1 ISLAND CHIC
Travellers who discovered Koh Samui in the '80s invariably mourn its transformation, lamenting paradise lost through over-commercialisation. True, the Thai island is no longer a sleepy backwater. But unlike parts of Phuket that have descended into tawdry, Samui has retained a sense of style, an island chic encapsulating everything idyllic about a holiday in Thailand - luxury, spa treatments, cocktails and beaches. What more could you ask for, really?
2 ARRIVING IN STYLE
Privately owned by Bangkok Airways, Koh Samui's little airport is arguably the prettiest and best-maintained in the world, with beautifully landscaped tropical gardens, a row of stylish shops and dinky little open-air trams that transport new arrivals into the thatched baggage area. You almost expect to see a Hawaiian-shirted Tattoo greeting you, shouting "the plane, the plane"... welcome to Fantasy Island.
Chaweng Beach, a crescent of powder-white sand on the north-east coast, is the focal point of Samui's tourist industry and the hub of activity day and night. Jam-packed with resorts, bars, shops and nightclubs, it offers unsurpassed people-watching as joggers, poseurs and touts wander its 5-kilometre length, accompanied by the incessant racket of jet-skis and power boats. Tranquil it ain't - but grab a cushion at one of the beach bars, settle in over a cocktail and enjoy the passing parade.
4 SPA HEAVEN
Long before wellness tourism became mainstream, Samui lured those in search of healing, new-age therapies and Asian beauty secrets. Today, the island is the spa capital of Thailand, with several dedicated holistic health, weight loss, detox and yoga resorts such as Kamalaya (kamalaya.com) and Absolute Sanctuary (absolutesanctuary.com) offering all-inclusive packages to stimulate mind, body and soul. There is also a great selection of stand-alone day spas, such as the award-winning Tamarind Springs (tamarindsprings.com) while top-end resort spas such as Banyan Tree's hydrothermal The Rainforest (banyantreespa.com/rainforest) also welcome out-of-house guests.
A book-themed hotel slap-bang on lively Chaweng Beach may seem incongruous; but The Library (thelibrary.co.th) is a blank page in the midst of the madness, complete with minimalist white sculptures of people reading books, a glass-walled guest library featuring more than 1300 titles, a restaurant called The Page and a bizarre blood-red swimming pool. A standout in terms of design, and awarded Thailand's Trendiest Hotel by Trip Advisor.
6 OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Samui is a relatively small, round island, easily explored by rental car (motorcycles not recommended unless you're a licensed rider). One main ring-road leads to all the major sights and beaches, but swing off the highway into the heavily-jungled mountainous interior for spectacular views and some respite from the coastal chaos. Several paved roads pass though coconut groves and orchards, with stop-offs for waterfalls, safari parks and restaurants offering panoramic vistas.
7 MAGICAL GARDEN
Hidden deep in the medial jungle lies a secret sculpture garden, filled with images of deities from Buddhist mythology and fantasy creatures. The Secret Buddha Garden (kosamui.com/attractions/secret-buddha-garden) is the creation of retired durian farmer Nim Thongsuk, starting in 1976 and continuing until his death in 2000 at the age of 91. Getting to this intriguing fantasyland is half the fun - riding in the back (or precariously atop) an open four-wheel drive jeep along a steep and winding road. namuangsafarisamui.com
8 DUBIOUS ATTRACTIONS
Two of Samui's most popular attractions are as questionable as they come: but visiting them is an essential part of the island experience. One is a mummified monk, resplendent in orange robes and Ray-Ban sunglasses, propped up in a glass case outside Wat Khunaram; the other is two natural rock formations near Lamai Beach, called Hin Ta and Hin Yai. Ta (grandfather) is a stumpy phallus rising provocatively among some coastal boulders; while Yai (grandmother) is a large crevice awash with sea water, seemingly awaiting grandpop's attention. Seriously? Yes, but this is Thailand...
9 SERENE SAMUI
As vibrant and rowdy as Chaweng Beach is, it's still possible to escape the crowds in more remote reaches of the island. On the southern tip, Centara Villas Samui (centarahotelsresorts.com/centara/cvs/) has private beach frontage on pretty Laemset Bay, a haven of tropical tranquillity for those whose priority is relaxation. Shuttles are available to the sister property in Chaweng, but with the last return at 10.45pm, it's not exactly conducive to a big night out!
10 WALKING STREET
For a taste of the "real" Thailand, head to Bophut on the island's north coast on Friday evenings, when the working fishermen's village is transformed into a "walking street" marketplace. It's fun and crowded, with local handicrafts, trinkets, clothing and delicious street food sold in dozens of stalls lining the main street. Stop off at a bohemian village bar or dine at one of its funky restaurants such as Cafe 69 or Ad Hoc.
