Imagine you're a guest in a private home owned by a Thai aristocrat with royal connections and exquisite tastes in everything from fine wines and food to rare objets d'art. To complete the picture, the property nestles in a uniquely dramatic seaside location - amid landscaped tropical gardens, sculpted pools and koi carp ponds - perched on a rocky promontory above the Andaman Sea.
No idle pipe-dream this such a hideaway actually exists. Villa Royale was created by celebrated Thai artist and architect Mom Luang Tridothsyuth Devakul ('Mom Tri' to his friends), and a descendant of King Rama IV. Originally created as his summer residence - a single-storey thatched villa - it now offers, as the name implies, a 'truly royal experience' for those fortunate to enjoy its lavish and diverse charms. Unsurprisingly, Villa Royale has won many global awards as one of the world's leading small luxury hotels.
Villa Royale is small no more. Since its conception, it has been expanded to 42 suites in 12 distinctive styles. All boast spacious living areas, plus balconies and terraces which enable each and every guest to appreciate the panoramic views across Kata Noi Bay. The use of natural materials is in evidence everywhere: wood ceilings and floors, bamboo tiles and screens, rattan furniture. Outside, the terraces and linking pathways feature unglazed terracotta tiles inset with brown pebbles. The overall effect is one of mellow warmth.
Each interior, moreover, is lovingly furnished and decorated: a living space graced both by contemporary landscape paintings, antiques and Chinese-inspired images. Suite Four, for example, formerly Mom Tri's home, is dominated by a huge, six-panelled painting above the bed.
A range of residences are available, all offering total privacy. The Kata Suites have individual pools, while Pool Suites enjoy extra privacy with a spacious sitting room and - naturally - a private plunge pool. The resort has three communal pools, one with salt water and, if that's not enough, the adventurous can experience one of the finest sand beaches on the island by following the winding steps down to Kata Noi Beach.
Our penthouse suite, accessed by lift, is superbly appointed: a spacious bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub, luxurious initialed bathrobes, as well as shampoos and gels whose containers can be reused in a gesture to the environment. The huge bed is luxurious and bedecked with orchid blooms. Everything is colour-coordinated: even the waste bin blends with the elegant lamp plinths and mirror frames. The roofed, semi-circular balcony has matching sunbeds and lofty views above the treetops to the lush headland beyond the bay.
The sense of being at one with nature is palpable. Everywhere Mom Tri's eco-friendly vision has meant the retention of mature trees - huge sea almonds, banyans and sand-loving stilt palms, supplemented by plantings of foxtail, Macarthur, fishtail and fan palms. Low growing plants: scheffleras, heliconias, polyscias, durantas, ginger, sea lettuce and even brugmansias flank the walkways and lawns. It's entirely in character that Mom Tri should have invited his friend, celebrated botanist William Warren, to help landscape this rocky headland. The library, with its eclectic collection of books, bears his name.
A short walk away, the Classic Ocean Wing offers yet more seclusion and luxury. Opened five years ago, the residences constitute the newest and most lavish addition to the resort. Like every Villa Royale suite, the six discrete living areas, all named after wines, and set amid lush greenery, have superb sea views and, wherever feasible, embody natural materials.
On the terraced lawns, 'objets trouvés' bear witness to an artist's vision - an ancient bronze telescope, coloured buoys suspended from trees, driftwood sculptures. Steps lead down through a virgin jungle to the last of a series of wooden sun-decks. Huge seas pound a rampart of rocks sculpted over time into massive round forms by the relentless assault.
Catch the happy hour from 6pm to 7pm in the relaxing atmosphere of the wood-lined Seashell Bar or Veranda Lounge, and sip a pre-dinner drink while listening to soothing guitar or piano. I enjoy a glass of classic Chablis, my partner a Corona beer, in the calm surroundings. The contrast with the wild nautical scene outside couldn't be greater, as huge foam-laden breakers crash on to the rocks below. It's so dramatic, we stay for over an hour.
