Tanya Joslin explores Thailand’s new luxury resorts and enjoys a quieter take on some of her favourite locales.
Whether this is your first trip to Thailand or your fiftieth, the scenery off the coast of Krabi is breathtaking. Hundreds of islands and tiny islets fan out across the Andaman Sea and karst (limestone) monoliths erupt from the emerald waters. In short, this beloved marine park is postcard territory.
Lounging in the back of a quintessentially Thai longtail fishing boat, we drink in the astonishing vistas on our way to a day of island-hopping on and around Koh Hong. Pre-Covid, I’m sure we would have seen a few other boats en route to one of Thailand’s most beautiful (and most-photographed) destinations. But, this morning, I spot just two others. I wonder if this is what Thailand was like decades ago, before travellers flocked to its shores from all corners of the globe.
We pull up to the jetty on Hong Island and there’s literally one set of footprints in the powder-white sand (probably a park ranger). Magically, we have this dreamy scene all to ourselves! A large limestone rock hugs the bay, promising incredible views from the top. Some of our group head up to nab the best vantage point, but I slip away for a delicious solo swim in the balmy, crystalline sea. I keep the sun-drenched island in view as a school of tropical fish darts around my heels. It’s hard to believe I’m the only one floating here, mentally filing the scene as one for the highlights reel.
Eventually, the two other tour boats arrive, and we move on to the region’s hidden gem, Hong Lagoon. Only accessible by boat via a narrow rock opening, the water here is a stunning, other-worldly shade of jade. In the cathedral-like quiet, we can’t resist another swim. Nearby, a handful of tourists wait their turn for a classic photo op — their longtail boat exiting the lagoon through the trademark karst cliffs.
We make our way back to Banyan Tree Krabi, our home for three blissful days. Opened during the pandemic, this luxe tropical getaway is around 45 minutes from Krabi International Airport, situated on a prime piece of beachfront land at serene Tubkaek Beach and surrounded by nature — a lush national park and Naga Crest Hill on one side and the dramatic karsts and the glistening Andaman Sea on the other.
I ponder the tricky choices: do I head to the beach to enjoy the complimentary watersports, go back to my Ocean-View Pool Suite for a leisurely swim, or see if the spa can fit me in? I choose the serenity of my private pool and schedule the massage for later in the day. Every one of the 72 villas and suites is spacious (entry-level rooms are a generous 99 sqm while the Presidential Villa a whopping 466 sqm) and boasts a private pool, so it’s a destination just made for romance.
And although our suite has all the mod-cons — a smart TV, coffee machine, large bathroom with luxuriously deep bath — it’s the incredible view that steals the show. The private balcony houses a pool (and jet pool!) and an oversized daybed where we spend several hours reading, swimming, and enjoying lunch before I eventually tear myself away to visit the famous Banyan Tree Spa.
Banyan Tree is one of the world’s leading wellness brands, and Thailand was where it all started. This new spa is like its own little wellness village with the centrepiece a hydrotherapy complex called The Rainforest. I haven’t booked this experience here because it’s part of our stay at Banyan Tree Samui in a few days’ time, but I do enjoy a massage that’s so relaxing I almost fall asleep.
Feeling well and truly relaxed and unwound, I’m ready for dinner at Banyan Tree’s The Naga Kitchen, where they serve delicious East-meets-West cuisine at breakfast, lunch and dinner, before an early night in preparation for a special early-morning adventure.
We always put serious research into any visit to an ‘elephant sanctuary’, and most of us have heard about the dark side of elephant tourism. But what about those sanctuaries that are actually saving elephants from neglectful (or worse) owners or those that have run into difficult financial times? Aonang Elephant Sanctuary is just a 20-minute drive from the resort, and its mission is to rehome elephants in need.
Considering your average elephant eats most of the day and consumes around 300 pounds of food, this doesn’t come cheaply. After listening to our host Mai and learning so much about elephants and their connection to Thailand, and the challenges they face today (one example: it costs a small fortune to buy and then take care of an elephant and if the owner runs into trouble, they can’t just be released to the wild as they wouldn’t know how to survive), we get to feed the four resident elephants and see first-hand how each has its own distinct personality.
Then it’s off to the mud pools, where we all enjoy a mud bath before joining these majestic beasts for a swim in the lagoon to wash the mud off. There’s strictly no riding, and if you saw how happy these elephants were rolling in the mud, it would put any doubt and unease to rest.
Our final evening in Krabi is all the reason we need to indulge at Banyan Tree’s signature restaurant, Saffron, accessed by an electronic funicular and situated in the tree canopies. Try and get there a bit before you plan to eat to watch the sun go down with a few sundowners — the colours are just magical!
