In the dozen or more trips to Phuket I’ve taken in my adult life, it’s become a holiday of habit. There are long periods by the pool punctuated by requisite day journeys: we go to Raya, the family-run restaurant in Phuket Town, where we order lump-crab curry with vermicelli, pork belly cooked “Phuket-style” and giant prawns with the backs of their shells sliced open, bathed in sweet tamarind sauce.
We rise early for a speedboat journey from Rawai to the touristy but simple Banana Beach on Koh Hae – when the sea is calm, it’s a 15-minute ride; on days the current whips the waves into a frenzy, a bumpy half hour or more. At sunset, we stop in at our secret little cliff-side bar near Kamala, which I won’t name to anyone, where we order long-necked beers and enjoy them with the owners and nobody else (how this is a profitable operation I’ve never understood).
In between, we spend lots of time in our hired car, driven by Ronnie, who once operated a fleet of party vans complete with neon-lit interiors and a constant soundtrack of bass-driven house hits, but has since toned things down in favour of quiet and discretion.
This time, we’ve only just settled into our chauffeured airport transfer when we realise we’ve arrived. It’s been a mere 10-minute journey and, accustomed to hour-long rides, we feel a little weird – but pleased. Given that our Phuket trips typically last no more than a long weekend, minutes gained are precious indeed.
We’re checking into the luxury resort once known as Indigo Pearl, which this month is rebranded as The Slate Phuket. It’s a spacious property that’s immediately recognisable as a Bill Bensley design – his command of landscaping is legendary and very signature.
Although Bensley’s fingerprints are all over the place – and his name over the door of one very special suite – the resort also champions the history of its owner, a family that made its fortune in tin mining before alternative sources were found and the island became a tourist hub. The theme is taken to the extreme in some cases – in custom cutlery shaped like mining tools, or in restaurant outlets with overly literal names such as the rather obvious Tin Mine – but for the most part, it isn’t too gaudy, evidencing itself in elegant, nuanced details such as bathroom walls built from wood beams that were once railways sleepers.
The concept is personal to the family, but it’s also pertinent to the history of Phuket as a whole. Though conspicuous to those in the know, it’s lost on others who may enjoy a traditional meal in the restaurant Black Ginger without ever knowing that the shields that line the entrance represent those held by the heroines of legend who protected the Thai island from invasion by the Burmese.
Most people who come to Phuket aren’t interested in long history lessons, myself included. But they won’t mind learning anecdotal trivia about area, and there are fewer opportunities for such elucidation in resorts owned by international operators. Elsewhere, resort brands seem to understand that the integration of local culture into their hotel programmes is as much about good business as good social responsibility; Amanresorts has built a hospitality empire around it, while boutique offshoots of chains such as the Ritz-Carlton Reserve line are just beginning to capitalise on the idea – but Phuket is strangely devoid of the ethos.
As one of a few locally owned and operated luxury resorts, Indigo Pearl has been in a good position to play that game, but just as old habits have led us to the same places time and again, storytelling has somehow slid from the resort agenda, left behind somewhere in the trappings of all good luxury resorts, whether it be quirky spa experiences, fine-dining extravaganzas, beach club parties and all of that good fun.
It begins anew this August, when Indigo Pearl gets a clean slate – excuse the pun. Though the rebrand is more evolutionary than overnight, the first things to change will be the services, as well as anything that isn’t pinned down. Experiences are to be more bespoke, whether it’s catering to foodies, culture vultures or earth mothers, restaurant menus expanded to integrate healthier food and more options that tie into Phuket’s heritage. Eventually, all suites and villas will receive refreshed looks, even the iconic Coqoon Spa.
Although, I must admit, even in its current state, Indigo Pearl – The Slate – is an absolutely fantastic stay. With options that include three swimming pools, six restaurants, a spa and even a beach club, it’s hard to make a habit of anything at this resort, and that’s without even having stepped out the front door. Since we’re in a Pearl Shell suite, we can even opt to have spa treatments in-room, if we tire of walking to the spa.
When we depart, I don’t think we’ve necessarily broken our habits completely – but we’ve certainly added a new one. And if you think about it, there’s nothing wrong with a little repetition, as long as it’s in the right place. Besides, the next time I come, I won’t be revisiting Indigo Pearl – I’ll be experiencing The Slate for the very first time