In the hierarchy of cuisines deserving reappraisal, boil-in-the-bag sits somewhere near the bottom of the ladder, perhaps between “gnawing on the bones of the yak you’ve just speared to death” and Tex Mex. Nonetheless, recently-arrived chef John Sun Beck’s tasting menu at the Six Senses resort on Yao Noi island, 40 minutes’ speedboat ride off the east coast of Phuket, features just that: sea bass “en papilotte” is presented, swimming in citrusy juices and heaped with enoki mushrooms, inside a cellophane parcel which makes the whole thing look like it’s been bought at the same garage forecourt as the carnations the world’s worst husband brings his wife on Valentine’s Day. In fairness, the flavours are good, but you have to work hard to forget you’re eating your dinner out of a plastic bag. Rarely has a chef hit upon such an unappealing way to present a centrepiece dish. These bass died in vain.
In all other regards, as the best luxury hotels in Phuket – or near Phuket – go, the Six Senses hits its targets. Dinner is saved by a dessert of fruit skewers with homemade coconut ice cream you feel, despite its voluptuous texture, cannot possibly be bad for you. Better, this is merely one flavour available from an ice cream bar open all day (even in the morning, as part of a hugely extensive breakfast buffet whose many, many stations a member of staff shows you round).
Rooms, built up and down the face of the island, are vast rustic suites, predominantly wooden, with indoor-outdoor showers and four-poster beds seemingly crafted purely from driftwood; my room had outdoors seating areas both above and below the main rooms, as well as louvred wooden shutters that could be opened to the elements. Lush jungle surrounds each room and makes you feel like the only inhabitant of the island, or its only human denizen: black squirrels scrabble through the trees, and the occasional substantial granite-coloured iguana waddles through the undergrowth, pausing to eye you coldly. Only subtle clues give away the presence of other human beings, such as the inconspicuous staff who sneak in at some point in the evening to drape the very necessary mosquito net around your bed.
I get weary of the way some properties position jasmine wreaths and hardwood carved Buddhas on every surface
Sadly, Yao Noi Island was sunless during my visit, and fugged in humid cloud, and so the view from the spectacular Hilltop Reserve at the peak of the island was a little hazy. Normally, this semi–circular infinity pool (with attached bar for light snacks like satay and salads) looks out on the unearthly colours of the sea and out to a line of vast rocks which stand in the water in an almost sinisterly straight line, like vast tombstones. The Six Senses screens films up here on some nights – on others they’re shown on the cute small beach beneath the Living Room restaurant – and in what I took to be a weekly fixture, the Saturday night movie was The Man With the Golden Gun, some of which was, famously, filmed amidst the great megaliths standing in shadow on the moonlit sea in the distance.
The next day I took the boat back to Phuket, and drove around the island – past ramshackle villages, forests and, most notably, a stubbled field in which romped an unidentifiable animal which resembled a monkey dressed as a pig – to the west coast, and the Banyan Tree resort. A vast, 135-villa development, the Banyan Tree is built around a lagoon and a handsomely landscaped golf course, where each golfer is accompanied by a squad of Hello Kitty water bottle-toting Thai caddy girls. As well as its attractive, contemporary-styled rooms and suites, the Banyan Tree offers timeshare villas named for exotic flowers (and the occasional Russian patronymic), in which the master bedroom is glass-walled on three sides and surrounded by an ornamental pool like a moat. The pool suite where I stayed was similarly modern – when I say I didn’t feel I was in Thailand, that’s not a criticism; I get weary of the way some properties position jasmine wreaths and hardwood carved Buddhas on every surface, just in case you forget – as well as extremely extensive. There’s a kitchenette, a handsomely sized pool with poolside seating and a neat little covered sala in case of rain (there was rain), and so many bathrooms that I showered in a different one each time and still didn’t exhaust the full number in two days.
The Banyan Tree’s big draw is its terrific spa. I’m not the world’s best massage client – a niggling sense I’m not relaxing properly makes me tense up more than if I hadn’t bothered – but was delighted by how relaxed and revitalised I felt by being manipulated, pummelled and stretched into what turns out to be my proper posture. Little touches, such as a choice of which flavour of incense you’d like burned during your treatment, add to the experience. Outside, a storm had come crashing in, but I sat quite serenely in my individual spa villa, sipping my iced lemongrass tea, confident the sun would be back again soon. It did, and I ventured outside to the spa restaurant Tamarind, where I enjoyed some of the best sushi I’ve ever eaten – also, not by coincidence, some of the most expensive sushi I’ve ever encountered – then lay out beside the dedicated spa pool, and felt that I’d somehow triumphed at the spa.
