The running track at the colorful JW Marriott Phu Quoc, on a Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia. Photo: JW Marriott
The running track at the colorful JW Marriott Phu Quoc, on a Vietnamese island off the coast of Cambodia. Photo: JW Marriott

Nostalgia for one’s college days is not an unusual thing. But it’s safe to say that few have taken it as far as Bill Bensley, whom Time magazine described as the king of exotic luxury resorts.

The Bangkok-based designer’s latest project, JW Marriott Phu Quoc, Emerald Bay, Vietnam, is a sprawling resort modelled entirely on a fictional academy named Lamarck University (after the non-fictional French naturalist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who is said to have laid the groundwork for Darwin’s theory of evolution).

Bensley even refers to the 244-key hotel as a “campus.”

“Today, people like having a storyline, they like to be able to learn something new or special,” says the American, who has won awards for his disruptive, theatrical and intensely detail-oriented work.

He explains how the academic theme is applied throughout the property, right down to a school mascot, the Phu Quoc ridgeback (an actual dog breed), which is used as a design motif.

A view of the living room in the Turquoise Suite. Photo: JW Marriott

The accommodation wings are named after different university departments. Chemistry is the hotel’s cocktail bar while The Department of Architecture is the all-day dining restaurant.

Bensley’s team also sourced more than 5,000 antiques, including old teaching paraphernalia, carpentry tools, prints and sketches. The property has many of the trappings one would expect of a big-brand five-star resort – there are five food and beverage outlets, three swimming pools, a shopping “street,” a spa, and all the rooms face the ocean.

However, the design adds more than enough character for a trip here to feel genuinely memorable. It is likely the most unique high-end resort to open in Asia this year.

Welcome to the Department of Chemistry – aka the main lounge and cocktail bar at the JW Marriott Phu Quoc. Photo: JW Marriott

Bensley’s foray into architecture began accidentally. In charge of the career studies program at a high school in Southern California, he dialled a wrong number and reached a local landscape architect instead of the Anaheim Police Department.

“I didn’t even know what a landscape architect was,” he admits.“But I told the guy over the phone, ‘Oh you’re an architect. That’s cool. Can you visit my high school?’ Kindly, he did.”

Six months later, Bensley enrolled in Cal Poly [California Polytechnic State University] Pomona’s landscape architectural program, where he excelled and went on to earn his master’s degree at Harvard, studying under the legendary architect Moshe Safdie.

It’s not difficult to understand Bensley’s yen for those glory days – even if the notion of holidaying “at school” might seem counterintuitive at first.

“Almost everyone loved their days in college so why not celebrate that on vacation?” he says. “What can be more inspiring than one’s heyday and being able to relive part of that joy on a pristine beach in an undiscovered location?”

Stylish living inside the JW Marriott Phu Quoc’s Turquoise Suite. The view is from the spacious his-hers bathroom. Photo: JW Marriott

Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s largest island – just a 40-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City, off the country’s southern coast. If not completely undiscovered (the island is known for its backpacker hostels and for its production of nuoc mam, the high-quality fish sauce that is a staple of Vietnamese cooking), it is certainly off the beaten tourist track.

JW Marriot is the first international luxury hotel to open there, and the Emerald Bay resort represents the brand’s second offering in Vietnam.

Bensley has called Asia his home now for more than 30 years (“Bangkok was love at first sight – I’m not going anywhere from here”), but that doesn’t stop him from keeping a keen eye on global hospitality trends and indulging his twin passion of seeing the world.

“I travel 150 days a year, and I make it a point to see everything that is outstanding in our industry,” he says. “Every year we go to places we have never been before. Traveling motivates me everyday to create unconventional hotel experiences that push boundaries.”