Glitzy Phuket offers every Western convenience you can think of, and probably several you can’t. Celebrity-chef restaurants? Check. Six-star resorts with private butlers? Check. World-class plastic surgery? No problem. If you’re the highest of high-maintenance, Phuket is the island for you.
Phuket is the biggest, busiest island in Thailand, and although it has been infiltrated by package holidays and cheap sleaze in a few places (avoid Bangla Road in Patong), it also has cosmopolitan diversions in the form of designer boutiques and world-class restaurants – one of the best of which is Acqua.
Phuket still has some of the most glorious beaches in the islands. Many have been taken over by uber-groomed international resorts and laid with stylish sunloungers and deluxe beach bars; but if you’re seeking somewhere more laid-back, head to stunning little Kata Noi.
Koh Samui is the original Thai island. Where once it drew backpackers and ravers for its sensational beaches with cheap huts and full-moon parties; now it has grown up and smartened up, its not-so-rustic beach bungalows honed down to the very last detail – Koh Samui now has some of the best luxury beach resorts anywhere in the world, several excellent beach hotels, and some first-class spas.
All of which makes it ideal for those who want the joy of a beach holiday in Thailand without any of the roughness around the edges. Honeymooners can take their pick of super-luxe hotels, beach clubs and Michelin-starred restaurants; parents can go for family-friendly hotels with childcare and splash pools and Western food (there’s even a branch of Boots); nervous first-timers can make their first foray into South-East Asia surrounded by home comforts and limited creepy-crawlies.
The coast of Koh Tao, or ‘Turtle Island’, is lined with little sandy coves, pretty lantern-lit restaurants – and dive shops. Most travellers are here to dive. The island is one of the world’s top places to learn, and the competition among dive shops has also made it one of the cheapest. If you’re new to the sport, sign up to get your PADI or SSI Open Water certification. This usually takes four days, and includes four ocean dives. If you’re already certified, you can take advanced courses in diving at night diving, wreck diving, shark diving or Nitrox diving, or just jump on any of the tens of boats heading out every day. Phoenix Divers has been around since 2002 and is one of the top shops on Koh Tao. Instructors teach in a variety of languages and children’s courses are also available.
Of all Thailand’s islands, Koh Lanta is one of the best all-rounders. Less than an hour’s boat ride from Krabi, Koh Lanta is actually made up of several little islands, the most-visited of which is Koh Lanta Yai. It has nature reserves and beaches where you won’t see another soul; it’s got accommodation that runs the gamut from spare to super-swanky, which attract more 30-, 40- and 50-something travellers than backpackers. Bringing the children? The waters are calm and the island safe.