A bad case of food poisoning at one of Bangkok’s five-star establishments had rendered me delirious for the one-hour flight down to Phuket. Shivering, clammy and not looking forward to the glaring wall-to-wall sunshine and heat that would inevitably greet me on the island, I supped gingerly from my bottle of water, hid behind my shades and tried to avoid the stare of the clingfilm-wrapped sandwiches with mysterious pink fillings being proffered by the stewardesses on Thai Air’s ancient Boeing.
Arriving at Phuket airport feels like you’re the first-wave of a band of intrepid discoverers: as the heat, sound and smells hit all senses, trolleys collide, families from different ends of the world screech, a bottleneck of M25 proportions jams the pick-up point and the hoot of car horns reaches a deafening crescendo. The only thing that the hustle and bustle lacked was the odd chicken or goat wandering through the security scanners. We could barely push our way through the shouting, clamouring crowds – especially as my strength had been sapped by a night spent in a marble-clad loo.
The sign with my name marker-penned on it belonged to a lady smiling from ear-to-ear. I waved a weak hello and she rushed to us, gathering up not just our bags but me too, positioning me onto the trolley’s handle so I could support my buckling knees. A limo awaited, cooled down on the inside to the perfect temperature and we were soon whisked away from the frenetic pace of the airport and onto the road. Chilled towels and iced water awaited us and I began to feel better. Not just because the worst part of the journey was over, but also because I knew what lay in wait. It’s not often that high expectations are exceeded, but here on in my travelling standards were about to be redefined.
Anantara lies to the north-west of Phuket’s airport, while the majority of the tourist traffic heads south and west. To be truthful, I don’t remember much of the journey and its route, but I do remember my arrival. We swung off the main highway down a track, passing first the turning to the J W Marriott apartments. The next right was ours and a fortress-like entrance in orange hues greeted us. We left the cool air of the limo and entered the heat of a late afternoon in Phuket – our feet had barely touched Anantara earth and our bags had been whisked away from us and we were taken to the open-air reception with its fan wafting cooling air while we signed in, sipped non-alcoholic cocktails and took in the calming drama of the setting: water everywhere, a lagoon covered in lily pads with ducks swimming and toads croaking was at our feet and covered much of the ‘village’. So evocative of where we were in the world, this was a tropical spot from which to finalise all the dull official duties. All around, off walkways, were buildings on stilts and pristinely manicured greenery. Here and there a gardener could be spotted. I was surprised not to see one wielding nail scissors such was the precision of their duties. A silent golf cart awaited and we climbed on board to be whooshed to our villa.
Trying to play it cool, we were shown around our villa. The first thing to grab our attention was the pool – our own private plunge pool clad in dark mosaic in the most perfectly secluded courtyard, with our bedroom and bathroom on one side (which led out to the open-air bath and shower) and a sundeck and outdoor sala on the other. From not one point in the entire enclosure could you be seen by a soul – or see another soul.
Off came our shoes (and as soon as the smiling reception lady left, so did our clothes so we could make the most of the pool’s shaded, cool water) and we padded through our new home ‘ooh-ing’, ‘ahh-ing’ and ‘eek-ing’ as we ticked off all of our hotel room must-have criteria: loads of wardrobe space (in fact, a room dedicated to wardrobe functions); freebies such as bottled water and insect repellent (much-needed) in abundance; beautiful bathroom products; lightweight gowns perfectly suited to the climate; a divine bathroom with loo, shower room and two sinks with their backs to sliding doors which led out to the glass-sided, al fresco bath and shower; perfect lighting; iPod docking station; a well-equipped mini bar (out in the sala, complete with glassware suitable for all the drinks on offer); flat-screen TV with DVD player; and huge (stealable) beach bags. Plus we ticked off a few quirky touches, too: the kind of touches that show that not only do the management know what they’re doing, but that they also care: a sketchpad and pencil set to capture the inspiring environs, a fishbowl by the bed complete with resident goldfish to make you feel at home, rose petals scattered in the outdoor bath, a yoga mat so you can contemplate your surroundings in the downward dog position, and double doors at the end of the bed so you can leap from bed to pool in one giant step. Such fun!
