Same Samui, but different (Financial Times How to Spend it)

Sunday brunch at the newest branch of Nikki Beach is, at first glance, a familiar affair. There are the outdoor four-poster beds with billowing white fabrics, the Veuve Clicquot ice buckets and the Nikki Beach logo stamped into each wedge of wasabi at the sushi station. There is the omnipresent DJ and the Nikki Beach Girl in a bikini, blonde hair in bunches, one leg arched over the side of the pool as if posing for the cover of a Balearic compilation CD. Incongruous amid the posturing and backbeat are the quiet family groups from the nearby Four Seasons and the professionals taking time out from business in Bangkok, clad in the sober end of Vilbrequin and reading literary fiction. We are on Koh Samui, not in Miami, and things are a lot less try-hard here in the idyllic coconut palm fringed Gulf of Thailand.

The 16-villa Nikki Beach Bungalow Resort might seem like an odd fit for Samui, but then this is an odd time for the island. It isn’t a fashionable destination; there is no yacht-filled marina and there’s certainly nothing like a social season. It’s unlikely there ever will be. At the same time, Nikki Beach isn’t geared to the backpackers who stick to the party towns and cheap Singha on the opposing east coast. Instead, it’s a suggestion of what might be.

A new Langham Place and Anantara all-villa opened at the turn of the year, a W Retreat and Banyan Tree open next month and a Conrad and a Vana Belle, part of Starwood’s niche Luxury Collection, are also on their way. Samui would appear to be undergoing rehabilitation. There are the still the decreasingly infamous Full Moon Parties on neighbouring Pha Ngan; but while the backpackers daub themselves in UV paint in preparation for it, the Six Senses resort offer VIP private excursions for 28,000 baht – around £530 – per couple.

Few would deny this has been an island with an image problem.  ‘No one used to take Samui seriously,’ says Michael Holehouse, Vice President of the Thai Hotels Association. ‘It was all sex and drugs and rock and roll and backpackers. Now that’s changing.’ Samui had been the definitive backpacking snowbird destination for decades. The draw was obvious: the Thai hospitality, the undiscovered beaches and the 50p bowls of delicious Pad Thai. Gap year students could comfortably spend months living in paradise. But what was once a secret was soon shared and ruination followed. Chaweng, small and mercifully self-contained halfway down the east coast, was once the prettiest beach town on Samui. Now it’s a wrong turn on a carnival ghost train, a nightmarish neon gash full of naff cocktail bars, tattooists, teeth whitening boutiques and gangs of masseurs in orange boilersuits, looking like graduates of an aggressive Guantanamo beauty therapy academy.  A macabre Ronald McDonald stands on one corner, hands and head bowing in Buddhist prayer pose.

Chaweng is a lost cause, but the new resorts hope to give the illusion that it simply doesn’t exist. Each new resort is insular, replicating the most covetable qualities of a private island, with relatively low room numbers. At the same time, the infrastructure is upgrading. Roads have been radically improved and a 13.7 billion baht upgrade by the Provincial Waterworks Authority of the water supply is underway. Bangkok Air have spent close to £10,000,000 creating an airport that’s uniquely civilized, while finally putting a serious business class product on the short-hop route. Their monopoly and refusal to add flights from Bangkok make for a natural curb to further overdevelopment. As Michael Holehouse says ‘The airlift is the governor and it keeps the monster conference hotels at bay.’

The hotels that are appearing are aiming squarely above five star standards, attempting to impress with architecture and dramatic landscaping that wouldn’t be physically possible in the Maldives. ‘At the moment each new product is higher and higher end,’ says Sunny Bajaj, the developer behind the 75-villa W Retreat. David Ashworth, GM of the Six Senses, has already witnessed the sea change: ‘When we opened five years ago, we were the only resort with pool villas. Now it’s commonplace.’

The panorama from the reception desk at the Banyan Tree takes is certainly a spectacle: a tiered Jurassic amphitheatre of lush tropical greenery graduating down to what is effectively a private beach; something technically legislated against on Samui, but defined here by impassable rocks at either end of the resort. Every Oriental, monochrome-accented villa comes with a pool big enough to do laps in, while the Rainforest spa has a 81.65sq metre hydrotherapy pool, the largest of its kind in Asia. This is pre-recession-planned leisure architecture at its most decadent.

