Author: anthea loucas
"It's a monster, you can sleep an army in here," says Gary Henden, manager of the Soneva Kiri by Six Senses resort on Thailand's Koh Kood. Henden is showing me around the resort's most luxurious villa. All 2000 square metres of it. Perched on a cliff high above the Gulf of Siam, the mansion not only boasts a 42-metre horizon pool and facilities for 25 guests but has an eight-metre-long water slide connecting the children's quarters to the alfresco dining area. Yes, for the kids, breakfast is reached via the swimming pool.
This virtual resort within a resort is a sprawling structure of bamboo, sandblasted pine and downright decadence set among the island's virgin rainforest. "There's a lot of wood here, almost half of New Zealand," says Henden of Villa 63, which is privately owned (IT money from the UK, apparently). It can be all yours for around $17,000 a night (they'll even throw in a butler).
Welcome to the other world that is Soneva Kiri by Six Senses. I've arrived here via Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi International Airport, where I was ushered through customs to the Soneva Kiri lounge before boarding a custom-fitted eight-seater Cessna Grand Caravan for the 60-minute flight to Thailand's only private resort airport, on the south-east island of Koh Kood.
After meeting my personal butler, Kumiko (she'll spend the next few days acting part-valet, part-mother hen, trying to keep track of me on the 41-hectare island and grimacing politely at my lead-foot buggy driving skills), it's a swift speedboat ride to the resort. Here I'm greeted by Henden, who bears an unsettling resemblance to the actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers. "The fact that the island is both remote and accessible is one of the unique things about it," says Henden as we walk to "check-in" at the resort's bar, set high above the turquoise-coloured main pool, bright orange cushions accenting the surrounding day beds and lounges. "You're only an hour from Bangkok but suddenly you're in tropical virgin jungle surrounded by sandy bays, winding mangroves and hidden waterfalls," he continues. "It's Thailand's fourth biggest island but it's still relatively untouched. It's like Koh Samui was 30 years ago; it's pristine."
Henden has been looking after the operation of Soneva Kiri's 28 pool villas and eight private residences since before they opened in December 2009, after working at sister property Soneva Fushi in the Maldives. "I left Birmingham 20 years ago and haven't been back," he says. "You could say I am a real traveller."
Soneva Kiri is the brainchild of British-born Indian hotelier Sonu Shivdasani and his wife Eva. They opened their first resort in the Maldives 15 years ago, and now have 14 resorts in five countries, with the newest, Six Senses Con Dao, opening last December in Vietnam. Soneva, which is literally taken from both Sonu and Eva's names, is very much a personal brand. "They have direct involvement and spend a lot of time here," says Henden. "Eva heads up the design department so what you see on the island is very much her vision. For her it's all about the mood of a place. She's really big on lighting and she has a real sense of playfulness with her designs."
The fun is apparent as soon as you arrive on the island and are greeted with the "no news, no shoes" policy. (The no news policy takes some getting used to. The no shoes is a cinch.) There it is again in the all-day ice-cream parlour with its Alice-in-Wonderland-esque décor, and in the tree-top dining where you may enjoy a meal suspended inside a wood and rattan pod. Guests can watch movies at the alfresco Cinema Paradiso while reclining on day beds and munching on popcorn, or gaze at stars from the resort's observatory. Then there's the bevy of lavish grown-up playthings, from luxury motorboats to the 500-label-strong wine cellar, and of course, a given for any resort of this calibre, a spa in which you could spend days, worthy of a story in itself. (Here's a tip: ask for a massage from Khun Roch.)
Breakfast is just the indulgence you'd expect on any luxury resort holiday (my pick from the à la carte menu: the Thai omelette with basil, shallot and chilli). Chef Adam Evans comes to Koh Kood via Sydney's Flying Fish and is doing a fine job turning out contemporary Thai at The View (think red curry fricassée of local seafood with coconut, lemongrass and peanut crumble), and there's a fun barbecue experience to be had at The Beach, but hands-down the best food experience is at Benz Restaurant. Chef Khun Benz has returned to her homeland after 10 years of cooking at Soneva Fushi. The restaurant, set above mangroves just outside the resort, is all about big, classic Thai flavours such as those in the mieng kham, the build-your-own betel leaves with shallot, ginger, dried shrimp, coconut, lime, shallot and peanut, or the fried sea bass with red curry. And the post-dinner performance of fireflies is a charming encore.
But back to those villas, the most spacious in all of Asia and the calling card of the resort. Each is different in size, layout and décor, but the fundamentals are the same. There are expanses of eucalyptus, pine, bamboo and casuarinas (all sustainable), each villa has a pool, and all are accessorised in bright happy colours, some in turquoise and sky blue, others with canary yellow accents and some with orange and hot pink. I can't help thinking they resemble grown-up (and very chic) tree houses. Mine is about 400 square metres - I know, only - with a lap pool wrapping around the outside and a deck large enough to host a party for, say, 150 of my nearest and dearest. The bedroom opens onto a courtyard with a spa bath in the centre and houses the dressing room on one side and the bathroom on the other. And then there are the showers - yes, plural. At Soneva Kiri you'll find yourself having to make the call on whether to bathe outdoors in the open-air bamboo shower or indoors in the glass brick number. It'll be the toughest decision you'll face during your stay. "It really is all about relaxed luxury. It's about the best, and the best way we can accommodate people, but it's about fun too," says Henden. Amen to that.
THE FINE PRINT
Thai Airways has direct flights to Bangkok from mainland capitals. Economy return fares from $1093 ex-Perth, $1238 ex-Melbourne, and $1256 ex-Brisbane and Sydney. 1300 651 960. Transfers by private plane to Soneva Kiri airport on Koh Kood from Bangkok International Airport take 60 minutes and cost $525 per person return.
Soneva Kiri by Six Senses
Hill Villa suites start at $2373 and Beach Villa suites start at $3013 (per double; room only). 110 Moo 4, Koh Kood, Thailand, +66 39 619 800.