July 27 2010
Mark C O’Flaherty
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 Piper Hiedsieck 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. But tempering the posturing and backbeat are a handful of quiet family groups from the nearby Four Seasons, and a few professionals taking time out from business in Bangkok, clad in Vilebrequins and reading heavyweight literary fiction.
As these guests seem vaguely incongruous at the 16-villa Nikki Beach Bungalow Resort, so the resort itself might seem 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. But nor is Nikki Beach remotely geared to the legions of backpackers who have, unfortunately, come to embody the savvy traveller’s idea of Samui over the past decade, turning its once-pristine villages into heaving party towns. It is instead a suggestion of an altogether more promising future.
For Koh Samui is undergoing a rehabilitation. A new Langham Place and Anantara all-villa resort opened at the end of last year; a W Retreat and a Banyan Tree are scheduled to open in the next couple of months. Also well into development are a Conrad and the Vana Belle Samui, part of Starwood’s niche Luxury Collection. There are still the famous Full Moon Parties on neighbouring Koh Phangan, but, while the backpackers daub themselves in UV paint, the Six Senses resort instead offers private speedboat excursions to the island, featuring snorkelling in the marine park and a deluxe picnic on a beach in a secluded cove.
At the same time, the island’s infrastructure is being upgraded. Roads have been radically improved and a £300m overhaul of the water supply system by the Provincial Waterworks Authority is under way. Bangkok Airways has spent close to £10m on a small but civilised airport, and has incorporated a business class into the short-hop flights. Its near-monopoly on the Bangkok-Samui route and a limited number of flights to and from the island (for environmental reasons) make for a natural curb on overdevelopment. As the veteran local hotelier Michael Holehouse observes, “The airlift is the governor, and it keeps the monster conference hotels at bay.”
Few would deny, however, that this is an island that in recent years has grappled with an image problem. Samui had been the definitive backpacking snowbird destination for decades. The draw was obvious: Thai hospitality, the undiscovered beaches and the 50p bowls of delicious Pad Thai. Gap-year students could comfortably spend months living in paradise. But once the secret got out, the crowds arrived and ruination followed. Chaweng, small and mercifully self-contained halfway down the east coast, was once the prettiest beach town on Samui. Now it is a wrong turn on a carnival ghost train, a nightmarish neon parade packed with karaoke cocktail bars, tattoo parlours and teeth-whitening boutiques; a macabre Ronald McDonald stands on one street corner, hands and head bowing in Buddhist prayer pose.
Chaweng may be a lost cause, but at most of the emphatically insular new resorts on the island, it’s possible to sustain the illusion that it simply doesn’t exist. They replicate the most covetable qualities of private-island resorts with ample acreage and low room numbers, and impress with dramatic architecture and landscaping that exploits the island’s hills and bluffs. “Right now, 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 they’ll be commonplace.”
The panoramas from the reception desks at the new Banyan Tree Samui and W are certainly spectacular, even before the resorts have opened. In their layouts, both share the same thinking as the island’s incumbent for world-class luxury, the Four Seasons: in each case a tiered amphitheatre of lush, tropical greenery graduates down to what is effectively a private beach – something technically legislated against on Samui, but created in these instances by largely impassable rocks at either end of each resort.
Every sleek-looking villa at the Banyan Tree Samui has a pool large enough to do laps in, while its Rainforest spa has a 81.65sq m hydrotherapy facility, the first on Koh Samui. It is pre-recession-planned leisure architecture at its most sumptuous. To the north, the W Retreat brings to Thailand the same hip, exotic-beach-club model with which it has had such success in the Maldives. W is reinventing the look of the tropical resort – the Koh Samui version is angular, linear and extreme in scale. The interiors are bold and unexpected, with primary reds and grey flannel offset by pale driftwoods.
The Four Seasons established a definitive kind of luxury when it opened in 2007, which the new arrivals hope to challenge. The one- to four-bedroom residence villas here come with teams of butlers, and the service is flawless – invisible, but on cue. It’s a resort that’s big on Kodak moments; the views from the cliffside decking at breakfast are cinematic, while tables at its restaurant, Pla Pla, are arranged on the beach next to a row of flaming torches lined up against the infinity pool, their flames dancing in reflection.
The award-winning spa offering at the Six Senses, a resort that predates the Four Seasons by two years, is celebrated enough to attract scores of off-property visitors but, like its much larger new peers, it is its relative inaccessibility, and therefore exclusivity, that draws guests who are happy to remain on-site. This is a sophisticated reinterpretation of what the backpackers came for years ago: eco-driven, sparsely furnished, with rustic bamboo fixtures and a level of privacy that creates the illusion that you might be one of just a few people who know about the island.
