Once a backpacker haven with dazzling beaches and cheap food, Phuket has been a fixture on Asia’s tourist trail for decades. Today, its many high-end villas and luxury hotels are attracting new travellers in search of fine food, great cocktails and new experiences. Here’s a look at what’s new for visitors to Phuket.
An eccentric newcomer to Phuket’s restaurant scene is HOME Kitchen, Bar & Bed, just north of Patong in a hangar-sized space cleverly renovated by the new owners, the Underwood family, into an intimate restaurant with waterfront views, warm lighting, cosy couches and quirky home fixtures. HOME doubles as an art space with an upstairs gallery featuring local artists, while dishing up international cuisine like Wagyu steaks, chocolate lava cake and signature cocktails. Go on Tuesday evening to dine at the chef’s table with a set menu under 1,000 baht. If you appreciate their decor, check out the Underwood’s design studio located near IKEA in the centre of the island.
Couples seeking a more romantic night should try Benny’s American Bar & Grill, located on a quiet road between Surin and Bangtao near the luxurious Amanpuri resort. This hotspot serving up excellent cocktails, ribs and other casual fare was founded by longtime Phuket resident Benedikt De Bellis, an Italian who earned his chops among Phuket expats by managing established icons like Catch Beach Club and Siam Supper Club.
Need lighter fare after a big night out? Atsumi Raw Cafe in Rawai has gained fame among vegetarians for dishes like Cauliflower Mint Cous Cous, Indonesian Gado Gado Wrap and Thai Coconut Wrapped Dumplings, plus an amazing selection of juices and smoothies that cleanse, energise and boost immunity.
Phuket’s party animals were delighted when Twinpalms recently reopened Catch on Bangtao beach. Phuket’s first beach club to bring glamour to late-night dining and drinking, the original location was shuttered last year as part of a government clean-up that closed all businesses on Surin beach. Don’t worry, the new location is just as good as the original, combining great service, food and music until early morning hours at a stunning beachside location.
Budding mixologists will enjoy the Chalong Bay Rum Distillery, which produces original handcrafted rum using sustainable production that binds the traditional French art of distillation with the rich sugarcane heritage of Thailand. Using a traditional copper still imported from France and a centuries-old distillation process, Chalong Bay’s innovative craftsmanship has produced an award-winning white rum of incredible character using 100% natural Thai sugarcane. Some varieties are flavoured with local ingredients like kaffir lime, lemongrass, cinnamon and Thai sweet basil. Small tours are offered throughout the day, or just sample their rum in affordable cocktails or delicious homemade rum raisin ice cream in their breezy outdoor bar.
The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary bordering the Khao Phra Thaeo National Park is pioneering ethical elephant tourism by offering a retirement home for sick, injured, and old elephants who have worked an exhausting life in the logging and tourism industries. You can feed, walk with, and observe these beautiful mammals as they roam freely, socialise and bathe naturally in fresh water lagoons — a great way to entertain kids while also educating them about ethical tourism and animal cruelty issues. Open less than a year, the sanctuary has already hosted celebrities like Coldplay, Leonardo DiCaprio and Britney Spears. Afterwards, be sure to check out the The Phuket Gibbon Rehabilitation Project just five kilometres up the road, which rescues local gibbons that were caged as pets or sold to touts who parade them around tourist areas.
Need a bit of rehab for yourself? Benjamin Carter, Aman Resort’s former spa director, has set up Health & Wellbeing Asia in Phuket, offering bespoke lifestyle programs that integrate spa treatments, personalised exercise classes, nutrition, naturopathic medicine, and advanced specialist bodywork. He works alongside the chef at top hotels like Trisara, Amanpuri and J.W. Marriott to prepare healthy meals and detox juices delivered to your door. Prices start at US$1,000 per day.
If that sounds too ambitious, Phuket now offers a range of yoga studios like Yoga Republic near Bangtao which offers packages ranging from 260 to 460 baht per class, depending on how long you’re staying.
The Nai Harn, one of Phuket’s finest luxury hotels, opened last year following an extensive 18-month renovation. Dating back to 1986, the property was first as a Mandarin Oriental, then a Le Royal Méridien and finally, the Royal Phuket Yacht Club. The Nai Harn sets a new bar for luxury, proven by its status as the only hotel on the island accepted as a member of The Leading Hotels of the World. All rooms and suites offer private balconies and views overlooking stunning Nai Harn beach and bay.
If you seek serenity more than sea views, another newcomer worth trying is Keemala, a five-star eco-friendly resort nestled in the mountains behind Kamala beach. Forgoing the anonymous nature of major hotel chains, Keemala embraces Thai culture, philosophy and materials, all richly brought to life through distinctive design and customized experiences. Keemala’s pool villas are decorated using recycled and sustainable materials, for instance, the restaurant’s ingredients are sourced from the hotel’s organic garden and the hotel has a strict no-plastics policy for the hotel and spa. Clever landscaping assistance is provided by rescued buffalos which graze around the premises.
World-famous Thai silk brand Jim Thompson offers stylish bags at stores around the island including two in the Laguna Phuket resort complex’s Canal Village. There are a few high-end boutiques and art galleries worth checking out at Allan Zeman’s tiny mall in Surin, The Plaza. Antique & art gallery hopping across the island has its charms as well, with quirky finds and discovering abstract and mainstream paintings a satisfying pursuit. The mass market shopping malls like Jungceylon and Central pull the crowds in during peak afternoon head.
The newcomer to Phuket’s shopping scene is Boat Avenue Street Mall, an upscale outdoor mall near entrance of the Laguna. Boutiques such as Zen Sisters, Dalaya, La Lita and Marie France Van Damme showcase local and international designers offering evening gowns, Italian shoes, jewellery and swimsuits.
The mall also has several high-end home decoration stores, notably Quattro Design’s 900-square meter flagship store, as well as shops selling food and wine, spa services and small cafes and food trucks. The mall is anchored at the lake end by The Cut, Phuket’s newest grillhouse with its own pool to keep the kids entertained while parents enjoy great steaks and cocktails. ◼
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© This article was first published in Aug-Sept 2017 edition of World Travel Magazine.