You don’t have to die to go to heaven – you just need to go to Mai Khao Beach for Sala Phuket, whose spa and wine are award-winning, whose pool glitters temptingly from a green lawn, and whose irresponsibly romantic suites and villas come with open-air bathrooms and tropical gardens where birds sing gleefully.
Double rooms from £252.78 (THB10,572), including tax at 18.7 per cent.
Rates usually include breakfast (buffet and à la carte options) and WiFi.
Sala Phuket pleases crowds and critics alike – the hotel has notched up a cabinet-worth of awards, including accolades for its wine and spa.
At the hotel
Beach (public), three pools (two for adults; one for little Smiths), spa, gardens, free WiFi throughout. In rooms: TV, DVD player, iPod dock, mini-fridge.
Our favourite rooms
The Sala Pool Villas come with an amazing open-air bathroom with a merman-sized, egg-shaped bath tub and a private pool that you can swim proper laps in. You’ll have your own little tropical garden to relax in; inside, styling relies on white and wood, with a comfy king-size bed and oversized day-bed. For more space and a bigger private pool, splash out on a One Bedroom Duplex Pool Villa Suite.
Even the most lazy landlubber will find themselves itching to notch up some laps, or at least splash around a bit, in the hotel’s gorgeous, sea-surveying main pool, which is sunk into the green lawn and positioned just a bucket-throw from the beach. There's also a lap pool and a shallow little oasis for children.
Have a treatment at the award-winning spa: a salt glow body scrub, white clay body wrap or Thai herb facial, perhaps. If you’re looking a little shaggy-haired, have a trim and hair mask, too.
Something sparkly for moonlit cocktails at the bar; swimming togs for the beach and pool; a healthy appetite for feasts in the restaurant.
Mrs Smiths (and their long-haired heroes) will be pleased to note the in-room hair straighteners – you’ve no excuse for frizz, whatever the weather. Leaving no little detail to chance, Sala Phuket sends guests a questionnaire to fill in before arrival.
The hotel accepts children, but isn’t really geared towards them. That said, babysitting can be arranged (from THB1500 for one child for two hours to TBH4250 for two children for seven hours) and the hotel has a stash of travel cots, available on request.
Up the romance (literally) by sitting above the restaurant in the rooftop dining area, admiring the reflection of the white-linen-topped tables floating in the pond. ‘Radiant’ Smiths can cool down in the icy inside dining area.
Take inspiration from the gorgeous white-and-cream interiors: waft around in ghoulish white layers, with patterned accents here and there. A dash of spicy cologne won’t go amiss.
Come here hungry – the food really is amazing. The sensible menu has hefty sections dedicated to different options – ‘Crabs, scallops, prawns’; ‘Lobster’, ‘Lamb, pork, beef & the rest’ – and makes for a mouthwatering read. Standout dishes include: mousse-stuffed blue crab, scallops served with sage-and-lemon beurre blanc, and oven-roasted half chicken served with sweet potato-and-coconut mash and hot Thai basil brown butter. (Opt for a tasting menu to canter through a variety of Thai treats in one sitting, or earn brownie points with the chef by opting for his signature seafood platter, which includes: lobster brushed with herb butter and chargrilled over coconut wood, spotted grouper served with soy, ginger and garlic on hot river stones and a variety of tasty crustaceans.) The beachside restaurant is an airy, relaxed space, with steel-grey seats and banquettes surveying the pool and beach beyond.
Kick off your flip-flops and climb onto one of the oversized day-beds, a fun setting for the bar’s inventive cocktails. We’d order another burnt lemon and vanilla margarita or lychee-and-lemongrass martini in a heartbeat. Of course, whatever you order is best enjoyed with a few rounds of Thai tapas.
Buffet breakfast starts at 7am and ends at 11am, but you can order à la carte options at any time; the restaurant stops serving food at 10pm.
You’ve got until 10pm to order your favourite dishes from the restaurant menu; there’s a limited selection after that. The hotel also offers a personalised dining service that will have you eating in your favourite patch of the resort.
You’ll find Sala Phuket on Mai Khao Beach in north Phuket, a short drive from the island’s airport, in an unspoiled and peaceful patch of Thailand.
