I'm receiving a bonus with my beachfront pedicure – free babysitting. As I recline with freshly glossed toes, 11-month-old Ellie is plucked from her pram and lavished with cuddles and coochie-coos by Thai massage staff, all vying for the baby's attention.
"Ellie, Ellie!" they gush, as they introduce her to purple orchids and fallen coconuts, teach her to count "neung, som, sam" and play that cross-cultural game, Peek-a-boo ("ja-ay" in Thai). She's as fascinated with the attention as they are with her golden hair and chubby cheeks. I can let my nails dry in peace, relaxing to the whisper of wind in the palms.
Not that looking after my granddaughter is a burden, quite the opposite. I am relishing time with her, encouraging her parents to leave her in my care while they explore Phuket. That was the whole idea of this inter-generational family holiday – for them to enjoy time out from parenting while I embrace as much Ellie-time as possible. Their freedom is my delight: a win-win for everyone.
Our choice of destination is quite deliberate for baby's first overseas venture: Phuket, in Thailand. For my daughter and me , it's a departure from our usual choice of rustic beachfront bungalows; this time, it's about Ellie's requirements, not ours. We opt for the ultimate in baby-friendly accommodation: Sunwing Resort at Kamala Beach. Here, the focus is on the youngest members of the family, with 30 dedicated Happy Baby Studios equipped with everything under-twos require: a cot, baby bath, change table, high chair, play mat, baby bath robe, bouncer and even a Bumbo (a plastic chair that effectively "swallows" the baby, restraining her while supporting her back. Brilliant!)
Best of all is the pram, which is ours for the duration of our stay. We're not talking cheap, fold-up strollers here, but proper, sturdy prams with adjustable seating, harness seat-belts, a shade cover and a tray for carrying a nappy bag. It's difficult to travel light with a baby. We're already lugging formula, nappies, wipes and clothing, squeezed into 15 kilograms of allocated luggage per person. Knowing that the heavier essentials are on hand at our destination is a massive relief.
With seven swimming pools, many of Sunwing's (predominantly Scandinavian) guests feel little compunction to wander beyond the resort grounds. Just metres away, however, is a delightful stretch of sand, now free of rubbish and sun loungers due to a recent clean-up campaign and crackdown on beach vendors. Without the eyesore of rows of plastic chairs, Phuket again bears some resemblance to the tropical paradise it was touted to be before the masses discovered it.
The latest trend on Phuket's jewelled shores is beach clubs, where entertainment, food, fashion and glamour meld in a stylish outdoor environment. Although targeting sophisticated single travellers during its evening DJ sessions, XANA by Attica, attached to the Angsara Laguna hotel on Bang Bao Bay, has acknowledged Phuket's family demographic by introducing a Sunday Fun Brunch, where parents and children can relax by an infinity pool, chilling to the grooves of saxophonist, Coco Jamboo.
It's the perfect start to our holiday and the ideal way to combat jet lag. After gorging on seafood, barbecue, sushi and freshly cooked noodles, we retreat to a shaded double day-bed, where we doze, sip cocktails and plunge into the pool, its swim-up bar framing the dazzling Andaman Sea.
For children, there's a dedicated activity tent featuring face-painting, hair braiding and sand-sculpture. Nam Chok the baby elephant makes a scheduled afternoon visit, much to the wide-eyed astonishment of our little Ellie.
With dad Nic a first-time Thailand visitor, we are keen to explore as much of the island as possible. Phuket's taxis are notoriously expensive (charging fixed prices for even short journeys), so our best option is to rent a car, easily arranged through the concierge desk.
Traffic is manic, to say the least, but beyond the soulless throb of Patong we discover tranquil seaside havens; lush jungles where waterfalls tumble and rehabilitated gibbons whoop in bamboo groves; and the Sino-Portuguese architecture of historic Phuket Town. En route to Cape Panwa we pause for lunch at the unpretentious Ship Inn, where we dine like emperors on green curry, stir-fried morning glory and fresh coconut juice, the rhythmic surge of the sea vying with the discordant sounds of a Muslim call to prayer piped through a tinny PA.
