GOOD KARMA

The is­land of Koh Sa­mui is ideal for a villa get­away, writes Susan Kuro­sawa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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

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