Settling In on Koh Samui

  • Overlooking the Taling Ngam area on Koh Samui's sedate west coast.

    Overlooking the Taling Ngam area on Koh Samui's sedate west coast.

  • Sassathorn Srithongkul, owner of Bar Baguette.

    Sassathorn Srithongkul, owner of Bar Baguette.

  • Inside Barrauda restaurant at The Wharf.

    Inside Barrauda restaurant at The Wharf.

  • Overlooking the InterContinental's private stretch of sand on Taling Ngam Bay.

    Overlooking the InterContinental's private stretch of sand on Taling Ngam Bay.

  • A jungle-shrouded walkway leads from the beach to the InterContinental resort.

    A jungle-shrouded walkway leads from the beach to the InterContinental resort.

  • Like the rest of the hilltop resort, the swimming pool at the InterContinental Samui comes with staggering views of the Gulf of Thailand.

    Like the rest of the hilltop resort, the swimming pool at the InterContinental Samui comes with staggering views of the Gulf of Thailand.

  • A statue outside the InterContinental's lobby depicting a kinnara, a half-human, half-bird creature from Thai mythology.

    A statue outside the InterContinental's lobby depicting a kinnara, a half-human, half-bird creature from Thai mythology.

  • Service with a smile at the InterContinental Samui.

    Service with a smile at the InterContinental Samui.

  • Think on Lipa Noi Beach comprises a cafe and guest cottages made from converted shipping containers.

    Think on Lipa Noi Beach comprises a cafe and guest cottages made from converted shipping containers.

  • One of Vana Belle's gracious staffers.

    One of Vana Belle's gracious staffers.

  • Settling into a suite at Vana Belle.

    Settling into a suite at Vana Belle.

  • Alfresco dining at Panali.

    Alfresco dining at Panali.

  • Canopied daybeds flank the swimming pool at Vana Belle.

    Canopied daybeds flank the swimming pool at Vana Belle.

  • Foie gras at Panali, Vana Belle's beachfront Italian restaurant.

    Foie gras at Panali, Vana Belle's beachfront Italian restaurant.

  • Samui-style bling at The Wharf's Blue Vanilla shop.

    Samui-style bling at The Wharf's Blue Vanilla shop.

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Later that day, I rent a scooter and head up the road to experience the island for myself. My first port of call is Bophut on the north shore. Just 15 years ago, this area was a quiet fishing village of Chinese-style homes and just a few shops and bars catering to the backpacking set. But as time passed and tourists began flocking to Samui, its main thoroughfare became home to the Friday-night Bophut Walking Street, filled with restaurants opening directly onto the beach and a variety of shopping and food stalls competing for visitors’ attention. That still runs weekly, but more emblematic of the island’s upward direction is The Wharf, a new 24,000-square-meter mall at the western end of the strip.

One of The Wharf’s most noticeable tenants is Barracuda, a stylish concrete-and-chrome restaurant close to the sand that serves Mediterranean-influenced dishes using locally caught seafood and organically grown vegetables. “Like a lot of people I know here, I first came to Samui as a tourist, in 2009,” says German chef and owner Ferdinand Dienst when I ask him how he ended up on the island. “I found great street food but very little in the way of fine dining. I realized there was a gap in the market.” So he came back the next year and opened the first incarnation of Barracuda in the backpacker area of Maenam on the northwest coast. It had just 18 seats and less-than-inspiring views of a car park, but Barracuda’s concept was such an innovation for Samui that people traveled from all over the island to eat there. “After four years in Maenam, moving to a prime location like The Wharf was the only logical step.”

The higher rents here make for more upscale neighbors. Next door to Barracuda, a twee shop called Blue Vanilla sells handcrafted souvenirs inspired by the flotsam that washes up on the nearby beach: signboards bearing cheeky slogans such as “I Need Vitamin Sea”; pastel-colored wooden starfish wall hangings; stacking blocks that spell out SAMUI. Around the corner is A Little Me, stocked with recycled products from funky Thai brands like Rubber Killer, which sources old truck tires and inner tubes from northern Thailand and employs locals to transform them into a range of chic black clutches and day bags. It reminds me of a posher version of Phuket’s laid-back Lard Yai market. And as the late-afternoon sun begins to cast its glow, tourists and locals alike head down near the shoreline to Bar Baguette to sip macchiatos and nibble on homemade pastries in the tiled courtyard. It’s all rather sophisticated with an almost European atmosphere, and seemingly worlds away from the raucous full-moon parties that still take place on the island of Koh Phangan, visible across the water to the north.

