It is dark in the hong. Not the urban dark that you or I know – that which is amber tinged from street-lights and the glare of high-rise buildings. Here, in this limestone cave in Phang Nga Bay, it is pure heart-stopping blackness. Then, slowly, little by little, the cave becomes illuminated with tiny candles bobbing on the surface of the water, their soft light casting shadows on all our faces. Magically, fireflies bounce around our heads sparking balloons of light, and the water twinkles with natural phosphorescence. I hold my breath in wonder.
I am in Thailand, off the island of Phuket, and experiencing one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever done. Kayaking by Starlight, set up by American entrepreneur John Gray, takes tourists into the secret limestone caves, or hongs, hidden within the numerous lush and tiny islands dotted in the emerald Andaman seas. Discovered by aerial surveys, these caves are open to the sky, yet surrounded all around by towering limestone walls, and, from the outside, seemingly impossible to enter. But local, expert canoeists know these waters inside out and, instructing you to lie flat or move to the right or left, they navigate you under the tiniest entry points, the rock surface at times just centimeters from your face. Then you sit up and find yourself in an ancient, primal-like place. Here, all is quiet, except for the shrills of exotic birds or the chirps of monkeys. Rare plants and towering palms nod over the still waters and you half expect to see a dinosaur come lumbering out of the lush scenery to see who the intruders are.
While other tourist boats are already well on their way back to shore come twilight, ours remains steadfastly in place. After a mouthwatering supper of Tom Yam Goong (traditional Thai sour and spicy soup), prawn Thai green curry and sticky rice – all cooked up on our boat – we turn our hands to making a traditional Loi Krathong offering – usually made for November’s Thai festival of the same name. It’s an artistic challenge – made with a thick banana tree stalk on which leaves and exotic flowers are elaborately arranged with candles and incense sticks. Then it’s sundown and time to head back out in the canoes. By the time we enter our chosen hong, night is upon us, and with a whisper we are told to light our offerings and float them away.
We arrive back to our hotel in silence, our thoughts still in the moment. Located on Naka Yai island, it takes just 25 minutes in a glamorous speed boat to reach The Naka Island Resort from Phuket but it could be a million miles away. While Phuket is loud and brash at times, this new resort from Starwood’s The Luxury Collection, is a more gentle and serene alternative.
The hotel was once a raw-food-only spa retreat that never really took off and has now been reimagined as a luxury boutique offering, thankfully with cooked food as part of its appeal. The 67 villas that are dotted around the resort are deceptively rustic in appearance – thatched roofs, rickety gates and rough-hewn walls. Inside white linens, traditional Thai-style furniture, silk yoga mats and swirling curtained four-poster beds ramp up the luxe factor. Each villa has its own garden with a private plunge pool and, best of all, an open-air bathroom complete with steam room.
At first this takes some getting used to, being British and all. But I soon get over that. It’s wonderfully indulgent to bathe under the stars, terribly exotic to brush your teeth with a warm breeze playing in your hair, and incredibly holiday-ish to pad around among exotic plants getting dressed. And it’s these little details that make Naka Island stand out.
Each guest is given a bicycle for their stay, for instance, and each one is personalised with your initials carved on a charming wooden plaque. The hotel has to have the cutest ‘do not disturb signs’ ever invented – marbled rocks with open or shut eyes let the staff know when to ring your old-style hand bell or not. Spa Naka, meanwhile, is a real highlight with its hydrotherapy room, Watsu pool, ice room and a Kanieep – a hot and cold pool especially designed for foot massages. You can waste hours, if not days here. The choice of treatments is impressive. I finally settle on the signature Thai Temptation treatment that includes a full body steam, body scrub, a sublime Thai massage, and facial. It’s deeply pampering and yet really invigorating and perfectly finished off with a cup of herbal tea, picked from the resort’s own organic herb garden (naturally), and taken in the peaceful, tropical Chinese tea pavillion.
While raw food may have been the downfall of the resort’s predecessor, these days the culinary offering is definitely, er, hotting up. Overseen by British executive chef Ian Thomasen, the alfresco My Grill restaurant offers Thai food with a European twist, think Thai Style Bouillabaisse (made with aromatic herbs and coconut and Andaman seafood). You can even learn how to do some of the dishes yourself by joining the Thai cookery lessons in the subterranean cuisine cave.
There’s also casual beachside dining on offer at Tonsai and, for a real treat, a huge choice of vintage wines at the Moroccan-themed Z Bar. It turns out that the bar is also the perfect place to watch the magnificent sunsets – the lilac, frosted pink and crimson clouds streaking over the Phi Phi islands below. The rainbow hues eventually give way to the bright lights of the stars, and it’s time for darkness to descend again.
For more information on John Gray’s tours, visit: johngray-seacanoe.com/thailand/hong-by-starlight.htm
Some of these images were taken by Lee Cobaj – with thanks.
Naka Island Resort was featured by me on 2 March in The Independent‘s 24 Hour Room Service
And a version of this article will be printed in the May issue of High Life magazine.