To the north, the W Retreat has a similarly insular design and brings the same tropics-via-Manhattan-hip feel to Thailand that it achieved with such success in the Maldives. The W is reinventing the tropical resort for those who don’t have thatch at home, and don’t want it on holiday.  It’s angular, linear and extreme in scale. The interiors are bold, with primary reds and grey flannel offset against the pale driftwoods.

The latest Langham Place opened here just south of the Banyan Tree in November. It’s signature restaurant, Cha, features sunken poolside dining tables and very fine but relaxed dining. Langham Place revels in its spirited if self-conscious contemporary touches: the staff’s ‘KISS ME’ T-shirts, the shocking pink beach towels and the art-directed Costes-style musical soundtrack. Its all a tasteful pop-culture curve thrown on what is an otherwise quite traditional, plush resort. Then there’s the Anantara Lawana, which opened a month later. It’s a quite sublime study in how traditional, striking Chinoserie can be reinterpreted as light, feminine, elegant and contemporary. It also seems difficult to believe that Lawana’s Sky Hug restaurant, a set of romantic private dining spaces in a treehouse setting, is actually just a short walk from Chaweng.

The new Anantara isn’t the only five-star gem close to the rough of Chaweng. The Library sits in the middle of the madness like a gleaming white high-design sanitarium, with clean squared-off lines and a statement-making red pool. It’s a favourite with Bangkok celebrities who want to be seen, but who also appreciate the watchful security that ensure the public don’t make it from the beach to the beanbags at the poolside.

The Four Seasons has, without a doubt, been the reigning champion in the five star-plus category on the island since it opened in 2007. Here is a definitive kind of luxury. The one to four bedroom residence villas come with resident teams of butlers, and the service is exactly as you want it; invisible but on cue. It’s a resort that’s big on experience and Kodak moments – the views from the cliff-side decking at breakfast are incredible, while the restaurant, Pla Pla, sits next to a row of flaming torches on the beach, lined up against the infinity pool. It’s an IMAX 3D beach resort, with a classic 70mm spa to match.

Two niche resorts got here before the Four Seasons, exploited the island’s potential for splendid isolation and are unlikely to be swayed by developments elsewhere. The Six Senses is a sophisticated reinterpretation of what the backpackers came for years ago – eco-driven, with rustic bamboo fixtures and a feeling that you might be one of just a few people who know about the island. At the resorts most romantic restaurant, Dining on the Rocks, tables are spaced across numerous sea-side platforms and you work your way through an arrestingly modern tasting menu that includes a tuna and brioche fish course that comes in a tin marked ‘canned tuna fish sandwich’, in a brown paper bag. It’s quirky but accomplished.

If Six Senses is for the discerning honeymooner, Kamalaya, which opened in 2005, is for the similarly discerning individual who doesn’t so much want a holiday as need one. It specializes in tailored detox, de-stress and ideal weight programs using its tranquil landscaped pool areas, surrounding hills and ancient Buddhist monks’ caves – all far more appealing than a fortnight in an Alpine equivalent. Two weeks are perfect but three would be a charm. Guests are unanimous in their praise for the effectiveness of the treatments, including Taoist abdominal massage for circulation, infrared saunas, and moxabustion – essentially acupuncture with fire.  Kamalaya thrives on repeat annual visitors and, if nothing else, offers some of the best massage and cuisine on the island – the kitchen’s banana leaf salad and larb gai are amongst the freshest and cleanest-tasting (with no salt or oils) you’ll find in the Gulf.

Samui’s best resorts may be isolated by design, but this is an island that’s easy to traverse by taxi, so if you’re staying at the Four Seasons, you can dine at Kamalaya, Nikki Beach, or indeed anywhere, and there is a lot more on offer than the green curry and grilled cheese sandwiches of yore. You should visit somewhere unassuming and local like Sabeinglae, south of Lamai. The best seats, beachside, may be plastic, but the firepots of tom yam soup and the Phuket lobsters are superlative Thai dishes. The international cuisine at Top Ten, beyond the border of the Chaweng live entertainment district, is sophisticated in taste and presentation, while the contemporary Asian Padma restaurant at all-villa Karma Samui has an immensely accomplished chef in Khun Azizskandar Awang. Karma itself, essentially a high-end self catering complex, was built by John Spence who backpacked on Samui 30 years ago, fell in love with it, and wanted a way to enjoy it again as a sophisticated adult. As many do now.

