The islands in the Gulf of Thailand are world famous and travelers flock to them in droves. Though activities for visitors are endless on Koh Tao and Koh Samui, one of the great features of the islands is its restful retreats. The question is: how does one escape the crowds and find the best accommodation?
(All rates in this article are in US dollars.)
Best Natural Accommodation: La Cigale on Koh Tao
At the north end of Sai Ree Beach, on the Thai island of Koh Tao, up in the lush hills, are four bungalows that make up the newly established La Cigale. The name is French for the cicada, which the affable owner Andre Allen borrowed from the French parable The Cicada and the Ant. The ant works hard, while the cicada lives a life of ease. Allen, a self-described “lazy farmer” with a passion for growing avocados, which he does on the deceptively large one acre of property, is the cicada. He created La Cigale for those eager to live like the relaxed bug.
After ascending a short, steep hill up to the property, the path through La Cigale, beneath a canopy of giant banana leaves, feels like you’ve entered into a rainforest.
The rooms were designed with the island’s ecosystem in mind. Large granite stones protrude into the living space and serve as decor or parts of furniture. As much as the stones and flora provide for a natural setting, Thai living is equally preserved. The floors and furniture were constructed from Thai hardwoods, the villas are decorated with traditional crafts like lucky elephants and intricate wall hangings, and the comforts are enhanced with Thai mattresses and silk blankets.
Best of all are the bathrooms at La Cigale, which are like zen gardens. Loose stones cover the floor and the largest gray boulder, which holds the rain shower head, is covered in ferns, providing guests with the feel of bathing beneath a jungle waterfall.
Patios attached to each villa have hammocks, tables and chairs, and offer tranquil views of the beach below. Don’t be surprised to find a gecko peeking into your room or to rise to the sounds of birds that can mimic steel drums.
This place is perfect for nature lovers eager to escape the tourist bars lining the beach below. Most of La Cigale’s rooms have kitchens, so after you take sampan rides to Nang Yuan or explore the coves around the island, consider cooking dinner at Allen’s cicada colony and basking in the comforts of the jungle. (If you forget to shop, use the starter pack–eggs, bread, and milk–Allen provides for all guests.) A second option is to order in from one of the local restaurants. You can have a masseuse come to your room, too.
Notes to travelers: Most taxis do not yet know about La Cigale, so arrange a pick-up with Allen. Also access to the beach is through Golden Cape Bungalows, which, by day, is an easy route–“Follow gravity,” Allen advises–but at night is a bit tricky. If you do stay out past dark, bring the cellphone and flashlight provided to every guest. Nightly rates at La Cigale range from $60-$100 during low-season and $75-$130 during high season. Long-term deals are also available. Coming soon to the property is a coffee bar.
Best Resort: Nora Buri Resort on Koh Samui.
When you enter the dark granite lobby of the Nora Buri Resort, the high teak ceilings and the moat surrounding the main room help to capture the property’s elegance. Greeters bring you cold fruit drinks and cool towels before you’re delivered by golf cart to one of 96 deluxe rooms, or the less numerous, more impressive pool villas.
Most of the pool villas, which start at $465, are at the top of the 8-acre property and offer guests spectacular views of the waters surrounding Koh Samui and Mat Lang Island, (which is accessible by foot at low tide or by kayak, offered for free at Nora Buri). Each villa has its own blue-tiled infinity pool, where guests can soak, while enjoying the panoramas and spa-jet massage. Another way to experience the vista is at sunrise through your terrace doors, from the comfort of your king-sized bed. The rooms also have espresso machines, burners that fill the rooms with the scent of peppermint, and indoor and outdoor showers.
The enormous deluxe rooms have impressive views, too, so long as you are on the upper floor or on the bottom floor of the units in the first row. The balconies and rooms are designed with attractive wooden furniture and the bathrooms are clean and capacious. Honeymooners, no matter the room, are welcomed to their beds with flower petals spread across the comforter in the shape of a heart.
Nora Buri’s property is verdant and the trees shed a charming bouquet of pink, white, and yellow flowers into a lilly-padded stream that runs through the grounds. The double-level pool on the lobby-side has a swim-up bar, cushioned lounges, and spa jets. You can also find a well-equipped fitness center, a spa offering hot stone massages, and an exceptional breakfast, serving fresh juices, strong coffee, eggs any style, and delicious Thai cuisine.
The beachside also has a pool, along with a fine-dining restaurant called The Barge, and obviously a beach, which is a bit rocky, but private. On Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, a seafood buffet is served on the lower level, accompanied by evening entertainment. A must-have is The Barge’s exceptional Thai cuisine. The chef takes traditional ingredients, but recreates Thai cooking. Try the delectable curry salmon or shrimp in tamarind sauce.
Nora Buri runs the smoothest operation and assuages stress. The staff is friendly and even the busboys are fluent in English. It’s heartening to know that the resort is taking steps to be green, which is not yet a popular movement in Thailand. Other amenities include a modern, high-ceilinged conference room and a beachfront space for weddings. Furthermore, the resort is nearby to the airport, shopping area in Chaweng, and other local attractions should you have the quirky desire to leave.
Best Boutique Hotel: The Sea Samui
The rooms at The Sea feel like home. Everything from the welcome treats–delectable coconut snacks and Thai drinks–to the feng shui decor let’s guests know that they are in good hands. The full kitchen is perfect for brewing a cup of morning coffee, so you can watch the swaying palms and the sunrise from your balcony or king-sized bed. The prized view from the second-story rooms, with the island of Koh Phangan silhouetted against the blue skies, varies with the tide. At high tide, the waters are pristine, and at low, the reef is exposed and guests can watch fishermen comb the shallows. If you prefer a private pool in your room and are willing to pass up the incredible panorama, the first floor has three rooms with this feature. (Rooms with views are about $175 and rooms with private pools are about $200.) Another option are the huge villas, great for large families or groups of couples vacationing together. The six villas, which go for $450 or $550, depending on the season, have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, as well as a private pool.
The Sea gets even the smallest details right, providing cushiony slippers and comfortable robes. At the beach, you can relax on lounges beside the L-shaped infinity pool, which spills into a larger pool, or take up residence on a beanbag cushion. You can opt for beachside dining or better yet, a private BBQ.
Another splendid feature of the resort is the Vara Spa. Its floral-scented salon offers a menu of options, like the traditional Thai massage, or you can splurge for the 3-hour “blissfully yours” package. (I tried not to inject my voice into this piece, but here first person cannot be avoided: The oil massage at Vara was perfect as I hovered between states of unconscious detachment and conscious euphoria.) The Sea also has a small workout room and a long beach for jogs, if you happen to get antsy.
For guests aching to stay at The Sea but find the rates to pricey, the resort offers rooms that face the roadside. It includes all of the same amenities, minus the views, at an affordable rate of $60, if you forego the breakfast. Also, if The Sea’s three private pool rooms are overbooked, and you’re just looking for a modern pool villa, you can try their sister site on the southern coast of the island, X2. Twenty-three of X2’s 27 rooms are private pool villas.
Whether you’re just vacationing in the Thai islands or stopping by on a trip through Southeast Asia, it’s worth visiting one of these properties in the Gulf of Thailand for pure comfort and relaxation.
Disclaimer: All properties mentioned in this article hosted me for one or two nights. But as always, this is an honest review.