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Upmarket beach clubs are transforming the Phuket social scene, putting the groove back into the island's sandy shores, writes Julie Miller.
There's a new vibe on the Thai island of Phuket, and it's hip, laid-back and sultry. Think sun, sand, cocktails and a chill-out beat, all served on a platter of decadence and luxury; think beautiful people, famous DJs and memorable parties under a starry sky.
Hang on a sec - we are talking about Phuket, right? That tawdry travesty with seedy girlie bars, a brazen sex industry, ugly tourists and once-beautiful beaches putrified by insensitive over-development?
Yes, it's the very same Phuket; and the good news is, the former paradise is slowly emerging from the mire, using its natural assets to bring sexy back with nary a pole or neon sign in sight.
While the "beach club" scene has triumphed in other seaside destinations around the world (including rival Thai island Ko Samui), Phuket was a little slow on the uptake. But a spate of openings on the island's west coast has transformed the social scene for both locals and tourists, and given the island destination an injection of cool. And it seems the trend is here to stay, with new venues - including Nikki Beach - heralding the peak festive season.
During the day, these swanky beachfront venues - some connected to upmarket resorts, but others stand-alone venues with pools, restaurants and bars - are chilled and family-friendly, with an emphasis on tanning, swimming and lazing as attentive staff ply guests with food, drinks and beachside comfort. As day morphs into night, so the ambience shifts; couples canoodle in cabanas and on beach cushions watching the sunset, cocktails in hand, while the music dials up into party mode. Then the club scene kicks in, with international DJs spinning discs and getting dancers on their feet.
While the beach clubs tend to be (as they say in Thailand) "same same but different", each one has its own ambience and unique deals to lure clientele. Here's a taste of what's on offer:
CATCH THE SUNSET
Nestled among palm trees in the dunes of Surin Beach, Catch was the original Phuket beach club and the one that set the bar in terms of decor, hospitality and style. The chic club has several sections, including a boardwalk over the sand peppered with comfortable sofas and cushions, and two covered dining spaces offering brunch and dinner buffets, as well as a 60-label wine menu. Catch really starts jumping at night as parties featuring international DJs attract up to 700 guests.
Where: Surin Beach, opposite Twinpalms Phuket Resort.
Opening hours: Daily 9am to 2am.
Cost: Day membership ranges from 1000 TB ($34) a person from May-October, to 4000 TB ($134) in peak season (Dec-Jan), giving use of sunbeds and complimentary food and drinks up to this value. Guests of Twinpalms Resort enjoy complimentary access and sunbeds.
TRUE BLISS FOR KIDS
Happy children, happy parents - so the equation goes at Bliss Beach Club, a family-friendly venue on palm-fringed Bang Tao Bay. While mum and dad sip on Blisstinis on the wooden deck, the kids play on a grassy playground next to the pool under the supervision of trained nannies. Regular events include Apertivo between 5-7pm on weekends (complimentary finger food with drinks), and Soundwave Sunday, Phuket's "longest running beach party" from 2pm to 8pm.
Where: Bang Tao Bay, past the Sunwing Hotel.
Opening hours: Daily 10am-2am
Cost: No minimum spend, use of sunbed costs up to 220 TB ($7.45) in high season.
Located on the beachfront at the Angsana Laguna (formerly Sheraton Grande Laguna), XANA (managed by the Attica group from Singapore) is arguably the coolest beach club in Thailand. Attracting top international DJs such as Paul Oakenfold, Frankie Knuckles and Ministry of Sound, it's the place to chill by day, party by night, with an awesome swim-up bar in a 35 metre pool, sandy dance floor, bespoke cocktails, excellent food and trendy decor, not to mention the benefit of on-site accommodation.
Where: Angsana Laguna, Bang Tao Bay; walk through the hotel grounds to get to the Beach Club.
Opening hours: Daily 10am-12am (1am on weekends)
Cost: Minimum spend from 1000 TB ($34) a guest, which entitles you to a sun-bed, towels, use of facilities and credit in food and beverage to that value. Double pod loungers for two and VIP beach cabanas also available.
BIKINIS AND MARTINIS
The beats start early at BiMi (an abbreviation of Bikinis and Martinis), with DJs setting the mood from 10am each day. Described as Phuket's only All Day Party Beach Club, it invites barefoot chic in its thatched cocktail huts and natural salas surrounded by coconut palms flanking a strip of white powder sand. Cool down under the giant rain showers, or feast on light beach snacks featuring fresh seafood at the acclaimed restaurant. BiMi access passes - distributed by selected resorts - offer preferential rates.
Where: Surin Beach, next door to Catch Beach Club.
Opening hours: Daily 10am to 7pm.
Cost: Sunbeds from 200 TB ($6.75) a day.
With its purple lighting and decor, grandiose staircase, huge shade awning and 100 beach beds, Diamond Beach Club is the most distinctive of Phuket's beach clubs, enhanced by a restaurant featuring the talents of Michelin-starred Italian chef Bruno Nicollini. Facing west, this trendy club is the perfect spot for sundowners, with an impressive cocktail and mocktail list using fresh Thai fruits, fresh herbs and more than a dash of artistry.
Where: Northern end of Surin Beach.
Opening hours: 10am to 2am.
Cost: Sunbeds from 600 TB ($20) per day.
The writer was a guest of Banyan Tree Phuket and Tourism Authority of Thailand.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Give Julie Miller a sandy beach, a sunbed and a cocktail and she's a happy camper. Throw in an elephant, and she's ecstatic. Which is why Thailand is the perfect fit as her favourite destination.