A 1-hour flight north of Bangkok, the insanely beautiful island of Phuket makes an ideal second phase to any MICE program. Malay natives first named Phuket “Crystal Mountain” because of its rocky peaks glimmering in the luminous sea. Long a backpacker paradise before the 2004 tsunami, Phuket has rebuilt with a chic array of affordable, high-end incentive resorts along one of Asia’s finest beach destinations.
We visited this spring and our first stop was lunch at the Tin Mine restaurant at the sultry Indigo Pearl Phuket Resort near Thalang. Hidden in a grotto of palms, vines and ferns, the 177-room resort exudes chic sophistication with its rustic wood and tin materials, much of which were salvaged from the tsunami. The pseudo-industrial feel is softened with flowing silks, candles and floral prints throughout the seven restaurants, three pools and Coqoon Spa.
Surrounded by teal blue water and lush greenery, Indigo Pearl is less than 10 minutes from the airport and completely separate from the busy tourist beaches, but close enough for a foray into the scene for beach dining and shopping.
Two musts: Book an oceanfront feast at the Côtémer Beach Club. And be sure to take part in the onsite Moo’s Kitchen Thai Cooking School, which includes a group trip to the fresh market.
We then checked into the 676-room Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort situated on a sprawling 75-acre tropical retreat in a cylindrical glass tower. Five dining choices, three pools, beach access, a lagoon and plenty of sunshine ensure guests receive the royal treatment. Situated near the popular Karon Beach toward the south coast, this group friendly hotel is close to golf courses, nightlife, the Phuket’s FantaSea theme park and the inspiring Chalong Temple.
Sunshine and water activities were a huge draw to most of our group, but the elephant safari was the highlight. A short transfer into Chalong, we disembarked at Siam Safari, where guides took us by Land Rover into the jungle to the Elephant Camp. Siam Safari focuses on the health and preservation of these majestic mammals in one of the last jungle habitats on Phuket.
We paired 2-by-2 for trekking with a Thai mahout, or elephant driver. The mahouts sit bareback across the neck of the elephant, hooking their feet under the floppy ears. We climbed into the canopied bench seat strapped across the elephant’s shoulders and off we went into the jungle of Chalong highlands. Rocking and rolling on our pachyderm pony through tunnels of vines and banana trees, both of us fell into a trance at the sights and sounds of the jungle.
Gibbon monkeys peeked from the canopy and exotic birds called to mates. In the distance, the tiny islands dotting the Andaman Sea around Phuket glittered in the morning light. We rumbled along the well-worn path while the mahout occasionally broke into low sing-song signals to his mount. Following our trek, we helped feed our elephant bananas leaves, bamboo and assorted fruit, which is a whole experience in its own right.
Dotting the ocean’s horizon from Phuket are other small islands in the Andaman Sea. Some groups prefer a getaway from the getaway and a trip to Raya (or Racha) Island is just what our group ordered. After a wind-slinging speedboat crossing from Chalong Pier, we stepped off onto the white sands of Raya Island and headed up the hill to a luscious Thai lunch at Baan Raya Resort. This is a well known spot for exceptional snorkeling among the thriving coral forests, as well as the impossibly clear seas the likes of which I’d never seen before. Others simply sunbathed on the beach, knowing it might be a while before experiencing again one of the world’s ultimate beach escapes.