White sand, rustic-chic beach shacks, a hammock gently swaying between two palm trees as a turquoise sea laps at the shore… But each is quite distinct from the next, with its own characteristics; and there are dozens to choose from. Here, Nell McShane Wulfhart selects one for every occasion, whether you want to party til dawn, learn to dive, eat the best Thai food or escape from the world on a secluded, romantic break.
- Koh Samui
Best island in Thailand for: Families and first-timers, honeymooners and yoga bunnies
Koh Samui is the original Thai island. Where once it drew backpackers and ravers for its sensational beaches with cheap huts and full-moon parties; now it has grown up and smartened up, its not-so-rustic beach bungalows honed down to the very last detail – Koh Samui now has some of the best luxury beach resorts anywhere in the world, several excellent beach hotels, and some first-class spas.
All of which makes it ideal for those who want the joy of a beach holiday in Thailand without any of the roughness around the edges. Honeymooners can take their pick of super-luxe hotels, beach clubs and Michelin-starred restaurants; parents can go for family-friendly hotels with childcare and splash pools and Western food (there’s even a branch of Boots); nervous first-timers can make their first foray into South-East Asia surrounded by home comforts and limited creepy-crawlies.
Koh Samui is also possibly the best yoga and spa destination in the world. Kamalaya, set high in the rainforest, is our number-one destination spa and wellness retreat: the lodges are beautifully designed in local timber and stone – classic Thai architecture, all wood and greenery, open to the elements and surrounded by banana trees and bougainvillea. Another is Absolute Sanctuary, another leading yoga retreat that is so good as to be life-changing.
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH SAMUI: The island’s newest and smartest hotel is Panacea Retreat. Set on a hill above fashionable Bophut beach (not far from Koh Samui’s coolest nightclub, Gecko Bar & Supper Club), it’s made up of five enormous villas on a hilltop, sleek in teak and cedarwood, Travertine stone and glass. Each has an infinity pool. There are landscaped gardens, a private cinema, nightclub, boxing ring and gambling den. Sensational. Panacea Retreat, 51/25 Moo 1 Bophut, Koh Samui, Thailand (00 66 7743 0074; panaceasamui.com)
The Four Seasons Koh Samui, set in palm trees at the back of a beach on the north-west tip, manages to cater to both romantics and families. It’s still got the serene spa and candlelit dinners on the beach option, and the family villas have private infinity pools and separate sleeping areas for children. Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui, Thailand (00 66 77 243000; fourseasons.com/kohsamui)
At Le Méridien Koh Samui Resort & Spa on Lamai Beach there’s a range of activities for children, including candle-making, bracelet-making, fish-feeding and, hilariously, towel origami. Le Méridien Koh Samui, Lamai Beach, Maret, Koh Samui (00 66 77 960888; lemeridienkohsamui.com)
If you like rumbunctious friends-and-family holidays, consider taking over a party pad. Near Chaweng Beach, Baan Mika is a luxury villa made up of six suites around an infinity pool, which runs down to a children’s pool beside the property’s own private beach. There are also big, roomy living areas, a well-stocked kitchen, and an outdoor dining area and barbecue sala. From US$1,000 a night for up to 12 people (baanmika.com )
- Koh Tao
Best island in Thailand for: Scuba diving
The coast of Koh Tao, or ‘Turtle Island’, is lined with little sandy coves, pretty lantern-lit restaurants – and dive shops. Most travellers are here to dive. The island is one of the world’s top places to learn, and the competition among dive shops has also made it one of the cheapest. If you’re new to the sport, sign up to get your PADI or SSI Open Water certification. This usually takes four days, and includes four ocean dives. If you’re short on time (or motivation to commit to a full course) most schools also offer one day Discovery Dives, where you can go down to 12 metres without certification. And if you’re already certified, you can take advanced courses in diving at night diving, wreck diving, shark diving or Nitrox diving, or just jump on any of the tens of boats heading out every day. Phoenix Divers has been around since 2002 and is one of the top shops on Koh Tao. Instructors teach in a variety of languages and children’s courses are also available.
