Photography: julian kingma
Breakfast is delivered to my hilltop villa at 7am, as requested. Two beaming staff breeze in through the wooden doors, then arrange my meal beside the daybed on the terrace. After the duo leaves I realise there is a problem: should I face to my right, looking out over the shimmering Andaman Sea and the islands of Phi Phi and Mae Thon, or left to the dramatic coastline and the beaches of Cape Panwa? Sigh. The high life is not without its dilemmas.
Later that morning at the glorious Sri Panwa resort on Phuket's quiet south-eastern tip, I am torn between making a second coffee and doing some laps of my clifftop-hugging horizon pool. The quandary proves so severe that I slump on another daybed (there are three at my disposal) and lie there for a small eternity assessing the relative merits of each option. Half an hour later, suitably braced for the day's Big Decisions, I am in my swimmers in the kitchen making a flat white. Gulp, then splash. The water's delicious but I have a niggling sense this moment would be even more perfect if I had a mango in hand, its juices smeared over my arms and face, while draped over the pool's infinity edge watching longtails and speedboats slice through the glassy emerald waters below. Moments later, after a quick visit to the exotic fruit bowl, this is exactly how my morning unfolds.
It takes a while to get into the swing of unbridled hedonism. A kind of tropical inertia takes hold, a pool-villa paralysis, perhaps, that can transform seemingly simple choices into matters of great moment. Should I shower in the south pavilion, the north pavilion, or alfresco on the terrace? Do I bother with bathers before stepping out of my bedroom straight into the pool? And where to sunbathe - on my terrace, at one of the two resort pools, or down by the private beach?
It helps that I have an assistant, Oat, who drops by regularly to structure my days: teeing up spa appointments (mango, mint and yoghurt body scrub prepared just for me), calling on the resort's fleet of tuktuks to ferry me to meals at Sri Panwa's two terrific restaurants, and confirming whether I would prefer my bedroom airconditioned for sleep or left open to the elements so I can drift off to a chorus of crickets and the rhythm of waves lapping the rocky headland below.I have never been so well cared for in a hotel.
If the above sounds more like a eulogy than a clear-headed review, then so be it. I can't remember the last time I came home from a work assignment so refreshed and happy, and then mildly depressed the next day when I realised how vast is the gulf that exists between my real life and my five-day fantasy on Phuket.
For me, Sri Panwa was the ideal mix of glamour and relaxed fun, private moments and partying, good food and great company. And its success boils down to its immensely likable managing director, 28-year-old Vorasit Issara, known to everyone as Wan.
There is no shortage of luxurious resorts on Phuket, so it requires something very special to stand out from the crowd. Since the 1970s, Thailand's largest island has swapped its historical fortunes in tin mining and rubber for the far more lucrative returns of tourism. More than 3 million people now holiday here each year, seduced by the island's inventory of beaches, bars and ladyboys - and many other, less alliterative, attractions. Its bustling west coast is home to the celebrity resorts of Aman, Chedi and Banyan Tree, as well as countless other accommodation options from five-star to fleapit. And now, to add the already overcrowded mix, there is Sri Panwa.
Set on 16 hectares of jungle-covered headland at the relatively isolated south end of the island, far from the madding crowds of hysterical Patong Beach, it is owned by Thailand's Charn Issara property group. Originally conceived as an exclusive home, plus villas for sale, for patriarch Songkran Issara and his family, the site has morphed from two villas in 2004 to its current and final inventory of 70 villas, ranging in size from one bedroom to six. Each features an infinity pool, high-tech audiovisual systems, stunning views, lushly forested surrounds and chic interiors that combine contemporary Thai-made furnishings, teak and taboya wood finishes, endless glass and handsome stone floors. Habita, the design team responsible for the high-end Aman and Six Senses resorts, also created Sri Panwa's distinctive cliff-edge architecture. After a five-year gestation, the resort should be fully operational by October with the opening of the Sai Spa and a four-storey pool club with gym, nightclub and seven new suites.
This is Charn Issara's first foray into hotel management and it's an impressive debut. Sri Panwa's stunning villas and location are just two of its charms; add to them first-rate staff and service, excellent cuisine and a relaxed party atmosphere and you start to understand why this is such a rare property. It's not often you find a hotel with five-star flair and a sense of fun rolled into one.
