Gal with a Suitcase

Thailand is home to one of the most indulgent new spa-hotel havens around. Jolie Hunt spends a few days at the Ritz-Carlton group's tropical paradise.

Is it me, or has it been an unusually long and dreary winter? I’m optimistic by nature, but this season of cold, damp darkness has been inescapable. We expect a few months of this in London, New York, or Chicago, but when sun-seeking visits to Miami and Los Angeles yield a winter jacket, something is awry. I began looking for an escape.

Years ago I became smitten with Thailand. I discovered the spa haven of Koh Samui, and from there it was love. The topography of the Thai islands will calm even the stressiest A-type, and the Thai people are about the loveliest you’ll find anywhere. The strong Buddhist influence—nearly 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist—permeates throughout everything; food and drink are offered to guests as a sign of respect, and the large spiritual and natural influences make visitors feel immediately welcome.

Every guest is assigned a private butler—and he or she is your personal concierge for the duration.

Thailand was hard hit by the 2004 tsunami. I raised a lot of money then, and am happy to echo that with the almighty tourist dollar now. But where to go? Every traveller thinks through what kind of experience they want. The party scene on Phuket? The unspoiled jungle feel of Krabi? We were all wooed by Leonardo DiCaprio’s killer tan in The Beach, so perhaps Ko Phi Phi Lee could be it? Hollywood being Hollywood, though, the unspoiled natural beauty of this pristine beach wasn’t enough; bulldozers were used to make it more "paradise-like" and the resulting lawsuits carried on long after the movie was panned. As if the Thai Tourism Board didn’t have enough to contend with. This is when I discovered Phulay Bay.

The Ritz-Carlton group, long known for its oaky quarters, white-glove service, and maturely aged clientele, has changed tempo with a newly launched luxury hotel brand extension they’re calling Ritz-Carlton Reserve. The new mantra under the Reserve banner is ultra-high-end, customized experiences, many of them in dreamy locales. I was intrigued when I heard about this plan. Phulay Bay is their inaugural property in Krabi, Southern Thailand. After a few false starts, this "completely bespoke and personally-tailored-to-suit" experience, as the Ritz puts it, opened in late December. Not often am I tempted by the scent of a new fad, but the idea of a visit to this barely christened lush locale—dubbing itself casual and chic—seemed too good to refuse.

The thing to remember when travelling to a Thai island is that your base is centered around the resort. You will eat a great many—if not all—meals on site, and nearly every experience is arranged on or surrounding other properties. In other words, make sure you like where you’re headed. The surrounding villages and towns throughout Southern Thailand are very, very poor and unfortunately there is quite a stark difference between being a local and a tourist.

Getting to Krabi isn’t easy unless you’re starting from Bangkok, where there are direct flights that are a bargain at 75 minutes door-to-door. You can also fly to Phuket and take a boat or two-plus-hour taxi ride. Never knowing what the road conditions may present, I opted for the most direct route.

Stay

Hotel-hopping works in cities, but not in far-away locales. Phulay Bay sent a spanking new van to the arrivals hall, complete with a woman to describe the journey and resort. I liked this. The drive is long-ish at 40 minutes and you go through some quite depressed villages. I counted a handful of cows and at least 20 chickens on the side of the road.

Upon arrival, you walk over a dramatic entry way of rocks surrounding water, into a stunning pavilion. Your blood pressure immediately lowers. This is what a vacation should feel like. What I hadn’t expected was the introduction to my butler, Aum. None of my advance contact mentioned this perk—incidentally, every guest is assigned a private butler—and he or she is your personal concierge for the duration.

Phulay Bay is a huge property and most of the getting around is done by golf cart. Watching Aum maneuver this thing amused me. My ears pricked up when she casually mentioned that she never drove before moving to Krabi a few months prior. Let’s just say GWS was an alert passenger from this stage on. I began to notice subtle workers everywhere on site. Big aubergine walls and hedges lined the pathways, some 20 feet high. With 54 lush villas and dramatic surroundings, it requires over a hundred people to keep this place well-manicured. Despite the smiling faces and gorgeous new smells and sights, I was anxious to get to the room. When travelling I take on the look of a dishevelled vagabond, so no doubt my hosts were beginning to wonder if I was an Imposter with a Suitcase.

How a shower changes everything. The arrival to the room is purposely dramatic. The Ritz hired Thai architect Lek Bunnag for the grounds and IA49 as the interior designer. Clearly they complement one another. Everything from doorways to pavilions feels grand and oversized. The senses immediately perk up with the new smells, faint sounds of music and colors meant to belong in nature. Let’s just say that they’ve done it better than I expected. The details are right—a GWS pet peeve.

