With an ocean breeze in her hair and cocktail glass in hand, Leisa Tyler samples the best of the southern Thai island.
Ten years ago this pretty island in the cobalt-blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand was known for its coconut palms and backpackers searching for a utopia they had seen portrayed in the 2000 adventure film The Beach, depicting an island nearby.
Once-sleepy Koh Samui, however, is on the map for jet-setting travellers checking into a growing number of high-end resorts.
The Four Seasons group began the region's transformation when it opened a resort on a private beach at Bang Po. A string of heavyweights has followed, including Starwood's W, Conrad, Banyan Tree and InterContinental. Catering to the hotels' well-heeled guests, new bars and restaurants have also opened.
Koh Samui's newest hotel, Akaryn, has 52 stand-alone villas clustered on a small rocky beach at Hanuman Bay, a five-minute drive north of Chaweng. This is the fifth property of Thai-born hotelier Anchalika Kijkanakorn, whose adorable Aleenta Pranburi was largely credited with kick-starting Thailand's boutique hotel boom. The Akaryn's all-pool villas have terrazzo floors, wood trimmings and plush beds, but lack privacy. Free yoga and Pilates classes are held several times a week and the resort has an innovative kitchen, although staff cut corners: my grilled watermelon with pesto is tasty but hasn't been anywhere near a grill, and a serving of "home-made baked beans" comes from a can.
Double rooms from 7552 baht ($228), including breakfast; akaryn.com.
The Aleenta group's year-old Chaweng property, Akyra, has its feet more firmly on the ground. Akyra has 61 small, simple rooms with balconies, a communal pool and restaurant at action-packed Chaweng Beach. The hotel is good value for money, as is the on-site Japanese restaurant. The downsides are the crowds, jet skis and fireworks into the night.
Double rooms from 3894 baht, including breakfast; theakyra.com.
The InterContinental group reopened the Baan Taling Ngam Resort in February after a $30 million refurbishment. The 76-room, seven-pool InterContinental Baan Taling Ngam Resort commands spectacular views over secluded Taling Ngam Bay, a stretch of white sand miles from tourist spots yet with enough smaller hotels and eateries in the vicinity to lend the area a village feel. Starting at a spacious 76 square metres, family-friendly rooms each have a big balcony. A Club InterContinental upgrade is good value and includes evening cocktails, a massage for two, return airport transfers, breakfast and butler service.
Double rooms from 6975 baht; an extra 2000 baht for club access is available in upper-category rooms; ichotelsgroup.com.
Perched on the slopes of the Phang Ka Peninsula, the six-month-old Conrad Koh Samui takes first prize for views. Finished with big decks and pools, wooden floors and terrazzo bath tubs for two, the 80 stand-alone villas are comfortable and stylish, although the bouncy beds don't seem in keeping with this standard of resort. Clinging to roads zigzagging up a steep hill, the villas have stunning views, but also requires a buggy to get anywhere, be it to breakfast, lunch or the small rocky beach. There is a fantastic on-site spa and free activities, and service is sincere and friendly, although there are language issues. My request for coffee pods for the espresso machine took three attempts and 50 minutes.
Double rooms from 16,981 baht; conradhotels3.hilton.com.
Le Meridien took over the former Langham Place at Lamai Beach late last year. Modelled on traditional lane houses in Beijing, the resort has 77 rooms around tree-lined courtyards. The 45-square-metre basic-category rooms are good value, with four-poster beds, terrazzo floors, silk bedspreads and small outdoor sitting areas. Skip the oddly designed plunge pool for a pavilion pool villa with more space and sun beds. The rocky beach is compensated for by a jetty with pool and daybeds and complimentary shuttle to other island beaches.
Double rooms from 6647 baht; lemeridienkohsamui.com.
W Retreat Koh Samui made news when it opened in March last year. The upmarket Starwood brand's foray into Thailand had teething problems: unhappy staff, untended gardens and insects galore. Things took a big turn for the better with the arrival of Australian manager Nick Downing. The W's 75 pool villas are clustered around an isthmus of azure water on the tip of Bophut Beach. There's a breezy beachside bar and Japanese-inspired restaurant, but it's the lobby that grabs the attention: a slate fortress with views to Koh Phangan.
Double rooms from 14,125 baht; starwoodhotels.com.
Banyan Tree is Koh Samui's most polished newcomer. Overlooking idyllic Lamai Bay, 78 plush, pitched-roof villas have separate living areas and cathedral-style ceilings. Each villa has a deck and pool, though not very private ones, and there are some odd design elements. For example, access to the deck is through the shower. Resort service is top-notch, the restaurants are excellent and there are extensive facilities, including a kids' club and hydrothermal "rainforest" complex with steam rooms and a vitality pool.
Double room from 20,224 baht; banyantree.com.
Deconstruction and molecular are two contemporary cooking styles still getting a workout in Koh Samui. Most agree the trend began at the Six Senses' Dining on the Rocks, a breezy alfresco space spanning nine wooden terraces that are suspended on boulders beside the sea (sixsenses.com). Here, Indonesian chef Allan Octesa creates what he calls modern interpretive cuisine. I'm not fond of the "one-second scallop" entree, which has been drowned by a basil meuniere sauce, or the "bubble-gum" palate cleanser that teams tough mozzarella and raspberry jam. The mains fare better, with dishes such as chicken quesadilla baked on slate.
At the Conrad's Jahn, with its glorious views over the Gulf of Thailand and excellent organic and biodynamic wine list, Belgian chef Konrad Inghelram modernises Thai cuisine. It is a little hit and miss: Inghelram's scallop tartare with Thai spices, and a national favourite, som tam (raw papaya salad), are both perfectly spiced. But the massaman curry of wagyu beef and green curry of Brittany lobster pale in comparison with the dishes that inspired them.
