The Indian Ocean: Phuket and Koh Lanta

Villas and beaches

Measuring Up: Which Works the Best?
AMANPURI It was this, on Phuket's Pansea Beach, that gave birth to the Aman phenomenon, the proliferation of six-star resorts that now extend from Marrakesh to Jackson Hole. Amanpuri's other invention is the villa residence. At Amanpuri the 30 villas have two to six bedrooms and every service of the hotel: Thai and Italian restaurants, spa, watersports. The decor is in line with Ed Tuttle's masterful Eastern aesthetic. Each house has a pool, teak finishes, and a minimal, open-air dining pavilion. But they don't all have the views of the hotel's best rooms—103 and 105 look out to sea, while the villas are surrounded by coconut trees (a few face the Laguna Phuket development). Still, for privacy and square footage, the villas rank at the top. Suites, $650-$1,500; villas, $1,700-$7,300; 800-477-9180, 66-76-270-547; www.amanresorts.com.

—David Kaufman

BANYAN TREE Sprawling over 21 acres of manicured paths and ponds, Banyan Tree Phuket is the only hotel on the island that almost competes with Amanpuri. We say almost for two reasons: because it has a less desirable spot on Bang Tao Bay, sharing a beach with the shuttle-riding tourists staying at the sterile Laguna Phuket. And because Banyan's 121 villas—while decked in teak, with plunge pools in most, and all with big gardens—are separated by walls that invite snooping neighbors (we actually caught ours spying) and make everything feel all too suburban. That said, the newest villas are well designed with glass-walled bedrooms set amid lotus ponds. The spa, too, can hold its head high: It's a full-service operation with a justified reputation for excellent Thai therapies. Villas, $850-$3,000; 66-76-324-374; www.banyantree.com.

—Sophy Roberts

Great Finds: Mostly Modern
The only reason to step foot in the Laguna Phuket complex, near the Banyan Tree, is to shop, particularly at the store Mandalay. It sells well-cut silk and cotton clothing and finely woven rattan bags with bamboo handles ($50-$200), as well as stylish lacquerware and beautiful celadon ceramics ($20-$100). 66-76-270-967.

—D.K.

Smart Advice
If a perfect beach is all you want, check into ANDAMAN WHITE BEACH RESORT: 55 rooms on the best sand on Phuket. Rooms, $150-$800; 66-76-316-300; www.andamanwhitebeach.com.

—D.K.

Villa to Rent: A Real Deal
While the villas at Amanpuri are our top pick, they are also top-priced. Perfectly chic but much more gently priced is Baan Kata Keeree, a six-bedroom villa with a 35-foot swimming pool and staff of six on Kata Beach. It also comes with its own burbling rock-walled jacuzzi. Rate, $1,500. At 186/14 Kata Beach, Tambon Karon; www.villaphuket.com.

—D.K.

Chic Shack: Young Gun
Steps from Amanpuri is the hip hotel Chedi, with 108 hillside rooms and cottages overlooking a hexagonal pool and Pansea Beach. Chedi also has a spa, three restaurants, a youngish crowd, and friendly service—at nearly half the cost of its neighbor. Rooms, $320-$850. 66-76-324-017; www.chedi-phuket.com.

—D.K.

The Scene: Thai One On
In New York or London, the cool, clean-lined Watermark would be just another hot spot. But in Phuket, its November 2002 debut was a culinary milestone. Australian chef David Hamilton, who spent years at the Banyan Tree, cooks new Australian cuisine with a touch of Thai: duck-confit risotto, pan-fried Tasmanian salmon. Just as hot is the always-crowded Kajoksee, with only ten tables. Owner Suwanraj Lek and his sexy crew serve up jazz and Latin music alongside traditional Thai dishes like spicy mango salad, accenting them with a good wine list. Expect a glamorous global crowd—models and fashion designers, in particular—and near-mandatory dancing. Watermark: Dinner, $100. At 22/1 Moo 2 Thepkasattri Road; 66-76-239-730. Kajoksee: Dinner, $80. At 26 Takuapa Road, Phuket Town; 66-76-217-903. Closed Sunday and Monday.

—D.K.

First Look: The Contender
ONE TO WATCH It's no coincidence that Trisara feels something like a bigger, better version of Amanpuri: general manager, Anthony Lark, helmed Amanpuri for 12 years. At Trisara, which will open on Phuket's coveted northwest coast in mid-2004, Lark has amplified all of Amanpuri's best features: The 34 one-bedroom pavilions will have large pools, airy lounges, and will face the sea. There will also be a spa and 13 huge three- to five-bedroom villas with modern Asian decor. Rooms, $600-$4,000. At Three Dolphins Beach, Naithorn Bay; 66-76-310-100; www.trisara.com.

—D.K.

Up and Coming: An Island Off An Island
One of the few populated islands in Thailand's Andaman Sea archipelago, tiny Koh Lanta is slowly shaking off its image as a backpacking bohemian retreat. Though this island off Phuket still lacks paved roads, it already has three good hotels catering to moneyed mainlanders as well as to travelers from farther afield. The Pimalai is a family-friendly resort set on 100 acres, with 86 comfortable rooms done in bright colors, satellite TV, DVD players, and outdoor showers. The Pimalai also has a gym and Thai and European restaurants (rooms, $250-$2,100; 66-75-607-999; www.pimalai.com). Twenty minutes west of the main town, Costa Lanta is a younger, cooler, 14-cabin hideaway. Built out of lumber salvaged from the island's disused colonial homes, cabin walls are constructed of sliding wood doors, and there are clear plastic roofs to let the outside in (rooms, $90-$130; 66-2-662-3550; www.costalanta.com). Farther up Khlong Nin beach is Sri Lanta, a 48-room Zen palace on the sea with thatched-roof cottages decorated with vibrantly colored Thai textiles. It has a terrific spa that uses organic products and offers daily yoga classes. But the real focus is the black-bottom pool flanked by an open-air beach bar on one side and the delicious Thai Surya Chandra restaurant on the other (rooms, $95-$120; 66-7-569-7288; www.srilanta.com). Because Koh Lanta attracts a young sophisticated crowd, the nightlife is hopping, particularly at Ibark, a treetop bar and lounge that plays a great mix of jazz, bassa nova, and modern Eastern music (66-9-668-4104.

—D.K.

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