Phuket, Thailand's "Andaman Pearl" province, has weathered the COVID-19 tides better than many other tropical destinations. Several versions of the Thai government's innovative "Test and Go" and "Sandbox" quarantine schemes have maintained a modest stream of tourists to the island, as well as keeping infection rates low.
Dreamy Mai Khao ("white wood") Beach, Phuket's longest and best, stretches 11 unbroken kilometres along the island's north-west Andaman Sea coast. Shaded by palms and son talay sea pines, and lapped by a calm (except during monsoon months) ocean, this is the "before" version of Phuket, reminiscent of 30 years ago. The "after" version, when over-tourism on Phuket reached almost 10 million annual arrivals, is currently on hold. Right now is the time to be here.
"This is a place where pressured people can come and relax close to nature and the sea," says the Melia's Spanish-born general manager, Magdalena Martorell. It's a fitting mission statement for both guests and the resort. The 30-suite and 70-villa property occupies a wedge-shaped, three-hectare block with a narrow sea-frontage. Its set-back, two-storey accommodation clusters are well spaced and screened by plenty of greenery. The Melia bills itself as "Phuket's first wellness-inspired resort" and, although some older, spa-focused resorts might beg to differ, you can't help but feel well here. With a seemingly infinite beach, sea air and skilled massage treatments — not to mention the absence of beer bars and malls — this is your optimal place for a recharge.
Premium Spanish hospitality brand Melia may have only recently arrived in Thailand but you won't find any Iberian clichés here — bullfight posters, rusty knights, flamenco muzak and the like. Instead, across the differing configurations of suites and villas there's a pared-back Mediterranean cool with a neutral colour palette. All accommodation is single bedroom with an open-air bathtub and shower, plus private terrace. My 85 square metre villa with a terrace sala bed is a haven within a haven. Its bathtub is so roomy that the plunge pool is almost redundant. A vast bed, 43-inch TV and good coffee machine complete the scene. Meanwhile, the resort's 15 signature "wellness villas" come with extras like Tempur-Pedic pillows, fit ball, air purifier, essential oil diffusers, Vitamin C shower and daily massages.
"Mai Khao is a fishing village area so we receive really fresh local supplies," say culinary director Luca Mancini. Proof arrives in the form of my first lunch, an exceptional, catch-of-the-day Andaman sea bass served at the Gaia Beach Club. A long, open-air kitchen here allows diners seated opposite it to see the Thai kitchen crew's culinary theatre in full flight. At a later meal the too-smart iPad menu appears and disappears in both Spanish and English, and soon just gets swiped left. A simple menu card resolves the issue. Gazpacho and sea crab soon follow, with a light orange and almond mousse dessert rounding out the show. Meanwhile, at Melia's more formal SASA restaurant there is international dining, along with familiar Thai dishes and vegan options.
The 70-metre saltwater pool, large YHI Spa and well-equipped gym are among the many reasons to stay put. Then add daily Andaman sunsets toasted with a Chalong Bay rum cocktail. Tearing yourself away, however, there are several nearby excursions such as to the beautifully restored 1936 Chinese deco mansion known as Baan Ah-jor Museum Home (with in-house Red Table restaurant) and kayaking through the dappled mangrove trails of Phuket Marine National Park. Further afield are Phuket Elephant Sanctuary for rescued jumbos and Phuket Old Town for ambling, low-key shopping and coffee. Patong Beach's neon-lit bar strip maintains its customary night riot ways. In contrast, the east coast's Phang Nga Bay is one of the most serene bodies of water on earth, so be sure to get out among its islands. Phuket feels today as it did decades ago, with visitor numbers down literally by the millions. While this has meant much hardship for locals, the bonus for visitors is a beautiful island free, for the time being, of crowds and coach jams. Finally, when it's time to depart the Melia, Phuket airport is just 15 minutes away.
The Melia Phuket Mai Khao, newest kid on Phuket's loveliest beach, is a get-away-from-it-all retreat that delivers on its promise of wellness and tranquillity. Spain meets Thailand here. The result is an Andaman-Mediterranean fusion in taste and manners, with as much, or little, solitude as you desire. How this ambience is maintained when there's a full, in-house convention remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Melia organisation's declaration, "Soul Matters" is clearly more than a fridge-magnet motto. Party people might want to look and book elsewhere.
Suites from $267 (including taxes) a night. Address: 233 Moo 3, Tambon Mai Khao, Phuket, 83110. Phone: +66 (0) 76 563 550. See melia.com
So many highlights: Pilates sessions on the seafront, kayaking through mangrove forests, the smart staff, catch-of-the-day, that endless beach.
No change-room near the beach and main pool is definitely inconvenient.
John Borthwick was a guest of Melia Phuket Mai Khao and Thai Airways.