White sand, rustic-chic beach shacks, a hammock gently swaying between two palm trees as a turquoise sea laps at the shore… But each is quite distinct from the next, with its own characteristics; and there are dozens to choose from. Here, Nell McShane Wulfhart selects one for every occasion, whether you want to party til dawn, learn to dive, eat the best Thai food or escape from the world on a secluded, romantic break.
KOH YAO ISLANDS
Despite their proximity to lively Phuket (just a 30-minute speedboat ride away), the twin islands of Koh Yao Yai and Koh Yao Noi couldn’t be more different. Instead of glitzy beach clubs, there are sleepy fishing villages lining the shores, and locals fondly refer to the 7-11 as the only shopping mall on the island. There isn’t a lot to see or do, but that’s their charm.
Both islands are spread with a patchwork of rubber plantations and rice paddies, crisscrossed by dirt tracks and a few paved roads. Rent a scooter and spend your days sipping Thai iced tea overlooking the mangroves – The Rest Calm in Yao Noi’s Pradu village is a lovely spot to dawdle – chancing upon deserted beaches where you’re more likely to bump into a water buffalo than another visitor, and feasting on freshly caught seafood in the ramshackle restaurants that line the main roads.
Despite its smaller size, Koh Yao Noi (‘small long island’) is the most developed of the two – though even its main draws, Had Pasai and Klong Jark beach, remain affably low-key. If you want to steer clear from southern Thailand’s tourist buzz, but don’t want to rough it, base yourself here and explore its bigger sibling Koh Yao Yai (or ‘big long island’) on a day trip.
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON THE KOH YAO ISLANDS: Both islands are home to a dozen or so homestays and smart apartments, but the eco-chic Six Senses Yao Noi is undoubtedly the best place to book. Draped over a jungle-clad hill on the east coast of Koh Yao Noi, most of its 56 villas have widescreen views over the dramatic karst formations that jut out of the sea. Each villa – all teak and thatched roofs – is carefully positioned to feel like a private tropical hideaway, with open-air showers, infinity pools and canary-yellow daybeds. An all-natural spa has treatments such as a DIY herbal scrub and crystal-infused water, while the two on-site restaurants put locally-sourced ingredients centre stage, with eggs from the resident chicken coop, hotel-grown mushrooms, Thai wagyu and Phuket-made burrata.
Six Senses Yao Noi doesn’t just look good – it does good, too. They’re big on sustainability here, so the hotel produces its own drinking water, has banned single-use plastic, and almost everything – down to the staples used by the finance department – gets recycled.
Koh Samui is the original Thai island. Where once it drew backpackers and ravers for its sensational beaches with cheap huts and full-moon parties; now it has grown up and smartened up, its not-so-rustic beach bungalows honed down to the very last detail – Koh Samui now has some of the best luxury beach resorts anywhere in the world, several excellent beach hotels, and some first-class spas.
All of which makes it ideal for those who want the joy of a beach holiday in Thailand without any of the roughness around the edges. Honeymooners can take their pick of super-luxe hotels, beach clubs and Michelin-starred restaurants; parents can go for family-friendly hotels with childcare and splash pools and Western food (there’s even a branch of Boots); nervous first-timers can make their first foray into South-East Asia surrounded by home comforts and limited creepy-crawlies.
Koh Samui is also possibly the best yoga and spa destination in the world. Kamalaya, set high in the rainforest, is our number-one destination spa and wellness retreat: the lodges are beautifully designed in local timber and stone – classic Thai architecture, all wood and greenery, open to the elements and surrounded by banana trees and bougainvillea. Another is Absolute Sanctuary, another leading yoga retreat that is so good as to be life-changing.
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH SAMUI: The island’s newest and smartest hotel is Panacea Retreat. Set on a hill above fashionable Bophut beach (not far from Koh Samui’s coolest nightclub, Gecko Bar & Supper Club), it’s made up of five enormous villas on a hilltop, sleek in teak and cedarwood, Travertine stone and glass. Each has an infinity pool. There are landscaped gardens, a private cinema, nightclub, boxing ring and gambling den. Sensational.
The Four Seasons Koh Samui, set in palm trees at the back of a beach on the north-west tip, manages to cater to both romantics and families. It’s still got the serene spa and candlelit dinners on the beach option, and the family villas have private infinity pools and separate sleeping areas for children.
At Le Méridien Koh Samui Resort & Spa on Lamai Beach there’s a range of activities for children, including candle-making, bracelet-making, fish-feeding and, hilariously, towel origami.
If you like rumbunctious friends-and-family holidays, consider taking over a party pad. Near Chaweng Beach, Baan Mika is a luxury villa made up of six suites around an infinity pool, which runs down to a children’s pool beside the property’s own private beach. There are also big, roomy living areas, a well-stocked kitchen, and an outdoor dining area and barbecue sala.