Steered by chef Jakkrit Traibun, using nothing but fresh local produce wherever possible, the authentic Thai food at Saffron Krabi is an innovative take on Thai as you know it. Our tip? Make time for afternoon tea and book one of the three private ‘bird’s nest’ tables, positioned among the trees and accessible only by a private gangway. In case you missed it, this resort is all about the views, and these romantic perches offer incredible panoramic views of the Andaman Sea and the ultimate Instagram shot.
Read our full review of Banyan Tree Krabi here.
Although you can fly between Krabi and Phuket, a road trip of just under three hours links the two. So, we take the chance to see a little more local life, and more of the incredible scenery around Krabi, by hiring a mini-van to get us to the latest five-star resort to open on Phuket’s pristine Mai Khao Beach.
Meliá Phuket Mai Khao opened in late 2021, bringing Spanish hospitality brand Meliá’s renowned sophistication to one of Phuket’s prettiest stretches of coastline. Mai Khao Beach is so peaceful that sea turtles regularly come to lay their eggs here while the Mai Khao Marine Turtle Foundation works to help keep them safe. It’s the perfect location for those seeking a peaceful break a million miles from the busyness of everyday life.
The moment we set down our bags in our One-Bedroom Pool Villa, we immediately fall in love with the contemporary and minimalist styling, the spaciousness — and our outdoor bath and plunge pool! The entire resort exudes chic holiday vibes: Whitewashed buildings that remind me of holidays in the Greek Islands, an abundance of greenery, and a divinely peaceful beachfront location. It’s the perfect seaside escape.
After an incredible night’s sleep in the world’s most comfortable bed (we learn later that Melia developed the mattresses to exact and discerning criteria!) and an indulgent breakfast buffet at Sasa Restaurant, we head out to explore the sleepy local village. Mai Khao has long been one of my favourite Phuket destinations, and, in addition to the 11-kilometre stretch of beautiful coastline, I adore that the area still retains a connection to the Phuket of old.
We visit Buffalo Hub, a modest local restaurant that also runs a community-based project that strives to preserve a rare breed of Phuket’s buffalo. The buffalo here is vital in producing fertiliser that local villagers can access. We are lucky enough to join the restaurant staff for a tuk-tuk trip to the beach, where they show us how to catch small beach crabs, just like the locals do. Mai Khao is a fishing village, so you know the seafood will be remarkably fresh, including the crab which is a local delicacy they cook up and eat crisp with a lovely cold beer. Delicious!
Food is also a highlight at Meliá Phuket Mai Khao, as we discover with our cooking lesson at lunch with culinary director Chef Luca Mancini. We learn to cook the sand crab — Jakkajan Talay Tod in Thai — as well as local spinach-like vegetables and Moo Hong, a traditional Phuketian slow-cooked pork belly.
Dinner is at alfresco Gaia Beach Club, the resort’s Mediterranean fusion eatery that offers sweeping views of the busy open kitchen. Here, Chef Luca has ensured the resort gives a gentle nod to its Mediterranean heritage with the chefs showcasing Mediterranean & fusion cuisine accompanied by great cocktails.
Health is a key tenet for Meliá Phuket Mai Khao, so we knew we had to try a massage at YHI Spa, the resort’s luxurious 300 sqm wellness space offering five treatment rooms, including some couples can book together. Our one-hour massage is one of the best I’ve ever had, and guests can also indulge in a comprehensive menu of treatments and wellness rituals including meditation, beachfront yoga, and Pilates, or stop by the modern fitness centre.
Read our full review for Meliá Phuket Mai Khao here.
Charming Chiang Mai
You can’t fully experience Thailand without visiting the mountainous northern hub of Chiang Mai. Old and new converge here, culminating in a travel experience that offers the perfect blend of culture, food, adventure, and luxury. Soaring over the River Ping in the heart of the vibrant CBD, Meliá Chiang Mai is the latest five-star hotel to dot the skyline — with temples, markets, and restaurants on its doorstep and a feast of indulgences inside. It’s our base for the next three days.
After travelling by air for most of the morning, it’s a relief to realise this luxury urban oasis is just six kilometres from the airport. With the city’s most famous tourist attractions within easy reach, including the famous Night Bazaar just steps away and the Old Town within walking distance, we head out to explore beautiful Chiang Mai for the afternoon, stopping in at quirky cafes and shops.
Meliá’s intimate fine-dining restaurant, Mai Restaurant & Bar, then turns on the charm for dinner. Situated on the 21st floor of the hotel with stunning views of the city and mountaintop Doi Suthep Temple to the west, the restaurant’s contemporary Northern Thai cuisine has a dash of Melia’s signature Mediterranean flair. Award-winning executive chef Suksant Chutinthratip (Billy) and sous chef Karn Phojun oversee must-try dishes such as Mai’s Samplers. Comprising five imaginative tasters, the Crisp Fried Fluffy Catfish and Pomelo Salad scented with Rice Field Crab Jus especially won me over!
One floor above, Mai The Sky Bar (actually two bars connected by a glass bridge) serves up some of the best views in the city, perfect for a couple’s tête-à-tête. We drop by for a nightcap and drink in the panorama beyond the River Ping to the east.
