A favourable breeze blowsto the shores of one of Thailand’s most popular holiday islands, where Napasai resort offers an exquisitely laid-back refuge from the world outside
THE FIRST HINT that this may not be quite what I’d been expecting is the airport. Having arrived in an aeroplane that looks somehow transported from a 1960s psychedelic trip – paint job all paisley rainbow swirls – I disembark at Samui Airport to a collection of open-plan, open-air structures done up in traditional Thai style, all linked by covered walkways and set amid lush flower beds. The immigration officer greets me from beneath a beach umbrella.
Koh Samui is, of course, a major holiday isle, one that caters to the well-heeled and backpackers alike, and so prominent and popular a destination that a sort of second-hand familiarity had perhaps bred a little ignorant contempt, for this was my first visit. My Samui checklist ran: teenage daughter’s full-moon high-school-graduation party; launch pad for DiCaprio’s pseudo-angst psycho bomb, The Beach; and palatial villa paradise of many a wealthy retiree. I had it down pat.
But if the welcome at the airport – one of three “boutique” airports owned by Bangkok Airways – is pleasantly disarming, it does nothing to prepare me for the charm and agreeable disposition of this affable little island in the Gulf of Thailand.
My first stop is Napasai, an Orient-Express resort property at Baan Tai beach on the island’s north coast. I’m whisked there in just 25 minutes by my hosts, and without pomp or ceremony wined and dined at the resort’s Lai Thai restaurant. From where I sit spooning soupe de snapper aux herbes fraîches thaïs et lait de coco, floor-to-ceiling windows reveal an evening panorama of the resort and the sea beyond: well-maintained pathways and lawns meander between pavilions and gently swaying palm trees down to a 56-metre freeform infinity pool beyond whose lip the sea stretches out to a horizon that just catches the day’s last light. In the trees and bushes hang birdcage-like lanterns. The effect is magical.
But it’s an effect of a different kind that strikes me in the morning. Strolling down to the beach shortly after sunrise, I’m impressed by just how comfortable Napasai feels, how lived-in like a favourite shirt that’s had all the starch and stiffness worn out of it. Sensibly dressed staff glide around unobtrusively, adding deft touches to sun-loungers and shrubbery; a cat laps at the infinity pool, where a family splashes boisterously; beyond, a fledgling windsurfer takes instruction. It’s a scene repeated at luxury resorts all over Asia, but somehow this one just feels right. The ambience is real, the laid-backness isn’t forced, the pretence of privilege conspicuously absent. It is, you feel, a place you’d be happy to bring your family.
The resort reopened in June after a one-month beach upgrade, so I dutifully amble down and wade out through the new lagoon, with its powdery white sand and crystal-clear water, to the much-heralded underwater nature reserve. It’s an initiative to encourage marine life to return to an offshore reef by the clearance of rocks and dead coral, inducing new ocean currents and creating pools of activity where reef life can flourish. But the tide isn’t low enough at this hour to wade the whole way, and I haven’t brought my snorkel, so I turn for the shore with the sun, not the sea, dappling my shoulders.
It’s time for a tour, and my hosts lay on a car and driver for an excursion designed, I later suspect, to avoid the brasher, more frantic side of Samui. We’re on the ring road that circumnavigates the island. Completed in 1972, this modest loop of tarmac paved the way for the foreign invasion of Koh Samui, hastening its development into the tourist-and-traveller magnet it is today. But we stay away from urban heat, and I’m happy to be shown viewpoints, temples, even a Muslim quarter.
Eastward around the coast, beyond the nightlife hub of Lamai, lies a promontory of wave-smoothed granite formations that includes Hin-Ta (Grandfather Rock), whose bizarre, phallus-like shape adorns many a tourist T-shirt. It’s amusing to see one of my tour companions from the resort lying down to position himself for a photograph so that Grandfather Rock in the middle distance erects itself above him in just the right position – and why not? Samui invites a democratic bonhomie, an easy congeniality where simply doing what makes you happy doesn’t seem so hard.
We call in at Five Islands Beach on the island’s unspoilt south-west coast for a plate of Thai appetisers and a refreshing beer. The
Five Islands Restaurant is a Samui gem, run by sprightly sexagenarian Colin Burgess who, in his trademark waistcoat and fisherman’s pants, regales visitors with his intimate knowledge of the real Samui. A long-tail boat trip is offered: we’ll visit The Five Islands themselves, visible from the beach, where we’re promised caves, beaches and bamboo dwellings perched precariously on limestone cliffs and pinnacles, all in aid of the farming of the birds’ nests for which Hong Kong has such a regrettably voracious appetite. I’d like to go, but my driver has other plans.