I have a theory that the modern Russian venturing abroad resembles the clichéd British holidaymaker of the 70s and 80s: highly excited to be overseas, not quite sure yet of the etiquette. Give it a few years and they’ll be tutting along with the rest of us at the next generation of nouveau wealth
In addition to two big pools – the non-spa-adjacent one is family-friendlier, and has those man-made currents which whizz you excitingly around like islands in the pool like a marble in a bagatelle – there is a small beach, but it doesn’t live up to the rest of the Banyan Tree: it’s outside the resort proper, so you have to cross a road to reach it; it’s oddly small, the loungers are ranked on the sand in military formation, and all in all it didn’t seem conducive to relaxation.
By night, the Banyan Tree waxes romantic. There are two main restaurants: a wide range of Thai cuisine, including some unusual dishes such as a banana blossom salad, is served at Saffron (which is keen not to neglect the ingénue: not only does the menu give guidance on how to pronounce the restaurant’s name, my server rather sweetly enquired whether I’d eaten Thai food before – I assured her that I had, without explaining that Thai is essentially Britain’s national cuisine nowadays). Elsewhere, Tré offers French Cambodian food, and has wonderful views out over the lagoon at the heart of the Banyan Tree complex (one couple per evening can even enjoy the “Dinner of the Senses”, dining in a candlelit pavilion at the centre of the lake).
The food is unusual and excellent – a trio of salmon flavours in Cambodian styles was especially good – and the atmosphere quite lovely, although that did mean that one couple near my table were too busy gazing into one another’s eyes to prevail upon their two children to stop running back and forth through the restaurant, yodelling wildly. When, after hoping they’d desist by themselves, I asked the manager to have a polite word with the family, he essayed a magnificent all-body shrug: “I’m sorry, Madame, but there’s nothing I can do. They’re… Russian.” I have a theory that the modern Russian venturing abroad resembles the clichéd British holidaymaker of the 70s and 80s: highly excited to be overseas, not quite sure yet of the etiquette. Give it a few years and they’ll be tutting along with the rest of us at the next generation of nouveau wealth.
There’s certainly no shortage of carriers bringing international visitors to the island. Most of the new routes and carriers operating from Europe involve longish stopovers in Bangkok, Dubai, or other major hubs. For my money, Singapore Airlines is the clear front-runner. From London Heathrow they fly direct to Singapore Changi, pause to draw breath, then skip on to Phuket (and the Changi stopover lasts scarcely long enough to visit the airport’s butterfly reserve or check your emails). The bulk of your journey is within the flying palace environment of the A380. With certain Middle Eastern airways currently offering you an A380 for half the journey, and then a clapped out old banger for the second leg with 1980s-style Business class, this is a really crucial point. Also, door-to-door, Singapore’s route knocks valuable hours off the duration of most other “direct” routes. There’s also the matter of the quality of the product – Singapore’s flying armchairs in Business are, quite simply, peerless in terms of width. The entertainment system is state of the art. There’s also distinctly separate boarding, direct to the upper deck. It’s all luxurious, tranquil and seamless.
Further South from the Banyan Tree, on Pansea Beach, is the Amanpuri – the very first property set up by Aman supremo Adrian Zecha and still one of the best luxury hotels in Phuket. Established in 1988, it marked a turning point in the history of tourism to the island. No longer would Phuket be the exclusive preserve of backpackers swarming to tick Big Buddha off a list of “culture” must-sees before dancing themselves silly at Full Moon beach parties and begrudging a rate of any more than five US dollars for a night’s accommodation. Luxury had come to Phuket. (Although it has yet to come to Phuket airport, a throwback to the airport-as-motorway-service-station style, full of plush elephant souvenirs, a bizarrely retro-styled “shoppe” selling an array of Thai table wines – should you have a car that needs de-icing, or a foe you’ve been meaning to poison – and cross travellers who’ve trusted the mischievous announcement on their incoming flights that they arrive at Phuket two and a half hours before their flight departs.)