Superb wine is a prominent feature at Villa Royale. The resort has repeatedly won 'Wine Spectator Awards for Excellence', an accolade in no small measure due to sommelier Georges Ciret. In his wine cellar, maintained at a constant 17 degrees centigrade, there are more than 400 labels: everything from Grand Cru Bordeaux to increasingly popular organic, biodynamic and even vegan wines, altogether from 19 different countries. Many of Georges' recommendations are highlighted in the menus. It's hard to believe that any other Phuket establishment can vie with Villa Royale's wine list.
While five-star restaurants are invariably blessed with impressive menus, Mom Tri 's is extra special. Two specialist chefs, Darren and Sura, have created an unusually extensive range of western and Thai dishes, each one accompanied by an inviting photograph and a description of the ingredients. I've never encountered a menu before where I yearned to sample so many exquisite offerings.
The signature dishes, with a pronounced French and Italian accent, include rich and creamy rock lobster ravioli, crab soufflé, a succulent crab cannelloni, coq au vin, Mediterranean fish stew, risottos, gnocchi and chevre roulade. The tempura snapper offers a delectable Japanese touch. The braised beef cheek passed my partner's taste test with flying colours.
Chef's suggestions include creamy geang pu sen mee (crabmeat in red curry with betel leaves), lamb kaprow (chops in garlic and basil), tom klong pla gao (grouper soup) and geang pla tuna (tuna with ginger and red 'jungle' curry. All this without even mentioning the range of inventive takes on classic Thai dishes.
It's well worth making the effort for breakfast: a veritable cornucopia of delights ranging from excellent coffee, home-baked breads to made-to-order eggs. Smoked salmon, crispy bacon, cold cuts, hash browns and sausages are regular offerings. There's even a daily Asian option: crab fried rice or phad Thai, plus an array of fresh fruit and juices.
Spa Royale, 'a union of nature and luxury', provides four different treatments. I opt for an essential oil-based massage, having chosen from four perfumed unguents. Chinese tea before and after completes a therapeutic experience which does wonders for my ancient frame. My partner enjoys a strong Thai massage called 'Le Royale Release'. Naturally, the spa has private steam baths and soak tubs plus a well-equipped gym.
Then there's Wok Pagoda, Villa Royale's sister restaurant, recently opened on a cliff side high above Chalong Bay, with panoramic views of Cape Panwa and verdant Andaman isles set in an azure sea. On a clear day one can see, if not for ever, all the way to distant Koh Phi Phi. A transfer service is provided for guests interested in a fresh dining experience with breathtaking marine vistas enjoyed from the restaurant's two verandas. It's not to be missed. Its teasing name, a conundrum I have managed to unravel, reflects the restaurant's motif: a series of inverted bowls arranged on a pole to resemble the graduated storeys of a pagoda. Look closely and you realise that the bowls are real woks. Wok Pagoda. Hey presto!
Wok Pagoda's menu started life relatively small with the emphasis on shared dishes - Thai style. Now, reinvented by celebrated Chef Tummanoon, it is an ambitious affair - a delectable fusion of Thai, western and Asian recipes: 14 fish and seafood dishes, 12 meat and poultry, seven pasta, and four charcoal grill specials. Shared specials are still available. Try the superb pink snapper, pan-fried in white wine with tomatoes, capers and mushrooms. The crunchy signature salad with fresh greens, apple, grilled mushrooms, soft shell crab, smoked salmon and walnuts, plus a 'secret' dressing is a must. Likewise, the stir-fried boneless Grouper sanumpral - with herbs, roasted cashews and mushrooms.
The ambience at Villa Royale is unique. Island attractions are all within easy reach: The Big Buddha, Phuket Town's Sino-Portuguese architecture, the hustle of Patong, the temples of Chalong or Promthep Cape, the spectacular shows at FantaSea, and Siam Niramit. But there seems no good reason to leave this haven everything is here.
The warmth of the décor extends to staff members who are, to a person, uniformly friendly and charming. Throughout our stay, Khun Nidnoi was a wonderful guide and host. No wonder Villa Royale has a high proportion of guests returning year after year. The in-house publicity states: "It is pleasurable having you as our guests," an assertion that carries absolute conviction.
Mom Tri's Villa Royale
12 Kata Noi Rd., Kata Noi Beach, Phuket 83100
Tel: +66 76 333569
32/78 M. 4 Chalong, Phuket 81330
Tel: +66 76 608899