After a filling breakfast the next morning, I borrow one of the hotel’s mountain bikes and set off for the Samui capital, Nathon, which lies 10 kilometers up the coast from the hotel. It’s a small settlement squeezed between a beach road and the island’s 51-kilometer-long ring road, but before the east coast began its rapid development, it was the biggest town on the island. The main reason for Nathon’s existence is its pier, where ferries from the mainland arrive every hour from dawn until dusk. Along with the airport, these boats are the lifeline of Samui, bringing in everything the island needs from produce to petrol as well as backpackers and locals looking to get to Samui on the cheap.
To get there, I avoid the ring road and instead follow a rough map that takes me through a series of backcountry lanes, passing small villages, fields with water buffalo, ramshackle beach huts, gold-adorned temples, random pizza restaurants (if there’s one food besides Thai that you can find anywhere in Thailand, it’s Italian), and a cool little café called Think, made out of old shipping containers. I’m about halfway to Nathon when, just as a dusty dump truck thunders by me followed by a scooter laden down with four generations of the same family, I come to a large sign that reads “Nikki Beach Samui.”
I certainly know the name. The global Nikki Beach network includes branches in a host of the world’s most desirable destinations including St.-Tropez, Marrakech, Ibiza, Bali, and—until its recent closure—Phuket, each a rampant success thanks to the brand’s ability to create a world of glamor and indulgence. I decide to go in, though I’ve arrived a bit on the early side, and staff members in crisp white uniforms are still setting up tables as a glamorous young Thai hostess escorts me to my seat. But soon, immaculately dressed guests start arriving too and settling into the plush daybeds sheltered by starched white umbrellas, sipping on champagne while listening to a soundtrack of the latest DJ beats. Put together, it’s an enticing scene, but you have to wonder: Besides the hot weather and palm trees, how does the location factor into the equation? Couldn’t this be anywhere? It seems that this is really the challenge Samui faces in the years to come, as it leaves Phuket behind and becomes Thailand’s luxury destination of choice: how to embrace change without losing its soul.
“Life was much simpler before,” Tom the driver had told me. “Sure, we have electricity and opportunities now, but everything is developing. There are cars everywhere, hotels being built all over, and people coming from around the world. I’m not complaining about change, but we have to make sure we don’t lose sight of who we are.”
Bangkok Airways operates daily direct flights to Samui from Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur.
Where To Stay
InterContinental Samui Baan Taling Ngam Resort
Taling Ngam Beach; 66-77/429-100; doubles from US$220
Vana Belle, A Luxury Collection Resort
Chaweng Noi Beach; 66-77/915-555; doubles from US$375
Where to Eat & Drink
The Wharf, Bophut; 66-94/804-1221; no website
The Wharf, Bophut; 66-77/430-003
A family-run, sand-floored beach shack with terrific local fare; Bangpo Beach, Tambon; 66-77/420-010; no website
Lipa Noi; 66-77/ 914-500
Mod-British food by former London chef David Lloyd, served in a beachside pavilion; Crystal Bay Yacht Club, Lamai; 66-77/963-471
South Chaweng Beach Rd.; 66-77/915-210
A no-fuss gastro pub with a mix of comfort food and Western classics; Chaweng Beach Rd.; 66-77/601-259
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Settling in Just Fine”)