With the UK weather deteriorating fast, the opportunity to visit a Thai island hideaway was most welcome and, whilst the journey was going to be an endurance test, I knew it would be worthwhile.
Six Senses resorts have a good rep amongst the travel savvy so we braved the long flight to Bangkok, the onward flight to Phuket, the short car journey to the coast and, finally, the speedboat trip to the island. Unfortunately, it was dark by the final stage so the glorious views of one of the most stunning parts of Thailand would have to wait but zipping along the ocean in the dark is certainly an exhilarating way to reach your destination.
After forty minutes, Yao Noi came into sight; all dramatic hills, an abundance of vegetation and a sprinkling of twinkling lights. The island was featured in the James Bond film The Man With the Golden Gun, so the speedboat arrival seemed quite fitting.
Yao Noi is situated between Phuket and Crabi, is 10 km x 12 km and has around 4,000 inhabitants. The island is predominantly Muslim despite Thailand being mainly Buddhist. I was being told this by the knowledgeable Angele, the Six Senses Manager, who accompanied us on the boat journey. I wanted to ask her the reason, but it was impossible. I could only think, Muslim – no alcohol. Oh my God, what had I done? It went around and around in my head. I figured that it wasn’t too far to swim back if I jumped out now, so I summoned up the courage to ask.
An hour later I was sat at one of the restaurants sunken tables amidst shallow candlelit pools enjoying a bottle of very quaffable chilled white wine. Praising Allah. And Buddha. And LUSSO.
Six Senses Hideaway is the, boutique interpretation of the Six Senses brand, that concentrates on service and attention to detail with extras, such as butlers looking after each guest, as standard. There is also great focus on environmental responsibility and the group has numerous eco-awards. I’m often sceptical about hotels being eco-friendly as it’s obviously some scheme just to save money. What with not having to wash towels as often or refilling toiletries bottles with the excuse that it saves packaging. I always visualise a hotel groups FD sat rubbing his hands together in glee, loving the green movement for all the wrong reasons. But, this is clearly not the case for Six Senses who have actually created this resort with the environment very much in mind.
The resort is made up exclusively of private pool villas and, once through our garden door, we were suddenly in a very private domain with a jaw dropping view over the beach, with limestone islands dotted in the distance. We were told that some guests practically never leave their villa during their stay and its easy to see why. It’s such a hideaway and the pool villas are small enough to feel cosy but large enough to keep you interested.
The decked outdoor area has its own infinity edged private pool and sumptuous lounging area, whilst the villa itself is a very intelligent use of space, its central feature being the huge white bed cocooned in fine nets overlooking the magical sea view. Doing this God-awful job for LUSSO, I’ve experienced numerous rather nice hotel room views but this was definitely up there. Next door, in the huge open plan bathroom, the shutters could be pushed right back to appreciate open air views from your sunken bath. That, I must say, was fantastic.
Whilst I was more than happy with our quarters, they were far from the best. There are superior choices right up to the, probably perfect, Hilltop Reserve. As the name suggests, this extravaganza sits right at the top of the hill so the views are beyond spectacular. Amongst its features are a huge infinity pool with water slide, in-villa butler, wine cellar, spa area with sauna and steam, gym, Jacuzzi, fully equipped kitchen (most Hilltop guests eat in villa) and three extra bedrooms for PAs, bodyguards or butlers. I couldn’t get to visit as it was occupied, maybe by the whisky-drinking Japanese but, at around £7,000 per night, it’s an expensive place to sleep off a hangover.
Talking about butlers, butler service in some resorts can sometimes be little more than a concierge at the end of a phone. Not so here. Noi, our female butler would call or meet us to organise trips and meals and arrange for the transport to be waiting the golf buggy. I did see some guests walking on one occasion but I never got to find out why buggy breakdown maybe. Noi was proactive too, suggesting things we hadn’t thought of or, possibly, even dreamed of doing. Like the sea kayaking. It’s a mill-pond of a sea so you can head out a long, long way without fear of being capsized or dragged out. We paddled around the bay and checked out yet another deserted beach. This is the beauty of small island life; the locals don’t hang on the beach and tourists are thin on the ground.
Thailand Island 2
Despite the serenity and calm we couldn’t help imagining what the tsunami must have been like. Yao Noi survived intact because it is a sheltered island but, later on our island-hopping tour, we witnessed the effects first hand. A private boat with guide whisked us off to a variety of sights and islands where we snorkeled, swam and sunbathed. They also provided a picnic lunch for us to enjoy on a beach of our choosing. This area is close to where they filmed The Beach and whilst it is truly a paradise, due to its fame you’re never going to be alone. On one of the islands our guide took us into the forest behind the beach to see some of the old fishing boats that had been beaten up and ruined by the tsunami. They were now memorial monuments and nearby signs re-told the story whilst reminding us that nature will look after itself and everything natural that had been destroyed is now returning to life again.
