What happens when an Asian hotel group with a cult-like following drops an over-the-top luxury resort on Jackson Hole?

Simon Watson

All systems were go: on a perfect fall afternoon, nearly 700 people gathered for the unveiling of Jackson Hole's newest hotel, Amangani. Ski bums, rock climbers, and kayakers rubbed elbows with retired Wall Street millionaires on East Gros Ventre Butte, some 7,000 feet above sea level. In the distance, the Tetons exploded from a veil of mist.

For months, Jackson Hole had been watching the transformation of the butte into the home of Amangani. According to the local buzz, ridiculous sums had been spent on each of the 40 rooms, and every tub, shower, and toilet had one hell of a view. "Jackson must be thrilled to have this hotel," I said to the flannel-shirted old-timer standing next to me. "More tourists will ruin the fly-fishing for good," he shot back. And the town, he added, was already littered with hotels. With those places charging $95 a night, who in their right mind would pay nosebleed rates of $450 to $650?"It's just another smoke machine," he reckoned.

More than price distinguished Amangani. Stories had circulated about aggressive recruiting and staff training. A SWAT team of managers had arrived from Burma, Indonesia, Australia, and Hong Kong, and every applicant had been taken on a hike as part of the interview. Rumors flew about visualization and meditation sessions, and recruiters' preferences for staffers with no hotel experience. Now, why would anyone want that? some wondered.

Jackson Hole loathes development, and Amangani's owners faced a sizable public-relations battle. Still, the locals were curious. Those at the opening event maneuvered for position to judge for themselves. They had come to see Hong Kong-based Amanresorts land on American soil.

SOME PEOPLE HOLD VIVID MEMORIES OF THE MOMENT they saw the Pyramids or the Acropolis. I can't forget seeing my first Aman. In 1988, an Indonesian hotelier, Adrian Zecha, opened a 40-room upstart called Amanpuri in Phuket, Thailand. Back then, conventional wisdom held that a hotel needed several hundred rooms to be profitable. But Zecha -- who claimed to hate almost everything about traditional resorts -- thought a sweet staff and an exotic location were all you needed. Everyone in the industry thought he was nuts.

A former partner in Regent International Hotels, Zecha had divined some elemental truths about wealthy travelers: they like their hotels small and private; they don't need endless amusement; and they don't worry about wallet-shrinking rates when seclusion and clairvoyant service come in a spectacular natural setting. "If you just want transportation, you can buy a Toyota," Zecha told me in 1987. "If you want something else, you buy a Ferrari."

Before Amanpuri opened at a breathtaking $250 a night, the top room in Phuket had cost $72. "We have no competition," Zecha said. "Amanpuri will feel like a home -- not a hotel." People's houses don't have discos, souvenir shops, and casinos. They don't have dress codes, daunting menus, tented cards littering the rooms, luggage racks parked in the closet, or publicists leaking the names of celebrity visitors. No guest in your home would ever be forced to stand in line. Right?

So Amanpuri opened without all that. T-shirts replaced ties and no one needed a jacket. Travelers appreciated the no-attitude atmosphere, and Amanpuri quickly established itself as one of the most luxurious resorts in Asia. Zecha did something else remarkable by introducing beautiful handcrafted interiors that told guests they were in Thailand.

HERE I WAS IN JACKSON HOLE FOR MY FIFTH AMAN OPENING. In just 11 years, the little company had grown into a 13-hotel chain, but its vision had remained consistent. (As have the guests: there are so many Aman junkies that the company has never had to advertise -- word of mouth fills most of the beds.) Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer cut the ribbon on Amangani's front door, and I flattened myself against a wall as Jackson Hole roared through for its first look.

The throng headed straight for the lobby's two-story wall of glass. Looming beyond was a deep valley of farmhouses and fields surrounded by terraced buttes and shimmering granite peaks. Hawks performed aerobatics as horses grazed in a grassy meadow below. A few residents surrendered their skepticism when they saw the adjacent lounge, with its 36-foot ceiling and twin fireplaces, but others couldn't make sense of the place. Amangani didn't look like any hotel they'd seen before. Where was therevolving door, the reception desk, the concierge station?Many had anticipated the log-cabin school of decorating, with a moose head the size of Wyoming over the fireplace. What they found was a Modernist purity of line.

"The idea is to be comfortable and sink into the views," says architect Edward Tuttle, who has designed almost all of Zecha's resorts. Aman is a Sanskrit word meaning "place of peace," gani is Shoshone for "home," and Tuttle's task was to bring the two words to life. He pulled it off. The building's elegant simplicity stands in contrast to the rugged setting. Adding grace to the dwelling are natural materials (sandstone, Douglas fir, cedar, Pacific redwood), talismanic sculptures by Montana artist Kate Hunt, stainless-steel animal figures by Oregonian Brent Lawrence, and Native American artifacts. Two guest wings branch off the lobby. In the center is the Grill restaurant, a spa and fitness center, a juice bar, a clubby library, and a gallery. Beyond the back terrace is the pool and a man-made lake.

