What happens when a couple considered the ultimate experts in luxury hotels, finally launch their own.
As a teenager growing up in Antananarivo, Madagascar, and enjoying holidays on Ile Sainte Marie, Philippe Kjellgren always harboured a dream of running a hotel on the beach. “Nothing flashy, just somewhere for people to switch off in beauty and unspoiled nature,” he recalls.
Now Swedish-born Kjellgren, or PK as he is known, has made it his life’s work to become an expert in the world’s luxury hotels. A tough gig, one might say, but it’s a path that has led him to achieving his ultimate dream, to create the world’s most perfect ‘barefoot’ luxury hotel.
PK and his wife Vi have stayed in more than 2,000 of the world’s luxury hotels, in 149 different countries, as part of their due diligence for PK’s List, an invitation- or referral-only travel advisory service affiliated with SmartFlyer and Virtuoso. He has also authored several travel books.
It was in the middle of a three-year trip in around the world in 2017, that PK returned to his childhood home of Madagascar. “I wanted to go back and show Vi the place I had fallen in love with,” he says.
Ile Sainte Marie, known as Nosy Boraha among the 30,000 locals, is an island singularly beautiful and historic. In the 17th century during the age of maritime plundering, it was a pirate base, being near maritime routes travelled by ships returning from the East Indies, their hulls laden with goods. Legendary pirates such as William Kidd, Robert Culliford, Olivier Levasseur and Henry Every are said to have been interred in the island’s cemetery, where gravestones are carved with skull-and-crossbone symbols, although the remains were never officially identified.
Sainte Marie is also known for being one of the best spots in the world to see humpback whales, as its quiet bays and shallow waters make it ideal for pods of humpbacks to raise their calves before annual migration to colder waters. “For four months of the year you can see whales just by sitting on the beach,” says PK.
He had tried and failed to buy a piece of land on the pristine white beach in 2001 but, upon returning, there was a casual beach resort in almost exactly the place he had wanted to acquire. “Despite having seen so many beautiful places in the world on my travels, it was still every bit as breathtakingly beautiful as I remembered,” he says. “Not only untouched but it had kept that mystical aura.”
PK decided to try his luck one more time, and after finishing the trip he returned to the island, this time alone. The owner of the beach resort was in his 70s, half-French, half-Malagasy, having bought the land, and built a casual three-star beach resort in the mid-1990s and used it for family holidays.
When PK rocked up and proposed a sale, the owner was initially sceptical but after sitting down and chatting through PK’s vision, he became open to the idea.
“He only decided to sell to me because he liked my concept, and will stay on in the future in some role,” says PK.
PK laid out the plans for the concept of what he would go on to call Voaara, which stems from two Malagasi words: Voarara, meaning forbidden or sacred; and Voara, meaning nature or fruit.
Voaara would be a place of simple elegance and barefoot luxury for those who appreciate unspoiled nature, but equally like to be able to order the best French wine and enjoy exquisite Mediterranean cuisine with local fresh produce .
Some of his favourite hotels include Six Senses in the Seychelles, Laucala in Fiji, The Brando in Tahiti and Como Cocoa Island in the Maldives, as well as Uxua Casa in Brazil, all of which he took inspiration from when designing Voaara.
Bungalows and villas have been designed understated yet luxurious. So, while they will have infinity pools and come with a classic Land Rover convertible as standard, they are built in a rustic tropical style using South African-Chilean architect Luis F Mira’s eye for local materials and reclaimed wood. “There’s no marble or gold in sight,” PK adds, and the menu will be delicious, yet authentic. “I’m tired of fancy food and not being able to see what is on your plate.”
PK’s rule of thumb is the high-heel test. “This hotel is not for everyone. If you want to wear high heels around the resort it’s impossible, nowhere is paved,” he says. These villas will also be available for purchase off-plan. Owners will be able to use the villas for two months, and then keep them as part of the hotel room inventory, where they will receive 50 percent of the rental income.
In January 2020 a sale was agreed for the land, and then Covid-19 struck. PK made use of the time and spent many hours poring over Google Earth, to figure out parcels of land to purchase so that “as far as the eye can see, it all belongs to us”. In the end, he acquired a further 100 acres of pristine Madagascan land.
Come May 2022, when planes returned to the sky, PK and Vi were able to first visit the site that they owned. Work has continued ever since and a soft opening of Voaara is expected to happen in March 2024, where eight bungalowsand one villa will be available
The plan is to employ 80 percent local staff, 20 percent expat ratio (the head chef and the general manager are both likely to be expat). Eventually there will be 45 keys that result in a six-to-one staff-to-guest ratio, something that PK believes is essential in making a stand-out five-star resort.
And, most importantly, there will be a strong focus on giving back. PK and Vi do not have any children and made the choice to support local schools and causes with a portion of the profits from the hotel and after they’re both gone their trust and charity will remain to ensure people can explore this untouched paradise for years to come. One of the biggest issues that Madagascar faces is deforestation, so a replanting programme will also be centre stage.
PK says: “I hope people come and stay now, to be at the beginning of the Voaara story, to see the evolution of the resort and to discover their paradise, just like I did many years ago.”
This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Taste and Travel Issue. To subscribe, click here.