The island of Koh Samui is ideal for a villa getaway, writes Susan Kurosawa
THE urge to hum Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon is all but irresistible. I have been told John Spence, the owner of the Karma Group, operators of Thailand’s Karma Samui resort, was involved with the management of Boy George’s hit group in its early days.
But perhaps the more divine interpretation of karma would be more appropriate as all is zen-serene here at Karma Samui, flagship for the Karma Group and one of Koh Samui’s most successful new properties. With 36 pool villas, all but cascading into the sea, Karma Samui is one of this Gulf of Thailand island’s most coveted addresses. It feels like the unlikely occupation of an eagle’s nest to be perched so sky-high, looking down on cliff-flanked sea as if the Amalfi Coast has upped and donned a sarong, with an orchid behind its ear for good measure.
Karma Samui’s contemporary villas — private swims, broad terraces, alfresco daybeds, luxe interiors with Thai silk trimmings, kitchens and laundries — are spacious enough for house party stays. These residences come in configurations of one to four bedrooms; with a sensible approach to pricing, tariffs cover taxes, breakfasts and transfers and some deals include free meals for children under 12, spa vouchers or add-on days.
This is total lotus-eating territory but you may want to augment that diet with mangoes and mangosteens, lemongrassscented curries and a good dollop of Canadian executive chef Stefano Leone’s fantastic Italian-fusion fare. Located above a sheltered cove on the eastern side of Koh Samui, but well insulated from the push of Chaweng and Lamai beaches (think: Bali’s Kuta and Sanur equivalents) just to its south, Karma Sui provides a civilised base for several days of touring this rugged 250sq km island.
Unlike a minuscule resort isle with not much more to do than swim and sleep, Koh Samui has a thriving tourism industry based on eco-touring, watersports and boat trips to dive, kayak and snorkel Ang Thon marine sanctuary where scenes from the Leonardo DiCaprio flick The Beach were filmed.
One long day, we hire a car and driver and bop around the island, encountering reasonably sedate traffic (no crazed Bangkok tuktuks but plenty of hurtling pick-up trucks that serve as buses, with two benches for passengers in the rear). It takes only about an hour to do a 55km loop, driving more or less parallel to a long ribbon of cliff-backed beaches, but such a lickety-split pace is out of kilter; the feel on Koh Samui is a mere notch above soporific on the action meter.
We have a splendid lunch — green mussels steamed in white wine, garlic and zingy Thai herbs, green papaya salad and foamed pineapple juice in orchiddecorated glasses — at Five Islands restaurant at Taling Ngam on the island’s west coast. Plans for further sightseeing evaporate as the sun slowly shifts and the view of four limestone islands (the fifth is hidden behind another) becomes strangely mesmerising. There is no sense of rush or bother at the Five Islands restaurant: tables are not turned over, and it seems lunch here frequently merges into the cocktail hour.
In the early evening, at the Fisherman’s Village precinct by Bophut Beach, the oft-called French Quarter, we encounter leathery and over-jewelled Frenchmen with mirrored sunglasses who run successful boutique hotels, bars and cafes. They may look like pirates but they have carved out enviably laid-back lifestyles here and the chilled mood is infectious. A pastis in the afternoon, conversations in fractured Franglais: it’s the Riviera without the spotlights.
The boutique hotels, English pubs (with lager on tap and rugby on wallmounted televisions), wine and tapas bars, cafes and restaurants in Fisherman’s Village criss-cross of narrow streets attract a groovy set. By night, trees are lit by fairy lights and motorbikes zip past (constantly in some cases: this is a place to show off and be seen, St Tropez or Monte Carlo style). Among the ultrafashionable hang-outs are La Sirene (Thai-French food) and Cocooning (tapas bar; hotel rooms attached).
These French expats are part of a growing community of retirees and lifechangers, particularly from Europe, who have dropped out here for a simpler, sunsplashed existence. Among the influx are many Brits, who buy off-the-plan villas and sailboats, which they bestow with names such as Gin Fizz; the Channel 4 documentary series No Going Back has advertised on several Koh Samui travel websites for British candidates who have moved here and are willing to have their stories filmed.
But despite the lure of a retirement filled with Jean-Paul Belmondo lookalikes and aperitifs, I am on a strict timetable: deadlines and duties await. The days assume an easy rhythm, although it would be far too easy just to stay put in a Karma Samui villa and wait for Thailand to come calling. There are chefs who’ll do in-villa cooking classes or prepare a barbecue on your pool terrace. There are spa therapists who’ll waft in, too, if the thought of walking to the Chakra Spa becomes a hillside too far.
Staff whirl lazy guests in electric carts up and down the bougainvillea-fringed pathways linking five jutting terraces; it’s a bit of a thrill to plummet down from the high reception lounge to the beguiling Padma restaurant for dinner by the beach. Candles flicker and sweet oils burn and a few Frenchmen (these ones really do look like gangsters escaped from a Marseilles crime movie) wander in for a stickybeak and a bon soiree.
Leone is a wizard and the food here is so exquisitely good that it seems ridiculous to eat elsewhere. Tiger prawns arrive wrapped in pancetta on cannellini bean salad, sea bass is wrapped in parchment paper and served with white clams and a rich and chunky tomato sauce that scents the warm air and whisks us, pirates and all, to Positano. Fresh oranges are segmented and arranged carpaccio style, with a reduction of amaretto, crumbled tiramisu cookies and vanilla ice cream. Nights that could have been spent in the French Quarter, at kick-boxing shows or ladyboy bars become gourmet adventures across Leone’s inspired menu. An electric cart back up the hill, a plunge under the stars in the private pool, the certain knowledge that we are so bloated with good food, we will surely float like li-los. Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Jetstar and Karma Resorts.
Jetstar flies direct to Phuket from Sydney three times a week, with domestic connections from other Australian ports. Bangkok Airways flies several times daily from Phuket to Koh Samui. More: 131 538; www.jetstar.com. Karma Samui, and sister property Karma Jimbaran in Bali, are members of the Leading Small Hotels of the World. More: (02) 9377 8444 or 1800 222 033; www.lhw.com. www.karmaresorts.com www.karmasamui.com
A taste of the high life: Karma Samui’s executive sous-chef Rann chooses produce at the local market, top left; the resort restaurant, bottom left; one of Karma Samui’s luxury villas, with a private pool, perched above the Gulf of Thailand