“Hope the wind would bring you back again,” declares a sign arching over the entrance to Bophut, or Fisherman’s Village, a street of restaurants, curiosity shops and bars lining a two-kilometre-long sandy beach. It’s a relaxed, low-key place that becomes a “walking street” as evening falls: vendors take up position in the now-thronged street, hawking every sort of drink and delicacy from fiery tom yam gung to succulent satays to refreshing glasses of creamy crushed fruit-ice. I stroll along judiciously taking note of which titbits and potions I want to savour, but end up missing them all; I reach the end of the street, and as rapidly as it had filled up, it empties, and I walk forlornly back past the low-lit bars and restaurants, bereft of street snack.
Next day, I’m back in good time for the vendors, intent on having my fill, but I’m foiled again. The sky darkens and a deluge descends, turning the street into a surging watercourse that threatens to inundate shops. Soaked, I leap into a bar just as the steel shutters come down all along the street. Once inside, a sort of abandon descends upon staff and customers alike, an adrenaline-fuelled babel that shared adversity (or, in this case, a lock-in) induces. An hour later I’m released into the darkling, glistening street, but the damage has been done. No vendors this night.
I’m up at dawn for a spin around the nearby Maenam suburbs on one of the resort’s bicycles. A herd of buffalo roams the resort’s seven-hectare grounds, and I catch sight of a couple of the beatific bovines while cycling up the long, tree-lined avenue that leads to the main entrance. An hour later I’m back and spread-eagled in Napasai Spa, having my serenity restored with an indulgent Nuat Pen Boran or Traditional Royal Thai massage, ably administered by a therapist who uses hands, thumbs and fingers to apply pressure to my energy points while twisting and manipulating my body in what I’m told is passive yoga. It’s deeply relaxing.
That’s just as well, because the next item on the agenda is a boat trip to Angthong National Marine Park, a 102-square-kilometre wonderland of 42 limestone islands whose blue-grey walls have been sculpted by water and wind into fantastic formations, some rising hundreds of metres sheer of the sea. It’s a choppy two-hour crossing, but once the boat gains the sanctuary of the islands Angthong reveals itself in all its glory. I climb Koh Mae Ko and look down into an emerald-coloured inland lagoon ringed by stone walls, while a white-bellied sea eagle patrols the forests and fluted ridges of the interior for a feed on the abundant wildlife: langurs, hair-nosed otters, Pacific reef egrets, ashy drongos, pythons, turtles and lizards thrive here. Later, on another island, on a beach set below a cliff, I dine on a delicious resort-packed lunch and a coconut hacked from the tree before my eyes.
Back at Napasai I take to my Seaview Hill Villa for a rest. Reclining on the king-sized bed after a luxuriating rain-head shower, I survey my spacious, wood-lined room (Wi-Fi, cable TV and i-Pod dock if I need a different reality), Thai-style dang sofa and the deck beyond with its sea view. Do not disturb was never so cool – just drape a thick hawser across the deck entrance. As I sink into blessed slumber, a fleeting thought occurs: the Samui wind brought me back once, and it surely will again.
+ The Siam
+ Abu Ahabi
+ The Sarojin
+ 137 Pillars
+ Conrad Koh Samui
+ The Kensington Hotel
+ The Pavilions
+ Renaissance Bangkok
+ Mandarin Oriental Paris
+ Waiheke Island
+ Hotel Icon
+ Phnom Penh
+ Buenos Aires
+ Shangri-La Paris
+ Passage to Hong Kong
+ Diving the Sweet Spot
+ The Far Pavilions
+ Hansar Thailand
+ HOTEL DAS CATARATAS
+ The Ritz-Carlton
+ WALDORF ASTORIA SHANGHAI
+ Wolgan Valley
+ LA ISLA BONITA
+ SAIGON FOR MEN
+ ART OF THE CITY
+ Soneva Kiri
+ Langham Hotel
+ The Best of Boston
+ SULTANATE SUBLIME
+ SKYLIGHT VISTA – SEVEN STARS GALLERIA
+ MONGOLIA LUXE
+ The Plaza
+ INSTANT KARMA
+ HEAVEN SCENT, Phuket Pavilions
+ VINO, VIDI, VICI
+ ARABESQUE: A TASTE OF MOROCCO