The Slate Phuket: A lesson in history, reinvention, and familial ties
Dressed in a beige, short-sleeved cotton shirt and black trousers held up by a nondescript belt, Wichit Na-Ranong's appearance does not turn any heads when he walks into a room. The owner and managing director of The Slate, a luxury resort in Phuket, doesn't need to rely on an immaculately cut Zegna suit to command attention. His reputation as the Father of Phuket Tourism precedes him.
Long before Phuket enticed travellers with its promise of infinity pools and upscale resorts, it was tin and rubber that fuelled the economy of this balmy Thai province. In 1976, Wichit — the fifth-generation heir of a tin mining family — decided to open Pearl Resort, Phuket Town's first hotel targeted at the international traveller, a curious move at a time where tourism infrastructure on the island was still in its infancy.
Wichit, however, had the vision and gumption to rally the Thai government and key industry players to shape Phuket into the international tourist destination it is today. From establishing transportation routes to hosting the production team behind the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, Wichit chased his vision of raising Phuket's profile as a holiday destination for both domestic and international travellers. Today, tourism is a multi-million dollar industry for Phuket and shows no sign of letting up despite the 2004 tsunami disaster.
Besides leading the Phuket Tourist Association as its founding president, Wichit was also the first President of the Tourism Council of Thailand. Having sat on the board of Thai Airways International and the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Wichit had pushed for the national carrier to establish a flight between the Thai capital and Phuket.
Ever ahead of the curve, Wichit expanded the family's hospitality business when the once sleepy Phuket began to see an upswing in visitor arrivals in the 1980s. While Pearl Resort, the Na-Ranong family's first hotel was set in the heart of Phuket Town, the second property — Pearl Village — occupied an enviable beachfront spot along Nai Yang beach.
For a man who has pivoted Phuket's economy from tin to tourism, Wichit isn't afraid to embrace change. The past few decades have seen Pearl Village transforming itself twice over. The first saw a facelift of the property as it switched its name to Indigo Pearl Resort, while the second and most recent overhaul saw the property rebranded as The Slate.
"We wanted to give it a modern name, something avant-garde to reflect the new direction of the hotel," says Krystal Prakaikaew Na-Ranong, Wichit's daughter and co-owner of The Slate. Unlike her father's utilitarian dress sense, Krystal's black shift dress and royal blue heels hint at her keen eye for aesthetics — a quality she brings to the table as she takes the family's decades-old hospitality business into a future saturated with design-forward hotels and resorts, each more decadent than the one before.
We're having cocktails at Black Ginger, a Thai restaurant set within the property, and it isn't hard to see how The Slate's determined to step into the future while keeping one foot rooted in tradition. Let's take Black Ginger as a starting point for discussion. While the restaurant serves traditional Phuket fare and southern Thai dishes (some of the best we've tried in Phuket), it is housed within Ayutthaya-style Thai houses painted in matte black, a colour traditionally associated with mourning. When asked if this all-black façade is taboo, Krystal replies: "I don't think it is. Black, to me, is the colour of elegance." And she's right. This stately building, illuminated by candlelight, gives destination dining a new meaning as diners traverse a lagoon via a hand-pulled raft before they arrive at the restaurant. Theatrical? You bet. Few undertake the voyage without documenting it on their smartphones.
The penchant for all things dramatic underscore the design brief brought to life by famed landscape and interior designer Bill Bensley. Over at the hotel's award-winning Coqoon Spa, treatment rooms are hidden within towering wicker structures that loom like oversized birds nests. In a nod to the family and island's tin mining heritage, steampunk elements frame everything from wrought-iron furniture to sliding doors set on pulleys. Even the cutlery at breakfast is shaped like mining tools.
Of the 184 rooms in this suite- and villa-only property, the newly refreshed private pool villas are the most impressive. Available in one or two-bedroom configurations, these pool villas depart from the rest of the resort's bright veneer, opting for a neutral colour palette accented with tinted concrete floors, blackened-steel furniture, and the edgy shine of bronze rivets. Outside, sprawling pools are framed by plenty of lush greens, a welcome foil to these brooding, industrial chic interiors.
Krystal, a proud champion of all things Thai, doesn't only do so by purchasing pieces from emerging Thai fashion designers. She ensures that Chalong Bay Rum, a homegrown rum distillery, is stocked in mini bars, while the resort's Black Ginger restaurant, stays true to the fiery heat of Phuket's native dishes. You won't find the dishes there dumbed down for tourists.
Taking a decades-old business into the future requires a stomach for change, and if the successful partnership between the father and daughter duo helming The Slate is anything to go by, one can certainly hedge their bets on the strength of history, heritage, and an appetite for reinvention.