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Phuket: Lucky Break

Sep 1, 2011
2011 / September 2011

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Photo: Ellen Clark

After almost a week of business-related activities in Bangkok, my friend Gayle and I decided to treat ourselves to a little R&R and head for the beach. So we hopped a flight bound for Phuket. Fifty years ago, Thailand’s largest island was virtually undiscovered by the outside world except for backpackers who lounged on vast stretches of white-sand beach and bunked with the locals. Once the word spread, there was no holding the deluge of vacationers looking for an island paradise. Hotels and resorts sprang up like wildflowers, and visitors from around the world rushed to Phuket.

Even the devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami, the result of an earthquake in the Indian Ocean, only temporarily quelled the flood of tourists. Today all systems are go, and every year the island welcomes visitors by the thousands.

While some may write off Phuket as a cheesy, over-developed place choked with hotels, restaurants and bars, there are actually options for almost every taste.

Since neither Gayle nor I was ready to spend whole days on a lounge chair at the beach, we opted for a rental car so we could poke around the island at our leisure. We also decided to split our time between two hotels, starting with one in the center of the action and ending with one far removed from vacation central.

From the airport we headed south to our first hotel, Sawasdee Village. Located a 10-minute walk from Kata Beach, the architecture is typically Southeast Asian; and the garden surroundings, with lush plantings and sparkling pools, are lovely.

Arriving too late to hit the beach, we decided to have a quiet dinner at the hotel and then check out Patong, where the nightlife is legendary. In a relatively small area known as Bangla there are scores of bars, nightclubs and pubs, ranging from simple beer bars to downright raunchy girly joints. Geared mostly to the younger party-hearty set, it was, as expected, loud, jam-packed, bawdy and not everyone’s cup of tea. It was fascinating in a way, though after a beer and a little gawking we were quite happy to return to the tranquility of our Thai-influenced hotel.

The next morning, we set off for Hat Patong, the island’s most developed beach. Located along an almost two-mile-long, crescent-shaped bay, this is definitely where the aquatic action is. White plastic lounge chairs and brightly colored umbrellas were three and four deep, and the water was abuzz with jet skis, banana boats and windsurfers. Paragliders hovered over the surf, and swimmers and sunbathers were everywhere. A little too much action for us, however, so we drove back to the Sawasdee and took the free hotel shuttle to Kata Beach — also lovely but not as hectic. We sprawled on lounge chairs under striped umbrellas and chilled out, hot novels in hand.

That evening we considered going to Phuket FantaSea to take in the island’s most extravagant show, complete with glitzy, glittery showgirls and prancing elephants. Instead, we opted for dinner at Mom Tri’s Kitchen at the Villa Royale Resort. Set just above the rocks overlooking Kata Noi Beach, the view was great and the local lobster succulent.

Driving north the next day to our second hotel, we made a detour to visit Phuket Old Town. This is where tycoons from last century’s booming tin business built grandiose Sino-colonial-style mansions which, combined with ornate Buddhist and Chinese shrines and temples and beautifully preserved shophouses, give the town its distinct character.

Along Thalang Road we popped into renovated shophouses selling Chinese herbal medicines and handicrafts. We checked out Soi Romani Road, once the red-light district for tin mine workers. And we slipped down an alley to visit the red lacquer-and-gold Shrine of the Serene Light, built in 1889 by a local Chinese family. After a snack in one of the town’s cafés, we hit the road, headed for The Sarojin, a 5-star boutique hotel in Khao Lak.

At the resort entrance, gracious staff members greeted us and offered a welcome drink while we checked in. The warm, wood-accented lobby overlooked an impressively large pool covered in stunning lavender and white water lilies. We entered our room by crossing a stream running through a private garden terrace; and after changing into bathing suits, we walked through the lovely gardens to check out the beach.

Wow — what a difference from the tourist-choked beaches to the south! About a dozen teak lounge chairs with brilliant white cushions and big fluffy towels were shaded by white umbrellas facing the sparkling green Andaman Sea. No crowds, no racing jet skiers, no screaming children. This was a class act, a place to chill out and be pampered. After a quick dip in the warm water, we set off to find the spa and sign up for one of those famous Thai massages.

The next day, we drove into the nearby town of Khao Lak and poked around the shops. But the resort’s food was so outstanding that we returned to the resort for lunch.

After a long walk along the almost seven-mile-long beach, we picked up snorkeling equipment from the seaside kiosk. We checked out the underwater action just off shore and then retired to the padded lounge chairs and tucked into our books.

Finally, it was time for our spa treatments. The massage managed to release all the kinks and made me feel not unlike a Thai noodle. Thoroughly relaxed, we ate a delicious dinner at Ficus, the hotel’s restaurant beside the romantically lit lotus pond, and fell into bed. It’s wonderful how a day of complete indulgence can result in such a good night’s sleep.

On the drive back to the airport, Gayle and I congratulated ourselves on picking the perfect getaway. We’d experienced the traditional and the not-so-traditional Phuket. We’d hit beaches that ranged from packed to practically empty. We’d eaten some great food and, briefly, checked out the wild nightlife. We’d experienced both sides of this world-class beach destination. What could be better?

Info To Go

Both domestic and international airlines service Phuket international airport (hkt), with direct flights from numerous destinations in thailand and around asia. rental cars are available at the airport, as are numerous shuttles and taxis. Expect to pay about $7 for a shared minibus or up to $17 for a private taxi, depending on the destination. many of the upscale resorts on the island arrange transfers if booked in advance. For more information, visit www.tourism thailand.org.

Lodging

La Flora Resort & Spa Patong
This sleekly modern oceanfront boutique resort has two lap pools, a spa, a fitness center and two restaurants. 39 Thaweewong Road, Patong Beach, tel 66 76 344 241, www.laflorapatong.com $$$$

The Sarojin
Fronting an almost seven-mile-long beach in Khao Lak, this stunning 5-star boutique hotel boasts luxury accommodations, excellent food and superb service. 60 Moo 2, Kukkak, Takuapa, Phang Nga, tel 66 76 427 900 4, www.sarojin.com $$$$

Sawasdee Village
While it’s not beachfront, the traditional Thai architecture, lush gardens and sparkling ponds make up for the short walk to the sea. 38 Katekwan Road, Kata Beach, tel 66 76 330 979, www.phuketsawasdee.com $$

Dining

Lucky Tom’s
Casual and friendly, this family-run restaurant serves tasty food prepared with a personal touch. Mussaman curry and whole fish are specialties. 67 Taina Road, Kata Center, tel 66 86 685 688 0 $$

Mom Tri’s Kitchen
Overlooking Kata Noi Beach, this is one of four Mom Tri locations in Phuket. Enjoy sea scallops, Phuket lobster and an excellent wine list. Villa Royale Resort, 12 Kata Noi Road, tel 66 76 333 568, www.villaroyalephuket.com/ dining.html $$$$

The Sea Hag Restaurant
Priding itself on the freshest seafood, the restaurant also serves excellent Thai dishes including spicy Thai beef salad and sweet and sour squid. 78/5 Permpong Soi III, Thaweewong Road, Patong Beach, tel 66 76 341 111, www.kenyaphuket.com $$$

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FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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