This desirable state of affairs is largely down to Wan. While studying hotel management in the US, Switzerland and Italy he developed a taste for the A-list lifestyle. But realising there is no style without substance, he indentured himself to legendary hotelier Bob Burns, founder of Regent Hotels. Under Burns he learned the finer arts of hospitality at Villa Feltrinelli in Lake Garda, Italy, then came home to finesse his craft at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok. (Burns has since become Wan's mentor and is a regular guest at Sri Panwa.) The young dynamo has brought all his finesse to bear at Sri Panwa and, cleverly, has staffed the hotel with likeminded young people, many of them his friends from childhood or hotel school.
The upshot is that this is no stuffy establishment hotel. The vibe is more private get-together, an insiders' club run by Wan and his hip young team, all of whom appear to share his vision, energy and love of a good time. You get the distinct impression his staff are working with him rather than for him, so service seems unforced and always friendly. (Sri Panwa's success can be measured, perhaps, by the fact that both W Hotels and the Oberoi group have offered to manage the property - both were politely rebuffed).
Such are the resort's attractions that it's tempting not to leave it, but if guests stay put for too long, Wan or his staff will intervene and suggest a suitable outing. In our case, it was only a matter of hours before he swept us into a chauffeured car and ferried us into nearby Phuket Town for lunch at one his favourite eateries, Hong Kong.
First impressions do no justice to this humble fluoro-lit diner. It ticks all the classic Cantonese restaurant boxes - seafood tanks, lazy Susans, depressing décor - but the cooking is memorable. Wan takes charge of the menu and lunch soon begins cascading onto the table in the form of mantis prawns - giant, sweet-fleshed bugs buried under a shower of fried garlic; a burning sea snail soup seasoned with Chinese rice wine, extra-hot chilli, garlic and shitake mushrooms; and delicately soft stonefish flavoured with sweet soy and shallots. "It's like cotton candy," Wan says of the ugly fish's beautiful flesh. "It's almost like grouper but much more yummy." We also eat crab, goat and organic chicken, and drink too much beer because there is no such thing as restraint when Wan is in charge.
He is an obsessive gourmand and cook. "Eating and drinking are my favourite parts of hospitality," he says. "At Christmas and new year, when the hotel's really busy, I'm always in the kitchen. And every time we come up with a new recipe, I cook it." When Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva came to stay at Sri Panwa earlier this year, Wan was his personal chef. He must have done okay because the PM invited him and his team to cater the Asean Plus Six Summit to be held in Thailand in October.
Wan and his team personify the classic Thai character trait of sanuk, described in a tourist brochure I read as "the essence of fun" and said to be a guiding principle on the island. I'd have to agree with that - I have more fun in five days on Phuket than I normally do in a month.
On our second day at Sri Panwa we lunch at the Pool Club on sashimi flown in fresh from Japan that morning - yellowtail and salmon served with three types of wasabi (fresh, standard and pickled). Wan can't restrain himself so we also sample crisp-fried morning glory, water-melon salad, durian chips and a prawn dish with shiny green "stink beans", a local diuretic said to clean your bowels - and the house - right out. I take one tentative bite of a bean but it tastes like rancid shrimp paste.
That night we set out on a research trip to Phuket's bars and clubs. Wan knows we want to check out what Thailand's liveliest island has to offer so he musters a gang of colleagues and close friends, including top Thai model-slash-actress Paula Taylor, and we pile into a swanky van for a night on the town.
We start at Joe's with a beer by the beach, then groove a little at White Box before moving on to the more discreet Nine Lounge, a grown-up cocktail bar off the beaten track. Then we venture into the fleshpot that is Bangla Road, past flashing lights and ugly Aussies and Poms and tattoo parlours and Thai massage to a seat at the Jagger Bar amid a streetful of podium dancers. Hideous place, really, but you can challenge the barmaids to a game of Connect Four and they'll buy you a drink if you win (and vice versa). We drop by the Ice Bar too, a climate-change-defying folly where the burly barmaid calls me a ladyboy for donning one of the fleece jackets before entering.
