This trip was completed, and the original report filed, prior to the coronavirus pandemic. U.S. residents have one option for tourist visits to Thailand currently; they can apply for the TR single-entry tourist visa. Requirements include medical insurance, pretravel Covid-19 test and a 14-day quarantine at a government-approved hotel immediately upon arrival. For more specifics, see thaiembdc.org/2020/11/05/trsingle_entry/.
PHUKET, Thailand -- The tom kha gai tasted reasonably good, especially given that I don't much like coconut milk, but the som tum was really good, partly because I could control how many chilies went into the dressing (not many).
The first was a chicken coconut-milk soup and the second, a green papaya salad. With guidance, I made them in a cooking class with fellow journalists at Sri Panwa, a luxury resort and residential estate perched on Cape Panwa at the southeast corner of Thailand's Phuket Island.
Our press group was hosted to a heavily food-oriented experience at two properties in the Phuket area, starting with Baba Beach Club Natai, just north of the island itself, followed by Sri Panwa.
The resorts are owned and managed by Charn Issara Group, a Thai family-owned property development company. The resort group also includes Baba Beach Club Hua Hin, the Phuket club's twin, but we did not see it.
My stint managing the contents of a Thai wok came late last year, not long before Covid-19 shut down U.S. tourism to Thailand.
The Charn Issara Group aims to lure Americans back to prepandemic levels once that is feasible. Americans had accounted for about 10% of guests.
Meanwhile, the three properties are in operation, hosting Thais and foreign nationals who live in Thailand. All activities cited below are still available but sometimes with capacity limits.
The Phuket beach club and Sri Panwa share many features, including their luxury scale, a plethora of private pools and varied cuisine choices.
Snacks and drinks in minibars are included in rates, and all units are equipped with an iPod preloaded with selected music. In addition, both have amenities that never occurred to me -- back scratchers, common in Thai homes, and Jenga, a game testing players' skills managing a tower of wooden blocks. Jenga originated in Britain but is popular in Thailand.
Responding to Covid, guest kits now feature a branded face mask, hand sanitizer plus alcohol spray for surfaces.
New protocols require guests to fill out a travel history form and submit to a temperature check on arrival; operational protocols further involve stepped-up use of disinfectant by housekeeping and daily temperature checks for staff.
In-room amenities also include insect repellant and umbrellas, nods to the climate in tropical Southeast Asia.
On the other hand, the club and Sri Panwa differ significantly, due to their locations and their creator's intent.
The beach club's Natai Beach faces the Andaman Sea, whereas Sri Panwa sits atop a hill and is distinguished by its village layout and 360-degree views.
The beach club targets young couples or families with teens, whereas Sri Panwa is positioned for families with young children and for older clientele. The latter also attracts a somewhat more affluent guest.
Baba Beach Club Natai
The beach club debuted in 2017 and now counts 38 units, a combination of suites and one-, two- and five-bedroom villas.
At the heart of the 16.6-acre estate are the beach club, which houses reception, a small shop and two restaurants; the swimming pool and pool bar; and the white-sand beach.
The beach club, heart of Baba Beach Phuket. The main restaurant, identifiable by its red chairs, is on the beach club’s ground floor. Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin
Styling itself a music destination, Baba Beach Club Natai not only preloads in-room iPods but also broadcasts music, varying from easy listening to disco, throughout the beach club and around the pool, from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The property hosts weekend pool parties year round with live performances; a monthly, jazzed-up version of the weekend parties, called Baba Loop; and an annual Circoloco music festival.
Most suites and villas have private plunge pools, but four suites and the eight one-bedroom villas don't have pools. Instead, they have terraces, and they flank the beach club, placing them closest to the main pool and the beach itself.
One eatery specializes in Japanese food, but the main restaurant offers Thai and Western choices and is the breakfast site.
Baba Beach Club offerings include cooking and kickboxing classes, yoga sessions and use of a fitness center. Spa services are in-room and must be booked a day ahead.
Dating from 2005, the 40-acre Sri Panwa feels much like an inclusive because of its sense of isolation on a peninsula with villas sitting 130 to 200 feet above the Andaman Sea. Also, because of its numerous and varied on-site restaurants and activities.
At Sri Panwa, one-to-five-bedroom villas line streets that meander around its hilltop site. Its 99 units also include suites and penthouses, which are clustered around a couple of dining and activity hubs.
Tuk-tuk transport is always available and is essential on the longer or steeper routes. For the handicapped, Sri Panwa offers easier-to-use golf carts for transport plus elevators and ramps. Two of its Luxury Pool Villas are handicapped friendly. Further, those who suffer carsickness won't want villas on the steeper roads.
Bedroom with sitting area, measuring 517 square feet, that are part of a 2,800-square-foot one-bedroom villa at Sri Panwa on Phuket Island. Photo Credit: Nadine Godwin
Although guests leave the resort for golf, boating trips, Phuket City sightseeing, shopping and the like, Sri Panwa aims to make it attractive for guests to spend much of their Phuket time on property.
Its seven restaurants and bars include Chinese, Japanese and Thai cuisines plus the small Baba Hot Box for BBQ, a disco and the perched Baba Nest for drinks, tapas and sweeping views at sunset. Plus, cooking class is another way to have lunch. (Currently, Baba Soulfood and Baba Hot Box are closed for renovations, completion date undetermined.)
Sri Panwa also offers classes in kickboxing and batik painting plus yoga sunrise/sunset sessions at the Baba Nest viewpoint. Other diversions include a full-service spa, a gym, tennis courts and four swimming pools.
Besides, every unit, regardless of size, has its own outdoor space and plunge pool. Villa pools come with outdoor showers and, judging by mine, smashing views down the side of Cape Panwa to the resort's private beach and the sea.
Hidden behind an adobe wall, my one-bedroom villa, with a 2,800-square-foot footprint, was two buildings, with a courtyard between them. The plunge pool wrapped part of the building housing bedroom/sitting area and bath, while a terrace fronted the kitchen, dining and living room.
With meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions groups in mind, as well as the wedding market, Sri Panwa has started building a convention complex. It will include 24 pool suites, two convention halls and rooftop bar and is expected to be completed in early 2022.
Low season is mid-April through October, and high season is November through mid-April, with a short peak in the Christmas-New Year's period.
Daily Baba Beach Club low-season rates this year start at around $550, whereas Sri Panwa rates start at around $750. These rates apply to a suite and include breakfast assuming two guests per unit. Due to market uncertainties, 2021 rates haven't been set.