Reviewed by Jen Murphy
Why did this hotel catch your attention? What's the vibe?
Mystical. To arrive, you drive past the majestic Punakha Dzong which looks like a fortress from a storybook. The actual hotel exterior is far less grand but no less striking. Set in a terraced hillside overlooking a bend in the Mo Chu river, it looks like it could belong to wealthy farmers or land owners. The exterior is simple, rather than grand—all locally sourced stone and wood with enormous picture windows to soak in the view of the valley. Its remote location and the quiet of the surrounding nature immediately casts a spell upon guests. You're so in the moment you almost forget to take out your phone to snap a photo.
What's the backstory?
It's part of the COMO brand. COMO was one of the first luxury players in Bhutan and has really set the standard for service. This property opened in 2012 and mosts guests pair it with a stay at sister property COMO Uma Paro. The hotel has welcomed many famous clients including dignitaries, Heads of State, celebrities, and royal family members, though their privacy is always respected. I was told during my stay that the king is known to drop in and order the Wagyu burger.
Tell us all about the accommodations. Any tips on what to book?
The property has two villas and eight rooms. I stayed in a Valley View Room. Each of the glass-walled rooms has a view of the valley. I love how much light pours in during the day. The brightly colored murals above the beds were hand-painted by local artisans and resemble the artwork I see on the walls of local village homes. The rooms feel minimalist but still cozy, with sheesham-wood furniture and white- and cream-hued fabrics. I had a little lounge area where I'd read each morning and I loved that my deep soaking tub overlooked the valley. If I came back, I'd splurge on the one bedroom villa, which has a separate living room and large French windows. It also has its own glade, where rhododendrons and hydrangeas frame the view from the terrace.
Is there a charge for Wi-Fi?
Free and speedy wifi.
Drinking and dining—what are we looking at?
The Wagyu burger is the most popular dish on the menu and frequently ordered by the Bhutanese Royal Family members who visit. I loved that the restaurant offers two dinner menus for guests, and the option to mix and match. Both menus change daily depending on the seasons and local produce. The Bhutanese menu highlights the national dish of Ema Datshi (chilli and cheese), buckwheat steamed dumplings, a daily curry item—vegetarian and non-vegetarian. I couldn't get enough of the momos—dumplings—from COMO. They had so much flavor.
The Western menus offers soups, salads, homemade pastas and risottos, fish and meat. The house specialty is sautéed Gasa potatoes with garlic confit. I visited in December when it was quite chilly, and a memorable dish was the healing hot pot of tofu, riverweed, and mushroom with pinched buckwheat noodle. This was on the more healthful Shambhala menu. Breakfast could fuel you through the day. It's included in the price of your stay and included daily baked pastries, freshly squeezed juices, lassis, home-made granolas and yogurts, fresh fruits, and made to order hot item options of organic local eggs, ricotta pancakes, red rice porridge, and quinoa and oatmeal porridge. I alternated days of decadence with orders from the Shambhala wellness menu, like egg white omelettes with avocado or steamed greens with poached eggs. The hotel also has a stellar selection of local whiskeys that are quite nice.
And the service?
You truly felt the staff were honored to welcome you into their home. Check in felt like a ceremony celebrating your arrival rather than a stiff formal affair. The General Manager, James Lowe, a Malaysian who fell in love with Bhutan, greets you by saying, "Welcome to my home" as he invites you for a cup of tea. He took my hand, and with tears in his eyes, recounted how Bhutan changed him. It was so genuine and personal and not something I've ever experienced at a hotel before. The lodge manager, Kelley Ritchie, is an American and she has a great sense of adventure and was wonderful suggesting local hikes. The concierge can arrange an early morning hike to visit Kham Sum Yulle Namgay Chorten monastery, which has gorgeous grounds with citrus trees and a Bodhi tree. The view from atop is spectacular. There is also a local monastery above the hotel, Chorten Nyingpo Monastery, which is home to 50 Buddhist monks. The concierge will prepare and serve a picnic breakfast at the base of the Kham Sum Yulle Namgay Chorten, overlooking the Punakha Valley.
What type of travelers will you find here?
Spiritual wellness seekers. They are up at sunrise for yoga or hikes and talking about the Buddhist culture with the staff. They dine off the Shambhala menu with its healthy options and indulge in daily spa therapies like the Bhutanese hot stone bath. They're in their designer leggings and comfy cashmere sweaters.
What about the neighborhood? Does the hotel fit in, make itself part of the scene?
The hotel is pretty remote, which is part of its charm. It fits into the rural countryside setting and the experiences you access are hyper local, like visits to local homes and farms for meals or visits to nearby monasteries. Paired with COMO Uma Paro it's perfection. The intimacy with just 10 rooms really makes it feel special, even compared to some of the newer properties like Six Senses Punakha, which has 19 villas.
Is there anything you'd change?
I only had two nights here. It's easy to rush through Bhutan, but build in time to soak in your tub, indulge in spa treatments, take in the views, and explore the area.
Any other hotel features worth noting?
COMO is known for its spas and this property's is really fantastic. I highly recommend the Bhutanese traditional hot stone bath. The stones crack in the hot water, releasing minerals. To do this at night after dinner was so relaxing. I love that the schedule is so flexible. When we were driving to the hotel, about 30 minutes out we came across a rare gathering that occurs just once a year. Hundreds of Bhutanese had made the trek to bless an abbott. Our guide was happy to let us detour and experience the festivities. It was so unique and unscripted.
Bottom line: Worth it? Why?
Absolutely. This hotel embodies the phrase sense of place.
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