much loved and well-seasoned family homes. Darshan and the team at Bari Kothi look forward to welcoming you to their home and sharing the 1000 stories of Bari Kothi, Murshidabad and their family’s, and community’s, heritage with you.


Altaf Chapri – “Leading destination for wellness tourism”
Neeleshwar Hermitage – Kerala | Lotus Boathouse – Kannur | Sukoon Houseboat – Dal Lake, Srinagar – India

As many parts of the world prepare to reawaken to a more conscious attitude to travel, India is in a prime position to focus on its strength as a leading destination for wellness tourism among some of the greatest scenery and cultural heritage in the world. After more than 22 years of traveling across Europe and the US Altaf’s and his brother Bilal’s extensive experience has given them a clear understanding of how to interpret and exceed the expectations and desires of their many varied global travelling clients and guests. The brothers’ vision remains unchanged, to deliver exceptional and authentic experiences of India couched in professional and warm hospitality, whether in the mountains of Kashmir or the shores of the Arabian Sea, and all the while supporting the local communities that house their hospitality experiences both sustainably and responsibly. All their environmentally sensitive retreats are places to take a break, slow down, recharge, discover and enjoy some distance from a busy life among beautiful natural scenery in exotic locations.

From Kashmir to Kerala, when Altaf came across Nileshwar Village, it was love at first sight and he knew they could create a wonderful property that would share a beautiful part of India with guests and at the same time celebrate the local heritage both sincerely and sustainably. The Hermitage was set on a coconut grove on the north Kerala coast facing the Arabian Sea and was the perfect location to set the brothers’ Ayurvedic retreat. The location answered the need for space to explore the local architectural and design principles of Kerala Vastu that promote sustainability as well as providing guests with beautiful, serene spaces to explore or start their wellness journeys, or to simply relax and unwind. Combined with a cruise on the Malabar Backwaters to enjoy the rich variety of birdlife, flora and fauna there aboard their Lotus Houseboat, the brothers and their team provide guests with a seamless service of luxury hospitality. And not forgetting their houseboat, Sukoon, set on the iconic Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir, that makes a wonderful contrast to the breezy tropical shores of the Arabian Sea in Kerala, home of Neelshwar Hermitage and the Lotus Houseboat.

Discreet, dedicated, personalized and professional are the hallmarks of hospitality in India, where luxury travel and service of travellers has been practiced for 100s of years creating rare opportunities for guests to discover more about themselves and their surroundings. Altaf, Bilal and their team create sensitive and intelligent travel experiences, providing a more integrated way for travel with family and friends, solo or couples, to connect with the self and the destination, and travel sensitively and sustainably in regions of outstanding natural beauty.


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