Aleenta spa retreat: Phuket, but not as you know it

Yes, it is Phuket, but perhaps its lesser known side, writes Daisy Dumas.

There's something a little unnerving about travelling to an island that is so heavily weighed down with preconceived stereotypes that, well, it's hard to see the beach for the Sang Som and string bikinis. About as far from the untouched as Bangkok is from dull, Phuket is the beaten track.

It's the well and truly kicked about, potholed backpackers' superhighway.

And, rallying against narrow horizons, it's got one or two very neat tricks up its well-worn sleeve.

Not least one of the most laid-back spots of sophistication within 20 minutes of any international airport, I wager.

Drive from Phuket on to the mainland, dive off the main road and head towards the Andaman Sea, and things quickly become very rural.

Aleenta opened its doors eight years ago and in April completed the latest phase of an extensive $3.5 million overhaul that has given the boutique hotel a much-needed communal space, seafront restaurant, pool and spa complex.

The results are way, way more than the sum of their parts. A midnight blue infinity pool is specked with gold flecks and lit by tiny "stars" at night. The spa is reached by stepping stones over one of the many, many waterways.

Jellyfish pulsate in a giant cylinder of sea water inside a dark oxygen therapy room and treatment rooms are bigger and breezier than many a Sydney apartment. Staff are gentle and wry, interested and not prying.

Advertisement

They offer cool wash cloths soaked in peppermint water just when you need them - often, that is, in the close heat - and leave mangoes and sweets in the room each day.

Away from the indoor/outdoor living that mixes traditional responses to the semi-equatorial climate with clever architectural nods to pampering, Aleenta's second iron in the fire is its sight on gastronomic glory.

Chef Alexander Bitterling, a 27-year-old German with no small amount of chutzpah, is a man on a mission to bring the exotic to the exotic. He has a thing for molecular dissemination of familiar dishes and appears to revel in being limited by the materials he has to hand in semi-rural Thailand.

Creatively, the only limitation on young Alex is how far his audience at The EDGE restaurant is prepared to go. A cooking lesson in far more typical style comes after a trip to the daily market in Khok Kloi. There, glasses of strong tea, or cha-ron, a deep layer of condensed milk at their base, are served alongside the staple breakfast bulk of roti.

Mine is layered the way only holidays can justify - with fried egg, banana and condensed milk.

Bowls of miniature green mangoes, bundles of young bean vines, plastic platters of tiny green and purple eggplants sit next to huge stacks of home-made shrimp paste, their sides sculpted into neat towers.

On the pavement, in a chink of shade next to a shop selling 33 different grades of jasmine rice, are decorated cages holding their captive prizes, small birds that - despite the tile counter tops of glistening chicken organs nearby - are strictly ornamental.

It's bright and colourful and bustling and warm - and a natural introduction to an Aleenta cooking lesson with the irrepressibly sunny Thip who hands me an apron, arms me with a knife and starts chopping kaffir lime leaves into slivers. We stir and season and steam, plucking banana leaf baskets of steamed fish curry from the heat, topping them with coconut cream and strands of red chilli. A banana flower salad is a minor miracle - it's sweet and crunchy and fresh and warm and revelatory: so, that's how to make sense of the tawny, bruised purple spears occasionally piled in Asian shops at home.

Boat trip operators ply the waters around the Thai islands, delivering Russian, German and Chinese day trippers between Phuket and Koh Phi Phi of The Beach fame. We spend a day in the Similan Islands, about an hour by fast boat from a tiny jetty amid mangroves in Phang Nga.

Unashamedly touristy, it's worth the eastern European pot bellies and strawberry-flavoured Fanta. The sand is so fine and white that the water goes milky when it's churned; we snorkel with turtles and through otherworldy underwater rock tunnels.

Phuket old town itself appears to have hit a tipping point of cool. It's now home to a smattering of art galleries and one or two neat little bars, such as Wonderland, serving Hendricks and Hoegaarden against a backdrop of designer moustaches and hip-hop.

At Aleenta, each of the 44 rooms has a private pool or direct access to a pool from a private terrace. Pool after pool, and walkway after stepping-stone walkway cross streams, lily ponds and goldfish pools.

A new children's club serves a children's menu that is healthiness in camouflage and arranges kids' diving classes. The gym is in an odd spot near the front entrance - but if it's running you're after, it's best to rise at dawn. Bikes are free and an excellent idea, given Aleenta's back yard is mile after mile of empty sand and tracts of coconut and rubber plantations up to the local town, Khok Kloi. Explore, sweat, drink a roadside beer, have a swim and cycle back via the beach.

In the room - a duplex home, really - wooden guiro frogs (a change from plastic "do not disturb" signs) stand sentry next to the front door. Beach bags, essential for walks to the lapping water, are tucked near the cotton pyjamas in the bathroom, where stoppered clay bottles hold the creams and shampoos. Villas spill on to lawns that end at the motorboat-free beach. There are sets of rooms in four-villa clusters, that give groups privacy and a neat solution for a couple of families holidaying together.

It's not a business hotel, it's not a wild hotel. It's not a jetskiing hotel or a deep house by the pool hotel.

It's thoughtful, gently done and, just quietly, very un-Phuket. Then again, in a country which in part owes its dominance on the international travel scene to its big heart and endearing traditions, Aleenta couldn't be more, well, Thailand.

The writer was a guest of Aleenta.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways flies from Sydney to Bangkok 11 times a week, with connecting flights from Bangkok to Phuket. Return flights Sydney to Phuket start at $1050.

STAYING THERE

Rooms range from the duplex Ocean view lofts to the deluxe three-bedroom Grand Villas. To mark the hotel upgrade, rooms start from THB5999 ($196) a day. See aleenta.com/phuket.

SEE + DO

Aleenta's Thai cooking classes, including a trip to the local markets, start at THB4400 a couple.

MORE INFORMATION

tourismthailand.org.

Comments