11 PARTY ON ... OR NOT
A reputation as party central does Koh Phangan little justice; beyond the drunken teenagers jumping fire ropes under a full moon, this glorious island - 30 minutes from Samui by ferry - is as unspoiled and idyllic as you can hope for, with a heavily-jungled interior and remote, palm-fringed havens such as Malibu Beach (malibubeachbungalows.com) where there's little to do but sway in a hammock to the ubiquitous beat of Bob Marley.
12 MUAY THAI
If watching sweaty men beat each other to a pulp turns you on, don't miss a bout at either Chaweng or Phetch Buncha Thai boxing stadiums. Fast, aggressive and dynamic, Thailand's national sport is also incredible exercise and very addictive, with introductory classes offered at resorts such as Anantara Lawana (lawana-chaweng.anantara.com) or dedicated training gyms. Serious students might want to check out training camps such as Jun Muay Thai (junmuaythai.com).
13 BEACH CLUBS
Phuket may have stolen its crown as Asia's beach club capital but when it comes to chilling by day, dancing by night, Samui still has the groove. There are several clubs on Chaweng Beach where DJs set the mood; Ark Bar (ark-bar.com) is an institution with its fire twirlers and lotus lights, or try KC Beach Club with its oceanfront pool. The granddaddy of them all is Nikki Beach Club, located on the west coast at Lipa Noi, and famed for its amazing Sunday brunch and sunset cocktails (nikkibeach.com/kohsamui).
14 SHOPPING FRENZY
From markets to malls, Samui has your retail therapy requirements covered. Small boutiques selling everything from souvenirs to beach couture line the main street of Chaweng, while Lamai and Bophut are great for unique gifts, textiles and Thai handicrafts. The glitzy new Central Festival Samui (centralfestival.co/th/samui) provides an air-conditioned escape with brand-name boutiques, sports wear and electronic shops.
15 FINDING NEMO
Take a day trip to Angthong National Marine Park, 42 limestone islands and 102 square kilometres of clear blue water and reef. While the coral formations are not as vibrant as the Great Barrier Reef, the balmy water and friendly marine life makes for fun and easy snorkelling. Some trips also offer kayaking around the cliff faces and into sea caves, plus a visit to an inland emerald lake on Koh Mae (Mother Island).
16 BIG BUDDHA
Located on the north-eastern tip of Koh Samui, the 12-metre seated gold Buddha is the most prominent landmark seen from the air as you land at the airport. Built in 1972, it remains the island's most visited attraction and is subsequently surrounded by market stalls. It is, however, a working temple, with devotees making offerings of flowers and incense and banging gongs for luck. Being a place of worship, visitors are asked to wear appropriate clothing (no beach-wear).
17 DIVE PARADISE
Two hours from Samui via ferry, Koh Tao (kohtao.com) is known as the "dive island", offering the best scuba diving in Thailand. The waters surrounding it are a breeding ground for hawksbill and greenback turtles, while Chumphon Pinnacle off the island's west coast is famed for migrating whale sharks between March and October. Non-divers will also love this exceptionally pretty island, with its stunning white-sand beaches near-deserted during the day as divers head to sea.
Yogarden is a delightful little retreat in the fishermen's village of Bophut offering weekday yoga classes, workshops and holidays, led by passionate and experienced certified instructors. Classes are held in an open-air sala, with most yogis choosing to linger over a raw juice or salad at the highly-acclaimed vegan restaurant located in a traditional wooden house. Babysitting available if booked in advance. (theyogardensamui.com).
19 FRISBEE GOLF!
If you haven't tried this fun, affordable family-friendly sport (an awesome blend of golf and frisbee, for the uninitiated), this beautifully-landscaped course in Maenam - the only one in south-east Asia - is a good place to start. Friendly owners will give you the heads-up on the rules, then you can toss to your heart's content. And at the end of a couple of rounds, beer and pizza await! Oh, plus you get to keep your frisbee. (samuidiscgolf.com)
20 SUN IN (OUR) WINTER
Samui has three seasons: dry, hot and rainy. With cooler temperatures and calm seas, the December to February peak season is great for Australians who can only travel during school holidays. To escape our winter, the hot season of March through to September offers exceptional value. And if that doesn't warm your heart, how about a constant water temperature of 29 degrees?
Ah, bliss ...
The writer travelled as a guest of Centara and the Tourism Authority of Thailand. tourismthailand.org