Federico Asaro, group CEO of Samadhi Retreats, never harboured a desire to own hotels. Today, he runs four properties and counting.

We arrived in a frazzled state as our taxi had missed the entrance to Tamarind Hill a few times and a walk up the hill to the entrance of the Thai restaurant was not how I had envisioned arriving in paradise. That soon changed — the short walk up the verdant hill at sunset was very relaxing. Stepping into the restaurant foyer was like entering a tastefully furnished home. There was a round marble table, wooden furniture and a bright red antique Chinese cabinet.

Pointing at the cabinet, Federico Asaro, group CEO of Samadhi Retreats, says: “This piece, a very unique cabinet, is from Shaanxi [China]. It is very, very hard to find them today; I found this one a few years ago. I usually buy [antiques] and keep them. I will eventually use them at one of the properties or leave them at home. My wife says it’s like living in a museum.”

With his sense of humour and laidback charm, Asaro comes across as very likeable. He is not your typical management type. In fact, you could label him a hipster, for want of a better word. Casually dressed in an army green shirt and white trousers and sporting prayer bracelets, he appears fresh from a five-day trip to India that included an audience with the Dalai Lama.

Asaro is keen to talk about his latest project, Villa Samadhi, a 20-room hotel he converted from a 1920s black-and-white colonial bungalow. The hotel, located just behind Tamarind Hill in Labrador Park — a nature reserve in Pasir Panjang — is slated to open by year-end.

Villa Samadhi is a labour of love that was three years in the making. Asaro explains: “I had to source for all the furniture. They had to be from the same period as the place. I went to places like India and Myanmar to look for British colonial furniture and the pieces that we could not find, we made them. I bought teak wood that was 60 or 70 years old and made the furniture with the old wood.”

Travellers who like minimalist modern settings will not find them at Villa Samadhi. “We don’t appeal to everyone because I build to appeal to myself. I find the destinations and then furnish the properties. I then work with my own construction company in Malaysia to make the furniture. My aim is so the moment you walk through the door, you will find yourself in the 1920s.”

If there is one thing the 48-year-old would like you to experience in his three properties in Malaysia — Japamala on Tioman Island, Villa Samadhi in Kuala Lumpur and The Blue Mansion in Penang — is to have a complete break from daily life. Each property under the Samadhi Retreats umbrella is designed so guests can get away from it all, including electronic devices. The Blue Mansion in Penang, which used to be the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, is the first property Samadhi Retreats is managing.

Samadhi is Sanskrit for the highest stage in meditation — the moment when one experiences a fusion with the divine universe. The Samadhi Retreats brochure reads: “Our wish is to deliver a transcendent experience where stresses and anxieties of daily life are surrendered and our guests transition to an intensely relaxed state of mind.”

Getting started
It was never Asaro’s intention to become a hotelier. The former diver tells us he stumbled upon the vocation by chance. “I fell in love with an abandoned property in Tioman. It was derelict. It looked like a scary place, but I thought it was just amazing. As it turned out, I went to school with the owner. I found him alone at the resort. He had no guests and his family had put him out there to look after it. While we were having a chat over tea one morning, he said: ‘I’m looking for a sucker’ — those were his exact words — ‘to take this place off my hands’ and the first thing I did was to raise my hand and say, ‘I will be that sucker’.”

And that was how Japamala was born a decade ago. When it opened, it had just four rooms and four villas. It has since been completely transformed and the resort is about to open its 14th villa. Japamala is targeted at the European market, for the Westerner who wants a rustic Asian experience. As Asaro sees it, “A Malaysian will not spend that kind of money to sit in a kampung house because he was probably born in a kampung house and he can go back to his grandparents’ and have that experience without having to pay for it. “But a Westerner wants to feel what it is like to be in a Malaysian setting. So it’s become very popular with the Western market and we’ve been expanding and remodelling the rooms, making them bigger so the prices keep getting higher. We’re basically upping our luxury experience.” A room at Japamala costs about RM850 ($284) a night.

The early years
How did the Italian end up in Malaysia? When Asaro was eight years old, his father, who worked for an oil company, was transferred to Malaysia. Over the next 40 years, the family moved around, including to the Philippines and Australia. But he was most comfortable in Asia. “I’m a bit of a rojak. I would like to think I have the best of both worlds. Maybe I don’t, maybe I have the worst of both worlds, I don’t know, but I can think from a Western perspective and I can also think and understand the Asian perspective.”

After completing his studies, Asaro worked as a commercial diver in Borneo, even living on a boat there for 10 years. After that, he conducted dive cruises for tourists in Sabah as well as parts of Southeast Asia.

He travelled all over Malaysia, often alone. “On weekends, I would take the train and go off somewhere. Many times, I tried to drag a friend with me but they thought I was a bit cuckoo, so I would end up on the islands alone and I would just dive the entire weekend.”

The dive trips are fewer and far between now. These days, Asaro calls Singapore home. It is his launch pad as he travels the world looking for opportunities. Without divulging too much, he says he wants to expand the brand’s portfolio. When pressed, Asaro confesses to being very close to signing a property in the jungles of Malaysia. He also visited Rajasthan and Morocco recently.

Wherever the group opens or manages a hotel, we can be sure it will have Asaro’s personal touch. Who knows, in a few years from now, Options might be having a conversation with him in another property about a cabinet he acquired in another exotic location.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 752 (Oct 31) of The Edge Singapore.