At Hansar Samui's beachside H Bistro, Canadian chef Stephen Dion serves fantastic tasting menus using molecular wizardry (hansarsamui.com). The grilled octopus and scallop with a brunoise of tomato and avocado, foam of vermouth, goat's cheese and crystallised yoghurt sounds overly complicated, but works surprisingly well, each component bringing new depth.
However, it's Koh Samui's simpler real-food restaurants that steal my heart. Leading the way is Brisbane-born, French-trained Luke MacLeod's beachside grill, Flames, at the InterContinental, with a menu of perfectly cooked, unfussy dishes made from mainly local ingredients. Think avocado and creme fraiche scooped up with cos lettuce, soft and flavoursome red snapper cooked in banana leaf, and an oven-hot "country-style" baguette accompanied by a hunk of brie and pot of mango chutney. This is gastronomic heaven.
Banyan Tree's Saffron also hits the spot with its classical Thai cuisine served in an elegant wooden house. The fried squid with ink and pomelo and citrus salad is perfectly balanced, as is the smoky chargrilled eggplant salad with shredded crab. Just beware of the southern dishes: the fish curry cooked with shrimp paste and the spare ribs in dry red curry are authentic and excellent, and tear-jerkingly hot.
Spanish chef Ivan Alvarez Parres, who worked in some of Spain's legendary kitchens, opens Ochos, a 26-seat tapas bar, at Akaryn this month (akaryn.com). The menu includes small sharing dishes of typical Spanish fare such as bombas de la Barceloneta (minced pork in potato fritter); and escalivada, a Catalan dish of roasted eggplant and pepper. Parres will also flirt with molecular techniques at Ochos; his traditional food is better.
The best meal I have had on Koh Samui is also the cheapest. Haad Bang Po is housed in a shack at Bang Po Beach and doesn't have a street number or extensive menu. But its yum talay (fresh seafood salad with Thai celery, onion and a ubiquitous chilli dressing) and baby squid with Thai basil are trumps. It's opposite Soi 5 Bang Por; lunch for two costs about 300 baht.
Beach Republic, with its breezy pavilions overlooking Lamai Beach, consistently pulls a jovial, laidback crowd for cocktail-o'clock (beachrepublic.com). The bottle service here is a bargain, too, with a 750-millilitre bottle of Absolut vodka with mixers costing about 2450 baht. Sunday brunch draws a crowd for the lobster, oysters and wagyu beef buffet by the pool.
Many people make a beeline for Woobar at the W Retreat. The bar's modish alfresco space of sunken pod lounges, shimmery lime and red lights, soaring sea views, killer martinis and resident DJ makes it a hot spot for a jet-set crowd and Asian starlets taking hero shots.
Sathit Muangprom lived in Switzerland for 20 years before returning to his native Thailand and opening 9Gems, a sleek three-storey concrete and glass restaurant and lounge bar flanking a hill above Chaweng, (9gemssamui.com). Come for lycheetini cocktails and tapas (think beetroot ravioli with confit of duck), both best consumed on the top floor as the setting sun washes the sky above Chaweng dusty pink.
My best drinks find on Koh Samui is the aptly named Magic Alambic Rum Distillery, a rustic bar and tasting room run by Martinique-born Elisa Gabrel, who distils Thai sugarcane into high-grade agricultural rum in her garden shed near Bang Kao Bay. Fermented in vats for a year, then infused with fruits such as coconut, mandarin and pineapple, Gabrel produces about 8000 bottles a year, many of which are snapped up by private collectors. Try the original rum with Gabrel's gorgeous lime syrup. Shots are 50 baht. (rhumdistillerie.com/en).
Shopping The tourist strips of Chaweng and Lamai brim with shops peddling Thai and Chinese knock-offs, pirated DVDs, "designer" suits and ubiquitous Thai fishermen pants. Stylish boutiques, though, are harder to come by. Fisherman's Village, a cute strip of shops and restaurants at Bophut has a few contenders, including the Russian-run Woody A (Haad Road; +66 778 0183 3759) for summer dresses and ceramics. Pure Natural in Chaweng (168 Chaweng Road) stocks unprocessed, local skin care products. A few shops down, Thann (79 Chaweng Road; +66 77 413 332) has Thai-made beauty lotions, including the seaweed-based Shiso collection.
Cook Chefs from the Anantara Bophut Resort and Spa take small groups to the market at Nathon before getting them busy chopping, dicing and stirring their way to culinary perfection in the hotel's class-friendly kitchen. Chefs can tailor the menu and lessons to suits a visitor's needs. Do you think making a green curry is boring? Learn how to make the paste from scratch here, or study the basics of Thai salads.
Spa These days every hotel worth its soap has a spa, with Six Senses, Banyan Tree and Tamarind Springs hosting the better ones. For a more extensive holistic experience, head to Kamalaya, a retreat flanking Bang Kao Bay (kamalaya.com).
Therapies are available from the in-house naturopaths and visiting practitioners and they range from Chinese medicine and iridology to colonic cleansing.
Sailing Hit the seas on the 30-metre wooden yacht-cum-junk Red Baron, a new vessel with distinctive red sails (redbaron-samui.com). Sailing around uninhabited islands off Koh Samui and secluded beaches on nearby Koh Phangan takes place daily. The junk is also available for private charter.
Leisa Tyler stayed courtesy of the W, Akayrn, Akyra, Banyan Tree, Conrad and InterContinental hotels.
Thai Airways has a fare to Koh Samui from Sydney and Melbourne for about $905 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Bangkok (about 9hr) then to Koh Samui (13hr); see www.thaiairways.com.au.