By Laurel Tuohy
May 20, 2022
SOUTHERN THAILAND’S KOH SAMUI draws a high-living and discerning crowd, but some visitors arrive searching for a more boutique experience than that provided by the chain resorts and their related bars and beach clubs. Thankfully, there are a handful of intimate, independently owned destinations sharing a more personal point of view.
With the freedom to craft gorgeous spaces, create responsive promotions and provide truly personalized service, these independents are making – and keeping – their mark on Samui, impressing both visitors and locals with fresh and ever-evolving offerings.
“This is what luxury is nowadays,” as Pauline Cabessa, director of Cielo Samui Boutique Hotel & Spa, puts it: “a small private place with unique personal service.”
And contrary to what you might think, many of these owner-operators believe that there is a place for everyone on Koh Samui. Villa Nalinadda owner Naddapen “Nokie” Toommanon loves to see new five-star chain hotels open nearby: “We don’t see them as a challenge because they attract more people to this lovely island.”
So, in that spirit of conviviality, we present 7 of our favorite boutique hotels, resorts and beach clubs on Koh Samui, some brand new, others well established, all keeping up the independent spirit in Travel+Leisure-minded style.
Tembo Beach Club & Resort
Tembo Beach Club & Resort is a chic new beach club in Samui, with a handful of villas, an organic spa and a fresh take on tastemaking F&B that pairs an extensive tapas menu with flavors from around the world. Opening its doors in November of last year, owner Susan Field and partner David Birchall transformed a “tired, dark and old beach club,” in Field’s own words, into a buzzy daytime destination in trendy Bangrak, on Samui’s vibrant north coast.
The result is a laidback and playful, Florida-estate-style hangout that’s heavy on whitewashed wood and wicker, swaying palms and the occasional burst of teal to mirror the color of the sea beyond the white-sand beach with Koh Phangan shimmering in the distance.
Inside the property’s nine bungalows and spacious beachfront villa, a considered aesthetic is apparent in furniture intricately carved by North Thailand artisans, Jim Thompson fabrics adorning cushions, and super-soft Indian cotton bathrobes.
Tembo Beach Club & Resort; rooms from Bt2,500
Aztec Bar at Maya Resort
Courtesy of Aztec Bar at Maya Resort (2)
Aztec Bar at Maya Resort offers poolside fun in Bophut with an emphasis on Spanish and South American dishes. Sipping a signature tiki cocktail with your feet in the bar’s small, dedicated pool infuses afternoons with a bit of retro glamour. Since opening Aztec opened just five months ago, the zingy paella and secret recipe Mai Tai are proving to be the bar’s standout signatures.
Lest you think this hidden gem is for adults-only, hang on. While you might not bring your little ones to Aztec, the year-old Maya differentiates itself from other boutique resorts in Koh Samui with its suite of services for young families: an outdoor playground, indoor kids club, open-air cinema and host of baby equipment to borrow free of charge, making vacations at Maya a breeze for parents.
Aztec Bar at Maya Resort; rooms from Bt1,450
Elephant Beach Club
Courtesy of Elephant Beach Club (2)
Elephant Beach Club is a familiar name to those that know Chaweng Beach. Open for more than six years, French founder David Grassin took the pandemic’s tourism turndown as a chance to renovate the ever-popular club. The new Elephant features a luxurious bohemian vibe inspired by the beach clubs of Bali and Ibiza. Knowing that island artisans and furniture makers were also suffering from the lack of tourists, Grassin made it a point to purchase everything needed for the revamp from local artists and woodworkers.
By day, the club is chilled-out and relaxed, with lounge music punctuated by splashes as guests jump into the pool. After sunset, the music gets louder and the vibe becomes more sophisticated. Fireshows and fireworks on the beach accompany a deep house playlist, curated by live DJs on weekends.
Elephant Beach Club; drinks from Bt120, with happy hour 5-7 p.m. daily
Cielo Samui Boutique Hotel & Spa
Cielo Samui Boutique Hotel & Spa in Bophut, on a northern nook of Koh Samui, draws guests searching for wellness and balance with a touch of European chic. After a complete renovation and relaunch late last year, the new Cielo takes inspiration from the owner’s roots in Saint-Tropez and has an onsite yoga studio.
You can feel the Mediterranean influence shining through in the restaurant’s menu, which is made up almost entirely of local seafood. Think fresh tuna with island mango, made-to-order grilled octopus, garlic and parsley calamari, and sushi made with the catch of the day.
The service-oriented boutique property features 14 suites and five villas. “Our difference is our strength: we are small, secret and unique. We care for our guests in a private and calm environment,” says director Pauline Cabessa.
Cielo Samui Boutique Hotel & Spa; rooms from Bt6,000
Karma Resort Koh Samui
Karma Resort Koh Samui opened its boho-chic doors in November of 2019. This gorgeous resort from the owners of the popular Karma Sutra bar and restaurant in Fisherman’s Village takes inspiration from Balinese-style resorts.
Design-wise, what sets Karma apart from the other boutique hotels on Koh Samui is its spiritual and calming environ, which eschews bright island hues for soothing surrounds in black, white and gold.
With just 20 rooms and a well-trained team empowered to serve their own way, guests at this Bophut resort enjoy personal attention from staff with an earnest desire to keep them happy.
Karma Resort Koh Samui; rooms from Bt4,400
Villa Nalinadda is a petite beachfront beauty just 10 minutes from Lamai, making it just the right amount of remote. The nine-room villa something of a upscale bed-and-breakfast, and sits on a private bay with its own coral reef teeming with sea life, making that spot heaven for snorkelers.
After undergoing a renovation in 2018, it boasts upgraded bathrooms, free-standing bathtubs in open-plan rooms and full ocean views from the baths.
This relaxed, romantic destination is popular with couples and LGBT travelers. Owners Naddapen “Nokie” Toommanon and Martin Fells live on the property and treat guests as friends staying in their home.
Villa Nalinadda; rooms from Bt3,300
Banana Fan Sea
Banana Fan Sea sits at the south end of Chaweng Beach with 79 rooms designed in modern tropical style. Grounds are lush, the top villas come with private pools or Jacuzzis, and the owners care about locavore dining experiences, as evidenced most recently by their seaside collabs with hard-to-book, nose-to-tail restaurant Blackitch Artisan Kitchen from Chiang Mai.
As one of the most established independent hotels in Koh Samui – they’ve been open for 21 years – Banana Fan Sea’s directors see being boutique as an asset. Assistant managing director Ratchaporn Poolsawadee mentions increased opportunities for creativity, identity and strategic response to local trends, without the need to adhere to potentially restrictive brand standards.
“An independent hotel’s originality is more appealing now than ever as travelers look for a unique, local experience,” he says. “We can capitalize on that.”
To our great benefit, for sure.
Banana Fan Sea; rooms from Bt3,600