This classic volcanic island not only has beaches but also has fabulous views of beaches—and of shimmering turquoise seas and emerald green hills dotting the horizon. Before Phuket was devastated by the tsunami that struck Indonesia on December 26, 2004, the beautiful island province of Phuket (pronounced Poo-get), on the Andaman Coast of Thailand, enjoyed a bubbling tourism market drawn to its stunning beaches, balmy Indian Ocean seas, and mellow vibe. In fact, during high season, the island’s prime beaches were packed with holiday revelers (and some of
the island towns, like Patong, took on a certain seedy overdevelopment), and Thailand’s largest island quickly went from a hideaway of the beach-loving cognoscenti to the country’s leading holiday destination. Then the tsunami struck, killing some 7,000 people in Thailand and virtually wiping out resorts on Phuket’s beautiful west coast.
Today this island has rebounded spectacularly from the catastrophe, with most of the destroyed properties rebuilt and new luxury resorts rising up all over the island. The seas are clear, and underwater coral gardens are reputedly back to pre-tsunami splendor (fishermen even report spotting large schools of fish they haven’t seen for years).
Phuket is directly connected to the Thailand mainland at the island’s northern tip by the Sarasin Bridge. Renting a car is the best way to see the island, but driving the cliff-hugging roads on hairpin turns can be heart-stopping—on the roads in Phuket, anything goes. With a car, you can beach-hop the west coast and stop in at Phuket Town to shop and see colonial mansions built by the moneyed set when the island economy revolved around tin and rubber production. You can head to the island’s last rainforest, located in the Khao Phra Thaw Royal Wildlife Reserve. Here you can hike and stand beneath waterfalls and perhaps spot the bloom of the rare Rafflesia—the “corpse flower”—which looks and smells like rotting flesh.
The island’s west coast offers the most cinematically beautiful palm-fringed beaches, many of which have starred in such Hollywood films as The Beach, Rescue Dawn, and The Man with the Golden Gun. Kata and Karon, on the island’s southwest coast, are two of Phuket’s finest beaches. Just north of Patong, Kamala Bay, Surin Beach, and Bang Thao Beach have secluded resorts on smashing beaches for those who want to hit the action in Patong but don’t want to sleep there. North of the main resort areas, Nai Yang, part of Sirinat National Park, has few facilities but a fantastic beach fringed with casuarina pines. A coral reef just offshore makes for great snorkeling.You can participate in just about any watersports on the island, but the diving around Phuket is particularly world-class. Fantasea Divers (© 66/7628-1388; www.fantasea.net) offers dive packages and PADI certification courses in addition to full-day dives around Phuket. Scuba Cat, in Patong (© 66/7629-3120; www. scubacat.com), offers a full range of trips for anyone from beginner to expert. The snorkeling is great on Phuket, too, with right-off-the-beach opportunities at places like Nai Harn Beach and Relax Bay.
You’ll have no trouble finding a viewing spot that offers cozy seating and sundowners to watch the red-tinged sun melt into the darkening sea. Of course, if you’re after more bustling nightlife, head to the 3km (13/4-mile) beachside strip at Patong. Lit up like a seedy Las Vegas in miniature, it’s got bars, nightclubs, discos, malls, and such familiar Western chains as Starbucks. It also has hundreds of “hostess” bars, so you may want to take the family elsewhere.