Cambodia's Sihanoukville may top the backpackers' hitlist, but it's what lies offshore that's caught our eye. Song Saa Private Island hotel in the Koh Rong Islands is an eco-luxe escape spread over a pair of pristine isles, with thatch and stone villas dotted among the jungle canopy or lolling above the sea. Being green-minded has never been so glamorous.
11am; check-in, 2pm. Both are flexible subject to availability, and charged at a half-day rate.
Double rooms from £780.61 ($948), including tax at 23.42 per cent.
Inclusions for bed and breakfast and all-inclusive rates differ, but all include breakfast, shared speedboat transfers from Sihanoukville, access to the private nature reserve and snorkelling kit to use on the House Reef.
Tucked into the rainforest, Ila Spa Sanctuary draws on local herbs, oils and sand in treatments such as the Song Saa Blessing, a soothing 150-minute ritual. There's also a yoga pavilion by the pool for early morning stretch sessions.
At the hotel
Gym, Ila spa, gardens, free WiFi throughout, free tea, coffee and unlimited bottles of house drinking water, three pieces of laundry a person a day. In rooms: flatscreen TV, iPod dock, indoor and outdoor showers, sunken bath tubs, Aesop toiletries.
Our favourite rooms
All of the villas offer ocean views, private pools and an effortlessly luxe blend of thatched roofs, rustic timber beams, earthy stone and polished marble walls. Four-poster beds, Moroccan lanterns and carved tribal statues add flair to each eco-chic space. Perched among the canopy, the two-bedroom Jungle Villa scores points for its crescent-shaped layout and generous kitchen and living area. Its seclusion makes cheeky dips in the outdoor bath tub a must.
Not content to offer just sunrise or sunset views, the infinity-edge pool cleverly straddles the east and west sides of the island. Each villa also has it's own sea-view plunge pool.
Song Saa’s open-air spa is made up of private spa pavilions dotted across the island; it embraces the Buddhist philosophy of metta bhavana – the cultivation of loving-kindness and the spa menu is divided into three sections: stillness, healing and blessings. Choose from soothing Kundalini back massages, coconut oil rituals, Khmer leaf herbal massages, mudwraps and rainforest facials. Fancy a spa session under the stars? Nighttime spa sessions for two – soothing relaxation rituals – can be arranged with a day’s notice.
Sarongs, swimwear and your snorkel kit. If you forgot to pack your favourite kaftan, shop up at the island's two exclusive boutiques.
All-inclusive rates include lunch and dinner; snacks and select house drinks; in-villa meals; a 30-minute 'foot ritual', head, neck and shoulder massage a person; three pieces of laundry a day; local village tour; and return airport transfers.
Children of all ages are welcome. Both the bed and breakfast and all-inclusive plans are free for children up to five years old; children aged six to 12 will be charged half the adult rate.
The protection of the natural environment and the support of local communities is central to Song Saa's ethical charter; the resort has a team of six conservation staff members and has established Cambodia's first marine protected area, which covers a million square metres and extends 200 metres from the outer edges of the reefs that fringe Song Saa Private Island. They are also working to protect the island's bird and forest life, including bat breeding colonies, and roosting sites for large ranging birds such as hornbills, sea eagles and owls.
Established in 2013, the Song Saa Foundation is the leading Cambodia-based organisation promoting coastal and marine conservation in the Koh Rong archipelago. The foundation supports local communities through livelihood opportunities, an annual medical mission, and work with a community centre in a local village; guests can ‘pack for a purpose’ and bring clothing, school supplies and books to donate. It is also working on an action plan to mitigate the resort’s climate impact.
Song Saa also has an onsite chef’s garden and other ingredients used in the restaurants and bars are sourced from local communities where possible; Song Saa works closely with suppliers to ensure sustainability and has a ‘farm-to-table/ocean-to-table’ ethos. A food waste management programme is in the works and the resort is in the process of eliminating all single-use plastics (bamboo straws made in a local village have already replaced plastic straws in all of its bars and restaurants). Water is sourced from underground wells, greywater is used in the gardens and there’s an onsite recycling centre.
Aim for one as close to the water as possible for cooling sea breezes. For a romantic dinner for two, opt for a private beach cabana.
