An island redefined

There is no need for parents to miss out on a real holiday when travelling with children.

There is no need for parents to miss out on a real holiday when travelling with children.

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The New York Times recently voted Koh Samui one of the “41 Places to Go in 2011”, alongside big hitting destinations like London, Milan, and Oahu.  Having made several trips to Thailand’s third largest island over the years, I like to think that like me, Koh Samui has transformed itself, growing old(er) and wiser with age. I first visited the island about 10 years ago as a bright-eyed backpacker, zipping carelessly around on rented motorcycles, taking the sweltering humidity on the chin, and braving the onslaught of tropical mosquitoes at dusk. A decade later, I have put aside my invincible ways.

I remember the days when we used to cram into a non air-conditioned room and fight over who got the mosquito netting at night. From Bangkok, we’d take overnight buses, arriving in Chumpon in the wee hours of the morning, arriving on the island before the sun even woke up. We scoffed at the older and more well-to-do travelers, shelling out all that money to fly directly to the island, driving in and out of their posh hotels in rental cars, pitying them for somehow missing out on the “real” experience. Nowadays, if it boiled down to no air-conditioning or no trip, I’d still opt to sleep in my own pool of sweat, but sanity and having a family urges me to play soft when I work hard. Fortunately, Koh Samui has blossomed from a backpacker’s lair into a upscale getaway, with the island’s world class wellness retreats and the beauty of its neighboring sister islands having attracted top athletes, Hollywood stars, and European royalty in recent years. The New York Times described the island as a “toned-down version of Phuket, heavy on wellness and food”. Other plus points that Samui has over the biggest island destination in Thailand is its intimate size, which means sea views even from the main ring road, not to mention a plethora of beachfront accommodation and restaurants.

Boutique Samui

Within the last couple of years, a handful of 5 star hotel chains have carved out luxury enclaves around the island, from Four Season to Six Senses, W Retreat to Banyan Tree. My childhood girlfriends and I have been scattered around the world, so when we decided to get together in comfort for some reminiscing and some girly catchup. We were obviously not seeking a spring break type of trip, so with children in tow and at the advice of our contact, we booked a private villa on the northern beach of Maenam, not too far from the island’s only airport. Our holiday home had 4 bedrooms, which we allocated prior to arriving. The two who were traveling sans family got dibs on the beachfront room, something we all hotly contested even though the whole place had absolute beach frontage – not set back from the beach, but right on the beach (well, not counting the shin-high wall that separated the property from the soft sand). All the bedroom pavilions were set around an L-shaped swimming pool, which made it easy to keep an eye out on group happenings, with the children splashing happily and safely in the water.

Secret Garden

During our trip, we hired a van with a local driver, exploring the island, stopping as we saw fit. We also hired a guide for one day, spending the morning at the Secret Buddha Garden (also known as ‘Secret Garden’ or ‘Suan Taa Nimm’ in Thai). As it turned out, this was a nice enough of a place to explore by ourselves, with a trickling mountain stream, the air under the shades of leafy trees noticeably cooler than on the unmercifully hot beaches, but the guide was knowledgable and explained the various stone sculptures sprinkled throughout the gardens. I’m not sure if it was the fact that a 77 year old fruit farmer known as Uncle Nimm built all the mythical depictions at the age of 77, or that the statues depicted scenes from the epic Ramayana story, but the Secret Garden had a mystic aura about it, and was an unexpected gem of an attraction to find on a holiday island best known for its beaches.

Ang Thong gems

We also took a sailing trip during our stay out to the gorgeous Mu Koh Ang Thong, a cluster of islands dotting the gulf of Thailand. On one of the 42 islands that make up this archipelago we hiked to an inland Emerald Lake, but the steep staircases made it difficult for the younger children to come along, as had the climb to the viewpoint back on Samui where the magnificent views of the bay inspired to to set sail in the first place. On both occasions, the younger travelers in our group had to wait on the beach, but they didn’t seem to mind playing on the white sand and squealing in delight at a game of catch-me-if-you-can with the gentle waves. Other than these occasional adventures, we spent most of the trip enjoying and relaxing at the villa, having the private chef fire up the barbecue, with our iPod plugged into the outdoor patio speakers, and taking turns with the spa therapist at the open air Thai-styled pavilion in the gardens.

I’ve received an earful of complaints from younger friends that Koh Samui has priced itself out of reach for travelers with its somewhat high-end positioning and exorbitant air fares. While this may hold some truth. For me, part of the Samui charm is that it isn’t overrun by budget tourists.  The prices are high to reflect the quality and facilities available on the island. Especially when traveling with children, I for one was grateful for the privacy and the services on offer at a holiday rental – it might not be as cheap as a backpacker hostel, but it’s a small price to pay for a holiday that both adults and children can enjoy.

To take a break from the sand and the sea, here are some of activities on Koh Samui to entertain the young, or the young at heart:

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