Studying the literature back at base, we found that there are myriad activities to keep even the most active occupied. And those occupied by food and drink are kept busy too. As you would expect, the resorts dining and refreshment covers both local and internationally inspired cuisine, as well as an impressive selection of vintages from around the world. We met Marcel, the Swiss Executive Chef, who was refreshingly laid back about his approach. You could tell that he was happy to let the food do the talking. After the recent airport and airline food, I was more than ready to get stuck in. When I first taste really fantastically agreeable food in restaurants, I can’t help smiling like the simpleton I am. This occasion was no exception. I went for a Thai dish which might sound obvious but as many guests are here for a fortnight or more, they demand alternatives and Italian food is actually the bigger draw. I couldn’t really imagine being on this beautiful Thai island and eating pizza but, there you go.
The Dining Room offers fine dining with Mediterranean cuisine and features a glass floor with a creek meandering beneath. And yes, it’s scary to walk on at first (but after a bottle of wine you find yourself jumping up and down on it). The Living Room presents a marriage of world cuisine (ho ho, don’t you just love the terms they invent?) with an emphasis on Thai but with tandoori and pizza ovens, whilst upstairs, eight guests can dine at the Chefs Table a central grill where the Head Chef shows off in front of you. I also had my best ever breakfast experience. The highlight of the set up being the two delis containing a choice that really is incredible to behold – far too confusing for first thing in the morning but I was spellbound by the array of different breads, preserves, fruits, juices and even ice creams (oh, and they had Coco Pops).
Of particular note at this resort is the beautiful bar area. Our usual spot was on a suspended day bed where we soaked up the candlelit ambience and a few wines. At the bar on night number one, were two young Japanese couples doing what young and moneyed Japanese people do. Place themselves at the bar and share a bottle of high quality spirits. As is customary, they actually buy the bottle so it can be left on the bar for all to see. It’s all about status. It’s amazing how delicate looking, super slim Japanese ladies can consume sizeable amounts of whisky and still appear totally sober. Their British equivalents would likely be dancing on the bar half-naked by a similar stage.
Pool Villa Suite
The following day Marcel took some time out to show us around the island by bike. I wondered if wed keep up as he turned up in full lycra gear and told us that his twin brother had only recently retired from Tour De France cycling. The locals still look on in curiosity as bikes aren’t too common and cycling westerners (especially in lycra), even less so. It’s the perfect way to get a sense of the spirit of the Yao Noi and we pedalled past some great sights, such as happy faced children leaving school at home time, rubber plantations from which much of the population earn their living and the very traditional Eastern sight of workers in the paddy fields. It seems a million miles away from Bangkok or Phuket in almost every sense, with sights you would have seen centuries ago still commonplace.
Apparently some families from the mainland actually move to the island for a simpler way of life. The materialism that is increasingly prevalent in Thailand has meant many others actively seek a more spiritual and less demanding future. Passing by their homes which were often no more than shacks, we’d see them sat outside eating or working and it was obvious that despite having nothing or very little, they were happy in themselves. I considered this for a while before being distracted by Marcels lightweight carbon fibre bike and my new Sony digital camcorder.
There was nothing to dislike about this trip and one of the stranger things I noticed took a while to register. I hadn’t encountered any advertising messages. Being so used to having a hundred messages a minute thrust in my face at home, this hideaway had also cocooned me from such unwanted distractions. I didn’t so much as see a Heinz Tomato Ketchup logo, nothing. Maybe I’m overly sensitive to advertising due to working in the media but the stay was a welcome rest for the brain as well as the body. I thought about this during my heavenly massage in the beautiful spa and then again during a ceremony by a Reiki Master. The Reiki Master was a fascinating woman who spoke very wise words. She kept coming out with such gems which made me think, wow, I really must remember that. However, I had had a lot of Champagne that night and don’t now remember any of it. Ah well, c’est la vie.
Our final morning saw us rise in the dark at a ridiculously early hour for the long trek home. Unbelievably our ever helpful butler Noi was in the buggy waiting to escort us. I had one of those awkward conversations with her – trying to make pleasantries but with my mind firmly focused on what denomination of notes I had left for a tip. Pull out something too big at the last second and it could be disastrous.
As the boat sped off, it was sad to watch the island grow further and further away and before we knew it we were back to advertising hoardings, cars, crowds and sex tourists. But as the Reiki Master said, – er, hang on, it’ll come back to me.