Even if you’re not a diver, there’s still plenty to keep you happy (it’s the kind of place pharangs come for a couple of days and never leave); Koh Tao has an irresistable charm – not to mention an excellent nightlife, including the odd full-moon party, that is a bit more grown-up than at neighbouring Koh Pha Ngan.
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH TAO: Most hotels are built around pools where wetsuited rookie divers work on their buoyancy by day; but for something smarter, Casas del Sol are five contemporary self-catering villas on a hillside, with pools overlooking the sea, which sleep up to four people. Casas del Sol, Koh Tao, Thailand (kohtaocasas.com)
Nangyuan Island Dive Resort is a collection of fairly simple wooden rooms with verandahs and mod cons, on the tiny, unspoilt islet of Koh Nang Yuan, just off Koh Tao, if you want to combine diving with a real escape from the world. Nangyuan Island Dive Resort, Koh Tao, Thailand (nangyuan.com)
- Koh Pha Ngan
Best island in Thailand for: Hedonists and hippies
If your idea of the perfect holiday involves three-day beach parties, Koh Phangan is the Thai island for you. Famous for its full moon parties at Haad Rin’s Sunrise Beach, this island is for hardcore partygoers and dreadlocked travellers. During peak season, the island can see 20,000 visitors dancing, drinking and cavorting on the white sands under the full moon. If you can’t make it at the right time of month, don’t worry – there are half-moon and black-moon parties in intervening weeks, and there’s action every night of the week at the island’s beach and cocktail bars.
The morning after, sleep it off in the shade of a palm tree while a Thai masseuse kneads you back into shape. There are secluded beaches far from the crowds (like hippie favourite Bottle Beach, arguably one of the best beaches in Thailand), and plenty of spas where you can check yourself in for an afternoon of recovery, from the basic to the deluxe (such as the Ayurvana Spa at Santhiya Resort on Thong Nai Pan Noi Beach in the north of the island).
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH PHA NGAN: In Koh Phangan’s main town of Haad Rin, Suncliff Resort (00 66 77 375463) is ideally placed, less than 10 minutes’ walk from both Sunrise and Sunset beaches, but far enough away that you can’t hear the subwoofers when you decide it’s time to sleep. It’s got rustic huts on stilts (some more hi-tec than others) among the tropical trees, most with the most beautiful views of the ocean. For a more luxurious, design-conscious stay, a boat-ride whisks you to Anantara Rasananda Koh Phangan Villa Resort & Spa, also on Thong Nai Pan Noi Beach.
Read our feature on more of the best winter sun destinations
- Phuket, Thailand
Best island in Thailand for: Living large
Glitzy Phuket offers every Western convenience you can think of, and probably several you can’t. Celebrity-chef restaurants? Check. Six-star resorts with private butlers? Check. World-class plastic surgery? No problem. If you’re the highest of high-maintenance, Phuket is the island for you.
Phuket is the biggest, busiest island in Thailand, and although it has been infiltrated by package holidays and cheap sleaze in a few places (avoid Bangla Road in Patong), it also has cosmopolitan diversions in the form of designer boutiques and world-class restaurants – one of the best of which is Acqua.
Phuket still has some of the most glorious beaches in the islands. Many have been taken over by uber-groomed international resorts and laid with stylish sunloungers and deluxe beach bars; but if you’re seeking somewhere more laid-back, head to stunning little Kata Noi.
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON PHUKET: There is no shortage of luxury resorts on Phuket; the only question is, which one to choose? Two of our all-time favourite, Gold Listed hotels are on Phuket: eco-friendly, all-villa Six Senses Yao Noi Beyond Phuket, and the first-ever Banyan Tree resort to open, Banyan Tree Phuket, with its flagship destination spa.
The COMO hotel and Shambhala spa is the newest contender for the title of the best hotel spa on the island, set above Phang Nga Bay, the iconic location where James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun was shot.