At the heart of Meliá Chiang Mai is their ‘360° Cuisine’ concept, with a creative team of culinary magicians working closely with carbon-zero farm, Ori9in. Located around 40 minutes from the hotel in the beautiful Mai Rim Valley, the organic farm was created by double-Michelin-starred chef James Noble and supplies the hotel’s five outlets. The hotel can arrange a tour of the farm (our adventure the next day) to demonstrate how the concept goes beyond ‘farm-to-table’ with the produce travelling a short distance and the hotel team committed to using every possible part of each ingredient. Any food waste is then returned to the farm as fertiliser, completing the cycle. When you see the passion behind this project first-hand, you can’t help but hope it’s a concept that takes hold more broadly in the future.
Our last day in Chiang Mai sees us heading half an hour out of the city to Doi Inthanon National Park to visit one of Thailand’s most sacred Buddhist temples, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which enjoys a prime position atop Doi Suthep mountain. After tackling the 306 steps to the top, we are blessed by a Monk before taking in the incredible views that stretch to downtown Chiang Mai.
From Meliá’s foodie delights, contemporary art galleries, and street markets to Chiang Mai’s nearly 200 temples, there’s so much to explore and three days isn’t enough. But, we’re rounding off our Thailand odyssey with a few days on the beach at one of our favourite Thai islands, Samui.
Read our full hotel review for Meliá’ Chiang Mai here.
Arriving in Samui’s super-cute tropical airport is always a delight. We land at night and are whisked away to one of the island’s most luxurious hideaways, Banyan Tree Samui. Cocooned in its own private world, the beachfront Banyan Tree Samui masterfully integrates a sustainable, eco-conscious resort with premium luxury.
We are shown to our expansive luxury villa by our dedicated host. It’s enormous! There’s a generous outdoor area with a large pavilion and private pool (every one of the 88 villas comes with a private infinity pool). Inside, the villa is equally spacious with a lounge that leads to a king bedroom and decadent bathroom with outdoor shower and a gorgeously deep bath. Oh my, this is going to be hard to leave!
It’s late, so we call room service for a light bite to eat and slip into the pool for a quick swim while we wait for the food to arrive. It’s the perfect way to end an afternoon of travel, and we sleep like babies in the roomy, ultra-comfortable bed.
Upon waking, after a dip in our pool, we head to The Edge for a buffet breakfast al fresco on the balcony overlooking the incredible bay. The water is so clear that, even from this distance, we can see to the bottom in parts. There’s an ever-present background of birdsong — little wonder, considering the lush grounds.
The private beach is calling our name, and already we put aside any notion of getting out and exploring the island. It’s too beautiful to leave, so we settle in for a few hours, content to grab lunch a few steps away at the casual beachfront restaurant, Sands. The day is an absolute stunner, and we figure we deserve some serious downtime before the afternoon pilates session we’ve booked at Banyan Tree’s Wellness Centre!
Wellbeing is a central theme of the Banyan Tree brand, widely regarded as pioneering in the spa and wellness travel space. So, it isn’t surprising to see that, in addition to a comprehensive spa menu that includes everything from massages and facials to scrubs and body wraps, there are daily classes ranging from Thai boxing to yoga and Pilates. We are thoroughly stretched and un-knotted with our hour-long class.
It’s hard to believe one holiday could include so many outstanding meals, but the cuisine is one of the many things we love about Thailand, and each of the five-star properties we stay at are foodie-destinations in their own right! We grab a buggy to the peak of the resort, where the signature restaurant for the brand, Saffron, takes pride of place, offering diners views to die for along with authentic Thai cuisine and a refined atmosphere.
A major highlight of our stay is the Rainforest Experience at the Banyan Tree Spa, a complete hydrothermal journey inspired by European therapies and enhanced by an Asian wellness philosophy. Guided by two therapists, we spend over an hour enjoying a mix of saunas, steam rooms, an ice bath, a bucket shower and a sauna. The piece-de-resistance is the vitality pool, where a series of underwater jets massage every part of your body. Afterwards, the therapists bring you a cup of herbal tea to enjoy while you relax on hot tile beds.
It’s probably the most distinctive spa experience I’ve ever had! The icing on the cake for our Thailand holiday and our return to this romantic, indulgent, exotic, and utterly beautiful destination.
Thailand, we’ll see you again soon.
Read the full resort review for Banyan Tree Samui here.
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The writer travelled to Thailand courtesy of Jetstar, which currently flies directly into Phuket from Sydney and Melbourne (as routes are changing all the time post-Covid, be sure to check for current route information).
For extra benefits, including member-only fares, early sale access, and 20% off bags and seat selection, check out their Club Jetstar membership programme. An annual membership fee of AUD $55 applies, see the Club Jetstar terms and conditions for more details.
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All images were supplied by the resorts unless specified.
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