Upgrades and trends aside, Koh Samui has a timeless, natural allure. It’s a seductive beauty, from the diving in Angthong National Marine Park to the atmospheric shophouses which hint at the island’s past as a key stop-off on China’s historic trading routes. This is an island less for exploring and more for finding the right beach for you. At Tongsai Bay, the first five star resort to open here in 1987, there is a British guest who comes to stay for six months of every year. She visited every winter for fourteen years with her husband, and after he passed away, she continued to come. The staff call her, affectionately, ‘Momma’: she flies First Class, takes the best villa on the property, sits at the same corner table in the fine dining restaurant every night and Skypes her friends daily.  She could go anywhere in the world, but she comes here.

Just who will be coming to Samui in the future still remains to be seen. There are still problems: political instability is widely predicted if and when a largely unpopular heir ultimately takes the Thai throne, but at the same time many believe Samui is detached enough to weather the situation when it arises – it’s easy to circumnavigate Bangkok by flying through Hong Kong, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. The backpackers have planted their flag firmly in the sand at Chaweng and will remain, prepared to brave lengthy ferry arrangements to get here. But there’s space for everyone. The Four Seasons, W and Banyan Tree are a mighty triumvirate that will surely act as a catalyst for further luxury developments – if not more resorts, then certainly new restaurants and other attractions. Five years ago, it would have been easy to write off Samui as close to finished. Now it looks like the ‘next Koh Samui’ might turn out to be the old one after all.

Koh Samui enjoys its driest weather from December to September, but rainfall during the remaining rainy season is usually sporadic and short lived. The temperature is warm year-round, but averages highs of 35-36C March-June.

PRICES ARE PER ROOM/VILLA PER NIGHT

Anantara Lawana, 92/1 Moo 2, Tambpon Bo Phut (+66 (0) 7796 0333; lawana-chaweng.anantara.com) from 8,500 baht (around £160).

Banyan Tree, 99/9 Moo 4, Ao Thong Khrok, Lamai Beach (+66 (0) 7791 5333; www.banyantree.com, from 18,200 baht (around £344).

Four Seasons, 219 Moo 5, Angthong (+66 (0) 7772 4300; www.fourseasons.com) from 23,800 baht (around £450).

Tongsai Bay, 84 Moo 5, Bo Phut (+66 (0) 7724 5480; www.tongsaibay.co.th) from 11,000 baht (around £207).

Kamalaya, 102/9 Moo 3, Laem Set Road, Na-Muang (+66 (0) 7742 9800; www.kamalaya.com), from 7,300 baht (around £137); wellness programs from three days from 48,200 baht (around £911).

Karma Samui, 80.32 Moo 5, Bo Phut (+66 (0) 7723 4500; www.karmasamui.com) from $550 (around £350).

Langham Place, 146/24 Moo 4, Maret (+66 (0) 7796 0888; www.kohsamuilanghamplacehotels.com) from 7,000 baht (around £132).

The Library, 14/1 Moo 2, Chaweng Beach (+66 (0) 7742 2767; www.thelibrary.co.th), from 11,970 baht (around £226).

Nikki Beach, 96/3 Moo 2, Lipa Noi (+66 (0) 7791 4500) www.nikkibeachthailand.com), from 8,185.50 baht (around £155).

Six Senses, 9/10 Moo 5, Baan Plai Laem, Bo Phut (+66 (0) 7724 5678; www.sixsenses.com), from 14,925 baht (around £282).

W Retreat, 4/1 Moo 1 Tambol Maenam (+66 (0) 7742 7524; www.starwoodhotels.com), rates TBC.

Mark C O’Flaherty travelled as a guest of Qatar who fly daily from London to Bangkok via Doha from £512.70 (0870 389 8090; www.qatarairways.com) and of Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2204; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk) who offer seven night packages from £2,935.

Bangkok Air fly 16 times a day to Koh Samui from Bangkok. Flights from 2,200 baht (around £42) each way (+ 66 (0) 2265 5555; www.bangkokair.com)

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