- Koh Lanta
Best island in Thailand for: when you can’t make up your mind
Of all Thailand’s islands, Koh Lanta is one of the best all-rounders. Less than an hour’s boat ride from Krabi, Koh Lanta is actually made up of several little islands, the most-visited of which is Koh Lanta Yai. It has nature reserves and beaches where you won’t see another soul; it’s got accommodation that runs the gamut from spare to super-swanky, which attract more 30-, 40- and 50-something travellers than backpackers. Bringing the children? The waters are calm and the island safe.
If you want to have it all on holiday – suntanning on beautiful beaches, a bit of world-class diving, a great massage, fun beach bars, kayaking through a mangrove forest, eating seafood tom yum with the locals in a friendly fishing villages – then Koh Lanta is where you get it. Read our full feature on Koh Lanta
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH LANTA: The island is not short of sleek resorts. Pimalai was Lanta’s first five-star hotel, set in tropical forest on the edge of white-sand Ba Kan Tiang Beach near Lanta Marine National Park. Accommodation ranges from rooms to entire villas and the spa has got outdoor massage tables surrounded by palm trees. Pimalai, Ba Kan Tiang Beach, Koh Lanta (00 66 75 607 999; pimalai.com).
On Phrae Ae Beach, the five-star Layana Resort & Spa is a neatly groomed resort made up of more solidly-built rooms and suites, and fully mod-conned-up. It also has Hobie Cats to sail, and a spa. Layana Resort & Spa, 272 Moo 3 Saladan, Koh Lanta (+66 75 607 100; layanaresort.com)
Read more about Koh Lanta, our favourite Thai island.
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Layana Resort and Spa, Koh Lanta, Thailand. MIRJAM BLEEKER
- Koh Lipe
Best island in Thailand for: Hopeless romantics and honeymooners
When you picture a Thai island, you’re probably thinking of somewhere like Koh Lipe. Often said to have the most beautiful beaches in Thailand, Koh Lipe is one of the 51 islands that make up Tarutao Marine Park, down south near the border of Malaysia. It’s got the dreamy combination of remoteness (far fewer tourists than Phuket or Samui), picture-perfect beaches and luxury hotels.
The island is small enough to explore on foot, perhaps hand-in-hand with your loved one. Pattaya Beach (pictured) is the busiest of the beaches and home to most of the island’s nightlife, while Sunset Beach is the quietest and most secluded. Snorkelling, diving and tours of nearby islets are readily available, although you might prefer to spend your time getting couples’ massages at one of the exclusive resorts.
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH LIPE: Situated at the back of Sunrise Beach, Idyllic Concept Resort is a self-consciously stylised place, rather than the usual thrown-together Thai beach bungalows; the pool is dark-tiled with a teak pool bar, and the 38 rooms are highly finished and contemporary. Idyllic Concept Resort, Sunrise Beach, Koh Lipe, Thailand (00 66 88 227 5389; idyllicresort.com)
- Koh Chang, Thailand
Best island in Thailand for: exploring Thailand’s eastern islands
More shy and retiring than big sisters Phuket and Samui, Koh Chang is Thailand in miniature. It’s not exactly untouched, but much of its interior is national park, great for jungle trekking, and you can easily get from here to the smaller, secluded islands of the archipelago. It’s also getting popular with those who want to hop over to Siem Reap after a week in Thailand. Avoid the main west-coast beaches: head to the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Had Sai Noi Beach for its bohemian beach-bar scene, and visit Salakkok Bay for a rare glimpse of a traditional fishing village (fast disappearing elsewhere) and to kayak through the mangroves. Locals really rate the family-run Kati restaurant in Klong Prao village, where everything is made to order using homemade curry pastes (there’s an adjoining cookery school if you want to swot up on the recipes).