Phuket airport… a throwback to the airport-as-motorway-service-station style, full of plush elephant souvenirs, a bizarrely retro-styled “shoppe” selling an array of Thai table wines – should you have a car that needs de-icing, or a foe you’ve been meaning to poison
The Amanpuri “look” is hyperreal Thai style: the open-to-the-elements salas of the reception and public spaces are all polished dark wood and elaborately peaked roofs. The huge rooms are wood-finished, with huge vases of jasmine flowers on a central console in the middle of the room. The walls are inset throughout with mirrors only marginally more reflective than the highly polished wood surfaces. With your clothes hung out on the rails of the open-plan wardrobes, the room can resemble the flagship store of a high-end clothes store (even if your holiday outfits, like mine, are chiefly sourced from Uniqlo). As in other Aman properties, the eye-wateringly high prices seem, oddly, to mean you get rather less for your money: personally, I can think of better things to do than watch BBC News when I’m overseas, but it does seem strange not to at least have a TV in the room for those who would like to. The main pool, black-tiled again, is surrounded by loungers, but not by parasols: again, adding to my collection of alarming sun burns is among my favoured occupations when overseas, but it’d be nice to have the option to shelter from the 40° midday sun.
The main restaurant here serves Thai and Asian cuisine; for the indecisive diner, a splendid tasting platter of four different curries, along with rice pilafs, salads and sauces obviates a difficult task to select just one from the extensive dinner menu. Unlike the other resorts I visited on and off Phuket, the Amanpuri doesn’t have one of those pleasingly enormous buffets, but a menu of healthy and indulgent dishes, in substantial quantities, which should see you through until the complimentary afternoon tea, served daily at 4pm, of cake, fruit, thimble-sized savoury pancakes, and herbal teas.
From the centre of the resort, with its restaurant, library and pool, a vertiginous 80-step staircase leads down to the Aman’s two beaches. One is a peaceful sheltered cove, where the ocean smashes against vast sea-smoothed boulders and tiny crabs endlessly excavate burrows in the wet sand. On the adjacent beach, Amanpuri’s second restaurant serves excellent Japanese food. The sushi here is tip-top though a wagyu dish was, while tasty, distinctly un-wagyu-like in texture, recalling instead the beef bacon you get in stringently Muslim countries. After scaling the 80 steps back to the lobby and navigating further stairs up to your apartment, the gym is probably the last thing on your mind, but it’s worth making the hike up the hill (or call one of the Aman’s adorable “buggies”, doorless modified Nissan Micras which resemble cars built to be blown up in movie stunts, to drive you) to the fitness centre, the view from which, across the palm-covered island and out to sea, is utterly spectacular.
Right next door on Pansea Beach is The Surin – formerly the Chedi – recently given a design overhaul by its original architect, Ed Tuttle (who, coincidentally, also designed the Amanpuri), which eschews much of the familiar “Thai style”. The 103 neat little cottages – their bathrooms significantly bigger than the bedrooms – are decorated in white and a silvery grey, with, refreshingly, no bare wood in evidence. That’s saved for the public areas, housed in a multi-storey open-to-the-elements sala built onto a cliff face, which houses a spectacular amber-coloured library (containing some less than spectacular books) and two restaurants, and which leads down to the impressive pool, a big, black-tiled hexagon flush to the beach.
“crabstick” is not an acceptable sushi ingredient
One of these restaurants, like many places on Phuket (and even, so I was told, a pizzeria on tiny Yao Noi island), serves Italian food: after a hot day – and by now the temperatures were creeping up to the 40 degree mark – there is little I would less like to eat than a heavy pasta dish, and so I stuck to Thai food again (except for one lamentable lunchtime sushi plate which proved the one weak link in The Surin’s otherwise excellent food: “crabstick” is not an acceptable sushi ingredient). The main restaurant serves an extensive selection of Thai food, and that Italian cuisine again, while a beach bar open all day (and situated, helpfully, right beside my room) offers putatively lighter dishes including, in the evening, an octopus dish which proved to be literally an entire, small but by no means miniscule octopus, grilled to charcoal-tinged tenderness, and utterly wonderful.
The Surin is navigated via a network of not always interlinked footpaths and staircases, entirely sans signposting – I certainly worked up an appetite as I sought the right path from my beachfront villa, the farthest from the restaurant complex, to dinner, up and down stairways, encountering frequent dead ends. More often than not I simply gave up and walked along the long white-sand stretch of Pansea Beach. While golf carts zip freely around the more extensive grounds of The Banyan Tree and Six Senses, that’s not an option here, and it’s hard to see how anyone with even minor mobility problems would cope with The Surin.
In a pleasing detail, beach drinks are provided not by The Surin itself, but by a local family business. Not only do you pay local, rather than “hotel” prices, it’s a goodwill gesture that shows real thought has gone into giving something back to Phuket. The disparity between an extravagant luxury resort and the area where it’s situated can be a source of considerable guilt for the traveller; The Surin’s gesture may be a bit of a sop, but it means a lot.
Singapore Airlines fly four times daily from London Heathrow and daily from Manchester to Phuket via Singapore. singaporeair.com