I was dizzy – and not because of my food poisoning and lack of food for nearly 24 hours – but with excitement. It’s been a long time since I’ve been so moved by a hotel and its amenities. And despite being bowled over by the actual place, at this point I hadn’t even experienced one of the best things about Anantara: the service.
After a plunge in our pool and exploration of our villa’s every corner, drawer and room, we decided to head to the beach for a sundowner. I was feeling fortified by my surroundings and decided a kill-or-cure cocktail was the way forward. Plus, I was ravenous. A very good sign.
One could assume that with so much care and attention being taken on the villas, that the communal areas would be so-so. Not at Anantara. The workforce numbers must be enormous to keep this place looking so manicured and perfect (and despite the obvious numbers of staff, there is still a palpable sense of space and privacy). At every turn not a stone or blade of grass is out of place. Spindly palm trees sway gently overhead, while the concrete golf cart route is imprinted with the shapes of leaves and the outline of turtles – the motif of the resort. Detail, detail, detail.
Passing by groups of gardeners, receptionists or waitresses heading to their shift, we were greeted with a bow of the head and ‘saw-at dee’ and the occasional ‘How are you Miss Richards?’ For the rest of our trip around Thailand we felt irked if we weren’t greeted warmly with smiles or if someone didn’t say hello when we passed. We were offered a lift to the beach by a passing cart, but with a new-found bounce in my step we decided to take the long route round to the beach and pool area, past the tennis courts (which we used often, in the mornings before the heat of the day kicked in) and despite trying to have a good nose at our fellow residents, we didn’t see a soul, but heard the sound of glasses chinking, pools being splashed about in and carefree laughter mingling with the sound of roosting birds.
And so to the pool area, with its Sea.Fire.Salt restaurant watching over proceedings and with the pool’s Champagne plunge pool tempting us to spend an hour in bubbles while we supped on unlimited bubbles for a substantial fee. Champagne was not on our mind, though, so we headed straight to the bar and its cheeky waiters – not overbearing, as we’d experienced on a couple of occasions in Bangkok, but fun. As the sky turned pink and with our two-for-one cocktails in hand, we surveyed: Anantara’s pool is a no-expense-spared exercise in hotel design.
An enormous infinity-edged beautiful beast surrounded by loungers at one end and, nearer the bar, a shallow end with double loungers sitting in the water. Off came the waiter’s flip-flops as he splashed over to couples making as much of the day’s sun as they could. Along each edge of the pool were stone seats with Jacuzzis, perfectly shaped so you can worship the sun whilst being massaged by invigorating jets of water. The perfect spot from which to spend a day doing absolutely nothing at all.
We decided to check out the beach before dinner, and it was the only time that we ventured onto the sand during our entire stay. A pristine stretch without a single lounger, the sand at high tide slips away steeply to the water, meaning it’s not ideal for those that prefer to splash around in salt water than by the pool. There’s a reason that the flat, soft, white sand beaches further down the coast are so heavily populated.
With food on my mind, we decided to head to Sea.Fire.Salt for our first evening’s supper. As with restaurants all over Thailand, the wine list made us weep – but we did manage to find a reasonable-ish bottle of rosé (£35-40 is the average price of a house wine in these parts) which complemented the evening’s warmth. And after days spent trawling the street food stalls of Bangkok, we were momentarily relieved to see steak and lobster on the menu – not a lemongrass stalk in sight. As dusk set in, a troupe of workers marched through the resort, banging drums, clanging mini cymbals and lighting torches and candles everywhere. Oft overused, but the setting turned magical with the twinkling lights and flames lighting our excellent – if not scarily expensive – dinner and us.