“When they finish their shift on a Friday night, my staff sometimes catch a boat across to Phangan, party all night, then get back here to start work the next day!” laughs Matthew Rubin. Rubin is the gregarious American executive chef of Stacked, a bright and bold California-style restaurant on Chaweng’s Beach Road. While lining the street outside are ubiquitous neon-signed bars and fluorescent-lit tailor shops, the contemporary yet comfortable design at Stacked is unlike anything else I’ve seen in Samui, with an open kitchen of yellow brick, a bare-bulbed chandelier, and surfboard signs of electric green. In keeping with the laid-back atmosphere, the menu is full of American classics like grilled Caesar salad, New England clam chowder, and a selection of ribs. The main draw, however, is the burgers, including the Stacked Burger Challenge: four beef patties and eight strips of bacon on a sesame-seed bun served with a double helping of fries and slaw. It’s yours free of charge if you can finish the monster in 20 minutes. Despite Rubin’s prodding me to try, I decline and opt for the excellent Samui Bad Boy pulled-pork burger instead.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Rubin worked around Southeast Asia for a regional restaurant group before moving here in 2014 to work at Stacked. “When I landed, I hadn’t visited Samui since 2008. I was both impressed and shocked to see all the new development.” While the chef bemoans the increased number of chain restaurants, he is upbeat about Samui’s growing identity as a luxury destination, and says many of its eateries are now on par with those of any major city. “And the beaches are still in good shape—definitely better than many others in Thailand.”

The next day, I’m sitting in the back of a taxi as it wends its way slowly to the southwestern part of the island. The road from Chaweng climbs a steep hill before passing restaurants with names like The Cliff and Rock Salt, all boasting astonishing ocean views. But as it flattens out, we enter the town of Lamai, where familiar Thai retail names like Tesco Lotus and Makro can be seen among a blur of Family Mart and 7-11 convenience stores. Tiring of the scenery—or lack thereof—I ask the driver to take the long route to the west coast instead. Away from the main road, the surroundings quickly become bucolic, with farms and little villages dotted among the extensive coconut groves. In the near distance I see a small arena, which the driver identifies as a stadium for water buffalo fights, where two male animals battle each other in the ring. Although understandably controversial, this sport is distinctive to Samui and has been practiced here for generations. It was once a local distraction from working in the fields, but as rice farming has gradually disappeared on the island, the animals are now mainly reared to take part in these fights, which take place several times each year—and no, the buffalo are not harmed. It’s a rural vista that, sadly, has mostly disappeared in Phuket, with its rush to urbanize and concrete the landscape.

“This part of the island is where the locals live,” my driver tells me. He explains that most of those who work on the north and east coasts—where you’ll find the lion’s share of Samui’s resorts and entertainment outlets—are migrants from elsewhere in Thailand who come here for work. The south and west coasts, meanwhile, are where the original Samuians tend to reside. The difference in atmosphere is immediately noticeable; it’s almost like a parallel universe. As I contemplate this we turn onto a steep driveway that ends at a hotel lobby—a vast open-air space suffused with blindingly bright sunlight. The scale of the panorama staggers me. Far, far below, a series of green waves are rolling in, while white clouds stretch out across a cobalt-blue sky—a view so wide it’s impossible to take in all at once. This is my first impression of the InterContinental Samui Baan Taling Ngam Resort.

Given a multimillion-dollar renovation in 2012, this nine-hectare property was the first luxury hotel in Samui when it originally opened in 1993. Seventy-nine traditionally designed rooms and villas dot the steep, forested hillside, along with seven pools, four restaurants and bars, a 150-meter-long private pier, and a spa at the very top of the site. But there’s no escaping the main attraction—the view, best seen at Air Bar, which claims to have the best views of any bar on the island. Call me jaded, but I tend to take pronouncements like this with a pinch of salt. After dropping my stuff in my room, I make my way through the maze of corridors to check it out, eventually emerging onto its large open deck where a backlit bar juts out over the hillside, flanked by sofas and armchairs facing out to the vast ocean. I choose a seat set a little back from the rest and order a Long Island iced tea with a chili twist from a list of cocktails curated by renowned Bangkok-based mixologist Joseph Boroski. Despite the refined design, the setup at Air is really focused on one thing only: the slowly setting sun. As I sip my drink, the sky goes from blue to yellow to orange, and finally to a deep purple, bathing us all in its soft light. Sometimes, the hype is worth believing.

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