Want the frantic, all-night action of the sort of shady, techno-beat bar you find in Bangkok? Then forget Hua Hin. But if you're a frantic city dweller yearning for a shaded refuge from your daily hustle, Hua Hin won't disappoint. Smiling seems to be a continuous part of life in much of Thailand - the Land of Smiles - especially in a place like this, Thailand's oldest beach resort. Sitting 200km and a three-hour drive south of Bangkok, on the west coast of the Gulf of Thailand, Hua Hin became a celebrated tropical paradise in the 1920s after the rail link connecting Bangkok and Malaya reached the town in 1911. The resort was founded in the early 20s by King Rama VII, who found it an ideal getaway from the sultry metropolis of Bangkok. The tranquil fishing village became the royal resort and the place to be seen for Siam's nobility and upper class. Its comparatively low-profile image - Hua Hin is no Phuket - has helped the fishing port retain its quiet, simple air. For this first-time visitor to Hua Hin, some of the most interesting diversions are its day and night markets, with their raucous trade in everything from household goods to food, and the chance to learn to cook a few traditional Thai dishes. That may seem easy at first, but the desired product can prove elusive. The wonder of tucking into 'genuine' made-on-the-spot Thai food, which blends spicy, sweet, salty and sour tastes, can be so great that many visitors cannot resist trying to cook up their own storm. Various hotels have joined the cooking-class craze, providing an alternative activity for travellers. Although their pupils are novices, most teaching chefs are among the best in their hotels. I join a class led by Kitti Kantiwong, sous chef at the Sofitel Central Hua Hin Resort. Before any cooking is done, we visit a market to buy the ingredients. A market can be a wonderland for tourists. Herbs and spices, the like of which you've never seen, abound, as does irresistible street food such as crispy golden crepes, little round coconut-rice pancakes and hot and sour soup noodles. For me, the best part is the personal touch of the vendors, their on-the-spot cooking demonstrations and the unreserved chatter of the Thai people. Following the market tour comes the cooking, done alfresco outside one of the hotel's restaurants. The dishes are all traditional Thai, including larb gai (minced chicken salad), tom yam gung (spicy prawn soup with lemongrass), gai phad med mamuang (fried chicken with cashew nuts), and kluay buad chee (bananas in coconut milk) for dessert. Together they comprise a full selection of Thai delicacies, but whether it achieves world-class standard depends on the students' cooking. Rivalling the day market is the night market. Here I taste cha yen, a Thai iced tea made with a combination of black tea, ice and condensed milk. It is served in a plastic bag with a straw: takeaway tea. As a fishing port, the village also guarantees a variety of seafood is served in five-star hotels and by street vendors. Food aside, one of Hua Hin's finest attractions is its blending of a sense of history with outstanding modern facilities. The Sofitel Central Hua Hin Resort, once the legendary Railway Hotel, built in 1922, bursts with architectural heritage. The interior decor and the original style of the lobby were preserved during its redevel-opment, embracing teak parquet flooring, high ceilings and antique fans. From among the hotel's surrounding 13 hectares of landscaped gardens comes an unexpected treat: the topiary gardens, where at night, under dynamic lighting, frolic green elephants, rabbits and giraffes. According to hotel staff, legend has it that walking under the leafy pachyderms brings good luck ... and fertility. Hua Hin is celebrated most as a spa town, but it also has its sporting attractions. Behind the historic Hua Hin railway station sits the heavily wooded par-72 Royal Hua Hin Golf Course, laid out in 1924 and Thailand's first championship venue. Hua Hin, although still largely undiscovered as a golfing holiday destination, has the highest density of world-class courses anywhere in Thailand. About an hour's drive south of Hua Hin, past pineapple plantations and fishing villages, is Khao Sam Roi Yod National Park. The 98 sq km park is home to a variety of native birds and host to a number of migratory species. The park is adorned with spectacular beaches and caves, one of which, Laem Sala beach, is noted for its pristine white sand. Also on the Hua Hin area's 'can't miss' list is Maruekatayawan Palace, formerly the summer residence of King Rama VI and one of the oldest and most attractive royal palaces in Thailand. Its sumptuous teak interior is beautifully illuminated - particularly at dawn and dusk - by the natural light that bathes the edifice, and its open, two-storey pavilion is used as a theatre. Known as the Palace of Love and Hope, it looks out across the majestic Gulf of Thailand, revelling, like Hua Hin, in a certain old-world charm. Getting there: Dragonair flies several times a week from Hong Kong to Bangkok, from where Hua Hin is three hours' drive. For more information on the Sofitel Central, see www.centralhotelsresorts.com .