Ultratravel - Koh Samui grows up
Spring 2012

Swapping hostels for swish villas and public beaches for private pontoons, Michelle Jana Chan discovers that Thailand’s party island is attracting flashpackers as well as backpackers.

This is the fabled island where we came 20 years ago for cheap beach-shack lodgings and full-moon parties – and in search of that beach. Long known as a destination for backpackers, Koh Samui is sprucing up its image to appeal to a different kind of independent traveller: stylish, well-heeled and looking to be cosseted in a villa with butler service and world-class spa treatments, rather than party all night and crash out next day with a copy of Alex Garland's dark debut novel.

The change is conspicuous all over Koh Samui. At the airport (now served by direct flights from Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore), I noticed as many smartly dressed British families and honeymoon couples from Seoul as I did Australian backpackers. Some luxury resorts are developing private residences to sell as upmarket second homes to these wealthier and more discerning visitors.

The shift of gear began five years ago, when a Four Seasons opened on the site of a former coconut plantation. It was the first property on the island with access to a private beach, and each of its 74 hillside villas, designed along traditional Thai lines, had its own infinity pool.

Since then a swathe of high-end hotels has opened, including Le Méridien, a Banyan Tree, the W Retreat and, last autumn, Conrad Koh Samui. It's evidence that the island as we knew it, with its cheap bars and run-down hostels on Chaweng Beach, has moved on and up.

Nor is it just international luxury chains that are changing the face of the island. Thai hotelier Sathit Muangprom recently launched 9Gems, a swish two-bedroom villa on the secluded north coast outside Bophut, Koh Samui's most upmarket neighbourhood. The latest newcomer, Akaryn Samui, opens this month at Hanuman Bay, the first resort to be built at this hidden-away cove just seven minutes from the airport. The brainchild of Thai hospitality pioneer Anchalika Kijkanakorn, it offers what she calls "intuitive luxury – knowing what your guests want almost before they do" and has 34 pool suites, 18 villas, four restaurants, a spa and a main pool finished in black lava rock with man-made phosphorescence in the water. Yes, Koh Samui has grown up. Here we highlight five of its smartest properties.

W Retreat

The dazzling W is already pulling in fashion shoots and DJ gigs, with its bright white décor, fluoro niches and library of designer coffee-table books. Next to its striking lobby, circular seating is sunk into an infinity pool that seems to merge into the sea, with mesmerising views across to Koh Phangan.

Half the villas – on the hillside – share those views; the rest – perpendicular to the seashore – have proper pools and private courtyards, although only the few at the end offer a glimpse of the ocean. The trendsetting rooms have thoughtful touches: "munchie boxes", Bliss products, a snazzy mini-kaleidoscope and a teddy bear tucked under the covers. Scattered across the property are self-service fridges – called "sweet spots" – with complimentary Cornettos, tiny tubs of Häagen-Dazs ice cream and cold drinks.

The letdown is a public access road ploughing through the resort, plus a rather murky sea. But you might overlook that after a few Mo-Hee-Toes at Sip, the stylish beach bar, listening to Michaelangelo L'Acqua's ubiquitous mixes, followed by dinner at Namu, the property's Japanese/Korean-inspired restaurant, where chefs work in an open-plan kitchen. After dark, the concierge can organise midnight squid-fishing or DJ lessons.

For younger backpackers-turned-flashpackers, this is one of the most popular choices in Thailand. For those who prefer something more permanent, W Retreat plans to build 17 secluded beachfront villas with three to five bedrooms, to be called The Residences.

MJC travelled with Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com)

Banyan Tree

An extraordinary feat of engineering, Banyan Tree's 78 stilted villas perch on a dramatic rocky hillside, with sensational views of Lamai Bay. Rooms have soothing contemporary interiors, generous terraces and private infinity pools that are said to be among the biggest on the island. Muted tones are offset by local artwork and traditional textures that include coconut palm and shell.

