IT WAS ABOUT 25 years ago that Koh Samui, the Thai island off the Isthmus of Kra on the western side of the Gulf of Siam, began to grab the world’s attention as a tropical Asian paradise. “Discovered” in the 1970s by globetrotting hippies whose quest for the perfect beach party soon had them venturing further out into the gulf – after almost two decades the famous Full Moon Party remains a monthly fixture on nearby Koh Pha Ngan – Samui made its entrée into the international tourism mainstream in the late ’80s, when Bangkok Airways built an airport near its north-eastern point.
That Samui has little in the way of attractions beyond sun, sand and sea has since done little to dent its popularity. Its interior is hilly, forested and – save for a few walks, natural pools and waterfalls – largely impenetrable, so most tourism activities and development take place along and around its admittedly lovely coastline. In the past quarter century, however, the nature of that infrastructure has changed beyond all recognition. Almost completely vanished are the cheap-and-cheerful beachfront bungalows that once accounted for the majority of visitor accommodation, their places increasingly being taken by highend resorts bearing familiar names such as InterContinental, Conrad, W, Six Senses, Banyan Tree, Four Seasons.
While the preferred luxury development model entails resorts sprawling across an ocean-facing hillside – often as far from the tourism mainstream as it’s possible to get – the latest international property to open on Samui takes a refreshingly different approach. Vana Belle, an intimate resort hotel that’s part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection portfolio, nestles among trees at the southern end of the island’s liveliest tourism zone, Chaweng Beach, and thus achieves an ideal balance between exclusivity and accessibility. Blissfully quiet and secluded, it’s nonetheless within easy reach of the action, meaning that guests aren’t held hostage to drink and dine exclusively within its confines (a well-organised mafia appears to control all taxis on the island, resulting in fares that are outrageous if not exactly ruinous).
Not that remaining within the confines of Vana Belle – the name, mixing Thai and French, means “beautiful forest” – is in any way onerous. Comprising 80 pool suites and stand-alone villas that populate a low slope rising from the beach, the resort effortlessly channels high contemporary style with a laid-back ethos that borders on the barefoot. Facing east through the abundant greenery, these capacious units admittedly miss out on romantic sunsets, but as the sunrises here are arguably even more spectacular, a daybreak dip in the plunge pool becomes mandatory.
At the head of the food chain at Vana Belle are seven enormous Tropical Pool Villas that open onto the beach, have a private terrace and infinity pool within the compound, and are clearly aimed at Russian oligarchs and their entourages. Occupying the opposite end of the scale, though still unusually spacious at 86 square metres, are the “entry-level” Classic Pool Suites, split-level, open-plan affairs that progress from walk-in closet by the front door, through the marble bathroom with freestanding tub, wood-floored sleeping area and finally, three steps down, a small living room that opens onto the terrace and pool. Beige and polished wood predominate, with a splash of colour on one wall provided by a single Thai work of art; the effect is restrained, classy and relaxing.
You will, of course, wish to venture outside, and at Vana Belle it couldn’t be easier. A late-afternoon walk up the beach brings you to Chaweng and its mild cacophony of shops, bars and restaurants, while further afield – by taxi, pick-up or self-drive car or motorcycle – lie the Hin Ta Hin Yai rocks that curiously resemble human sex organs. There are islands and temples to visit, golf courses and even, God forbid, a Tesco hypermarket.
But if doing next to nothing is your vacation schtick – and with daytime temperatures reliably in the region of 30 degrees or more, that’s probably the smart MO on Samui – then Vana Belle could hardly be a more agreeable place in which to do it. A morning swim in the main pool or a sea so startlingly aquamarine it looks Photoshopped, a laze in a lounger with a book, lunch at the beachfront Italian Panali followed by an afternoon’s indulgence in Vana Spa…and before you know, it’s time for cocktails and an intriguing culinary excursion into southern Thai cooking at the resort’s Kiree restaurant. It sounds like a plan to me.