Outside of the Phi Phis, Thailand’s islands still offer a taste of paradise

No cars are allowed on this pristine Ko Phayam island close to Thailand’s aquatic border with Myanmar. (Shutterstock)
Updated 27 March 2019
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Outside of the Phi Phis, Thailand’s islands still offer a taste of paradise

“I’m not sure about thiiiiiiii….”

My daughter Anaiya’s voice trails off as the rickety moped disappears down a dirt track, canopied by palms and tropical banyans — her arms tightly wrapped around mum, who is squeezed in behind driver Ming.

My other daughter Amani and I exchange nervous glances. We’re next on the two-wheeled accommodation ‘transfer.’

Mopeds and bicycles are the only way to get around Ko Phayam — no cars are allowed on this pristine island close to Thailand’s aquatic border with Myanmar (Burma) in the Andaman Sea.

The ride is worth it. Ming’s shuttle brings us to a series of quaint wooden huts straight out of a holiday brochure, each emerging from the tropical jungle on stilts overlooking a deserted sandy beach, where shallow azure waters lap at our feet.

Ko Phayam is the island paradise we’d been looking for since leaving the Thai capital of Bangkok two days previously. Our plan had been to drive all the way down to Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands, but our Bangkok host — aptly named ‘Happy’ — set us straight.

“Don’t bother going all the way down to Phuket in search of an island paradise, our country has so many more,” Happy said. “Drive to Ranong, and get a boat across to Ko Phayam, we used to take the kids there when they were young.”

He was right.

We arrived on a tiny speedboat that docked at a small concrete jetty-cum-port, surrounded by brightly colored orange and blue fishing vessels. We stepped onto a clean, green, island seemingly devoid of western tourists.

There were no aggressive touts, litter was scarce, and the population mostly local. Of course there were a few tiny resorts — serving domestic tourism as much as foreign — and ours was one of the most stunning.

As soon as we could, the four of us headed down to the stretch of pristine sand that was effectively our backyard — the beach was that close. The girls sat in pools of crystal-clear water trying to capture the perfect reflection of sun, sea and themselves, whilst my wife and I went for a walk.

We stepped over porous jet-black rocks, where tiny crabs scurried away as soon as our shadows approached. In the distance, at the head of a large wooden pier, sat a brightly colored temple, its golden Buddha shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Guarding its stone gate was a saffron-robed monk puffing on a cigarette. The only other human beings on the beach were a local family collecting shellfish.

The little boy, splashing in the blue shallows, stopped and stared, and his older sister posed for a photo — encouraged by their smiling mother. Every so often a gentle ringing, followed by a chorus of meditative chanting emanated from a nearby monastery, and somewhere in the distance a moped engine backfired.

As we sat down on a large flat rock to absorb this picture of paradise, we had no regrets about heeding Happy’s advice. He was right, this is a country truly blessed with magical Islands.

Alternative Thai islands

Ko Chang
This stunning island manages to combine partying on the beach with awesome wilderness. Expect large crowds of locals during the weekends and national holidays at busier beaches like Lonely Beach, but trekking through Ko Chang’s national park — thick, green and alive with wildlife — it feels as if you’ve truly got away from it all.

Ko Kut
Close to the Cambodian border, this little chunk of paradise floating in the Gulf of Thailand is ideal for snorkeling and kayaking. Life is slow and idyllic in a place where few tourists venture  — mainly because it is harder to get to than its larger neighbors — but totally worth it for those that hate crowds and love Instagram-ready vistas.

Ko Samui
Thailand’s second-largest island is an increasingly popular destination, thanks to its practicality and easy access. A mature resort, this will not feel like the remote islands described above, but sandy beaches and morning markets abound in a place where, in the south, there’s even a small Muslim fishing community.

Decoder


Catch the coastal chic of Biarritz

Biarritz is one of the best surfing locations in Europe. (Shutterstock)
Updated 24 June 2019
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Catch the coastal chic of Biarritz

  • The French seaside town mixes old-world glamour with a very modern surfing scene
  • This patch of Basque Country — less than 20 miles north of the Spanish border — has a windswept, relaxed charm all its own

DUBLIN: It’s hard to put a finger on what makes Biarritz so special. Maybe it’s the faded charm, maybe it’s the sprinkling of stardust that the numerous guests (the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra) brought to the city, or maybe it’s the low-slung surfer’s vibe, but this patch of Basque Country — less than 20 miles north of the Spanish border — has a windswept, relaxed charm all its own. It’s something of a hidden gem, with surfers, Parisian hipsters, retired French tourists and a smattering of in-the-know Europeans descending here every year.

Its most recent heyday was during the 1950s, when luminaries including Sinatra and Coco Chanel visited. From the 1960s onwards, Biarritz’s star fell, with Hollywood and the European elite favoring France’s Riviera as a holiday destination. Yet recent years have seen the town emerge back into the spotlight — although these days you are more likely to see surfers rather than film stars, as the town has embraced its position on France’s rugged southern Atlantic coast.

There are countless surf schools, and Biarritz is the birthplace of the sport in Europe. The (reportedly) first surfer here, appropriately enough, had Hollywood connections. Peter Viertel, a screenwriter, was in town as the movie he had co-written, “The Sun Also Rises,” was being filmed there in 1957. The long, wide sandy beaches provide the perfect place to learn, with the crashing Atlantic surf offering ample big waves to ride.

The town is small enough to explore in an afternoon, with countless cafés and restaurants dotting the narrow streets. There’s plenty of shopping too, with local boutiques such as Jox & An (which sells rope-soled espadrilles) next to the likes of Gucci and Duchatel, which features labels including Nina Ricci and Belenciaga. Indeed much of the town’s charm is seeing moneyed old French couples in their designer clothes rubbing shoulders with dreadlocked surfers in board shorts.

It might officially be in France, but Biarritz is Basque country, something very much apparent at Caroe, which mixes Basque and Nordic cuisine. This minimally designed pintxos bar specializes in local seafood and serves up everything from monkfish foie gras, smoked eel and trout gravlax. If you prefer a venue overlooking the water, head to Alaia, an ultra-stylish beachfront joint on Socoa Beach, 30-minutes south of Biarritz. You can enjoy lamb, mashed-potato pancakes, and hake and cabbage in front of the bobbing fishing boats. If you prefer to eat on the go, or grab something for a picnic on the beach, head to Les Halles market, which is filled with stalls dishing out sumptuous fare: from local goat’s cheeses and anchovies in olive oil and vinegar to limoncello jelly and hazelnut bread.

The most salubrious lodging in town is the Hotel du Palais, the brainchild of Eugenie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III, who chose a patch of hillside overlooking the Bay of Biscay for the Imperial residence. The hotel became the center for France’s elite, who holidayed at the sumptuous building and held balls, picnics and fireworks displays, while welcoming world leaders and royalty from around the world. These days the hotel retains all its old-world glamour, and its breakfasts are worth the room price alone.

There’s not a whole lot to do in Biarritz, but that’s sort of the point. It’s a place to while away the hours in a café, or to take long walks on one of the numerous beaches. It’s a place to relax in, not to do too much. If you do want to exert yourself, then there are a number of surfing schools where you can learn to ride the waves. Most offer similar courses (and prices), with La Vague Basque being the best reviewed. All ages and nationalities come here to learn to surf, so don’t be shy about getting that wetsuit on.

After a reviving dinner, head to the promenade and grab yourself an ice cream. One of the great French pastimes is people-watching, and the cafés along the promenade offer the perfect place to watch the world go by. Part French, part Basque, and with a wonderful mix of elegance, cool and Fifties chic, Biarritz might just be the best beach town in France.