Sunday, September 21, 2008

The sexiest beach in Thailand

From 
September 21, 2008

Just two hour's from Bangkok airport is the idyllic coastal resort of Ko Samet

Woman relaxing in hammock on tropical beach
IMAGE :1 of 2

There’s something almost indecent about Ao Kiew beach. The waves break with just enough roughness to be stimulating, foaming water spurts a few feet up the glistening wet sand, then ebbs away sensuously, giving the grains a last, delicate grope. No wonder Paradee, the only resort on this perfect bay, discourages children from staying. The place should be X-rated.

Sorry if I’m getting a bit worked up here, but if you’d been to Ao Kiew, you would too. Whatever the other writers in this special section may say, if you’re in a romantic frame of mind, this is the place for your winter shot of sunshine. It’s not difficult to reach, it’s idyllic, it’s luxurious and there is - sublimely - almost nothing to distract you from the important business of wallowing in your personal beachside pool and watching those waves do their stuff. Well, nothing apart from each other.

Which is all rather surprising, because Paradee just shouldn’t be here. It’s on a Thai island called Ko Samet, which doesn’t offer this sort of thing. Or didn’t. To explain, I’ll have to backtrack for a moment.

Everyone knows that Thailand has some of the best beaches in the world, perfect for a fly-and-flop holiday. Well, perfect up to a point: they’re great for the flop bit, but the flying is always that bit more than you bargained for. If you’re making for the big hitters, such as Ko Samui or Phuket, you haven’t just got the flight to Bangkok - you’ve got to change planes there, with all the waiting around and hassle that involves, and get another flight south before the final drive to your hotel.

Then, all the week you’re there, you look forward to the same rigmarole in reverse.

Wouldn’t it be great, then, if there were somewhere handier, without that gruelling extra flight? Step forward Ko Samet. The beaches are the equal of anything further south, and it’s a rather relaxing two-hour road transfer (plus an exhilarating 10-minute speedboat ride) from Bangkok airport. Much quicker, much less faffing about.

Which is all well and good, but convenience counts for nothing if there’s nowhere nice to stay when you get there. Up to now, it’s been basic and tatty - in fact, some of the north of this long, thin island was messily overdeveloped and all but ruined.

Happily, long, thin islands have two ends. Paradee, Samet’s only five-star hotel, was opened last year at the nice one. And boy, is it nice.

Ao Kiew bay is textbook stuff, a gently curving 200yd crescent of powder-perfect sand, book-ended by rocky headlands and fringed with palms.

Around it, there’s a smattering of simple, luxurious thatched villas, designed with flair by a local architect and finished with an obsessive eye for detail - private infinity pools, polished wood floors, gorgeously chunky teak and rattan furniture, elegant four-posters, beaten copper basins and outdoor monsoon showers, all built around the existing shoreline trees (you might find a trunk growing up incongruously through your sun deck).

It’s completely secluded, too: you could be at the end of the earth, always assuming the end of the earth came with butlers, a spa, a soap menu (I chose lemongrass) and a decent wine list.

Paradee can take 110 guests, though you’d never know - it spreads out over both sides of the island, so you’re hardly crowded. That tranquillity may explain why the Thai royal family favours the place: when Princess Siriwannawari Narira-tana came, she banished her entourage of 200 (yes, 200) to a couple of navy boats anchored discreetly offshore.

There’s not a lot to do. That’s the idea. A catamaran sail in the afternoon breeze; a canoe paddle to the neighbouring coves; a spa treatment (the Thai massages are good). Then again, you might prefer to massage each other. Judging by the serenely satisfied expressions of my fellow guests as they strolled up to the bar in the evening to watch the spectacular sunsets, that’s what they’d been doing all day.

If you think a week of doing something similar with your significant other might be an idea, this is the place to come. When you need a bit of indecent inspiration, you could always watch the waves.

Ko Samet: the smart guide

Where to stay: Paradee (00 66 38-644283,www.paradeeresort.com ) is head and shoulders above anything else here; package deals (see below) offer the best value. There are a couple of options if you want that back-of-beyond feel at a lower rate. Though a bit ramshackle, Samet Ville Resort (651682,www.sametvilleresort.com ) has charm, a pretty beach and doubles for £40. For complete tranquillity on a budget, though, try Ao Nuan, on the east coast.

As befits the backpacker ethos, you have to take your chances: they don’t have a phone and don’t take bookings. It’s basic, but done with care and panache. The new wooden bungalows cost £15 a night, the little bar/restaurant is knowingly trashy-chic and the tiny beach is lovely.

Getting there: British Airways (0844 493 0787, www.ba.com ), Thai Airways (0870 606 0911, www.thaiairways.co.uk ), Eva Air (020 7380 8300, www.evaair.com ) and Qantas (0845 774 7767,www.qantas.com.au ) fly nonstop from Heathrow to Bangkok: returns in mid-November are about £640. Independent trav-ellers should prebook a taxi from Bangkok airport to Ban Phe pier (www.bangkoklimo.org ; about £40) and hop on the 30-minute ferry to the island. If you’re staying at Paradee, they lay on a speedboat to whizz you to the resort in 10 minutes.

Getting around:the one road on the island is something else - that is, it’s not a road at all. There are motorbikes for hire: don’t do it unless you’re a trained scramble rider. Quad bikes (£25 a day) are safer, and fun: you can nose around the lovely southern bays.

The best packages: Travelmood (0800 011 1945,www.travelmood.com ) has eight nights at Paradee for £1,359pp in October or £1,629pp in November, February and March, B&B, including nonstop flights and transfers. Or try Premier (0844 493 7080, www.premierholidays.co.uk ) or Tropical Sky (0870 907 9605, www.tropicalsky.co.uk ).

Which cocktail? Paradee’s tom yam martini is delicious: vodka, vermouth, kaffir lime and chillis, strained through lemongrass. You’ll only need one. For something less sophisticated, go north to the bars of Hat Sai Kaew for a Samet special. It’s rum, Coke and ice - in a bucket. Yes, as in bucket and spade. Classy. You’ll only need one of those, too.

When to go: late October to March for the best weather. If you can wait until April, you’ll get occasional cloudbursts, but plenty of sun and cheaper deals.

Smart thinking: Paradee has one drawback - the price of drinks is outrageous, so boozers need deep pockets. Have a cocktail for a treat, then stick to beer. Oh, and leave the kids at home. That’s what grandparents are for.

- Stephen Bleach travelled as a guest of Travelmood

MORE SOUTHEAST ASIAN HOT SPOTS 
Few beaches in Southeast Asia are as easy to reach as Ko Samet, but if you can handle a plane change, here are some to try.

Bali:Anantara Seminyak, on Seminyak beach, is good for slobbing out in style - it’s designer-chic modernism, but with fat sofas, fatter sunsets and a top-notch spa. Destinology (www.destinology.co.uk) has seven nights in November from £1,167pp.

Langkawi, Malaysia: charming Bon Ton was our favourite here, but its new sister resort, Temple Tree, looks even better – four antique, romantic kampung houses by a lagoon, with a cool pool. Emerald Global (www.etours-online.com) has a November week for £1,139pp.

Thailand:the Six Senses Hideaway Yao Noi stands on a limestone pinnacle in Phang Nga Bay, all natural-wood suites and private pools.Until October 31, Elegant Resorts(elegantresorts. co.uk) has eight nights for £1,560pp – saving £800.

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