As travel lockdowns start easing across Southeast Asia, we point you to three beach retreats ensconced in nature and privacy within nearby Indochina.
SOUTH CENTRAL COAST, VIETNAM
Nestled along a wide stretch of sand less than 40 minutes from Da Nang International Airport, Four Seasons The Nam Hai houses 60 standard villas and 40 pool villas as well as eight spa pavilions, three outdoor pools and various amenities including a health club, tennis courts and a kids’ activity centre.
Upon arrival, my family and I checked in at an open-air pavilion that looks out over the three in nity pools that cascade down to Ha My Beach. Then we were whisked to our villa by golf cart via one of several stone paths that wind around the property. The villa itself, a spacious 1,120sqf, has two full bathrooms plus a king-sized bed and children’s room with a trundle bed. Tall French doors open to a garden that leads directly to the beach.
Our first activity, and the most highly anticipated among the kids in our group, is AntiGravity Yoga. The Nam Hai is the only facility in the country to offer the authentic AntiGravity programme developed by Christopher Harrison – complete with his incredibly strong hammocks. After a few breathing exercises, we were all soon belly laughing as we attempted to untangle ourselves and get into the various postures. In the end, we managed to master a few series.
After that, it’s a return to relaxing as I checked into the Heart of the Earth Spa. Built around a lotus pond with individual overwater pavilions, the award-winning facility – last year it was named Global Wellness Resort of the Year at the SpaChina Awards and one of the Five Best Spas in the World by Condé Nast Traveller – is inspired by the lessons of a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.
While the resort has introduced a Visiting Masters programme in the past year, which sees wellness practitioners from a wide range of healing therapies sharing their expertise, I was there for the signature Nam Hai Earth Song ritual. The 150-minute treatment was a journey of sound, scent and touch as the therapist led me through breathing rituals, a crystal singing bowl performance, Vietnamese body scrub and bath complete with herbs from the resort’s own farm, and a deeply soothing massage using gem-tipped tuning forks to balance the body’s internal rhythms.
Our final activity began after an early breakfast as chef Trang escorted us to a local organic farm and noodle-making facility. We made our way through rows of chives, basil, lettuce and lemongrass before arriving at a small building with a thick thatched roof.
First, we ground rice by hand using an ancient stone contraption. We added rice and water, turning the wheel by hand until we were left with a milky liquid that we then ladled over the re to produce steamed rice paper. Following this, we transferred the rice paper to a cutting board where we sliced it into noodles for use in soups and stir-fries.
The process was surprisingly satisfying, but the real work was yet to come. Back at the resort, we headed to a purpose-built pavilion for cooking lessons. In no time at all, we were plucking herb leaves, mixing sauces and boiling fresh local prawns and chicken. Eventually it was lunchtime and we got to tuck into the fruits of our labour.
By the end of the session, we felt newfound respect for The Nam Hai’s chefs – many of whom we saw a few hours later at Waterfront Street Night. Vietnam is famous for its wide range of street foods, from pho and steamed buns to stir-fried noodles. And once a week, the resort brings the best of the local offerings to its guests alongside traditional performances such as dance and music. After watching a traditional dance performance and eating our weight in noodles, broth and barbecued meat, we collapsed into a deep slumber. The hardest part of our stay came the next morning, when we finally had to say goodbye.
PHANG NGA, THAILAND
With the recent reopening of hotels and beaches in Phuket, those long craving for gracious Thai hospitality by the sea can finally start thinking about short holidays within the region. Lest you are worried about tourist numbers returning in force to this resort hotspot, you should be glad to know that despite Aleenta Phuket Resort & Spa’s name, it is actually situated far from the madding crowd – in the stunning and tranquil Phang Nga Province just north of Phuket Island, which will ensconce you in a bubble of privacy.
Located right on a seemingly endless 10km stretch of pristine golden sand known as Natai Beach, Aleenta is just a 30min, straight-shot drive up north from Phuket International Airport. The ride takes you across Sarasin Bridge linking Phuket Island to the western coast of mainland Thailand, where the Phang Nga Province is. The resort, which is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, faces the Andaman Sea with the famed Similan Islands 80km out into the blue, and several national parks in its backyard.
Due to strict building regulations and numerous protected conservation zones in the area, there are no beach vendors, strip malls, rowdy tourist joints, or shores littered with jet skis and speedboats. On Natai Beach, hotels and the occasional private villa are spaced far apart; hotels are also not allowed to have more than 80 rooms each. It is as quiet and exclusive as it gets.
At Aleenta, nature is your playground. The 2km section of beachfront where the resort sits is straight, empty and spotlessly clean. You could even find that you have the whole beach to yourself. During the peak season of December to March, when the weather is dry and temperatures at night could drop as low as 23°C, the sea is a glistening flat calm throughout the entire day. Those who love frolicking will be pleased to know that the beach gently slopes into the seabed, which is devoid of rocks, boulders or corals. Standing in the water here, for me, with the sight of never-ending sand and sea, was a therapeutic experience.