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On site you’ll find a gym, library, and the stunning ESPA "spa sanctuary," complete with 11 treatment rooms. By day, spa staffers can be seen poolside offering guests complimentary head massages to tease at what’s to come. Try it. ESPA is open late until 10 p.m., which makes for an evening well spent.

The real challenges of your visit to Phulay Bay are how long to stay and what type of room to book. I was there for four nights which seemed perfect; others were there 12 which seemed like overkill. Picking your room is next. There are five options, all dearly priced: Resort Pavilion, $575-1,000 per night; Ocean Pavilion, $625 - $1,050 per night; Beach Villa, $800 - $1,225 per night; Reserve Villa, $1,300 - $1,725; and Royal Beach Villa, $2,000 per night. All of the rooms are pretty incredible. The more expensive ones come, naturally, with more perks like private infinity pools (I used mine once), outdoor baths (didn’t use at all) and beautiful grounds (which, unless it’s a beach, I could live firmly without). The Reserve Villa had the most incredible bed I’ve ever experienced, though. At 3 metres by 2 metres I felt like the princess in the pea. I would go back for this experience alone.

Eat

You’ll be eating nearly all your meals on site. Normally this drives me nuts. I didn’t mind it here, though, since there are plenty of options. Breakfast is served at Jampoon from 6 to 11 a.m. daily. There’s an omelette bar, and all sorts of fresh-baked breads and juices. It’s plenty delicious. They make a mean (read: strong) iced Americano and both healthy eaters and indulgers will be sated.

Lunch is typically taken from the beautiful pool bar called Plai Fah. You can eat in your private cabanas that surround the infinity pool overlooking the Andaman Sea, at a surrounding table, or you can be bourgeois and eat on stools within the pool itself. Call me a snob, but I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the food. We’ve become accustomed to shitty burgers and soggy cobb salads while basking in the sun. How wrong I was! The tuna nicoise salad arrived to raves from GWS and beau, the flat bread was utterly delectable, and the virgin margarita was a tangy dream. Daily meals here may well become your routine for the duration.

For dinner, try Lae Lay seafood grill. It feels like a Zen oasis. The fare is simple and not overly fussy, while the restaurant has a quiet calm and overlooks the sea. Roasted garlic cloves and bread arrive while you’re deciding what to order. This is a GWS favorite. For mains, try the simple grilled fishes and prawns. Atkins would be proud. But if you’re allowed carbs, go for the lemon mashed potatoes.

Another solid dinner option is the Thai-inspired Sri Trang. Here you’ll find spicy—and I mean SPICY—curries, deliciously flavored beef, and other Thai treats. The atmosphere is more like a private home than a restaurant, and the service unbeatable. The only flaw is that cocktails take too long to arrive because they’re made somewhere else.

Do

It’s not often we allow ourselves a trip involving a whole lot of nothing, but this should be firmly on your agenda here. The days were blissful; a hearty breakfast, a morning workout at the barely touched gym, followed by poolside reading or sunning in a cabana. Normally we don’t give ourselves permission to unwind in this way, and I decided it was time. It’s important to share that beach lovers will be disappointed with Krabi; it’s not a beach destination. The beaches are there, but you’re really near a pool overlooking the sea versus camped out on the sand. Bottom line: The government doesn’t allow chairs on these unspoiled beauties. This appealed to me because of my distaste with loud tourists over-taking every pristine patch, but I realize others may not like this. Krabi is a sanctuary and you’re not coming here for jet skis or water sports; you’re coming to relax. Phuket is the party island—so if that’s your speed, go there.

When you tire of lounging, get yourself out on the water. The personal butler will handle your hire of a private speed boat to take you around the nearby islands. Try Phi Phi or Railay. You’re near-guaranteed a magical day. Your captain will be a local guy who knows all the ins and outs of the surrounding islands and they’ll have all the gear you’ll need. The snorkeling was the best I’ve ever experienced. The neighboring private nooks and enclaves without another person in sight will remind you just how special this place is. Something to consider is that the weather changes quite dramatically in Thailand. A rain shower can be expected nearly every afternoon. They pass quickly and on the whole won’t disrupt your stay. Other water-based options include kayaking and hiring a local tail boat.

Avoid

Local shopping or dining off site is something to avoid. These are poverty-stricken areas and Westerners will not fit in well. I know it sounds odd, but stay within the fantasy; you’ll be happier, safer, and relaxed one last time before heading back to reality.

Phulay Bay A Ritz Carlton Reserve 111 Moo 3 T.Nongthalay, A. Muang Krabi 81000 Thailand +66 75 628111 www.phulaybay.com

Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than 50% of the year. Her recommendations are aimed at business travelers who are short on time but not on taste. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. She lives between New York and London.