The islands of Thailand have been a go-to destination for backpackers seeking a sybaritic experience for decades. The three largest, Phuket, Koh Chang and Koh Samui, are now so popular that they come stacked with fast-food chains and persistent beach vendors, making the lotus-eating lifestyle that once so appealed ever more elusive.
The fourth-largest island, Koh Kood in the Gulf of Thailand, has escaped the frenzy. Its proximity to the historically fraught Cambodian border and a rudimentary infrastructure have kept it as a 15- by six-mile green forest of coconut and rubber trees fed by slow rivers and waterfalls, all encircled by gin-clear seas and white sand beaches. Koh Kood has no ATMs or banks, no convenience shops, only one garage and 2,000 residents who are too busy earning a living fishing to bother tourists.
Until last year, the island could only be reached by a one-hour transfer from the mainland by boat and the only rooms to hire were in simple, small guest houses.
That changed with the opening of Soneva Kiri, the latest offering from the eco-luxury Six Senses Group whose celebrity clientele at their two Maldives resorts include Madonna and Sir Paul McCartney. Six Senses has built a blissfully secluded 27-villa hotel with 20 private residences for sale on an arching west coast beach. Guests are whisked from Bangkok airport on an eight-seater Cessna in 50 minutes.
Open-air showers, simple driftwood benches and wide, cushion-covered lounging areas set the informal tone
Soneva Kiri is a five-star resort with the wow factor: a vast children's tree house perched high above the resort like a giant manta ray, an overwater open-air cinema, a chilled sushi room, an observatory for stargazing and a calming 11-room spa and gym. Wealthy entrepreneurs wander around barefoot — the resort's motto is "no news, no shoes" — but think nothing of summoning their hotel butler to bring £1,000 bottles of wine from the well-stocked hotel cellar.
Private planes aside, eco-principles are followed closely without sacrificing comfort. "The Soneva Kiri concept of intelligent luxury combines sustainable living with top-flight service," says Robert Green of Six Senses. "It's about merging nature with handcrafted architecture. It's unrealistic to expect people to stop travelling but the emphasis on sustainability at Soneva resorts means guests can feel they are giving something back environmentally."
So there are no marble floors or elaborate gadgetry at Soneva Kiri. Everything is built from bamboo, eucalyptus and plantation-sourced pine. Roofs are flattened bamboo or swathes of sail canvas. Six Senses is the brainchild of Eton and Oxford-educated Sonu Shivdasani and his Swedish ex-Vogue model wife, Eva.
They opened their first resort in 1995 and remain fully hands-on, living for much of the year at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives. Eva sources furniture from the Philippines and Sri Lanka and oversees the spas. Open-air showers, simple driftwood benches and wide, cushion-covered lounging areas set the informal tone.
If this appeals to a generation of grown-up backpackers, it comes with a decidedly non-backpacker price tag. Two-bedroom single-storey villas with terraces and pools covering 7,000sq ft start from £1.9 million, rising to £5.4 million for a six-bedroom villa with separate gym and two kitchens. Buyers can choose from homes on the beach, on the hill overlooking the bay or dug into the cliff.
The two-bedroom villas come with an eight per cent rental guarantee for five years including four weeks' personal use. Yields of up to five per cent can be negotiated on the larger villas. So far, 11 homes are sold and eight built, to an international clientele familiar with the Soneva brand. Buyers include four English families. "Our owners are typically cash buyers who already own overseas properties," says Green. "This is a lifestyle purchase that appeals to well-travelled people who appreciate the reassurance of an established and respected hotel brand."
The resort offers good water sports, a dive centre, fishing tours and four restaurants while Koh Kood itself is safe and peaceful with small fishing villages and gentle Buddhist temples to explore. There are none of the bright lights and lewd bars found elsewhere in Thailand: this is an island for relaxing and remembering Thailand as it used to be.
Property in Phuket and Koh Samui
The hotel-branded holiday home has become a feature of Thailand property with Banyan Tree, Sheraton and W Retreat all selling homes. Phuket is the most popular destination for second-home owners thanks to an established infrastructure with golf courses, restaurants and shops. CBRE are selling Les Residences, 20 one- to three-bedroom villas overlooking the Andaman Sea, from £474,000 to £1.34 million.
* CBRE Thailand cbre.co.th (00 66 76 239 967).
On Koh Samui, the W Retreat has two- to five-bedroom villas for sale priced from £1.34 million through Cluttons Resorts. CBRE are selling Conrad Koh Samui Residences, two-bedroom villas on a five-star resort with guaranteed returns of seven per cent for five years, from £898,335.
* Cluttons Resorts cluttonsresorts.com (020 7584 3050). Annual maintenance charges are £38,000.
* BA and Thai Airways fly from London to Bangkok.
* Best months to visit are November to March when humidity is low. The rainy season runs from June to October.
* As in much of Asia, foreigners can only buy property leasehold in Thailand, generally on a 30-year lease. Soneva Kiri has negotiated three extensions to this, giving owners a 120-year lease.
Southern tourist hot spots escape floods
Thailand's worst floods in 50 years threatened to overwhelm Bangkok this autumn as monsoon waters flowed from the north to the capital. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advised against all but essential travel to Thailand.
That advice has now been lifted as floodwaters begin to recede. Bangkok city centre was heavily sandbagged but escaped severe damage and Suvarnabhumi International airport in the capital remained operational throughout.
The southern tourist islands of Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Kood were never at risk — a great relief for a country expecting 19 million tourist arrivals next year.