Melita and Rory Hunter were neither hoteliers nor NGO representatives, but what they have achieved at the Song Saa Private Island Resort bridges those two worlds seamlessly. Serendipitous circumstances led to a passion project that offers guests the chance to surrender to nature and reconnect with themselves on a natural, uninhibited wellness programme.
Melita shares with CompareRetreats.com the story of Song Saa—the Cambodian word for ‘sweetheart’—and why conservation and wellness work together.
How did you come to find the perfect location for the private island resort? We heard about it from someone and he painted this picture of white sands and beautiful, crystal clear water. We managed to convince a fisherman to rent us his boat for two weeks. The waters were becoming harder and harder to fish. He wanted to go back to the mainland and asked us if we wanted to buy the island. It was just one of those serendipitous moments where we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and we said yes.
It wasn’t as if we were caught by the beauty of the island itself—there was lots of rubbish everywhere. But we were captivated by the energy of the entire archipelago and the entire experience. The beautiful ecosystem we had fallen in love with was very fragile and pretty much on the brink of collapse. We decided to bring a hotel here to bring in some real impact.
What is the importance of conservation to the Song Saa programme? I think 99.9% of our guests when they get here see that there are so many layers to the work that we do, and they feel quite moved to get involved. It really depends on how deep they want to go. We have a discovery centre on the main resort island where people can engage with our conservation team, they can go snorkelling around the island and see the artificial reefs we’ve put in and how they’ve grown over time. We keep it quite natural. We are always quite conscious that this is not Disneyland or tourists looking in.
Tell us about some of your community initiatives. We loved the ethical fashion project. Designing the hotel and working with so many incredible artisans on the ground—from the lighting made of recycled oil drums to the beautiful handmade ceramics and textiles—was such an incredible experience. I’m hoping to launch a few small collections later this year. It focuses on slow fashion; slow living. Globalisation should leave no one behind.
Which products are you most excited about? There are these silk weavers creating incredibly beautiful handmade silk, and everybody is handicapped. We’re also developing lotus yarn. What I love is that the lotus flower is used from end to end, so we’re designing a garment and also producing a tea. The lotus fibre is probably the most ethical fibre in the world.
Song Saa received CN Traveller’s Most Soulful Spa of the Year Award. What makes it a soulful space for you? They created the title of that award specifically for that year. They really captured the essence of what the Song Saa sanctuaries are: it’s very healing. The philosophy is all based on the Buddhist philosophy of love and kindness. There’s something about being barefoot on timber with the sounds of nature and the hornbills flying overhead that really touches you from the inside out. People connect with themselves and nature as one, which I think is quite unexpectedly for a lot of people.
How does the design of the resort help promote a sense of wellbeing? It’s a property that feels like it’s meant to be there. From the outside, it’s incredibly rustic, but when you step inside, nothing’s gone unturned. There are beautiful linens, beautiful recycled timber on the floor: the textiles make it very sensory. There are lots of opportunities to discover things.
Tell us about the team on the ground who run the retreat day-to-day. The team down there complete the experience. Without them, it’s just another island hotel. They are predominantly local, and there is a real sense of pride in being able to share the success of this story with foreigners.
Has setting up Song Saa influenced your own outlook on wellness? Absolutely. I’m learning every day, through the connections that I’ve been fortunate enough to have. It’s through every single aspect of it—from the guests, the yogis, members of the island community. I’m always growing and evolving and hoping to continue to do so in a positive way.
What are the first few days at Song Saa like for a guest? If you’re coming here, it can take a few days to become part of the fabric of Song Saa and to get your island legs. Once you surrender to it, you’ll find a very special moment that will wash over you and slow everything right down.
How do you sustain your approach to wellness away from Song Saa? I love going and having a monk blessing and having the red string put around my wrist, which is always a wonderful reminder of what I’ve been missing. Just keeping that with me really helps.