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH CHANG: Avoid the main west-coast beaches and try either Mangrove Hideaway, set on Salek Phet Bay amid biodynamic gardens with yoga classes on offer, or the Serenity Resort near the ferry pier – just seven beach bungalows designed by local craftsmen with marble floors and great seafood. By Rick Jordan
- Koh Phi Phi
Best island in Thailand for: Solo and single travellers
If you’re going on holiday on your own or with single friends then Koh Phi Phi might just be the island for you. In recent years it has been almost entirely rebuilt after the tsunami devastated it, with smarter places to stay than ever. With a reputation for good times and lots of activities on offer (diving, snorkelling, cliff-jumping, boat trips to Koh Phi Phi Ley (pictured), among other islets, where The Beach was filmed), Koh Phi Phi draws a young, stylish, energetic crowd with a degree of sophistication, ready to relax or to party (though not the hardcore ravers of Pha Ngan), particularly on New Year’s Eve.
Days are spent sunning, swimming or exploring. Evenings are spent shopping and hanging out at beach bars, watching Thai dancers juggle with fire and dancing until the small hours with new friends. You might arrive on your own, but there’s a good chance you won’t leave that way.
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH PHI PHI: The rooms at Zeavola Resort – well away from the busy town – are absolutely lovely, made of teakwood in traditional Thai style, and overlooking the ocean or tropical gardens. The Pool Villas must be some of the best-appointed in all the islands of Thailand. Zeavola Resort, 11 Moo 8 Laem Tong, Koh Phi Phi, Thailand (00 66 7562 7000; zeavola.com)
- Similan Islands
Best island in Thailand for: island-hopping
Imagine Koh Phi Phi Ley before The Beach – only smaller, harder to get to, more beautiful. Now imagine a dreamy chain of nine of these little wonders. Nine! The Similan Islands are numbered north to south, one to nine, and form a national park in the Andaman Sea. You can swim over untouched coral reefs in the turquoise waters off them all, but only step foot on the white-sand beaches of Koh Miang (known as ‘number four’), which has simple bamboo bungalows, and the largest island Koh Similan (number eight). Just north of the national park, Koh Tachai has the softest, sparkliest sand and is the most popular. Close to the Burmese border, Richelieu Rock is one of the world’s best dive sites and whale shark territory (February-April is the best time to spot them). Wherever you go, you’ll need a boat. Khao Lak, an hour’s drive north of Phuket, is the jump-off point for day trips and live-aboards sailing around the islands. The town itself is simply a cluster of restaurants (QCumber is a must for healthy breakfasts and Thai curries) and guesthouses set back from the beach. (The Similan Islands are closed to tourists May-October.)
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON THE SIMILAN ISLANDS: Adults-only The Sarojin (sarojin.com), on a private beach just outside Khao Lak, is the smartest place to stay on this stretch of coast. In the centre of town, Monkey Dive Hostel (monkeydivekhaolak.com) is one of a new breed of design hostels, with funky dive-themed dorms and exceptionally well-priced private rooms. By Hazel Lubbock
- Koh Si Chang, Thailand
Best island in Thailand for: Bangkok’s nearest beach for flying visits
If you’re only in Thailand for a few days, schlepping all the way out from Bangkok to distant islands might not be possible. Instead, grab a day or two on Koh Si Chang (not to be confused with Koh Chang), a two-hour boat ride from the city, making it one of the Bangkok‘s closest beach destinations. It is popular with Bangkok residents who head here for weekend breaks, and even day trips.
While Si Chang hasn’t got the softest white sand of all Thailand’s islands, it still makes a fabulous escape from the hectic, polluted streets of the capital, with its green interior and fishing villages. Grab a meal of fresh seafood at one of the restaurants on Haad Tham Phang beach, or sink a Singha while gazing at the waves from your lounger. Peaceful and almost foreigner-free, Koh Si Chang is your best bet if you’d rather spend your precious few hours on the beach than on a bus or boat.
BEST PLACES TO STAY ON KOH SI CHANG: Super-luxe accommodation has not yet reached quiet Si Chang, but Paree Hut Resort (pictured) has cottages right on the water and a cool swimming pool.