The overwater, open-sided Vista Restaurant is the breezy dining space at Song Saa; guests on the bed and breakfast rate have morning meals included here. The menu champions local ingredients and Khmer flavours; spanking-fresh seafood stars in dishes such as fish amok (a light, turmeric-laced curry) and samlor koko (a spicy fish soup). Guests staying on all-inclusive packages can take their pick from meals at the Vista Overwater Restaurant, Driftwood Bar & Kitchen and Destination Dining locations.
Order a bottle of something bubbly from the Salt or Sweet menu at the Champagne Bar, then sip as you watch the sunset. Open all day, the Driftwood Bar is the spot to head for a chilled post-swim beer or a sundowner from 5pm–7pm. If you'd like to learn more about the bar's hand-picked wines ask staff to line up a tasting.
The kitchen keeps the woks firing until 11pm.
Tasty snacks are available around the clock. Extensive in-villa dining is also on offer during restaurant hours.
Song Saa is located on a pair of private islands on the Koh Rong Archipelago, just off the coast of Sihanoukville in the Gulf of Thailand, south-west of mainland Cambodia.
There are daily flights from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville with Cambodia Angkor Air. Sihanoukville airport is a 30-minute drive from the hotel. Private car transfers are US$25 a person each way in a shared van or US$73 for a private car for two people – there's a US$37 charge for each additional person. If you're staying on the all-inclusive rate, then shared car transfers from Sihanoukville are included. The Phnom Penh International Airport is in the Cambodian capital, two and a half hours' drive north of Sihanoukville via the expressway (the hotel can arrange private transfers, starting from US$350). Guests will be collected at the airport and transferred to the resort's port lounge for the speedboat transfer.
Visitors aren't allowed to self-drive in Cambodia, which may be a blessing in disguise – things get seriously hairy on the roads here.
You'll be treated to your very own Jackie O moment on the shared boat transfer from Sihanoukville to Song Saa, which is included with your stay and takes around 45 minutes. There are two daily transfers each way: at 1.30pm and 4.30pm (local time), from Sihanoukville Port to Song Saa Island; and at 8am and 10.30am on the return journey. Song Saa has partnered with Helistar Cambodia and can provide helicopter transfers on request from Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Sihanoukville, landing on neighbouring Koh Rong, where you'll get a five-minute speedboat transfer to Song Saa. One way helicopter transfers to/from Phnom Penh are from US$6,500; US$11,900 to/from Siem Reap and US$7,300 from Sihanoukville.
Worth getting out of bed for
Aquatic pursuits should be at the top of the list, with a host of chilled-out activities included in your room rate. Take a snorkelling tour of Song Saa Islands (equipment is included in your room rate), exploring the reefs, seahorses and rainbow-hued fish of this protected pocket. Jump in a kayak and mosey around the mangroves, led by your personal guide. Sea kayaking and paddleboarding around the archipelago is also on offer, often teamed with a picnic lunch on a deserted island. If you're staying with the all-inclusive package, all non-motorised watersports are included and you'll get a 10 per cent discount on motorised watersports too.
By night, don't miss the bioluminescence swim – a speedboat will whisk you out into the sea where you can splash in the sparkling waters. Ethereal stuff. Come back to the island for some hot lemongrass tea and Ayurvedic snacks.
On dry land, local village tours to the nearby fishing village of Prek Svay can be arranged. Nature safaris on Koh Rong – access to this nature reserve are included in your room rate – offer the chance to spot rare bird species and a series of waterfalls, before returning to the resort by longtail boat. One free longtail boat excursion to Sala Song Saa Village Tour is included in your room rate too.
In-room distractions are also available for a fee, including cinema screenings on your private deck, and romantic baths with champagne and chocolate.
While Vista Restaurant may become your default dinner position, Song Saa offers up a tantalising menu of dining options. Poolside meals give you the chance to dine with your feet dangling in the water. Or if you prefer the feel of sand between your toes, ask about a beach dinner near Driftwood Bar.
Looking for a change of scene from the on-land bars? Push the boat out with a sunset cruise around the breath-snatching Koh Rong Islands. With around 20 uninhabited isles in the archipelago, you're sure to find the perfect spot for a romantic tête-à-tête. At Song Saa, cocktails are served at the overwater Vista Bar, followed by a lunar tasting menu in the restaurant. Fancy a quiet one? Opt for a sedate picnic in your villa.
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.