To experience Phuket at its best, however, it's essential to get out on the water, either on a snorkelling trip to outer islands, or cruising spectacular Phang Nga Bay, famed for its soaring limestone rock formations. Fearing this activity would preclude Ellie, I volunteer to stay at the resort and babysit while Jo and Nic enjoy John Gray Sea Canoe's Hong by Starlight tour, but after lengthy consultation with owner John Gray, it's agreed we'll bring the baby along.
Safety, of course, is our main concern: baby lifejackets don't seem to exist in Thailand (the smallest available fits two-year-olds). We are also concerned about Ellie's sleep times. The Sunwing pram solves the latter problem, and as a precaution, we pack Ellie's swimming tube, a last resort should we end up in the drink. John Gray allocates a staff member specifically to watch over Ellie and keep her entertained during the eight-hour trip.
Clinging to the rail of the mothership, Ellie stares into water below as we motor along, mesmerised by the wake. She may be unaware of the majesty of this potential World Heritage site, but she's certainly in tune with the environment and enjoying the experience. Her eyes are growing heavy, however, as we approach the first kayaking location, so I stay on-board to supervise Sleeping Beauty while Nic and Jo explore the caves and the mystical eco-systems within the islands' inner sanctums, called hongs.
The kayaks used by John Gray are sturdy and secure; a guide paddles at the back, allowing guests to focus on the sights and sounds of nature. Curious macaques shimmy along branches for a closer view of their human intruders; mudskippers skim through the shallows; and in the darkest hong entrance, tiny bats startle from their slumber, still air reverberating with their frantic flutter.
Refreshed from her nap, it's decided Ellie will join the next kayak excursion, nursed securely in her father's arms. She can barely contain her excitement, jumping up and down on the yellow inflatable and leaning over to drag her little hands through the water.
"I hope she retains this memory," a contented John Gray says to me afterwards. "Maybe subliminally she'll grow up with a love for caves and the water. Wouldn't that be a special thing?"
Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) has direct flights daily to Phuket from Sydney and Melbourne.
Accommodation in a Happy Baby Studio at Sunwing Kamala Beach starts from 4190 baht per night ($A166; $A60 for an extra adult), see www.sunwingkamala.com
SEE + DO
John Gray Hong by Starlight tour costs 3950 baht p.p. ($A156), infants under six free, see www.johngray-seacanoe.com.
The Sunday Fun Brunch at XANA Beach Club costs 1450 baht per person ($A57), see www.xanabeachclub.com
The writer travelled as a guest of Sunwing Kamala Beach and John Gray Sea Canoe.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A BABY-FRIENDLY RESORT
A dedicated wing for families with babies, so crying doesn't disturb other guests.
Amenities such as cots, baby baths, change tables and prams.
Clean highchairs in restaurants, and buffet food suitable for young palettes.
A shallow toddler pool.
A kids' club with qualified staff offering supervision and babysitting for young children.
FIVE OTHER BABY-FRIENDLY RESORTS
1. JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU FIJI ISLANDS RESORT This five-star resort on the northern Fiji island of Savusavu has trained nannies, so parents can hand over their young ones with confidence, as well as a renowned kids' club and specially prepared meals for children. See www.fijiresort.com
2. LOEWS ROYAL PACIFIC, ORLANDO, US This mega-resort near Universal Studios, in Florida, has every baby essential available to borrow, and even purees restaurant food for tiny diners, with visits by the Cat in the Hat and Spiderman during dinner. See www.loewshotels.com/royal-pacificresort
3. CLUB MED, BALI Club Meds are renowned for their family services, with babies from four months lavished attention at their own dedicated kids' club, with naps and meals all taken care of. See clubmed.com.au
4. PARADISE RESORT, GOLD COAST Supervised sessions for children 0-14 at the well-equipped Zone4Kids Club make this family resort a perennial favourite. See www.paradiseresort.com.au
5. AZUL BEACH HOTEL BY KARISMA, PUERTO MORELOS, MEXICO A partnership with Fisher Price ensures that babies at this four-diamond Mexican Riviera resort are well-entertained; cots, prams and all baby essentials are also included. See www.karismahotels.com