Forever and a bay
With giant limestone outcrops looming in the distance, a long-tail fishing boat cuts through the calm waters of the Andaman Sea under a cloudless blue sky. Aside from a few low-rise villas peeping out of the jungle, the sights and sounds are just as nature intended, and the deserted yellow sand beach feels like it's all mine.
This is the meditative setting where I dangle my feet in the infinity pool at one of the Royal Beach Villas at Phulay Bay, an exclusive 54-villa and pavilion boutique hotel in Krabi, which opened in December 2009.
It is the Ritz-Carlton's first reserve. This latest initiative from the luxury hotel group will consist of small boutique properties in remote, rural areas that deliver unsurpassed comfort, luxury and privacy to guests during their stay. Next to open is one in Dorado Beach, Puerto Rico, in December next year. That's the bay that inspired Laurance Rockefeller to build the first luxury Caribbean eco-resort in the 1950s.
Located more than 180 kilometres from Phuket International Airport, Phulay Bay can't compete with Patong or Karon beaches for convenience, but the two-hour ride is smooth and heightens the feeling of expectation. Those who check in after dark are in for a treat, as more than 2,000 candles illuminate the arrival pavilion every night, prompting one guest to deliver his marriage proposal here, according to the hotel's general manager, Estelita Sebeto.
The vivacious Argentinian sees spending time with guests as her top priority, and she soothes difficult customers with an impromptu tour of the hotel or a lengthy discussion about architecture. Sebeto is also a savvy businesswoman: Phulay Bay made US$1 million in two weeks from Warner Brothers, who shot the wedding scenes for The Hangover Part II here.
Designed by in-demand Thai architect Lek Bunnag, whose portfolio includes the Four Seasons Resort Langkawi, the property is a boldly seductive mash-up of Thai, Moroccan and Middle Eastern styles. With a keyhole entrance that leads to walk-in closets and bathrooms, the villas deliver a labyrinthine feel akin to bedding down in a luxurious cave (if caves had three-metre-by-two-metre beds, sunken baths and hand-painted Lanna art on the walls, that is).
Guests have access to a 24-hour butler service to organise everything from meditation sessions with local monks to sea-plane tours.
The reserve has six restaurants, the signature one being Sri Trang, which serves up beautifully presented traditional Thai dishes. Those feeling flush can book the private dining room for 10, spectacularly located on its own jetty. Start with a sundowner (try the Siam Sunrays, a fragrant mix of vodka, kaffir lime, lemon grass, chilli, ginger and coconut) at sunset beach bar Chomtawan.
A property where guests stay largely within its confines needs to deliver not only on dining but on wellness too, and Phulay Bay has partnered with Espa to provide the upscale ambience. The relaxation area is decked out in luxuriant dark woods, with floor-to-ceiling windows revealing gorgeous garden views from low-slung sofas. Book in for a Thai Herbal Infusion Ritual, a 120-minute treatment in which a hot poultice of ginger, lemon grass and kaffir lime or jasmine, peppermint and cloves is applied to warm the muscles as a hands-on massage releases tension.
It's not the sumptuous spa, fantastic food or super-comfortable beds that make Phulay Bay so special, however. Spending time in such a dramatic natural setting, the stresses of urban schedules are forgotten, and one is encouraged to appreciate the simple things in life, from the curve of a rock formation to a night sky filled with stars.
Phulay Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve
111 Moo 3 Nongthalay, Muang
Krabi 81000, Thailand
Rates: From US$495 for a Resort Pavilion room during low season, to US$2,905 per night for a Royal Beach Villa during high season.
How to get there: Fly from Hong Kong to Phuket in 3?hours. Phulay Bay is about 180 kilometres from Phuket airport. Transfers available.