How Hong Konger Tina Atkinson turned a dusty block of land on Koh Samui into a luxury fitness retreat

tina atkinson
Tina Atkinson (centre) with two of her fitness retreat guests

After university it was clear that my destiny was not in the UK. Inspired by a gap year in Asia, I felt unsettled back in London. But I needed money so I worked for a property developer for 18 months, launching a villa marketing business in Portugal. It was hard work and eventually a conglomerate of Portuguese villa owners – with equity – offered me the chance to set up and run new offices in Chelsea Harbour. The experience clarified to me that I wanted to travel and work overseas.

The country with which I had most affiliation was Thailand. A work permit wasn’t a possibility so a job looked unlikely, but I decided to give it a go. My then-boyfriend (who I later married) was an Asian equity trader and had never considered an overseas posting. But a week before my departure he managed to wangle himself a transfer.

Bangkok was miserable. My only friend was my maid, we had no money to furnish our apartment, there were no mobiles and we didn’t even have a landline. But I invested in a language course and was eventually offered a job with Saatchi and Saatchi looking after the British Airways Executive Club Account. We stayed four years.

In 1993 I moved to Hong Kong to launch Asia’s first frequent flyer programme. I’d met an environmental activist in Thailand who had a brother working for Cathay. I went along for a chat and came out with a job.  

I have yet to fall out of love with Hong Kong. My children were born here and I’ve never left. I fluttered between buying and renting, but eventually property roads led me back to Thailand and to a block of land on Koh Samui. Due to Thai ownership laws and the political situation it wasn’t the wisest move. I had no background in design or build – actually I didn’t have a clue – but my father’s a developer so I kind of hoped it might be in the blood. To complicate matters further, I also decided it was worth offering the landowners on either side the opportunity to use the same architect and builder and then really threw caution to the wind and offered to project manage the whole process.

It was a painful two years of bankrupt builders and run-ins with triads. But eventually Baan Kilee was built and the houses on either side shortly thereafter. It was only towards the end of the build that I realised what a monster I had created. The footprint was huge – I calculated that the ‘over-size’ flat-screen TV I had in Hong Kong would be barely visible in the TV room here. I ended up needing eight TVs, not to mention the seven staff.

I made a swift decision to transition the villa into a business venture. I mooted the idea with the other owners and Chai Talay Estate was born. After taking a group of friends over, I realised the property was amazing for groups. The gardens and greenery, the white sands of the year-round swimming beach, the sunsets, the staff, the food, the unspoilt location and the direct flights to Hong Kong made it a fantastic potential getaway destination for multi-generational families and destination events. Chai Talay has 18 rooms and can cater for up to 40 people.

In 2010 I took voluntary redundancy from Cathay. I was determined to leverage my Koh Samui investment and drive a sense of community there. I came up with the idea of a fitness retreat and partnered with Natian Solia of Elite Personal Training in Hong Kong, whose own vision was simply to give back to his clients by offering them a stunning location for rest and relaxation each year. I didn’t have a gym, so we worked with nature, slinging equipment around coconut trees and using the beach and ocean. We also forged partnerships with Hong Kong’s Chrissy Denton Nutrition and Dayle Haigh Smith Outdoor Fitness and with local practitioners to offer yoga, Thai boxing and pilates.

Eight years and 16 residential retreats later and the programme has morphed into what it is today. We now run three-to-five day fitness and wellness retreats three times a year in March, June and November. People form amazing friendships and 70% of participants are returnees. Our clients are global, not just from Hong Kong, and want to take time out from their busy lives for themselves.

We’ve just completed an indoor-outdoor gym in an acre of organic gardens. But  wellbeing isn’t simply about cardio and jumping around for 5+ hours per day, so over the years we’ve added an holistic stream to help create a safe and supportive space through mediation, TRE and other modalities. Feedback suggested we were about more than just fitness and we found we were playing an important role in helping people manage their stress or other issues. People felt safe and relaxed with us and so wanted to open up.

I’ve now learnt to live my own life by the five ways to wellbeing – to connect, be active, take notice, to learn and to give back. Back in Hong Kong, I’ve joined SharedValueProject Hong Kong, a corporate-funded NGO, working with large companies to tackle societal issues in Hong Kong and aligning profit with purpose. Our eight corporates all voted to tackle mental health as their number one priority in 2018/19 and I am leading that work.

This year we’re introducing parent-teen retreats for families. They’ve been designed with the help of our holistic practitioner and our trainers – all of whom have worked extensively with teens. It’s a ‘therapeutic retreat meets activity holiday’, exploring healthy ways for teens to manage stress and anxiety. And mum and/or dad can work on a simultaneous programme of activity and relaxation.

The first Parent & Teen Wellbeing Retreat will run July 1-6 and is suitable for parents with children aged 13 to 18 years. The retreat covers mental wellbeing, fitness and nutrition and will be ‘digital light’ with a no alcohol policy.


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Asia Family Traveller

The biggest and brightest guide to travel in Asia with kids.

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