We meet in the lounge area of the Cosmo Restaurant, an opulent setting high above the golden sands of Nai Harn, the hotel flags fluttering in the sea breeze. The location is unique: to the west the ultramarine waters of the Andaman Sea; to our left the wide sweep of a bay flanked by lush headlands. This is ‘The Nai Harn’, an island icon founded in 1986, the only resort with direct access to one of the world’s premier beaches. Frank Grassmann, the affable and dedicated general manager who joins me here, is in his element – a distinguished hotelier presiding over a magical institution.
Hospitality was not Frank’s original choice of career. After coming within an ace of joining Lufthansa as a pilot, he settled on an alternative career. As a young man, he had occasionally travelled with his salesman father and, as a result of staying in many hotels, he became interested in the hotel business.
Frank went on to serve an apprenticeship at the Albrecht Durer Hotel Management School in Dusseldorf, Germany before embarking on a career which has gone from strength to strength and from country to country. His impressive CV includes postings at The Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel in Mexico City, The Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof in Frankfurt, the Riyadh Intercontinental Hotel, London’s The Savoy, Dusit Thani Bangkok, Dusit Thani Manila and Phuket’s Dusit Thani Laguna.
Frank had not planned to come to Phuket – though he had “always wanted to go to Asia”. It was, in the way of these things, “mostly coincidence”. But once here, he fell in love with the place, conscious of an infectious friendliness and a sense of freedom that is part of Thailand’s charm. “Phuket” he says, “ has been good to me”
At The Nai Harn, he enjoys a considerable degree of managerial independence. As he says, “Where else could I design my own china ware?” He has been here at high-end resorts for 15 years, including a four-year spell at the nearby Evason Phuket from 2008 to 2012, when that resort closed pending development and rebranding. Still with Evason’s owners, Six Senses, Frank then had the opportunity to work at the Soneva Kiri on Koh Kood, one of the most elaborate resorts in Thailand.
Back to The Nai Harn... Here, in late March, and two years into a recent and ambitious refurbishment stage-managed by Frank, it is still operating close to capacity. Its cachet as one of the world’s iconic hotels is reinforced by a guest list which has included Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, Prince Albert of Monaco and artistic legends such as ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, as well as actors Peter Ustinov and Roger Moore.
More recently, the resort has been granted the Gold Medal of the prestigious Green Hotel Award. This honour has been bestowed on only three resorts on the island (the others are Le Meridien and The Dream Hotel), a tribute to Frank’s ongoing concern for ecological matters and for the continued well-being of an island in danger of being swamped by capricious development.
I ask what The Nai Harn is doing to merit this award. “Well”, says Frank, pointing to his orange juice, “a small example is this straw. Paper, not plastic.” Such attention to detail is remarkable. But the bigger picture is not ignored. Solid refuse is sorted and weighed. Organic waste is re-cycled. An emphasis on self-sufficiency means that not only is water piped in from local sources near Rawai Temple, but is treated and then released in the hills above the hotel where it provides irrigation for all the verdancy, especially the coconut palms that grace the hillside site.
Naturally, The Nai Harn is now a ‘listed’ establishment, so Frank’s zeal for innovation – and it is everywhere apparent – is tempered by the need to preserve the existing framework. Nonetheless, a strong artistic sense coupled with keen operational skills have seen him introduce new features; for instance a cold room where meat from sustainable sources is transformed into delicious delicacies such as local ham, breakfast sausage and a range of succulent steaks. A carnivore’s heaven.
Both restaurants and all rooms have been extensively remodelled. What Frank modestly calls “fine tuning” has seen him bring Salim Khoury from The Savoy in London to create a range of signature cocktails, and to ask James Suckling, one of the world’s leading wine experts, to devise the house list.
Despite the pressures of his job, Frank is a dedicated family man. He met his English wife in Germany – “childhood sweethearts” who attended the same school – and they have been married for 24 years. Son Piers, having completed his studies at University College, London, is in public relations, while daughter Nina is just completing a degree in Psychology at Bath, and plans to research for an MSc. Naturally they are, like their talented father, trilingual – a huge asset in today’s world.
The family live nearby on Soi Naya, but they also have a home in Piedmont in northern Italy. There Frank can relax and indulge his passion for fine food and wine.
In the meantime, there is a wine tasting At The Nai Harn on the 11th of May . This writer – and Frank – will certainly be there…