Unlike the newcomers, this resort’s design is relatively low-key: discreet wilderness paths and stairs take the place of motorised carts. At its restaurant, Dining on the Rocks, tables are spaced across numerous private sea-side platforms, and you work your way through an arrestingly modern tasting menu, with occasional touches of wit – a tuna and brioche fish course, for instance, arrives in a tin wrapped in a paper bag marked “canned tuna fish sandwich”.
Other hotels have bravely integrated themselves in areas within walking distance of the outside world, and have made a success of it – albeit with tactfully enforced no-poolside-entry policies for non-residents. The Library, a member of the Design Hotels group, opened in 2007 at the reasonably quiet southern end of Chaweng. The entertainment district has spread towards its gates, but this resort remains a relative oasis, and certainly the most conceptually contemporary hotel on the island – all white-on-white, its striking cubic buildings and squared-off picture windows walled in around a statement-making red pool. Its eponymous library features a row of gleaming Apple Macs and shelf after shelf lined with Taschen artist monographs. Early-morning breakfast here – a tranquil affair served to couples on mattresses on the sand – demonstrates that Chaweng isn’t entirely devoid of appealing moments.
About 15 minutes away, in Lamai – a corner of Samui with its own, Chaweng-like pocket of occasionally hectic nightlife – a Langham Place opened last December. Situated on a long stretch of populated but peaceful beach, Langham Place has a few slightly self-conscious contemporary touches: the shocking pink beach towels and the Hôtel Costes-style music mix omnipresent in the background. But while the staff’s “Love me” T-shirts are perhaps questionable, they and the other quirky pop-culture notes hardly detract from what is otherwise a straightforward luxury-resort experience in the best sense.
A standout feature is the signature restaurant, Cha, where sunken poolside dining tables put you at eye level with the water, and the kitchen serves up clean, minimalist interpretations of classic Asian dishes. Anantara Lawana, which opened in December, is instead a sublime study in how traditional South-East Asian design motifs can be reinterpreted for light, contemporary, elegantly authentic surroundings, with none of Langham Place’s tongue-in-cheek flourishes. Sitting amid the serenity of Lawana’s Sky Hug restaurant, a set of romantic private dining spaces in a hushed, tree-house setting, it’s difficult to believe one is actually just a short walk from Chaweng.
Then there is Kamalaya, for the discerning individual who doesn’t want a holiday so much as need one. It specialises in tailored detox, de-stress and ideal-weight programmes set amid its landscaped pool areas, the surrounding hills and a nearby ancient Buddhist monks’ cave. Since Kamalaya opened five years ago, guests have unanimously praised the effectiveness of the treatments on offer, which include Taoist abdominal massage for circulation and moxabustion (a treatment that involves the burning of a dried herb in conjunction with acupuncture). It also offers some of the best cuisine on the island to non-guests; the banana-flower salad and larb gai (spicy minced chicken salad) are among the freshest you will find in the Gulf of Thailand.
Samui’s best resorts may be isolated by design, but the island is easily traversed by taxi, so if you are staying at the Four Seasons, you can dine at Kamalaya, Nikki Beach or, indeed, anywhere; and there is a great deal more on offer than the standard green curries of yore. A favoured spot is the refreshingly unassuming Sabeinglae, south of Lamai, where the simple food draws in plenty of locals. The best seats – just a metre from the beach – may be plastic, but the firepots of tom yam soup and the Phuket lobsters are considered the best on the island by many.
The international cuisine at Top Ten, beyond the border of the Chaweng live entertainment district, is sophisticated in both flavours and presentation, while the contemporary Asian Padma restaurant at all-villa Karma Samui has an immensely accomplished executive chef in Khun Azizskandar Awang. Karma itself, essentially a very high-end self-catering complex, was built by John Spence, who backpacked on Samui 30 years ago, fell in love with the place, and wanted to create a way to enjoy it again as a sophisticated adult.
But just who will be coming to Samui in the future remains to be seen. There are still hurdles to contend with: more political instability, for some time a recurring theme, is predicted ahead of any elections when they eventually take place later this year (though many believe Samui will be able to weather the situation when it arises, as travellers can avoid 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 and crowds to get here. But, as the new resorts prove, there’s space for everyone. Together with the Four Seasons, the W and Banyan Tree form an estimable triumvirate that will very likely 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 tempting to write off Samui as close to finished. Now its fortunes look set on an inviting new course.