Thailand's fantasy island wakes up
A teardrop-shaped island flanking Thailand's Andaman Sea, Phuket has long been known for its lengthy white-sand beaches and hidden coves. The first tourists to come here were bearded backpackers in the 1960s who rented bamboo shacks on Patong Beach. It was the tragic tsunami that ripped across Phuket's western coastline in late 2004 that put the island on the map. Fast recovery followed by record arrivals quickly turned Phuket into one of Asia's leading beach destinations. Here are the latest hotels to open:
The former Six Senses Destination Spa was rebranded as the Naka Island by Starwood's Luxury Collection last year. Set on a small island off Phuket's east coast, 67 villas with rammed-earth walls, thatched roofs, private pools and luxuriant gardens scream romantic escape. Request an enclosed bathroom to avoid the ferocious mosquitoes, and villas 46, 47, 48 or the Royal Horizon Pool Villa for stunning views across Phang Nga Bay. Staff are happy and chatty and an excellent 60-room spa with treatments such as honey and mango body polish and complimentary Thai kickboxing classes will help while away the days. Naka Island needs to work on its food menu: the Thai cuisine is excellent, but Western dishes are limited and all taste the same. Doubles are from 9750 baht (NZ$386) with free internet in public spaces. See nakaislandphuket.com.
Banyan Tree's sister brand Angsana opened its first Thai resort in December last year. Formerly the Sheraton Laguna, this whopping 409-room property has had a fresh makeover with splashes of Angsana's signature purple and buttercup-yellow colours throughout. The Swiss chalet exterior verges on kitsch, but the rooms are comfortable, the service is great, there are several pools, multiple restaurants and it is purpose-built with young families in mind. There is a free kids' club for children aged 5-16 that has dedicated staff, a cafe, library, three playgrounds and a chock-a-block activity schedule plus affordable babysitting for those under five (468 baht for two hours). Double rooms are from 4800 baht. See angsana.com.
Banyan Tree, also located in the Laguna complex, recently rebranded its DoublePool Villas into a "resort within a resort". The 24 peaked-roof villas are exceptionally luxurious and well appointed, each with beautiful big bathrooms, generous outdoor living areas and plenty of privacy. But the rebrand is a little gimmicky; one of the two pools is barely deep enough to wade in and Laguna shuttle buses refuse to use the dedicated reception. Villas cost from 29,734 baht, including breakfast. See banyantree.com.
Overlooking quiet Makham Bay near Cape Panwa, the newly built Crowne Plaza's location will be off-putting for party-goers, but perfect for those hoping to escape the crowds. Having opened in May this year, the 224-room, two-pool, two-restaurant hotel is great value. Rooms, starting at 42 square metres, have terraces and stunning views over the ocean; upgrade to an Andaman Pool Loft Suite for more space, direct pool access and an espresso machine. There is a wood-panelled THANN spa and on-site shop selling beer and snacks at local prices. While there, take a kayak to the white-sand, uninhabited islands offshore; the Crowne Plaza has exclusive use of one. Double rooms from 3825 baht, including breakfast. See ichotels.com.
Reopening for the second time in a year, the 103-room Surin at Pansea Beach presides over Phuket's most beautiful stretch of sand. Formerly known as the Chedi, the 20-year-old hotel had a full makeover overseen by the original architect, Ed Tuttle, who replaced the classical teak wood design with a more beach-shack style. Multiple flights of stairs make it unsuitable for the disabled or elderly. Staff still have their training wheels on; service is slow. Double rooms from 8190 baht. See thesurinphuket.com.
Phuket isn't thick on the ground with great new restaurants. Angsana's beachside Thai restaurant, Baan Talay, tempers flavours for foreign palates, but staff are happy to make it "local style" if you like a bit of zing. The laarp tuna - raw fish tossed with Thai herbs and spices - and yum talay (fresh seafood salad) are both excellent; the crispy fried whole grouper is in a class of its own. Even better are the very affordable prices, with mains from 175 baht.
Angsana's Mediterranean-inspired Bodega & Grill is a little more hit and miss. My cod croquettes were dry and bland, but the leg of Tassie lamb was perfectly tasty and tender. Staff are obliging but out of their depth, unable to explain the menu and serving vinegar wine. Mains are from 561 baht; see angsana.com.
Phuket's oldies are its goodies. Bar and bistro Siam Supper Club gets its gentlemanly charm from owner Sean Power, who grew up in Malaysia rubbing shoulders with former Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew and German film star Marlene Dietrich. There is no bad time of the week for the bistro's casual comfort food (burgers, goat's cheese salad) teamed with red leather couches, attentive service and reliably good wines. See siamsupperclub.com.
Corry Ringoet and Marc de Schrijver ran the acclaimed De Tafeljoncker in Antwerp for 18 years before packing and shipping it - napkins and all - to a rural village near Kathu waterfall. Eating at Royale Nam Tok is surreal, with silver cutlery, fine china and dainty French cuisine while buffalo call in the paddock next door. Mains from 750 baht; see royalenamtok.com.
