In search of luxury, family-style
The Travelers: Canadians Lise and Paul Lepa, owners of Pearls Only, their 5-and-a-half-year-old daughter Alexandra (Alex), and grandparents George and Helena Lepa.
The Destination: Ko Samui, Thailand.
The Plan: Fifteen days of luxury and lounging at a house on the beach with housekeeping and a cook.
The Reality: When the planned lodgings failed to deliver on their Internet promise of fully-catered comfort, the Lepas switched their focus to fun day trips and island explorations.s For the last five days of their vacation, the family picked up and moved to improved accommodations, where, thanks to a private pool and excellent spa treatments, they finally found their Zen.
Where to stay: Seeking sanctuary and the full-service, multi-star treatment they had hoped for from the start, the Lepas finally checked in to the Samui Peninsula Resort and Spa (THB 11,000-75,000; tel: 77 428 100). The resort lured the family in with its beachfront location, beautiful grounds and “strong Thai feel.” The Lepas loved Pool Villa 804 for its extreme privacy, its personal pool and Jacuzzi, and because the outside area came with railings to contain young explorers.
Where to play: The biggest draws are the sand and the surf. Alex and her parents loved strolling along Chaweng Beach and walking out to the little island that became accessible at low tide. When you need a beach break, the Samui Aquarium and Tiger Zoo (THB 450, THB 225 (kids); tel: 77 424 017) puts on a bird and tiger show in English that was a great hit with Alex. Birds, including falcons and other birds of prey, fly close to the audience’s heads, and show off their stuff by catching pompoms in midair. There are also photo ops with the animal performers (THB 100 to hold one animal). At the aquarium, you can pay to feed the fish and turtles. For a longer adventure, the family rented a car (THB 2,500 from their hotel) and took a day trip to the mountains, where they visited the Tarnim Waterfall and Magic Garden, which was small but very cute, and offered an easy walk for little legs. Families with more time and nerve can rent jeeps for mountain safaris, ride elephants, hike or take a ride on the flying fox.
Where to eat: Ko Samui has lots of good options for families, and kids get treated like royalty. “All staff at all the restaurants were very welcoming to children,” says mom Lise. “They always remembered Alex’s name and her omelet preferences.” The family was partial to the Thai dish named, oddly, “No Name,” a sort of carrot and pea fritter. “Every time it was different and every time we liked it. Sometimes we’d order two at one meal.” The Islander (THB 700 for a family lunch; tel: 77 230 836) was good for Western treats like toasties, and the Imperial Boat House Hotel restaurant (THB 250, THB 100 (kids)) had a kids’ menu. The Bird’s Eye View restaurant at the Bluestars Mountain Resort was super cozy, and offered 360-degree panoramic views and great Thai food. “We ate like pigs.”
What to pack: Depending on the season, Lise recommends a wetsuit for little swimmers – the island’s pools aren’t heated and can get a little chilly. She also suggests bringing a quality, well-fitting kids’ lifejacket of your own. Inflatable pool toys can easily be squeezed into your luggage, brought out on arrival, and then deflated again when it’s time to go home. The Lepas bought Alex’s wet suit and a batch of fun pool toys at the Alien Street Market.
Best splurge: Lunch at Dining on the Rocks at the Sila Evason Hideaway Resort (THB 4,500 for the whole family; tel: 77 245 678) was expensive but worth every penny. “The chefs are extraordinary and the service could not be improved.” Plus, there’s a great view. Or, if you’re lucky enough to be traveling with built-in babysitters (ahem, the grandparents), sneak away to the Thalasso Spa at the Samui Penninsula (tel: 77 428 100 ext 3666/3084). It’s been years since they tied the knot, but Paul and Lise indulged in the honeymoon package, which included a massage, a steam sauna, a two-person Jacuzzi, body scrubs, and Swedish massage (THB 7,200 – go early in the morning for a discount).
Biggest disappointment: “CoCo Private Villas (THB 17,500/night for an ocean view; tel: 77 430 030) was nowhere near what we expected.” The hotel’s snazzy website had promised it all: fully-serviced freestanding homes facing the water, fitness facilities, a clubhouse and multiple restaurants. But when the Lepas arrived, the resort was still under construction, the house had no ocean view, and the promised perks weren’t there. However, you might not want to write it off entirely – if you’re just looking for a house, and not a full-service resort, it might do the trick. During their stay, the Lepas enjoyed a spectacular meal cooked just for them, and were impressed that the staff managed to stock their fridge with everything from baked beans to Gruyere. And because there were many other families vacationing there, Alex had lots of playmates.
Greatest bargain: Nothing tops the Tops Market Place near Chaweng Beach (in central Chaweng, just north of the McDonald’s). It offered a great food selection, including a make-your-own-salad bar. But the real showstoppers were the enormous king prawns, barbecued for free right outside the shop door and eaten on the spot at a picnic table. Just THB 450 bought enough to feed the whole family.