Phuket’s new breed of chic beach retreats

Koh Samui has been the main focus of buzz in Thailand over the past three years, with its seemingly unceasing procession of luxury hotel launches, from the sprawling W Retreat and Banyan Tree resorts to the aggressively contemporary Conrad. But now Phuket is commanding attention – a shift occasioned predominantly by the much-trumpeted (if significantly delayed) Point Yamu, the 11th property in the global portfolio of Christina Ong’s Como Resorts.

Set on the north-east coast overlooking the limestone monoliths jutting from the waters of Phang Nga Bay (a view that featured in the 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun), Yamu was initially developed by Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman Resorts, with architecture by Jean-Michel Gathy and interiors by Philippe Starck. Under Como’s aegis it has a slightly altered profile: Ong has enlisted Paola Navone, the Italian furniture and textiles designer, in what will be her first hotel project, to oversee the interiors. The resort will boast all the amenities associated with Ong’s properties – yoga pavilion, serviced villas, spa and private beach.

The latest news is that Como fans will have to wait until spring 2013 to see what Ong has created, but other noteworthy developments have been afoot island-wide. On the west coast, the Ed Tuttle-designed Surin hotel is in the final stages of a long renovation. Formerly known as the Chedi, it was extensively damaged in the 2004 tsunami, which led to its eventual closure and a change of management hands. After a soft opening in late 2010, the Surin made a more comprehensive debut in November 2011. The hotel retains its original striking layout – public spaces deftly fit into lofty, airy hexagonal pavilions, descending the steep jungle-covered hills to the massive pool, also hexagonal in shape. The 108 cottages were likewise reconceived by Tuttle on their original footprints but have been given a significant upgrade – freshly panelled and whitewashed, floored in elegant granite and hung with contemporary-ethnic silks, they are spacious and ventilated by sea breezes in all but the hottest weeks of late March and April.

The revamped Surin

General manager Antonio Saponara has form here in Surin Bay, having previously run the Amanpuri, with which the Surin shares beautiful, half-mile-long Pansea beach. If the resort’s sleek architecture bears Tuttle’s imprimatur, its easy elegance – the rapid-response service; the impromptu beach barbecues; the soon-to-debut five-room spa, nestled in the palms and casuarinas high on the hill – is Saponara’s doing.

About 40 minutes to the south, on Kata beach, Mom Tri’s Boathouse has been a stalwart for about 25 years, a cheerful but faded set of rooms attached to a fine-dining establishment (boasting since the late 1990s both a Michelin star and a Wine Spectator award of excellence). Now it has similarly benefited from new management and re-emerged as, simply, the Boathouse. It is owned by Montara Holdings, the owner-developers of Trisara, considered by many to be Phuket’s finest resort.

The Boathouse’s new face is more upscale. The restaurant’s wine cellar, with bottles from 800 producers, and its much-lauded cooking school remain but are joined by the Re Ká Ta beach club, a rooftop sunset lounge, another more casual bar and grill, a full-service spa offering facials and traditional massages, and rooms newly kitted out with spare, contemporary furniture and light-wood floors.

The Six Senses hotel group still has a flagship presence in the area (on Koh Yao Noi, an island 45-minutes’ speedboat ride from Phuket) but the destination spa it opened in 2008 on tiny Naka Yai, just off Phuket’s north-east coast, changed hands in 2011 and re-entered the market in March this year as the Naka, an all-villa private island resort. It is now managed by Starwood’s Luxury Collection, which has kept the original spa facilities and 67 villas mostly as they were but given everything subtle upgrades and dispensed with the rigorous wellness agendas in favour of more conventional treatments and fly-and-flop amenities (sailing, windsurfing and so on).

By the end of the year, however, the focus may be diverted once again – this time to Natai beach, just north of the strait separating Phuket from the mainland. In early 2013, Natai will see the debut of Iniala, an ultra-exclusive 10-room retreat boasting the talents of Basque chef Eneko Atxa, whose Azurmendi restaurant near Bilbao has two Michelin stars, and Bangkok-based art consultant Steven Pettifor, who will curate rotating exhibitions of important contemporary south-east Asian artists. But Iniala’s owner, Mark Weingard, has more than 700-thread-count sybaritism on his agenda. After losing his fiancée in the 2002 Bali bombings, he founded the Annika Linden Foundation to provide health and education funds to south-east Asia’s most needy communities. Its name changes this month, to Inspirasia, but its mission remains the same – and 10 per cent of Iniala room revenues will go directly into its coffers.

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