The newly refurbished Boathouse Wine & Grill has been serving classical French food for years. The rich food isn't always a good match for Phuket's sultry heat, but the wine-pairing dinners are good fun. See boathousephuket.com.
Skip breakfast for Trisara's Sunday Jazz Brunch, which teams a buffet of bite-sized Peking duck, oyster, lobster and salmon pie with top-notch service and a generous dollop of live jazz on Trisara's stunning beachside deck. From 6786 baht for two including a bottle of wine. See trisara.com.
For Thai food, the rule is simple: the more dinky the cafe, the better the food. Raya in Phuket Town (48 New Dibuk Cross Road) serves regular favourites - green curry, seafood salad - in a stunning old wooden house with original hand-painted floor tiles. The food is better at Wilai and newly opened Kopitiam by Wilai next door (18 Thalang Road). Owned and run by the progeny of original Chinese settlers in Phuket, the wildly popular cafes use Hokkien cooking styles with Thai spices. Try the char kway teow, here a blend between the eponymous Malaysian dish and pad Thai.
High-octane beach clubs are the latest fad swimming across Phuket. Opening on Surin Beach in 2008, Catch Beach Club was the first. It still pulls vibrant crowds to its breezy wooden deck peppered with big white lounges and stunning views over the sea. Order a Phuket Cosmopolitan, a refreshing tipple with vodka, cranberry, pineapple and sparkling wine, and a Japanese tapas plate. See catchbeachclub.com.
The iconic Boathouse hotel, in Kata, opened RE KA TA Beach Club earlier this year. Designed by Bali's KU DE TA, this smart club, huddling a half-moon pool and cafe, becomes a mass of neon lights at night. There is a minimum consumption charge of 500 baht in low season, 1000 baht in high. See rekataphuket.com.
Angsana's beach club, XANA, opened in late June this year. Teaming up with Singaporean nightclub operator Attica, lilac and white XANA has a glittery pool luminous with multi-coloured lights and zesty Thai-inspired cocktails such as Siam Sunray, with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, ginger, chilli, vodka and Malibu. See xanabeachclub.com.
Every visitor to Phuket should do at least one pilgrimage to Baba Nest at Sri Panwa resort on Cape Panwa. This plain wooden deck scattered with bean bags has soaring views across the island's southern peninsula. Order a Baba Daiquiri, with rum, passionfruit, lime and ginger, but request less sugar (drinks are designed for sweet-tooth Thais) while the sun sinks into the distant hills. Seats are limited so bookings are essential. See sripanwa.com.
Surin has the best collection of shops and galleries. Stop by Australian Cassie Harper's boutique, Bliss (116 Moo 3; islandblissphuket.com), for her light and easy "island life" kaftans, scarves, dresses and shirts. There is jewellery from Bali and a collection of Jets swimwear.
Cross the road for American Paul Ropp's (Surin Gallery, paulropp.com) street threads and accessories that hark back to the flower power days of the hippie trail. Many pieces are one-offs.
At the Plaza Surin, Lola (Unit 4) offers glittery high-design kaftans and resort-wear pieces, but with a generous dash of attitude.
Next door, Ginger stocks kitsch-cool tribal necklaces, shoes and brightly coloured cushion covers. See theplazasurin.com.
Head upstairs at the Plaza Surin for Soul of Asia's (soulofasia.com) prints by Joan Miro, Andy Warhol and Picasso. Several Chinese artists are also represented, including the social sarcasm of Wang Guangyi, whose works blending Cultural Revolution propaganda with Western brands helped spur China's contemporary art movement in the 1990s.
British designer Alexander Lamont's (alexanderlamont.com) gallery at Plaza Surin stocks his stunning handcrafted bronze, shagreen, and rock-crystal furniture and ornaments inspired by long lost Asian folk arts.
Several local artists have set up galleries and workshops in the historical Chinese terrace houses lining Phang Nga Road in Phuket Town. Wua Art Gallery (95 Phang Nga Road; see wua-artgallery.com) displays the surreal work of the inaptly named Mr Zen. A few doors up, a cavernous warehouse showcases the whimsical cartoons of Isara Thaotong (56 Phang Nga Road; see ids8.tumblr.com).
More traditional Asian arts can be found at the beautifully renovated China Inn Cafe (20 Thalang Road). Offerings include Burmese lacquer boxes, maroon cotton runners native to Laos' Bolaven Plateau and intricate ikat textiles from Thailand's north-east.
Phuket's tourism boom has spawned taxi syndicates whose drivers frequently demand inflated prices and target drunk Westerners. Try to steer clear of hedonistic Patong and use hotel cars if possible.
The writer was a guest of Naka Island and Banyan Tree.