Is the traffic and pollution of Phnom Penh’s streets grinding you down? The Vine Retreat offers a welcome – and reasonably priced – escape in Kep’s countryside, with an organic farm, saltwater pool and excellent food. Emily Wight reports.
You won’t come across The Vine Retreat unless you look for it. Hidden in the forested mountains beyond Highway 33, which connects to National Road 3 that links Kampot with Phnom Penh, the only hint of something special is a battered sign next to the red dirt lane which takes you to the entrance of Phnom Voar Natural Tourism Area.
Visiting at the tail-end of Pchum Ben holiday, we were only joined by one other guest, though we were told it was full for the rest of the weekend. The tranquility was sublime, but with only eight rooms, I doubt the peace would be ruined even if it were fully booked. Nonetheless, having the place to ourselves was a luxury. We were at complete leisure to lie on cushions on the terrace overlooking the organic farm and saltwater pool, talking to Jay Fountain, one half of Vine Retreat’s new management.
Jay and his sister Emma founded Phnom Penh’s raw food haven ARTillery, which they sold so they could take over the management of the Vine Retreat in August. While Jay holds the fort, along with his charming dog Tiger, inherited from the previous management, Emma has embarked on raw food training courses in Australia and the US, developing skills she’ll bring back to the hotel.
The hotel employs 19 Cambodian staff, including local farmers and chefs who are learning about organic farming. A total of 90 per cent of the restaurant’s food is home-grown, including Khmer staples such as eggplant, papaya, passion fruit, and jackfruit. Jay has also introduced lettuce, tomatoes, courgettes and herbs to the mix. There’s also a pepper plantation onsite. The menu isn’t completely vegetarian though, as Jay concedes that this might put off visitors.
The Vine Retreat is proof that eco-friendly and comfort can come hand in hand. Stepping into the bedroom, you’re welcomed by fresh flowers sprinkled on the immaculately white bedsheets; the hot shower is powered by solar panels; the pool is filled with saltwater rather than chlorine. And you don’t have to break the bank: room prices range between $25 and $45 per night depending on the number of beds. You can stay in a family room that sleeps four people for $45. All prices include breakfast.
Thanks to Jay and Emma’s experience – Jay used to own a cafe in the UK – the restaurant is an integral feature of The Vine Retreat. I have to sing the praises of the milk masala tea with Kampot pepper, which is perfect with a moist slice of banana cake. It was just the thing to perk us up after a long journey, before we looked around the garden, showered and reconvened on the terrace with a glass of sauvignon blanc and a hearty meal of pan-fried prawns with Kampot pepper. The peppercorns were still on their twigs, and picking them off and sprinkling over the brown rice was a delight. The honey tofu kebab also went down well.
The menu is a glorious blend of Khmer and Western food. For breakfast, I chose the British classic of eggs with soldiers and Marmite, but Bobor porridge and noodle soup were available.
Despite The Vine Retreat’s quiet surroundings, eating isn’t the only activity on offer. Guests can hire bicycles for $4 per day and explore the local village, visit the nearby Women’s Handicraft Centre, or embark upon one of three guided treks – including one that offers a view of the sunset over the sea, Phu Quoc Island and, in the distance, mainland Vietnam.
If you’re missing everyday life, there’s also Wi-Fi available in the hotel. The staff is in the process of building a bar by the pool, due to open in a few weeks.
My only complaint would be that the electric lighting was too dim in the room. I had the luxury of two windows and wooden doors opening onto a balcony that in the day flooded the room with natural light. In the depths of the countryside, where darkness falls before 7pm, the lighting was insufficient for reading and I would recommend the team improve it if possible.
But it’s a minor irritation in such pleasant surroundings. One day after checking out from The Vine Retreat, I was already planning my return. With the sheer natural beauty of its surroundings, diverse menu and serene setting, as well as the range of activities available nearby, it makes a perfect break for city-dwellers eager to escape the grind. You might want to bring a few essentials however: there is no soap in the private bathrooms, so some hand sanitiser might come in handy – as will mosquito repellant. You’ll find towels in the wardrobe of each room. Talk to the staff about arranging onward travel: the bus from Kep to Phnom Penh conveniently stops for guests at the bottom of the lane if they call ahead for you.
And make sure you check the bed before letting down the mosquito nets: I found a decent-sized spider next to my pillow. But despite being averse to the most innocent of bugs, I was relaxed enough that, once I’d had it removed, I could still doze off into the sounds of bullfrogs, crickets and geckos.