Sihanoukville’s grimy, near-abandoned port seems an unlikely place to start possibly the most decadent two days we’ve ever had – but then again, Song Saa Private Island is the first uber-luxe resort in a country where 70 per cent of the workforce are subsistence farmers.
Thus, in a corner of the empty port – all decaying warehouses and rusting fishing boats – we spot a smiling Cambodian gent in a crisp white shirt stepping off a gleaming 20-seater speedboat. As we take our seat in the cushioned bow, we’re too excited to ponder the contrasts. We’re imagining ourselves as the poster couple in a Sunseeker advert as the boat powers out of the harbour, but it soon gets choppy and, after a few coccyx-juddering bumps, we take to playing a distinctly uncool game of ‘see who can ride out the bumps’, with Mrs Smith shrieking gleefully while adopting a sort of inelegant snowboarding stance.
The rough approach to the island is more Apocalypse Now than Maldives-serene. We pass lone fishermen and the rugged, misty Koh Rong island, which is the size of Hong Kong and, as the cliché goes, like Thailand 30 years ago. Then Song Saa comes into view – the small island, with 27 guest villas, is unobtrusively beautiful.
After warm hellos from Australian GM Greg and his team, we’re taken across the beach to our room by one of the Cambodian staff members, struggling to maintain any suavity as we’re shown into our overwater villa. There’s the private infinity pool, with steps down to the sea and an inviting white cabana; there’s red and white wine and three types of beer (as chosen in our pre-arrival form); and there are four beautifully presented dishes, including fresh-shucked oysters and a charcuterie plate. The pungent, creamy Livarot in the cheese platter is so good that it almost distracts me from a naked Mrs Smith sipping sparkling rose in the pool. Such is life at Song Saa.
Revolving around natural wood, crisp white fabrics, bronze lamps and subtle ornaments, the style of the room – like the resort in general – gives an air of earthy, understated elegance. Everything is subtly designed for pleasure, from the super-soft sheets to the sea-view bath for two. Barring spa treatments and a few activities, everything is included in the price, meaning you can really set about living it up.
The promise of an exfoliating foot ritual at the spa draws us out of the room on day one, followed by dinner at the beautiful overwater restaurant, where the only sound is the sporadic splash of flying fish. There don’t seem to be any mosquitos, but the charming staff nevertheless give us a few sprays of sweet-smelling repellent. The six-course set menu is good but fussier than the stellar breakfasts and lunches. And the table is slightly too big for mid-dinner PDAs, but this is the extent of the nit-picking here.
Beyond cabana-lounging and lingering over the in-villa breakfast of perfectly runny boiled eggs and soldiers, activities on day two include kayaking to a Koh Rong beach and lounging in the shallows as kids from the nearby village play on a canoe. I also get a perfect pedicure (the therapist’s calm response to my calloused hooves is impressive), while Mrs Smith enjoys the Karuna Kaya body massage but declares it ‘not hard enough’ (she says this about most massages). We pass on other possible pursuits, such as catamaran sailing, a picnic on nearby Koh Tang, and a tour of Five Mile Beach.
Perhaps partly because the resort isn’t close to full on our visit, the staff are obsessive about our contentment (though never obtrusively so). When we ask Rob from the Discovery Centre about the bioluminescence, the plankton that sparkle in the sea at night, he says we’re unlikely to see them – but later, when we’re having a private dinner on the beach, he bounds up and tells us that the bioluminescence are out that night. We end our almost comically romantic meal by splashing around in the sea, with the glittering amoebas reflecting an impossibly starry sky.
Most of the staff at Song Saa are Cambodian and, while some have less-than-perfect English, there’s something genuine about them that you often don’t get at luxe resorts. Walking around in their loose white shirts and ethnic-casual fisherman’s pants (which actually look good), they seem happy to be there in a way that can’t be faked.
At once luxurious and likeable, this is the thing about Song Saa. The Australian owners, Rory and Melita Hunter, who have a Cambodian son, are committed to sustainability and enriching the area with reef restoration projects and education programmes. The whole place feels like a lifetime labour of love rather than a cash cow, and you feel like your money is helping rather than harming the community.
After a morning of wakeboarding and snorkeling, before leaving on Sunday we order a wood-fired pizza to go. We feel slightly ridiculous sitting on the boat, holding up our goodbye party for the sake of a snack, but then one of the staff presents a beautifully-wrapped creation like a gift (it will later turn out to be sinfully good). We head off in the speedboat, turn the corner, and look back to find that everyone’s still waving. We expected – and got – an almost ridiculous level of luxury, but we hadn’t counted on being quite so charmed.