The coast of Koh Tao, or ‘Turtle Island’, is lined with little sandy coves, pretty lantern-lit restaurants – and dive shops. Most travellers are here to dive. The island is one of the world’s top places to learn, and the competition among dive shops has also made it one of the cheapest. If you’re new to the sport, sign up to get your PADI or SSI Open Water certification. This usually takes four days, and includes four ocean dives. If you’re short on time (or motivation to commit to a full course) most schools also offer one day Discovery Dives, where you can go down to 12 metres without certification. And if you’re already certified, you can take advanced courses in diving at night diving, wreck diving, shark diving or Nitrox diving, or just jump on any of the tens of boats heading out every day. Phoenix Divers has been around since 2002 and is one of the top shops on Koh Tao. Instructors teach in a variety of languages and children’s courses are also available.
Even if you’re not a diver, there’s still plenty to keep you happy (it’s the kind of place pharangs come for a couple of days and never leave); Koh Tao has an irresistable charm – not to mention an excellent nightlife, including the odd full-moon party, that is a bit more grown-up than at neighbouring Koh Pha Ngan.
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH TAO: Most hotels are built around pools where wetsuited rookie divers work on their buoyancy by day; but for something smarter, Casas del Sol are five contemporary self-catering villas on a hillside, with pools overlooking the sea, which sleep up to four people.
Nangyuan Island Dive Resort is a collection of fairly simple wooden rooms with verandahs and mod cons, on the tiny, unspoilt islet of Koh Nang Yuan, just off Koh Tao, if you want to combine diving with a real escape from the world.
KOH PHA NGAN
If your idea of the perfect holiday involves three-day beach parties, Koh Phangan is the Thai island for you. Famous for its full moon parties at Haad Rin’s Sunrise Beach, this island is for hardcore partygoers and dreadlocked travellers. During peak season, the island can see 20,000 visitors dancing, drinking and cavorting on the white sands under the full moon. If you can’t make it at the right time of month, don’t worry – there are half-moon and black-moon parties in intervening weeks, and there’s action every night of the week at the island’s beach and cocktail bars.
The morning after, sleep it off in the shade of a palm tree while a Thai masseuse kneads you back into shape. There are secluded beaches far from the crowds (like hippie favourite Bottle Beach, arguably one of the best beaches in Thailand), and plenty of spas where you can check yourself in for an afternoon of recovery, from the basic to the deluxe (such as the Ayurvana Spa at Santhiya Resort on Thong Nai Pan Noi Beach in the north of the island).
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH PHA NGAN: In Koh Phangan’s main town of Haad Rin, Suncliff Resort is ideally placed, less than 10 minutes’ walk from both Sunrise and Sunset beaches but far enough away that you can’t hear the subwoofers when you decide it’s time to sleep. It’s got rustic huts on stilts (some more hi-tec than others) among the tropical trees, most with the most beautiful views of the ocean. For a more luxurious, design-conscious stay, a boat-ride whisks you to Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan Villa Resort & Spa, also on Thong Nai Pan Noi Beach.
Glitzy Phuket offers every Western convenience you can think of, and probably several you can’t. Celebrity-chef restaurants? Check. Six-star resorts with private butlers? Check. World-class plastic surgery? No problem. If you’re the highest of high-maintenance, Phuket is the island for you.
Phuket is the biggest, busiest island in Thailand, and although it has been infiltrated by package holidays and cheap sleaze in a few places (avoid Bangla Road in Patong), it also has cosmopolitan diversions in the form of designer boutiques and world-class restaurants – one of the best of which is Acqua.
Phuket still has some of the most glorious beaches in the islands. Many have been taken over by uber-groomed international resorts and laid with stylish sunloungers and deluxe beach bars; but if you’re seeking somewhere more laid-back, head to stunning little Kata Noi.
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON PHUKET: There is no shortage of luxury resorts on Phuket; the only question is, which one to choose? Some of our all-time favourite, Gold Listed hotels are on Phuket including the first-ever Banyan Tree resort to open, Banyan Tree Phuket, with its flagship destination spa.
The COMO hotel and Shambhala spa is the newest contender for the title of the best hotel spa on the island, set above Phang Nga Bay, the iconic location where James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun was shot.
Of all Thailand’s islands, Koh Lanta is one of the best all-rounders. Less than an hour’s boat ride from Krabi, Koh Lanta is actually made up of several little islands, the most-visited of which is Koh Lanta Yai. It has nature reserves and beaches where you won’t see another soul; it’s got accommodation that runs the gamut from spare to super-swanky, which attract more 30-, 40- and 50-something travellers than backpackers. Bringing the children? The waters are calm and the island safe.
If you want to have it all on holiday – suntanning on beautiful beaches, a bit of world-class diving, a great massage, fun beach bars, kayaking through a mangrove forest, eating seafood tom yum with the locals in a friendly fishing villages – then Koh Lanta is where you get it. Read our full feature on Koh Lanta
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH LANTA: The island is not short of sleek resorts. Pimalai was Lanta’s first five-star hotel, set in tropical forest on the edge of white-sand Ba Kan Tiang Beach near Lanta Marine National Park. Accommodation ranges from rooms to entire villas and the spa has got outdoor massage tables surrounded by palm trees.
On Phrae Ae Beach, the five-star Layana Resort & Spa is a neatly groomed resort made up of more solidly-built rooms and suites, and fully mod-conned-up. It also has Hobie Cats to sail, and a spa.
Two more great (and very affordable) places to stay are the elegant Costa Lanta
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