By: Katie Roberts
With hundreds of accommodation options and 22 million visitors a year, the Thai island of Phuket has something to offer people of all ages and cultures. If the bright lights of Patong and the sprawling super-resorts of the west coast don’t appeal, there are lots of quiet, out-of-the-way treasures to discover. Boasting a private beach, jetty and boat, Cape Panwa Hotel at the southern tip of the island gets you away from it all and is suitable for families and couples alike. On a trip with her family, Katie Roberts found six reasons to visit.
There’s always something exciting about arriving at a resort in the dark, and, at first light, flinging open the curtains to take a look outside. At Cape Panwa Hotel, the rooms have a very agreeable outlook: swaying palms and, beyond, the calm blue ocean. Hidden below the tree canopy is a stunning 300-metre white-sand beach, a big draw card for the many guests who return year after year.
The steep hills surrounding the resort form a natural cove, so there is no access to the beach except from the hotel or by boat. It’s a great feeling to sunbathe and swim, free from touts trying to flog you trinkets or souvenirs, which can be maddening on Phuket’s public beaches.
Helpfully, a daily tidal chart is provided to every room, with recommended swimming times. Getting to and from the beach is an adventure: while it’s a cinch to walk down the hill, the trip up requires some huffing and puffing up a few dozen steps. A tram, installed in the 80s in the resort’s early years, trundles up and down the hill for those who don’t want to walk. It’s also an attraction for inquisitive kids looking for a bit of fun. Children (and adults) will also enjoy feeding fish from the private jetty at the end of the beach, and the kitchen will happily supply stale bread.
Like much of Southeast Asia, Phuket’s monsoon season brings driving rain which can last for an hour or an afternoon, or set in for the whole day. There’s an unstaffed games room, but no kids’ club as such. So, with the beach out of bounds one rainy afternoon, we tried fruit carving.
This tests the patience – it’s not as easy as it sounds to create a flower out of a tomato, or a leaf out of a carrot, using only a small, sharp knife. Still, with guidance from the friendly, nimble-fingered kitchen hand we created some creative, ahem, creations. Somehow, though, I doubt that my forlorn-looking butterfly with cucumber wings made it to the centrepiece of the buffet that evening.
Batik painting is the easiest and most relaxing of the available activities. Once the paintbrush is loaded with ink, it’s a matter of dabbing it onto the cloth; and as the cloth is already patterned with wax lines, it’s easy to define and separate the colours. Our batiks might not be fantastic works of art, but they are memorable holiday souvenirs that now hang on the children’s bedroom wall.
On fine days, if the water sports – sailing, snorkelling, kayaking, and free scuba-diving lessons in the pool by the beach – aren’t enough to keep you occupied, then a qualified yoga teacher can give you a personal session. To round off the day, when the weather is fine and the tide permits, the staff set up a cinema on the beach. Lots of citronella spray is recommended while you lie back in a beanbag on the sand with a cool drink, taking in a classic movie.
Only a year or so old, the stunning spa is a tranquil haven of relaxation. On offer is a selection of therapies administered by skilful Thai therapists, with the competence and calm for which they are renowned, including facials, sublime massages, body scrubs, body wraps and hairstyling. For those who are travelling with kids, it’s a welcome retreat from ceaseless chatter. There’s a couple’s room too, which could be a pleasant way to spend a rainy afternoon together.
Of the six facials available, the skin-refining treatment seems most suitable for my skin, which is battling the dual effects of Singapore’s humidity and the office air-conditioning. All facials begin with a soothing aromatherapy foot bath, just to get you in the mood. Then it’s time to lie back and indulge in the facial experience. I’ll admit to losing track of the number of lotions and potions applied; all were jam-packed with natural ingredients such as marine plankton which decongests the skin. It’s a shame to fall asleep midway through a facial, but surely it’s a sign of relaxation!
There’s an accommodation option to suit everyone at Cape Panwa Hotel, evolving as it has over 25 years. We stayed in two enormous inter-connecting family rooms with big bathrooms, very comfortable beds and outdoor hot tubs. There are also hotel-style rooms in a newly built wing, two-bedroom pool villas, and perched on top of the hill is the Absolute Suite.
This new, sprawling two-bedroom penthouse with 360-degree views of the Andaman Sea boasts 530 square metres of luxury living space including a private spa room, a huge kitchen, and a living and dining space poolside. Top that off with a huge 90-square-metre pool, and it’s possible you won’t want to leave the place. But if you do, a Mercedes Benz and your own private boat, the Panwa Princess, are at your beck and call.
Who doesn’t like Thai food? For most people, a visit to Thailand is as much about the local cuisine as the culture and scenery. Cape Panwa Hotel has 11 restaurants and bars, but the standout food is at Panwa House. This 80-year-old Sino-Portuguese mansion is located on the beach, and every night the chefs dish up amazing à la carte Thai food and a well-priced set menu. It’s hard to choose, but our picks were the marinated chicken wrapped in pandan leaf and the roast duck in red curry; and who can pass up an authentic mango sticky rice?
I highly recommended a lunchtime Thai cooking class. Our family donned aprons and toques and cooked alfresco under the shady palms by the beach. Under the watchful gaze of chef Kan, we whipped up a surprisingly simple tom yum goong soup, a pad thai and a spicy beef salad. And with the washing up taken care of, we sat back and enjoyed the view and our lunch with a nice glass of sauvignon blanc for the adults and a lemonade for the kids.
Powering through the water on the charter boat Panwa Princess with a crew entirely at your service makes you feel a bit like royalty. Indeed, it belongs to the resort’s Thai owner, who often hosts members of the Thai royal family onboard. It’s not ostentatious, though – just a sturdy, practical and comfortable boat with a bevy of friendly staff for whom nothing is too much trouble.
On a day trip, numerous uninhabited islands or the stunning limestone karsts of Phang Nga Bay are within reach. Our day was simple and sublime: snorkelling, swimming, relaxing in beanbags on deck, and a glass of bubbly accompanied by a gorgeous barbecued seafood buffet lunch. The hardest decision was whether to have a snooze, jump back in the water or read a book. Shared between a few people, it’s a reasonably affordable day out – and one not easily forgotten.