Book a window seat; you won’t want to miss the spectacular approach to the “pearl of the Andaman”. Thailand’s largest island rises out of emerald-green waters, an undulating landscape of swaying rainforests iced with miles and miles of sugary white sands strung between jutting peninsulas. It is goosebump-inducing gorgeous, but sadly, it is this dramatic beauty that has made it so popular and led to rampant overdevelopment on large parts of the island. That’s not to say Phuket isn’t still fabulous. It is – you just need to look a little bit harder to find those empty beaches, quiet islands and resorts filled with birdsong.
Look west across the ocean towards the remote Surin and Similan islands, where snorkellers can swim through confetti bursts of reef fish and divers meet with the superstars of the marine world – leopard sharks, octopus, green sea turtles and whale sharks as big as buses. To the east; wooden long-tail boats and bright white mega-yachts circle in glassy waters around the sheer limestone cliffs and karsts of Phang Nga bay, where you can still find sleepy little islands such as Yao Noi, home to the castaway-fabulous Six Senses resort. Meanwhile to the north lie the jungle-y delights of Khao Sok National Park, an enormous rainforest older than the Amazon and home to wild elephants, fluffy langurs, sun bears and tapirs.
A comfortable bed
Amanpuri (aman.com/resorts/amanpuri), Aman’s flagship property and Phuket’s first true luxury hotel, celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018. Over the past three decades its serene surrounds – a temple-like courtyard, black-tile swimming pool, zig-zagging paths leading through forests of frangipani to thatched-roof salas – has attracted some of the most famous names in the world, from Bill and Melinda Gates to Jay-Z and Beyonce. It has added a hip Japanese restaurant, a kids’ club with skateboarding half-pipe, and an upgraded spa to include six sumptuous new suites, as a birthday gift to itself. Double rooms cost from Dh3,380 per night, including breakfast.
Located on its own near-private stretch of beach, the recently opened Rosewood Phuket (rosewoodhotels.com) is the island’s latest must-stay luxury resort. Its eco-chic design blends beautifully into the surrounding landscape and the rooms are bright and sunny, with wooden floors, creamy tones and outdoor, as well as indoor bathrooms. The forest-fringed Asaya Spa, with its holistic bent and hyper-personalised treatments, is one of the best in Thailand. Doubles cost from Dh2,270 per night, including breakfast.
Clinging to the hillside of a tranquil tropical island in Phang Nga Bay, halfway between Phuket and Krabi, Six Senses Yao Noi (sixsenses.com) feels a millions miles away from the noise of the outside world. The villas are huge, extremely private and the Robinson Crusoe-esque decor – thatched roofs, driftwood canopies, lemon, lime and saffron soft furnishings – makes you feel like the luckiest castaway who ever lived. Island-life is equally enchanting; kayaking along the coast, nature trails, lunch with the sand between your toes, nights staring at the stars. Doubles cost from Dh1,559 per night, including breakfast.
Find your feet
Most visitors come to Phuket to experience its phenomenal beaches, the best of which unfurl along the west coast. On the island’s southwestern tip, aim for Nai Harn, a gorgeous swirl of clotted cream sands licked by calm, warm, gently ebbing waters, ideal for families. From here, you can wander 15 minutes along the coast to fish-rich Ao San to snorkel with Nemos, Dorys and neon-blue starfish. Further up the coast, palm-backed Surin beach has a sweep of soft white sands bookended by piles of shiny boulders and a lively but laid-back vibe. Or if empty beaches teamed with Balearic beats and showstopping sunsets is more your style, keep zooming north to the candy-striped Baba Beach Club (bababeachclub.com) on the 10 kilometre-long Natai beach. Doubles at the property cost from Dh965 per night, including breakfast.
There are plenty of attractions to be found inland, too, from jungle zip-lines to night markets and hikes to Buddhist shrines. The one attraction you definitely want to make time for, though, is the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary (phuketelephantsanctuary.org). It’s the first and so far only ethical elephant camp on the island, and half-day tours cost Dh338.
All of the elephants at the sanctuary have been rescued from a life of back-breaking labour lugging tourists around at riding camps, so there’s no harmful rides or party tricks here. Instead, visitors and volunteers are given the opportunity to learn about the animals through observation, feeding the elephants and following them on jungle treks. Seeing the sparkle in the animals’ eyes and listening to their joyous trumpeting as you clomp through the mud makes this the most joyous place on the island. It’s advisable to book at least two weeks in advance.