Equally restful for the mind and body are Aleenta’s resort grounds and accommodation. Although it is a small luxury boutique resort, its “all suites, all private” concept means the compact grounds are laid out in separate segments that ensure adequate personal space. The lobby sits up high by the (very quiet) two-lane main road, offering a bird’s eye view of the resort estate, which glides downwards towards the blue yonder, housing a spa, swimming pool and two restaurants in between.
There are 10 room categories offering 67 suites and villas catering to any small-group requirements, from couples to families. At the top end are the luxurious 1,000sqm, four-bedroom, mansion-style Grand Villa Satis, as well as large three- and four-bedroom Beachfront Villas. They are all open-plan, come with their own living rooms, swimming pool and kitchen, and situated just steps from the Andaman Sea.
For couples, there’s a variety of spacious, chic villas and suites – most with their own plunge pools. Sunseekers would fall in love with the new lone-standing 71sqm Pool Suites right on the beach. Designed with an “Outside-Living-In” concept, it features floor-to-ceiling retractable glass walls to bring the sea into the suite, which also comes with a 7m long pool, a private jacuzzi and a beach terrace. Other options include the loft-style Pool Residence, the spacious Pool Villa, and the smaller Aleenta Suite with direct beach access.
Those who desire more greenery and privacy should pick a Grand Deluxe Pool Villa nestled within a large plot of land right behind the lobby across the road. There, the villas are arranged in rows around a central tree-lined compound that is beautifully manicured and lit with lanterns at night. Elegantly furnished, each 141sqm villa boasts a large private pool, an outdoor sala and an outdoor jacuzzi.
If you are travelling in a big group, there are also chic and affordable double-storey Ocean View Lofts located within a single block with a direct room-access shared infinity lap pool that is generously-sized.
I hardly saw other guests unless I was at the public and dining areas. The Natai is a modern Thai, dinner-only restaurant that competently doles out tasty Thai cuisine. The Edge is an Asian-inspired western contemporary restaurant with Italian chef Luca Mancini from Perugia at the helm. This means you are treated to a slew of mouth-watering Italian breads and specialities during dinner time (the lemon linguine, porchetta and oven-roasted whole seabass are absolutely delicious), and a decent selection of wines. For a romantic celebration, the restaurant can set up a barefoot beach dining experience for you.
The resort’s wellness focus also means there are plenty of fresh, healthy yet scrumptious dishes at breakfast and lunch – impressive considering the resort’s small size. Breakfast combines a small buffet offering lots of tropical fruit and a frozen yoghurt machine, with cook-to-order a la carte dishes that span regular favourites like pancakes and eggs benedict to the exotic Mexican omelette to the healthful chia seed porridge and very delightful oatmeal porridge chockful of coconut flesh, pomegranate seeds and raisins. The lunch menu is eye-poppingly fun. There are gourmet tacos, Thai favourites, and healthy grain and poke bowls in addition to the resort staples of burgers and pizzas. The coffees are also great here.
Aleenta’s spa is the Ayurah Wellness Centre featuring a smorgasbord of treatments, some of which are based on the holistic elements of earth, water, wind and fire. There are chomotherapy baths and Vichy rain-mist showers, as well as various massages, traditional Thai-style therapies, and even oxygen and music therapy which places you in a darkened room with a colour-changing tank of water while you breathe in pure oxygen and relax to soothing music. A small selection of Linda Meredith premium facials, which are loved by celebs such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna, are also available. A nice touch are the Ayurah Children treatments, which allows the kids to enjoy a scrub, massage, manicure and pedicure along with mum and even dad.
For those seeking a deeper therapeutic experience, Aleenta offers several retreat packages that includes room stays, vegetarian or healthy meals, massages, and yoga and meditation sessions. You may also book private yoga, yoga on the water, muay thai, pilates, sound-healing, wellness assessment and even sleep-enhancing sessions with the resort’s wellness practitioners, who can customise bespoke programmes to your needs.
It is easy to see why this little resort is so loved by guests. A large proportion of them, I was told, are returning ones. The atmosphere is unpretentious and friendly – and the guests also tend to be quiet and discreet. Aleenta placed among the top 20 resorts in Thailand in Conde Nast Traveler’s Readers Choice’s Awards 2019. The property, like all five others under parent company Akaryn Hotel Group, has also eliminated single-use plastics since June 2019 in partnership with the Thai-based Pure Blue Foundation.
If you are game to stretch your legs for a little bit, sign up for a cultural day tour of the neighbourhood for an opportunity to fully appreciate the district’s laidback beauty. I enjoyed the short and leisurely drive in a comfortable Mercedes-Benz minivan to nearby waterfalls and temples. You will pass tiny villages, the odd local restaurant, and long strips of lagoon parallel to the sea that point to this area’s tin-mining heritage.
A must-visit is the pretty teak wood Wat Tha Sai, a temple that sits on sand just metres from the sea. Lined with casuarina trees and completely devoid of people, the breathtaking and highly instagrammable beachscape here goes as far as the eye can see, which will remind you of the untouched Phuket you visited, perhaps as a child, 30 years ago.
