Sri Panwa, Phuket
A Thai oasis both tranquil and terrific
A good-looking 20-something couple shimmy past my partner and me on the dance floor. With her dark curtain of hair, she's a doppelganger for a young Ali McGraw, wearing a crop top and flared crochet pants; he reminiscent of Alain Delon in Plein Soleil in faded swim shorts and a Batik scarf wrapped around his shoulders. They're both barefoot; tanned languorous limbs dancing to the guest DJ playing a mix of trip hop and dance music, drinking colourful mojitos infused with lemongrass.
On a balmy night at Sri Panwa Luxury Resort, Phuket's hippest playground for the young and young at heart, guests are mingling at its Baba Poolclub dance floor, the indoor/outdoor flow inviting a heady scent of frangipani.
Perched atop Cape Panwa, the resort is a hideaway spanning 16ha of lush jungle overlooking glistening Andaman waters, home to several hundred species of flora and fauna and attracting an equally diverse array of upwardly mobile guests who ascend here to switch off and escape — entrepreneurs, CEOs and families with young children.
Our glamorous dance partners reflect the demography the resort panders to, a couple who prefer bespoke cocktails over the riff-raff in Patong, waking up next day saluting the sunrise at yoga on a rooftop, green juice on standby.
A silver platter supporting shots of Patron tequila and sharply cut lime quarters is offered by the resort's charismatic brothers, 35-year-old hotel director Vorasit "Wan" Issara and younger brother Platu Ditawat Issara, who also works in the family's successful real estate business. The brothers' highly respected real estate tycoon parents are seated nearby, without fanfare, enjoying their own aperitifs from efficient waitstaff. I immediately feel like a guest at a friend's holiday home (albeit one with several infinity pools).
Here is a luxury resort with very little pretence, just how Khun Wan (as staff refer to him)
prefers it. If you bump into him around the resort, chatting to the gardeners or assisting housekeeping select the right linens, you'll understand what Sri Panwa is about — the Swiss-trained hotelier personifies its hip, modern, approachable and inclusive vibe.
It's a formula earning the place many accolades, including Lonely Planet's 2014 Resort of the Year, and its Baba Nest rooftop bar was recognised by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the best in the world. Surrounded by an infinity pool atop a fourth-floor building, overlooking the 360-degree views of the surrounding ocean, we make sure to book our table during golden hour between 5 and 6pm. Making the most of the sun-drenched archipelago all around, we recline on oversized striped cushions and feast on Mexican-style tapas like lazy ancient Romans.
The entire rooftop is transformed during the day for yoga lessons, the perfect opportunity for me to see the sunrise and shake off any cabin fever from the previous night's late check-in, having schlepped 16 hours from Auckland via Sydney and Bangkok.
As tempting as it is to spend the rest of the week in the resort's waterfall pool, playing with the villa's lighting control panel (sexy lighting or romantic lighting?) and making full use of the complimentary mini bar consisting of Phuket's own crisp lager, pizza sticks, mineral water and mint-scented refresher towels, venturing outside the bubble is always ideal. Time on the resort's luxury, 14m speed boat Free Willy is a highlight, visiting Coral Island with our gregarious captain, who has come prepared with a cooler of Singha beer, freshly cut pineapple and a blaring Top 40 playlist. With the salt wind in my hair and my out-of-office email switched on, I feel unburdened diving into pristine waters for a swim and a snorkel. Having seen the water from Baba Nest the day before and finally being able to jump in as schools of bright yellow bat fish brush past me is unforgettable.
The next day we venture further into the mainland to pay our respects at the impressive Chalong temples, driving past countless ornately framed portraits of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and the watchful eye of the giant marble Buddha smiling down from the Nakkerd Hills. A pit stop in the old town at the popular Raya restaurant is worth the half-hour drive from the resort. We sample its mix of Sino-Thai influences, including a popular spicy crab curry dish, as its famed matriarch, respected restaurateur/local celebrity Aunty Rose, hurries past, snapping orders with perfectly coiffed hair and full face of makeup.
Though I'd normally avoid the standard fare dished out at other resorts, the food at Sri Panwa is world class, with previous guest Gordon Ramsay describing it as "refreshingly non corporate". I'd have to agree. The estate's six restaurants are led by culinary executive Seth Ridgway, alumnus of top Japanese restaurants Morimoto in Napa, California and Shiro's restaurant in Seattle. I enjoy watching him slice and dice fresh sashimi at the resort's Baba Iki teppanyaki restaurant, as fire dancers entertain over the balcony by the water feature.
Lunch at Baba Hot Box is my favourite, however, savouring fist-sized marinated prawns, cooked to perfection in a Spanish Josper barbecue and surrounded by a waterfall pool and a forest of greenery at The Habita.
After an intense Muay Thai boxing lesson one morning, I sit in a rocking chair nursing a fresh coconut, feeling tender. At the water feature nearby, a couple engage in an impromptu photoshoot, the woman dressed in a red evening gown at 9am, her husband on both knees desperately finding the perfect angle. And though people-watching is a sport I find strangely hypnotic (especially on holiday) I can't help but think how easy it is for show ponies and shrinking violets to peacefully co-exist here.
On our penultimate night of dancing, we decide to call it a night and retreat back to the villa for a swim, obligingly drinking the nightcap offered by Wan's brother Ditawat.
And like any good host at a friend's house party, he smiles, hands us bottles of water and wishes us good night.