Like Xanax sprayed in the air, landing in Chiang Mai brings immediate peace to every cell in our bodies. After the intensity of ultra-urban Hong Kong, a short flight away, it’s exactly what we need. Nestled in the north of Thailand, Bangkok’s quieter, more reserved cousin has a unique energy. Surrounded by mountain ranges, it’s popular with adventure fans (perfect for Mr Smith) who love climbing, cycling and rafting. The city itself is full of beautiful temples and is fast becoming the centre for Thai design, where artists and creatives escape the daily grind of the capital (perfect for Mrs Smith).
Being seven months pregnant, I value quick airport customs and passport controls, and impressively it takes us just 15 minutes to be in the car, arranged by the hotel. There is something heavenly about those cold wet lemongrass towels soothing us as we speed towards our retreat.
A zen cube of white, ochre and green perched right by the river, Anantara Chiang Mai is a minimalist and refined oasis of calm. At its heart is an exquisite wooden pavilion – an old British consulate – the only ornate part of the property, which adds the necessary dose of cosiness to the clean-lined backdrop. It’s also home to the hotel’s restaurant and tea parlour, flanked by an enchanting green wall and a serene water pond with floating lilies.
Gorgeous flower petals greet us in the bath tub of our Deluxe Room, too, a simple wooden space where we slip into a holiday coma. Afterwards, we head to the pool, where my love affair with the hotel is solidified. Metres of crystal-clear water (cleaned with salt, not chlorine) stretch along the river, with grass-topped white walls on one side and a lily pond on the other. Mr Smith (a budding triathlete) and I start our laps; his are real ones, mine more pregnant lady splashing, but we both have a blast.
Service is impeccable. As we melt into our sun-beds waiters bring us cool towels, rose water mist and glasses of iced lime water (no nasty plastic bottles, my pet eco peeve). We order from the restaurant menu, a tempting mix of Indian, Thai and western choices. Mr Smith settles on a classic club sandwich, while I devour pomelo salad with soft-shell crab (a definite winner) and a veggie curry.
Blissing out, we swim, eat and read. Come afternoon, Mr Smith explores the mountains on his bicycle – he is training for an Ultra Ironman and Chiang Mai is a cyclist’s paradise. We finish the day off with a very romantic dinner in the hotel restaurant. Twilight by the river is breathtaking: crickets create background music, candles and torches flicker in the dusk, and small boats slowly glide down the dark water. Mr Smith samples the western menu, which is well executed with fresh ingredients, while I settle on exquisite Thai and Indian. The only frustration is the mosquitoes that try to eat us alive. Beating a retreat, we order dessert as room service. Two minutes after devouring our coconut pandan leaf ice-cream we’re in dreamland.
A serene morning swim makes for an ideal start to day two, in what must be my favourite hotel pool in the world. The air is still cool and a gardener in a traditional round hat is tending to the water lilies. We grab breakfast, a mix of Western, Thai and Chinese, including addictively good rice noodles. Mr Smith ventures out on his bike for more intense mountain training, while I walk around the Old City, discovering stores selling indigo textiles, pottery and other crafts. Chiang Mai’s centre is a little messy, yet charming. Full of temples and life on every corner, it's a city where you can find anything from unique street food to fresh coconuts or a perfect Thai massage.
As the heat rises, I seek refuge back at the hotel pool, armed with a bag full of indigo fabrics. Mr Smith returns from his cycling adventures beyond himself with excitement – he has climbed some seriously high peaks and meandered through mesmerising mountain forests.
In the evening I jump on a free guest bicycle and brave the streets while Mr Smith kips. I cycle along the canal, a blue artery that creates a square around the old town and then take in the area of Chiang Mai University, a green sanctuary. Later, after sunset, we enjoy another perfect dinner at the Anantara armed with extra mosquito spray.
Bikes dominate day three, too, as Mr Smith missions out for his last 200-kilometre ride while I cycle around the city borders, laced with lovely little side lanes. I spy an old lady with her sun umbrella, carrying vegetables; children and elders napping on the cool tiled floors of small shops; a corner store frying some chickens; and an elderly man on his rickety bike (cycling so slow you’d think he had all the time in the world). I come across a wholesale fruit market, where I beg a fruit vendor for a guava, surrounded by fragrant watermelons, mangos and lychees.
Spa pampering beckons on my last morning, and a fantastic pregnancy massage soothes my tired legs. Afternoon tea at the parlour is our final treat, a delicious offering of wraps and quiches, small bowls of Khao Soi chicken noodle soup, mini burgers and mouthwatering Thai and Indian desserts. After all that cycling, we reckon we’re earned it!