Phuket International Airport, which receives regular international flights from dozens of destinations, is 20km from the hotel (an easy 20-minute drive). For flights, try Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com), Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) or Air Asia (www.airasia.com) if you're coming from Europe or Asia; from Australia, check out Virgin Australia (www.virginaustralia.com) or Jetstar (www.jetstar.com). Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) offers domestic connections.
Phuket is a 40-minute drive from the hotel, but you’re on holiday on an island – for the utmost relaxation, gad about by boat or on foot, instead. Taxis are pretty cheap, too.
Worth getting out of bed for
Marvel at Phang Nga Bay’s sheer limestone karsts that jut improbably out of the glittering green water. Hop on a day-long boat trip around the bay, pausing to admire James Bond Island – immortalised in The Man With the Golden Gun – and Koh Panyee (the bay has 42 islands in total, plus many different species of mangrove); there are also plenty of untouched stretches of sand for you to wash up on. Snorkelling around here is dazzling, thanks to the coral reefs and kaleidoscopic resident fish. Take part in the hotel's cookery classes, which start between noon and 3pm (flexible, subject to participants’ preferences) and last for two hours (THB1,600 for one person; THB2,500 for two). You'll learn to make gaeng kiew waan gai (green curry with chicken), tom yam goong (Thailand's famous spicy prawn soup) and nam tok nuea (chargrilled beef salad with chilli and mint). Mai Khao is part of Sirinat National Park, known for its unspoiled milk-white beaches; go for a long walk along the sand, keeping an eye out for turtles and tropical birds.
Tha Noon Seafood is a 10-minute drive away, close to Sarasin Bridge. Take the hint from the name and expect succulent seafood, dressed with Thai herbs and spices. Walk to JJ’s Bar & Food (+66 (0)86 954 6967) on Mai Khao Beach near the Marriott for a cheap and authentic Thai meal. The freshly cooked curries and just-caught prawns are delicious and the owner is a delight; whatever you do, don’t leave without having the mango sticky rice pudding. Takieng Thai Restaurant at the Renaissance Phuket Resort (+66 (0)76 363 999) is deservedly popular: expect a meal with beach views, excellent service and unabashed flavours. The papaya and pomelo salads are refreshingly zingy; save room for chilli-chocolate ice-cream. Sit amid the mangroves, with the sounds of birdsong and crickets chirruping while you eat, at Kin Dee Restaurant (+66 (0)82 814 8482) at 71/6 Mai Khao Beach. Don’t be deceived by the simple wood styling – the food is brilliant; standout dishes include softshell crab with curry sauce, duck with passion fruit sauce, banana blossom salad and fragrant pots of lobster, crabs and clams.
It’s hard to scream when your face is smushed into a massage table. The Thai masseur elf who had greeted me and given me a pair of disposable pants (a serving suggestion if you happen to be swanning around Phuket commando) ‘Hulks-out’ after I’m face-down, and semi-naked and steamrolls her forearms over my knots with the singular drive of a mediaeval inquisitor. ‘Is the pressure ok?’ she asks in a whisper as gentle as a gust through a monastery before battering my gluteals for whichever state secrets they concealed. And, maybe it was fear, or Stockholm syndrome, but I merely let out a muffled ‘yes’ – well, a thorough pounding can be quite cathartic after all…
I’m not in one of those Patong parlours – the ones spoken with air quotes – but rather the magical spa at boutique resort Sala Phuket, our home beside Mai Khao beach for two days. Their lemongrass-scented sanctum is reached via a labyrinth of misty walkways over shallow waters, leading to waiting mugs of herbal tea in the relaxation courtyard. If a droplet of rain sullies a guest’s head, an attendant dashes over with a brolly – it’s all so cosseting, that if my ‘medium-pressure (!), elbow-and-finger massage’ (ahem…) hadn’t been confirmed the night before, I’d have expected a playful caressing with mittens.