Naturally, this area is also a haven for watersports and there are various tours you may choose to enjoy the splendours of the Andaman Sea. Further afield on the other side of the mainland is the spectacular Phang Nga Bay with its limestone karst towers, fascinating caves, lush mangroves and emerald lagoons. A 45min longtail boat from Aleenta will take you right there for a day of sunning, paddling, bird-watching and photo-taking. The resort also organises snorkelling and cycling tours, as well as cooking classes.
Not up for too much adventure? Well, just a minute’s ride on the resort shuttle will take you up the road to Aleenta’s sister resort, the Akyra Beach Club Phuket, which offers a more casual and convivial atmosphere. The beach bar is simply the perfect pitstop to take in the same gorgeous fiery sunset over the Andaman Sea as you would at Aleenta – with a drink in hand, of course.
MERGUI ARCHIPELAGO, MYANMAR
While Phuket is the pearl of the Andaman and Phi Phi the jewel, there still exist hidden gems that make for dreamy holidays. In Myanmar the once off-limit shores and complicated maritime geography of the Mergui Archipelago – Myeik in local dialect – have kept the islands here the biggest secret of the Andaman waters for almost two centuries. After they were first accurately charted following the British occupation in 1824, Mergui was closed o to the world and tourism until 1997.
Mergui’s turning point came in 2014 when the Myanmar government gave the green light for developers to build resorts and hotels. Six years on, spending a few nights in Mergui – on the shore of some 20 out of over 800 islands, or on board a luxury yacht oating in their surrounding waters – is as convenient as visiting any other tropical destination.
My journey here began with a short flight from Bangkok’s Don Mueang airport to the airport in Ranong, from which point we were transferred to the immigration pier. It took all of 30 minutes on a longtail boat from there, with a few checkpoints along the way to get you to Kawthaung, or Koh Song (Second Island) as Thais usually call it. The border immigration is located on the pier and the whole procedure took less than 10 minutes. Kawthaung is the main transfer point for many resorts in Mergui, with some luxury properties offering their own speedboat on hand to transfer guests with ease. Ours was arranged by luxury five-star resort Awei Pila.
Developed by Myanmar’s hospitality giant Memories Group, the Awei Pila only opened its doors in December 2018. The 90-minute ride on the speedboat gave me a glimpse of what lay ahead – turquoise water and blue skies that stretched as far as the eye could see. As the boat approached Pila Island, I noticed that the water was so clear that I could even see the colours on the large schools of tropical sh circling us below. Beyond the dock, Awei Pila’s luxurious villas and elegant common areas seem as though they are a part of the tree-covered mountains.
I checked into one of the beachfront villas, which is designed to resemble a yurt. Inside, my bedroom came furnished with a comfortable king-sized bed, wardrobe, study, a plush couch and other thoughtful amenities. My living quarters connected to an en suite bathroom and an adjacent outdoor shower, while my private patio had a secondary living area which was the ideal spot to read a book and lounge about.
The design of Awei Pila has skilfully taken into consideration the existing landscape as well as the surrounding environment, as building in an environmentally responsible way is part of the agreement set by the Myanmar government for all developers in Mergui. It also has a no- plastic policy, and to minimise waste and food leftovers, the resident chef creates succinct set menus for every meal, and all organic waste is treated for compost, while recyclable waste is transported to facilities in Ranong. The resort also relies on solar panels to generate electricity.
One of my adventures here was a morning trip to Long Beach for group activities and a hearty barbecue lunch. Located on the other side of the mountains which dominate our island, Long Beach features an immaculate stretch of fine white sand, with a small rock island serving as the sole snorkelling spot.
A day at Long Beach is an amazing sun, surf and sand experience, but for snorkellers there’s not much to see underwater. Hence, I demanded a rematch and the divemaster at the resort’s dive centre curated a snorkelling trip to Shark Island the following day. Located about 30 minutes by speedboat, Shark Island features a private, pristine beach, with rocky caves where marine life flourish in abundance. Visibility was a bit hindered due to the aftermath of last year’s El Niño, but there was still plenty to see, including sea urchins and parrot fish.
If greenery and land activity is more your thing, the forests of Mergui are perhaps one of the best places to trek and hike, and even experience the life of local Moken people – sea gypsies who have been plying the waters and lands of Mergui for centuries. On the way back from Shark Island we spotted one of their wooden shing boats, which resembled a small pirate ship, with cracks and holes.
On my final day I visited Kawthaung Island. Accompanied by a local tour guide, I explored the island’s port town, where the most famous landmark is the Pyi Daw Aye pagoda. The hilly geography reminded me of other charming European port towns, and I spent most of my time walking up and down the hills, discovering small stores and street food stalls. The island is also home to a church and a mosque.
For those waiting to cross the border back to Thailand, Kawthaung’s capital market serves as a last-minute duty-free shopping pit stop, where local food, delicacies and souvenirs galore are available, and most shops accept Thai baht and US dollars.
Looking far beyond the pier of Kawthaung, I spotted a few charter yachts gently swaying offshore. Long before commercial development took place in these parts, these charter ships were the only means to experience the beauty of the Mergui Archipelago. Today, they continue to give travellers similar experiences to what I had enjoyed during the past few days, although I’m cautioned that most lack Internet connectivity on board – which to me sounds like more of a blessing than a curse.