In the simple, refined guest rooms, nothing is standard issue -- no shiny chrome bath fixtures, no catalogue-ordered furniture. Tuttle was given the freedom (and the budget) to custom-design every inch, to hire the best stonemasons, cabinetmakers, and lighting designers. An in-room snack bar disappears behind a redwood sliding panel; soft lights glow from cedar planks on the walls; side tables are constructed from pine stumps. The lemongrass soap was made locally; bath bottles come from Bali; and the fruit bowls are hand-hewn from sandstone. Even the soap dishes, ice buckets, and wastebaskets -- all fashioned from black terrazzo -- are covetable.

Amanresorts, ever image-conscious, focuses on aesthetics, and spends money in ways that may not seem cost-efficient. "We're devils when it comes to the details," says Zecha, the man who once told his staff to get rid of 2,000 chairs that just weren't right.

AMANS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN BUILT ON GENEROUS PIECES OF LAND with killer views, strategically removed from the unpleasant realities of tourist-trap towns full of souvenir hawkers, panhandlers, and rip-off cabdrivers. Jackson Hole was made for Aman. The town, with its boardwalks, western storefronts, and antler-festooned square, is classic Bonanza but stops just short of theme-park kitsch. There's hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, and white-water rafting in nearby Teton National Park. On Rendezvous Mountain (short lift lines and, at 10,927 feet, the greatest continuous vertical drop in the United States), you will see skiers in $2,500 Bogner jumpsuits, but more common are powder hounds in torn parkas and jeans. Cows (population 9,400) outnumber people (population 7,000), and nearly 10,000 elk graze in the refuge during the winter.

The renegade town takes pride in its irreverence. Cowboy hats are never out of place, and the radio station interrupts programming to announce lost backpacks and missing dogs. Jackson has just one bona fide Hollywood star, Harrison Ford, who acts like a regular guy. "The place is full of gazillionaires," says Aman employee Michelle Carlston, "but you can't tell by how they dress. Everyone wears fleece, sensible shoes, and Chap Stick." When I tried to replace my favorite Chanel lipstick, Michelle informed me that the closest cosmetics counter was in Salt Lake City, four hours away by car.

Early one Sunday morning, I hiked with two of Aman's new employees. We drove into Teton National Park and headed toward Jenny Lake, Hidden Falls, and Cascade Canyon. Tom Turiano, a mountain guide and ski instructor, explained his job. "We're not going to just offer our guests a brochure rack on the wall and send them out with any old guide," he says. "Everything will be private and customized."

After many visits to Amanresorts properties, it's clear to me that this company's success is no accident. "It's exciting that there's no set way to do the job," says Sharon Howard, who travels the world training all Aman employees. Conventional hotel wisdom requires an employee manual; Aman has none. The company is loaded with smart people who figure out how to serve guests in nonstandard ways. When I requested a manicure and a facial, I was asked whether I wanted them in the spa or in my room. No one told Michelle to stuff her backpack with candy, but any idiot knows that you can't hike without Snickers. When it was time to exercise, yoga was offered in the gym, on my terrace, or on the mountain. When I was taken on a game-viewing safari and to the National Museum of Wildlife Art, the staff looked after me brilliantly, placing me in the care of a wildlife biologist.

Skeptics suggest that Aman in America won't be the same as Aman in Asia. The Balinese believe that a spirit resides in every living thing, and this results in respectful service and an earnest desire to please. Some predict that Amangani will fail because American help won't be able or willing to deliver this kind of selfless service. "I have absolute confidence in these kids," says Zecha. "Give me one year and the Aman culture will infuse Amangani."

I'll be watching, Adrian. When there's a foot of fresh snow and the sun is shining, will you discover that you've hired a bunch of truant teenagers?Every skier knows about the dreaded absenteeism in mountain resorts. Just try getting room-service breakfast or a bellman when there's perfect powder. They don't aim to please, they call in sick.

On my last night in Jackson Hole, I opened the doors to my terrace, crawled under the down duvet, and slept in the pale moonlight with the lonesome howl of wolves in the distance. That night it snowed, and when I awoke I concluded that God must live in Wyoming.

Back home, I called my friend Jerry to declare my prejudice and send him to the great new place I'd found. "Go see for yourself," I told him.

"I'll be in Aspen," he said, cutting me short. My image-conscious friend prefers the celebrity frenzy. He likes it when icons strut into restaurants wearing $900 leather jackets and street-sweeping sables. He enjoys ritzy shopping, flashy discos, and riding the chair with Goldie, Mel, and Jack. "Jackson Hole is hillbilly land."

Precisely my point, Jerry.

Amangani, 1535 N.E. Butte Rd., Jackson Hole; 877/734-7333 or 307/734-7333, fax 307/734-7332; doubles from $450.