Tired of being holed up in a hotel room, Leisa Tyler finds lots to love about the comfort and seclusion of villa life.
Ever dreamt of having your own house in the tropics, with a private pool shaded by verdant foliage, a thick swathe of golden sand nudging at the door and a team of dutiful butlers and cooks to cater to your every whim?
In Phuket - Asia's favoured playground for the rich and famous - you can have all of this, and more, but without the hefty price tag that comes with buying the property.
Phuket's property market has been booming in recent years, with villas commanding up to $US15 million ($14 million). Normally used only as occasional holiday homes, many villas are available for rent.
Australian native Andrew Craig established Phuket Villas and Homes a few years ago after seeing so many empty houses. "The property market in Phuket has exploded over the past 10 years but most of the owners live in Hong Kong or Singapore or further afield and are rarely here," he says. "That's where we come into it."
The benefits of renting a villa rather than a hotel room include more flexibility, more space, total privacy, and cost-effectiveness for groups or families. The drawbacks include a lack of facilities such as gyms and not having a range of restaurants at your fingertips, he says.
Unlike consistent hotel rates, prices for villas are often negotiable in the low or shoulder seasons, especially if you rent for a week or longer.
So, how do you go about renting the perfect villa? First, draw up a wish list, flagging the essentials such as a swimming pool, access to a beach or entertainment for the children, then those facilities that are a bonus, such as babysitting services and a car and driver. Most staff in low- to mid-priced properties will have limited English, so if this is important, ensuring there is a local contact to help book massages, sightseeing tours and organise groceries is invaluable.
Renting through an agency
Phuket Villas and Homes has 25 private villas and five estates in Phuket on its books, with properties for all budgets. Each property, regardless of the cost, includes the services of cooking and cleaning staff plus a support network that includes 24-hour concierge services. Food is priced at supermarket costs, with a nominal fee for small orders.
The drawback is that Phuket Villas and Homes is solely an agent; each house is priced by the owners and the rent is not necessarily indicative of its market value but rather what the owners think it is worth. Taxes are sometimes included, sometimes not, so do your homework. Craig's inventory includes a bundle of houses and villas belonging to members of the glamorous jet-set crowd. His most popular is Villa Chan Grajang (phuketvillasandhomes.com; from $US1200 a night for one to five rooms; $US2250 for the whole house) nestled above Surin Beach at Ayara.
The villa belongs to multimillionaire British artist Damien Hirst. The six-bedroom house has a putting green, a "man den" with a three-quarter-sized snooker table, a 22-metre swimming pool, four live-in staff and stunning views over the azure waters of the Andaman coast.
While the opportunity to live with Hirst's extensive art collection may be enough to attract most people, the villa's minimalist white design by jewellery designer Angela Hall, enhanced by chunky wooden furniture and wrought-iron sculptures, has a summery, holiday feel. Sunglasses are recommended. A bonus is the adjoining two-room villa with its own pool, a small kitchen and lounge area, for teenagers.
Next door, and part of the same complex, the five-bedroom Villa Rak Tawan (from $US1000 a night) has a more classical Thai look, with pitched roofs, wooden floors, antiques, and prints by prominent Vietnamese artists such as Bui Huu Hung and Nguyen Minh Phuoc. The owner is a part-owner of the popular Patong bar Joe's Downstairs, and the bar's chef Aaron Hooper is available to cook dinners in the villa.
One drawback is that Villa Chan Grajang and Villa Rak Tawan are a five-minute drive or 10-minute walk from the beach.
Villas in Phuket with direct beach access are like hen's teeth these days, which is what makes the stretch of sand at Phang Nga, north of Phuket Island, and properties such as WW Beach House (from $US300 a day) so attractive.
This cute-as-a-button two-bedroom house with a large infinity pool has direct access to a long stretch of squeaky white sand at Natai beach. The villa is small but it has everything a small family or two couples could want, including a private cook to whip up delicious Thai meals.
Up a few pegs in terms of space and comfort is Sava Malee Sai, a five-bedroom villa overlooking the beach, owned by Mandarin Oriental hotel group chief executive Edouard Ettedgui. The beds are a little hard for my liking and I prefer more trees and shrubs in a tropical retreat, but armed with four very chatty and competent staff who serve drinks at sundown, a swimming pool so enormous one could quite well get lost in it, and the run of a spanking-clean minimalist house, this feels - just for a fleeting moment, Mr Ettedgui - as if it's all mine.
Several owners of houses in Phuket rent out their properties, or share them, privately. I came across Baan Sabai (villabaansabai.com; $US850 a night for up to 10 people, inclusive of all meals) on the internet. It is a sprawling and private five-bedroom villa with a pool, perched on the hill above Patong beach. The villa has three permanent staff to clean and cook, and a manager to make other arrangements. The staff have limited English but there are menus with pictures of the dishes to make ordering meals easy (think north-eastern Thai favourites such as grilled chicken and raw papaya salads).
The facilities are excellent: there is a small gym, a cinema with sumptuous leather chairs, a games room with a huge Nintendo machine, a third television room, and plenty of nooks and crannies to escape to with a good book. The property needs some renovations, and there are no views to speak of, but is inclusive of all meals, snacks and soft drinks, plus a mini-van and a driver at your disposal for five hours a day.
Renting from a hotel
It seems every hotel worth its bed sheets in Thailand also has residential villas these days. Most are available to buy and rent. The villas usually have similar furnishings to the hotel rooms but with some personal touches, far more space and sometimes private staff, so you get the privacy of a villa with all the trappings of a big luxury resort. Just don't expect too many bargains; most hotel villas are priced by the square metre.
Phuket's most exclusive residential villas belong to Trisara (trisara.com; two-bedroom residencies from $US2205 a night). This stunning 39-hotel room and 30-residency resort tumbles down to a powdery white sand private beach at Thalang. The two- to six-bedroom villas are so well appointed you might not make it to the beach at all.
Each villa has wooden floors and is decorated with tonnes of Thai silk, has a maid's quarters, permanent staff, and a swimming pool bigger than those of most hotels. It is quiet and peaceful and the staff are always on hand for tasks such as fixing the coffee machine at 8am. The best reason to stay here is for access to Trisara's facilities: a superbly luxurious spa, the best brunch on the island, and a new seafood restaurant run by chef Chalermchai Prakobkit, who uses only sustainable fish and once worked in the kitchen of Spain's world-famous El Celler de Can Roca.
At the far south-eastern end of the island, Sri Panwa (sripanwa.com; three-bedroom residencies from 60,380 baht, $1980, a night) also has rooms with a view. Residential villas have between three and five bedrooms, comprising a generous 800-2000 square metres. There are also pool villas, but these have only small kitchens.
While the views are second to none - especially from the spectacular Baba bar - the beach is small and rocky and the property is very steep, requiring buggies to get anywhere.
Sri Panwa made its name as one of the favoured holiday destinations for the Thai royal family. It caters for well-heeled nationals, with delicious but local-only breakfast options such as khanom jeen noodles and chicken curry. Most of the staff only speak Thai.
Getting there Singapore Airlines has a fare to Phuket for about $895 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. Fly non-stop to Singapore (about 8hr) and then non-stop to Phuket (1hr 45min on SilkAir). See singaporeair.com.
When to go Phuket's best deals can be found during the monsoon from May to October. December to March is dry but also peak season.