Traveling halfway around the world to "go to the beach" is a tough proposition. That's how a friend put it, anyway, when I mentioned I was going to Phuket last December.
It's not an unfair point. But it was my inaugural trip to Phuket, and I was trying to keep an open mind. The largest of the Thai islands and the second most visited city in the country after Bangkok, Phuket went through a revival of sorts after a massive tsunami ravaged the islands in 2004 and tourism was all but decimated in the months and even years afterward.
With the country's second-biggest airport after Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi, Phuket's recently upgraded international terminal is now capable of serving double the amount of passengers, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.Star treatment at Sri Panwa
The first stop on my multiproperty visit was Sri Panwa, a family-owned and -operated resort that has long been a favorite of visiting celebs to Thailand, everyone from Snoop Dogg to Gordon Ramsay.
It's not hard to see why. Set on 40 lush acres on the southeastern peninsula of Cape Panwa, from the moment you check in and are whisked away via tuk-tuk to your villa, you feel like royalty. I know I did when I opened the door to my two-bedroom luxury pool villa and saw nothing but aquamarine water and the entire Andaman sea staring back at me. The outdoor shower, infinity lap pool and Jacuzzi tub didn't hurt either.
With 65 villas and residences, each with its own private swimming pool, Sri Panwa's latest additions are 20 pool suites and 10 penthouses in the Habita area. The tropical-meets-contemporary aesthetic is meticulously designed to blend with the area's natural landscape while providing the utmost privacy and seclusion. It's no wonder celebs dig this place.
Amenities at the six-star property include a private beach, tennis courts, muay thai boxing ring and private cooking classes; for a fee, the hotel offers charters to explore the nearby islands. One of my personal favorite experiences had to be the rooftop yoga session. I don't think I'll ever get over those views.
Stellar views, villas and pools aside, the food is one of the most impressive aspects of a stay here. With six dining options to choose from, the Baba Hot Box, a casual Thai barbecue spot, is definitely worth a try for the short ribs and grilled veggies alone as was Baba Soul Food, which serves up a variety of classic Thai dishes from Andaman crab yellow curry to stir-fried morning glory in chili paste. Not to be missed is the breakfast buffet, which is a mix of classic Thai, Chinese and American offerings. There's a pancake station and an omelet station with every type of baked good in between.
Another one of the properties highlights is the aptly named Cool Spa. While treatments here are pricey given the going rate for massages in the area, the free-flowing waterfalls and tranquility of this soothing oasis are worth the extra dose of indulgence alone.
The pool area of the Baba Beach Club, which sits on a 6-mile stretch of Natai Beach.
Baba Beach Club: Phuket's sexy side
My second stop was the northern part of Phuket and the the recently opened Baba Beach Club, also owned and operated by the Issara family.
If Sri Panwa is where you take your wife and kids, then the Baba Beach Club is where you take your mistress or girlfriend. It's a party spot to be sure, complete with a lineup of rotating DJs, flamingo pool floats and a sexy pool-party bar and vibe. Lauded as one of the most undeveloped parts of Phuket, the hotel, which sits directly on a 6-mile stretch of Natai Beach, features 16 poolside "gabanas" as well as two five-bedroom villas. The rooms here are spacious and more modern in decor than at Sri Panwa, with a state-of-the-art entertainment system and mood lighting for pretty much any occasion.
The hotel is expanding; an additional 61 suites and villas are in development and slated to be built on the back side of the property later this year.
While there's a good time to be had here, perhaps the biggest draw is the location itself. Walking along Natai Beach on my last day in Phuket and thinking about the food, the views and the feeling of total Thai tranquility I get just being here, well, that's worth the schlep to paradise any day.
Rates for one of the new pool suites at Sri Panwa start at $400, and pool villas start at $800 a night. Rates at the Baba Beach Club start at $200 for a Baba Suite and $500 per Gabana Villa.