andBeyond (&Beyond) is an award-winning experiential travel company that has been offering some of the best African safaris, lodges and adventure trips for three decades. They are known for their commitment to sustainability and guest engagement, as well as high-levels of luxury, service and creature comforts.
While &Beyond offers itineraries around the globe, some using properties they do not own, they also have nearly 30 of their own hotels, almost all of these safari lodges in Africa, including some of the most coveted (Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, Grumeti River Lodge, Sossusvlei Desert Lodge, etc.). They also moved into Chile a couple of years ago, and most recently expanded to Asia with their first lodge there, in Bhutan. The small Buddhist nation in the Himalayas has recently emerged as a new luxury travel hotspot for a variety of very good reasons (read much more about “Why Bhutan is Hot” here), and the new &Beyond Punakha River Lodge is one of the best places you can stay there.
I just got back and was one of the very first guests at the property, which soft-opened two weeks ago (early September 2023). Usually seeing a hotel this new does the property a disservice as there are always growing pains (that’s why they call them soft openings, and the spa wasn’t quite ready to open yet when I was there), but in this case the lodge is already excellent and will only get better.
While many other respected luxury brands operate small lodges in Bhutan, I found that the ones I visited seemed focused on keeping guests happy on site, but Bhutan is a really long trip to undertake just to sit around your plunge pool all day, no matter how swank the accommodations. Bhutan is a place you should go to experience the unique culture, nature, wildlife and outdoor activities – and in that regard is very much like Africa, where the &Beyond model has been proven to excel. In fact, many visitors are surprised to find that the Himalayan nation is rich in wildlife, home to Bengal tigers, leopards, snow leopards, sloth bears, black bears, civets, elephants, countless bird species including rarities, yaks, and the national animal, the rare takin, a sort of sheep/goat/antelope hybrid. There’s a riverside spot about 40 minutes from the lodge where you can see takin, and &Beyond is working with the government on plans to offer safari-style viewing of some of the other coveted wildlife, an activity largely absent right now in Bhutan.
The property was built with leaving your compound and doing activities in mind, both physically and philosophically. As a small example, the outdoor showers – always a nice luxury – were intentionally designed with doors from both the suite and the outside, so if you come back from mountain biking and are dirty, you can go straight in. This speaks to the ethos of the place, and one of the best hikes I had in Bhutan – a country famous for great hiking – was from the &Beyond property. A must-do morning activity, the Khamsum Yuelley longer loop hike summed up the essence of Bhutan in a couple of hours, starting and ending with (different) metal swing bridges over a river, climbing into the mountains to a beautiful Buddhist monastery that is inaccessible by road, and making a loop before coming directly back to the resort through rice paddies. It packs so much about the setting into a short time, and starts with just a five-minute drive to the trailhead, while many of Bhutan’s resorts are on long dirt roads that make coming and going a chore.
But especially notable is that &Beyond borrows a page from its safari playbook and adds a lot of special “surprises” in the field. If you’ve been on safari in Africa, you may know that top operators often show up unexpectedly with gourmet picnics, bottles of champagne, gin and tonic bars, snacks or similar set ups in beautiful spots when least expected. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s surprise, but this concept is big at the resort, and the wonderful hike is made even better by a surprise breakfast or lunch in an absolutely perfect spot along the way, a nice change from just eating at the resort restaurants again and again.
If you want to try Bhutan’s newest activity, world-class fly fishing, &Beyond will set that up – and expect riverside “surprises.” As the GM explained to me, “We really focus on picnics so you can spend more time outdoors. There’s a hike that goes from here to a beautiful blue mountain lake, and you can relax and have lunch on the shore.” There are seven listed hikes offered from the resort, from 30 minutes to 4 hours, along with mountain biking for all levels of riders, and even white-water rafting – again ending right at the property.
The lodge is just six luxury tented suites and two villas, one and two-bedrooms respectively, each villa with its own pool. The tented suites are again African style – except these have air conditioning, along with soaking tubs, oversized walk-in showers, outdoor showers, and the all-inclusive model covers adult beverages, not the case at many competitors. This includes the in-room bar, with full size bottles of whiskey, rum and more, as well as Bhutanese beers. The food is fantastic, with a big emphasis on local flavors and ingredients, incorporating Bhutanese ingredients into global dishes along with gourmet spins on local classics. They even have an outdoor open-air wood-fired kitchen in the traditional Bhutanese style offering demos and cooking classes. In sharp contrast, my last two nights in Bhutan were spent in a very nice luxury resort where in two and half days of breakfasts, lunches and dinners, nothing remotely local was offered.
Again, like Africa, dining here is moveable feast that might be in the main dining room, the gorgeous outdoor patio, around a firepit, in numerous outdoor locations across the property, riverside, or even in your suite – or on the large deck surrounding it.
In addition to the litany of hikes, bikes, fishing and other off-site activities, they have an archery range. This is the national sport of Bhutan, and you can give it a go with instruction using traditional bamboo bows and arrows. It’s fun and very different from any archery you might have done before (just about every luxury resort in Bhutan offers this activity). There is a yoga and meditation pavilion with daily complimentary classes as well as private sessions, a full spa, and a beautiful pool complex.
Bhutan has no shortage of luxury hotels, both local standout brands like Pemako and iconic global chains such as Aman, COMO and Six Senses, but even in this competitive field the new &Beyond Punakha River Lodge stands out, with a very different approach, and was a highlight of my trip to Bhutan. They also offer longer Bhutan itineraries combining stays with other hotel brands including transfers, guides and drivers.