Meet the locals
Long before tourists arrived by the jumbo-jetful, Phuket attracted a different type of traveller; merchants and entrepreneurs from across Europe, China and the Malaysian peninsula who flocked here over the 19th century to seek their fortune in the island’s tin mines. They set up home in Phuket Town and soon deposited a rich seam of architecture, culture and traditions, as well as the best street food on the island. Head to the historic quarter in the morning to see markets overflowing with rainbow-bright produce, sizzling food stalls and locals fuelling up for the day – join them for some dim sum on a stick and coils of coconut-y noodles (bountiful dishes usually cost less than Dh5). Afterwards, stroll along the main streets – Thalang, Phang Nga, Krabi, Yaowarat and Dibuk – admiring colourful Chinese shophouses, Portuguese villas and Buddhist-Taoist temples.
Book a table
Housed in a whitewashed wooden mansion in the leafy backstreets of Phuket Old Town, Suay Restaurant (suayrestaurant.com) is a cool, contemporary Thai eatery. Chef Tammasak Chootong trained in Germany and his menu mixes locally sourced ingredients with European cooking techniques. The result is fabulous, well-worth-travelling-for dishes such as grilled lamb loin marinated in lemongrass, fiery Isaan-style tuna tartare and snapper with roasted chilli. Mains cost about Dh60.
The swankiest table in town can be found at Esenzi by Tim Butler (esenzirestaurants.com), the flagship restaurant at the ultra-luxurious Iniala Beach Resort. The extravagantly presented tasting menus change seasonally, but might include the likes of Hokkaido scallops topped with white curry foam; black cod baked with green garlic and cured yolk; or Miyazaki Wagyu striploin with phytonplankton and oyster bordelais. A 10-course set menu costs from Dh400.
Thai’d out? The Siam Supper Club (siamsupperclub.com) brings a slice of 1950s LA to Bangtao, with its shadowy bar, jazz nights, black and white prints of old Hollywood stars, and Cali-classic cuisine – baked French onion soup, lobster ravioli and rib-eye steaks as big as Texas.
Compared to glitzy Bangkok or artsy Chiang Mai, there isn’t a lot of luxury shopping to be found in Phuket, but if you’re so inclined, there are a handful of interesting boutiques worth seeking out. For fashionable high-end beachwear make for Chandra (chandra-exotic.com) and Wings by hejselbjerg (facebook.com/hejselbjerg), both of which stock gorgeous kaftans trimmed with beads and jewels, floaty resortwear and stylish handbags, belts, shoes and jewellery. Both have branches in Surin and the Boat Avenue complex in Bangtao.
Located in a lovely wooden-shuttered shophouse in Phuket Old Town, Ranida sells a heady mix of elegant bronze sculptures, hand-made textiles and beautiful Thai-style outfits threaded with gold and silver. For South East Asian antiques, ceramics and paintings head to Chan’s Antique (chans-antique.com) on Bypass Road.
What to avoid
It was once the most beautiful beach on the island and it remains one of the most popular, but Patong, with its scruffy high-rises, sleazy bars, screaming jet-skis and scammers, feels more like a tropical Gotham City than an exotic island idyll.
Maya Bay, made famous by the Danny Boyle blockbuster The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio, may be closed for the foreseeable future, but don't let that stop you from visiting some of the dozens of other spectacular island beaches that litter Phang Nga Bay. The ethically minded John Gray's Sea Canoe (johngray-seacanoe.com; Dh445) has a wonderful Hong by Starlight tour, which takes you swimming, canoeing and wildlife-spotting around in the shadow of looming limestone sea karsts, before an after-dark delve into one of the caves for a splash in bioluminescent water. Or you could always charter a private speedboat or yacht from Coral Seekers (coralseekers.com).
Got a little bit more time to spare? Drive three hours north to the wonders of Khao Sok National Park, where nature has supersized trees to the height of skyscrapers, with leaves as big as duvets, and made limestone karsts so tall and spindly they look like they’re going to fall over. Stay at the Elephant Hills camp, which floats on the edges of Cheow Lan Lake (elephanthills.com).