Finally we pitch up at Seduction, one of Patong's best-known nightclubs, and wit h good reason. Even in low season it's packed with holidaymakers and locals; the music is loud and lush and the dancefloor's always packed. Our group of 10 has so much fun we stay out until 5am, and then regret it a little the next day.
Such occasional excesses are balanced by kayak trips to nearby islands, tennis lessons with a former champ, lots of swimming, and forays into Phuket Town to admire the crumbling charm of its so-called Sino-Portuguese streetscapes - really a hybrid architecture befitting this mixed society of Thai, Chinese, Malay Muslim, Arab, Indian and "sea nomad", the indigenous fishing communities who developed a sideline in piracy. The old town is still pretty tatty but there are plans afoot to preserve its façades and beautify the streets, which will make a welcome contrast to the nether world of Patong and the starkly modern strip-malls of this booming island.
On our final day we set out on a 15.5m flybridge cruiser for the fairytale Phang Nga Bay, Thailand's answer to Vietnam's World Heritage-listed Ha Long Bay. We spend a sunny afternoon exploring a "floating" village on stilts at the base of a mountain, drifting amid amazing limestone island pinnacles and swimming, eating, drinking.
It is the perfect postscript to a wonderful week. Like I said earlier, it takes time to get into the swing of unbridled hedonism, but I think we did okay.
THE FINE PRINT
Jetstar flies direct from Sydney to Phuket three times a week; its Star Class offers business class service on a budget. 131 538, jetstar.com
Glamorous gated resort on an isolated cape with huge, beautiful villas, first-class service and distinctive character. Perfect for rest or play. One-bedroom pool villas from $1550, pool suites (available from October) from $935. 88 Moo 8, Sakdidej Rd, Tambon Vichit, +66 76 371 000
Owner Madame Rose cooks the dishes and holds court at this charming two-storey restaurant in an old mansion. Its authentic southern Thai-Hokkien cuisine includes spicy mango salad (som tum) studded with fish roe, Madame Rose's special four-hour braised pork with 40 secret herbs and, for dessert, shaved ice with grenadine and banana jelly. 48 New Deebuk Cross Rd, +66 76 218 155
Convincing Italian fare by chef Mario, an Ancona native, at this casual open-air eatery. "This is my favourite place for Italian food outside Italy," says Wan. Standout dishes include the mushroom risotto, salsiccie salad and garlic and cheese pizza. 30/9 Kata Rd, +66 76 284 318
Cantonese-style diner serving great seafood. Try the local mantis prawns and the tender stonefish. Popular with locals, especially at weekends. Radsada Rd, +66 76 256 613
Sri Panwa's signature restaurant is an airy dining room of warm woods and Portuguese tiles set high above the sea. The menu blends local curry and noodle dishes with ham and truffle pizza and adventurous additions such as passion sake tiger prawns. Sri Panwa, 88 Moo 8, Sakdidej Rd, Tambon Vichit, +66 76 371 000
Nine Lounge and Bar
Positioned on Patong's upscale northern fringe in a stylishly remodelled mansion surrounded by gardens, Nine Lounge is a favourite of well-heeled expats, locals and tourists. Its Long Island iced tea is quite lethal; its sister property next door, Lim's, is renowned for its Thai cuisine. Soi 7, Kalim Beach, +66 76 344 834
Summery seafront bar and restaurant of wicker chairs and white floorboards perched above the surf at Kalim Bay. Great spot for sunset cocktails or late drinks, or tapas and Mediterranean-inspired mains. 223/3 Prabaramee Rd, Kalim Beach, +66 76 344 254
A Bangla Road institution - its thumping house and hit music ensure the dance floor is never dull. Go Thai and order a bottle of spirits for the table. Bangla Rd, Patong, +66 76 340 215
Part restaurant, part bar, part disco, White Box offers cool modernists the ideal spot to sip cocktails and dance to cool tunes on an open-air dance floor above the beach. 247/5 Prabaramee Rd, Kalim Beach, Patong,+66 76 346 271
Bangkok's wildly successful Bed Supperclub has spawned an offshoot in the form of Sound, an eardrum-shaped super-club in Patong. The lighting and sound systems are cutting edge, and where else can you party the night away in a Eustacian tube? Jungceylon Shopping Complex, 193 Rut-U-Thit 200 Pi Rd, Patong, +66 76 366 163