LYING ON A HAMMOCK over the waters of the Gulf of Thailand, the late-afternoon sun on your skin, the sound of the surf in your ears, you feel your eyelids grow heavy ... This is a holiday. Your partner and child call to you to come kayaking – which you do, at first reluctantly, only to find yourself refreshed and smiling afterwards. As the sun sets, you all lounge on rattan furniture and sip drinks from the beach bar, marvelling at the clouds scudding across a pink-and-orange sky. A few steps away, your dinner table by the beach awaits.
It may be Thailand's second-largest island, but Koh Samui was without roads until the early 1970s. Largely impenetrable, with mountainous, tropical jungle in its centre, the island was a backpacker haven from the '70s to the midnoughties, with basic bungalows for accommodation and within easy reach of Koh Pha Ngan's full-moon parties. All that's changed, however, now that the verdant outcrop has become a fully fledged luxury destination of the tenties.
This progression was far from a given – Samui might have gone the way of Thailand's largest island, Phuket. Instead, it has become more developed in the luxury segment while remaining less developed overall. A case in point: Four Seasons opened its Chiang Mai resort in 1999, its elephant camp near Chiang Rai in 2006 and its Samui resort in 2007. Noticeably absent from the Thailand roster of locations? The country's largest island. Considering that the backpacker-party atmosphere has increased in amplitude in Phuket over the years while receding in Samui, this seems altogether appropriate.
To say that the location of Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui is appropriate for a luxury resort is to put it mildly. Built into the hillside jungle on the island's north-western coast, the Bill Bensley-designed property makes a dramatic announcement of its intentions the moment you lay eyes on it. In a feat of architectural genius, a doorway the width of a single person leads you from the driveway onto a stage Bensley has orchestrated for showcasing his symphony of landscaping leading down to the sea. In this open sala, a smiling staff member behind a single desk is ready to offer you a refreshment and check you in, as you attempt to absorb the marvellous sight of the lush forest and Gulf of Thailand.
This same panorama will have you catching your breath over a breakfast spread of fresh tropical fruit, homemade granola with homemade yogurt, chocolate-and-kaffir-lime latte, and poached eggs or a Thai prawn omelette – and during cocktail hour, which can be enjoyed on the glass-fronted terrace of Koh Bar.
The bar itself is but an antechamber to the upscale Koh restaurant, presided over by Executive Chef Alex Garés and Sous Chef Sumalee Khunpet. Here you'll find Thai cuisine that naturally comprises the classics but also incorporates typical Samui ingredients, such as “stinky beans”, local seaweed, local oysters and sour tamarind leaves. A unique variant of a classic Thai dish, Spicy Fresh Palm-Heart Salad with Peanuts and Lime substitutes the usual papaya with the hearts of Samui's indigenous coconut palms. Wine pairing is another specialty of Koh, with an extensive list of suggestions, and the restaurant offers the widest selection of Thai wines by the glass on the island.
It's possible to work off all that overindulgence, of course – but not just at the resort gym: Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui offers beginners', intermediate and advanced Muay Thai sessions, taught by professionals. For the uninitiated, there's nothing like kickboxing training to have you pouring sweat and crying mercy (were it not for the fact that you're too breathless to speak). But here again, Bensley surprises: the view from the boxing ring – all coconut trees, whites and beach and glistening ocean – is enough to have you grinning through the pain.
At the end of your one-hour session, you'll have earned every minute of your Muay Thai Recovery treatment. The full-body massage enlists the help of essential oils of black pepper, clove and ylang ylang in warming tired muscles. But even before it begins, you'll be smiling to yourself as the path to the spa takes you through lush tropical jungle – a little piece of untouched Samui.
Four Seasons guests enjoy a private beach, with hammocks over the water, kayaking, a swimming pool, a cocktail bar and Pla Pla restaurant – made for sandy, flip-flops dining. With the beach blissfully empty – not to mention entirely free of the souvenir vendors you'll find in so much of Thailand – you begin to understand how a stay at this Four Seasons can relax and inspire you to the point where, some time on the second day, feeling energised and serene becomes the new normal.
Other options for luxury private-pool-villa accommodation abound on Samui, though. At the eastern end of the island's north shore, not far from the airport, Akaryn Koh Samui Resort and Spa bears the distinction of offering larger private pools than Four Seasons' – albeit at a lower level of luxury (and price). To enjoy your own private, eight-metre pool – long enough to swim mini-laps in – and a stone-carved freestanding bathtub inside, book a Pool Villa. The more basic option, Pool Suites come with a 3.5-metre plunge pool, with a handful of Akaryn's 29 endowed with beachfront sea views. Either way, whiteness and wood will form your tranquil surroundings here. So will the fluid bass and Ibiza-style beats of the superior playlist preloaded into your in-room iPod.
At breakfast, seated on decking by the beach with nothing between you and the Gulf of Thailand – the morning sun, the ocean, the horizon – you'll be served by staff a tad less genuflecting than at Four Seasons, but every bit as warm and friendly. In the evening, treat yourself to a meal at Akaryn's Ochos Steakhouse, helmed by the talented Chef Christophe Lindner. The setting is as romantic as it gets: from the soft orange light illuminating the terrace to the sounds of the elemental jungle – insects singing, toads croaking – that's everywhere in Samui. And once you've tried a perfectly seared steak with its deliciously blackened edges dipped in an expertly melded Thai sauce, you'll wonder why you'd ever settle for gravy and mustard again.
Yet for all that it offers in the international, five-star bracket, Samui is still a place where you can have off-road travel experiences – like sipping rum under attap roofs at a local distillery. Only the cognoscenti bother to track down this experience, which can be had at the Magic Alambic Rum Distillery. It's near Na Muang falls, should the well-known sightseeing spot take your fancy, but there's an argument to be made for heading straight to the distillery bar and lining up the tasting measures. Magic Alambic's five rums, brewed from local sugar cane, include four flavoured spirits, with the coconut varietal a particular winner.
Speaking of coconuts, the presence of a delectable Thai classic in authentic style also says something about Samui's rootsiness amid the luxury. On the road from the rum distillery back to Akaryn, a popular cliff viewpoint near Chaweng Noi is the parking place of the Lamai Fresh Coconut Ice Cream van, with the traditional confection made from coconut milk instead of cow's milk. Served in a coconut shell, the ice cream comes with a choice of toppings ranging from sticky rice to salted peanuts to steamed pumpkin and sweet potato. Share at your peril.
Back home at Akaryn under your 430-thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets, you'll remember that while cheap and cheerful works well while you're out and about, there's no substitute for luxury when it comes time to relax.