Like an out-of-body massage, Thailand is thrilling and transformative; we arrive as blue skies begin to darken. It’s October and rainy season in Phuket, but this dampens only our flip-flops rather than our spirits. We watch the cinematic deluge from a sofa in the covered reception pavilion (complete with a little library) as we’re checked in and handed chilled towels and fragrant cups of tea. Our Pool Villa (oh yes) isn’t ready yet, and may well be underwater at this point, so we kill time with a Singha beer (Mr Smith’s) and an elaborate, rum-drenched banana daiquiri (mine). Rain falls with the gusto of friendly fire over the decorative-pebble-lined moat you enter by; its static is deafening and humidity hits you like a sauna door opening: Thailand’s storms make London’s drizzle look like a leaky tap.
Sala has a time-skipping feel – I half expect a feral Full Moon-party survivor from the Nineties to emerge from the bushes, hair curtains dishevelled, waving a copy of The Beach, yelling ‘what year is it!?’ Formidable, white breeze-block walls are prettified by lush foliage, waterlily ponds and fig trees with plaited trunks and swing chairs hung from their branches. Gardeners in wicker hats bow and ‘sawasdee’ as you pass, but in the belly of the retreat, you could well be in Mexico or even Marbs – a little local flavour wouldn’t go amiss. Things improve at the restaurant, bar and main infinity pool; their prime coastal perch overlooks the sea-lapped sandiness Phuket’s famed for.
Still, our villa is breezy and light; decorated in the creamy white of sticky rice, it has romantically curtain-swathed walls of windows. Really, the focus is outdoors, where our generously sized private pool rests in a garden. Now, Thailand, a word about your bathrooms: we didn’t have one with four functioning walls throughout our stay. Here, they skip the pretence altogether; yes, the alfresco, stone, egg-shaped bath tub and shower are titillating if soapy posteriors rev your motor, but does the toilet really need to be as outdoorsy? A single stud wall hides your shame, and poor Mr Smith had to hide in a wardrobe every time nature called. Yet, after dark, when the rain patters on the pool and we’re in the kind of soft, crisply laundered bed only hotels can achieve, our room feels as amorously tempestuous as a tropical Wuthering Heights. I poke Heathcliff Smith. He ignores me.
So which uncommon Thai delicacies did we explore in Sala’s dove-grey seaside restaurant? Um, quesadillas, pizza… The lunch menu has noodles and curries galore, but the gooey lure of melted cheddar proved irresistible. Guilty, I opt for a location-appropriate dinner: pla tord kratiem prik – a peppery, garlicky red snapper as fresh as Neptune himself, doused in Chinese whisky. I particularly enjoy the needless decadence at breakfast: eggs Benedict Sala-style involves barbecue- and Hollandaise-sauce-drenched pulled pork with eggs atop a croissant; bread pudding is croissant chunks in custard, cream and chocolate. I wonder if kitchen staff are being held hostage by a mad pâtissier.
Mai Khao beach, the resort’s glorious golden stretch of sand, frilled with shaggy palms, is rained out. Instead we meander past the painted shutters and eye-catching street art (Rukkit’s geometric birds, Ludmila Letnikova’s cute critters) in colonial Phuket Town. We stop to play with Churchill-faced, luxury moggies at B Cat Café, but Mr Smith – reclaiming his testosterone after our trip to Bangkok’s Unicorn Café – leaves me to it. Then we sidestep Patong’s Hooters and ‘go-go bars’ to dodge incoming paragliders and henna tattooists on its beach, just as the sky shakes up a purply-pink ombré cocktail of a sunset. After fist-sized prawns by Karon Beach and a few more Changs and Singhas, we end the night by dipping our toes in our sub-lit pool, daring each other to jump in au naturel. So, did we? Dot. dot. dot.
The last morning, we sip the pandanus iced tea left at turn-down, I eat each manifestation of croissant at breakfast and we book a last-minute massage at a beach hut just beyond the resort – I wonder if I should warn Mr Smith, a Thai-massage virgin, but I decide it’s more fun to watch him get pummelled unawares. He loves it. So, to Thailand’s coconut-infused sauces, lingering jasmine scent, watercolour skies and surreally blue waters, and ambient soundtrack of torrential rain, we add being crushed by forearms like a caffeinated lumberjack: a full sensory deck. Not bad indeed.