Highest on the hill, the Royal Banyan Pool Villas offer the most dramatic views, while Spa Pool Villas have en-suite rooms for customised treatments. Garden Pool Villas are like private sanctuaries shut off from the outside world and framed by swaying palms and landscaped gardens. Assigned to each room are personal villa hosts who chauffeur guests around in golf buggies and can organise activities such as batik painting and Thai language lessons. One dining option is Sands, for wood-fired pizza at the beachfront; alternatively, try spicy lemongrass soup with tiger prawns at the excellent lantern-lit Saffron, followed by sweet mango dessert with coconut-cream sticky rice.

For more than 10 years, Banyan Tree has operated a Spa Academy in Phuket to train its therapists, and this hotel's grand hydrotherapy wellness spa is its trump card. A circuit of jungle-themed aquatic experiences includes an artificial-rain walkway, a crushed-ice fountain and scented steam chambers.

There is also an array of pummelling waterfalls, thumping water jets and a "bucket drench" shower. The signature Royal Banyan spa treatment includes one massage using a herbal pouch and sesame oil, and another concentrating on the face. Classes include yoga and Thai boxing.

MJC travelled with Kuoni (www.kuoni.co.uk).

Le Meridien

Built on a slender plot on the northern end of low-key Lamai Beach, Le Méridien is a cleverly conceived maze of rooms arranged around three communal pools. The designers have used dense vegetation, manicured lawns and gigantic boulders to create a deceptive sense of space.

Rooms do not always have total privacy from neighbours, so you might need to close a blind or shutter. Interiors are elegant, contemporary and pan-Asian, with Balinese wood furnishings, Thai silk threads, soft lantern lighting and gilded wallpaper in colours reminiscent of traditional Chinese watercolours. The Terrace Suites are good value; at the top end are the magnificent Ocean Front Pool Villas.

The pool scene feels more South Miami than Koh Samui, with a DJ playing lounge music at the bar. On the beach – a sliver of sand that all but disappears at high tide – there is a fantastic pontoon pier spearing 220 yards out to sea, with an enclosed seawater pool at the far end and intermittent spurs mooring floating daybeds.

Anyone worried about Koh Samui losing its hippy vibe should gather after dark at the reflecting pool by the lobby. A gong sounds, the lights dim and guests make a wish as they light Thai paper lanterns and release them into the night sky.

MJC travelled with Cazenove + Loyd (www.cazloyd.com).

Conrad Koh Samui

A relative newcomer, open since last autumn, this 25-acre resort on secluded Aow Thai Beach offers sunset views from all 80 villas, floor-to-ceiling windows, 10m (33ft) private infinity pools and timber decks. Rooms are styled with nods to such traditional Thai design as silk soft-furnishings, hardwood floors and local artwork.

Sundowners can be taken at Aura Lounge before dinner at one of the hotel's four restaurants. There is a pan-Asian menu at cliffside Jahn, which uses traditional Thai techniques, and Mediterranean cuisine at Zest, where the cooking is done at "live-action" stations. At The Cellar, which stocks more than 3,000 vintages, the sommelier can organise wine-tasting evenings.

Each treatment room at the two-storey spa has a private deck, and there is a 24-hour state-of-the-art fitness centre, plus an outdoor yoga pavilion. A 200-yard floating pier is perfectly positioned for swallow-dives into the Gulf of Thailand, and an on-site diving and sailing centre caters to guests with a sense of adventure.

MJC travelled with Tselana Travel (www.tselana.com).

9Gems Villa

The exuberant Sathit Muangprom – a Thai version of Graham Norton, with a penchant for turquoise satin shirts – ensures his guests are immaculately cared for at this one-of-a-kind, two-bedroom, two-bathroom villa. The property accommodates up to four people and comes equipped with high-tech gadgetry including a flat-screen satellite television, iPod docking station and mood lighting; the whole villa is wired to a sound system that plays lounge music and dance tracks.

By day, guests have the run of the place – and the services of a private butler – and can move between the poolside restaurant, expansive timber deck and striking rooftop, which has a panoramic view across Chaweng Beach.

At 4pm the place opens up to outside diners who arrive dressed up for a storm of cocktails, bite-sized Thai tapas and pan-Asian fusion food. If villa guests feel like ducking out of the party atmosphere, they can enjoy private dining on the rooftop before twirling down the spiral staircase directly to their rooms.

MJC travelled with Quintessentially Travel (www.quintessentiallytravel.com).