Day two at Anantara was spa day. After nearly a full day of travelling and feeling unwell, the prospect of being rubbed and soothed made me leap out of bed at an ungodly hour. After a hot game of tennis, another plunge in our pool and then an excellent buffet breakfast served by adorable, friendly staff who spoke excellent English, we headed to the spa’s pavilion. Like the rest of the resort it’s decked out in dark teak and has classic Thai finishing and sits on the lagoon on stilts. I was greeted warmly and given a form to fill out and asked what kind of massage I wanted: the team specialise in Ayurvedic treatments, but can also bend and stretch you courtesy of traditional Thai massage. As I was still bearing the bruises from my Thai massage at The Oriental in Bangkok – exhilarating, frightening and a real pummelling – I decided to opt for a relaxation massage with a soft-to-medium level of pressure. I’m not the most willing of massage clients, and while I’ve had dozens and dozens of treatments, there have only be a couple of times when I’ve left a treatment room feeling that the right buttons have been pressed. My 90 minute massage flew by. A little unsteady on my feet, again, I was led back to the reception area while my masseuse asked me how I’d found her work. Such was the intensity of the relaxation and the soothing of her touch, I was rendered not only useless and wobbly on my feet, but also emotional. By far and away the best massage I’ve ever had.
We almost didn’t make it to what became our favourite spot in the whole resort as the beach bar had become something of a lure in the evenings, thanks to its two-for-one deals: but the Treetop is not to be missed. It perches above an ancient Banyan tree and looks out over the whole of Anantara and down towards the sea. Get there as the sun begins to sink and grab one of the double beds facing the view. The perfectly poured G&Ts are the ideal refresher for this idyll. We’d packed a travel Scrabble, so wiled away a couple of hours before dinner watching the sun hit the sea and the teams of staff lighting the torches.
Dinner on the second night was courtesy of Anantara’s Thai restaurant. While there was a buffet special on that night, we decided to opt for the à la carte menu, as even the greatest chef’s food suffers when it’s been kept on a low light for hours. We’re glad we did (although the buffet did look delicious) as the food was exceptional; we were beginning to believe that bad Thai food in its home country was not possible. Packed with flavours and spice, heavy with aromatics and laden with super-fresh ingredients, the meal’s highlight was heavily spiced duck curry and the very naughty sticky rice with mango for pud. Our Thai red wine was also delicious, and a little cheaper than the Western bottles on offer. Service, again, was faultless – neither overbearing or underwhelming, the team’s timing was precise and they made sure that our evening was truly special. But in this setting and with this level of food, it’s very hard to go wrong.
Day three was our pool day – even with the prospect of days of relaxation stretching before us, we still had to put together a water-tight itinerary. Old habits die hard. So we spent a blissful eight hours by the pool doing nothing apart from reading, watching fellow guests pad by, and lay back as our chilled water bottles were replaced, snacks delivered by the lovely pool boys and, every now and then, we’d partake in an energetic stroll to the bar to opt for a cocktail. We could have summoned a pool boy, but it’s good to get up and stretch the legs occasionally. The pool menu was terrific and perfect for lunch – and also very well-priced. The spiced beef salad with hunks of red chilli and lemongrass set the mouth on fire fabulously. And for just a couple of quid, it shows that resorts don’t have to rip off their guests at every turn.
And so to the final day, and the perfect way to end a relaxing stay washed down with fine food: a cookery class hosted by one of the kitchen team’s talented chefs. The Head Chef greeted us and then, humbly, put a Thai chef in charge as ‘however good my cooking is, I’d never cook Thai food as good as this guy.’ Dressed up ridiculously in chef hats, we attempted to impress with our knife skills and food knowledge. By no means an easy challenge, the chef certainly put us through our paces. After each course was complete, we sat down and polished off our hard work. Whether it’s right to say it or not, it’s some of the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten – but then again, we were being looked after by one of Anantara’s super-talented chef’s whose food we’d devoured in La Sala the previous evening.
Feeling sated and with our mouths still on fire from the chilli bonanza from our self-cooked lunch, we wearily called for our golf cart to pick us and our luggage up. We whoosed past another team of gardeners who all waved us goodbye. Leaving was the last thing we wanted to do, but it’s safe to say I was feeling a million times better than I did when I arrived. Paradise? Found.
Tel: +66 (0) 7633 6100
Date of review: January 2010
The Resource team stayed as guests of Anantara. They travelled to Thailand in Emirates business class. www.emirates.com