Review: Cape Kudu

Just off Phuket, lush and quiet Koh Yao Noi has a lot to recommend it. We suggest you explore via any of the retro-chic vehicles offered up by the last beach house you’ll ever want to call home. By Jeninne Lee-St. John

Mar 15, 2021

GO ON, CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE. Pick your starting point of this story from the awesomeness that interests you most. #Luxelife mavens might skip halfway down for the best floating breakfast ever. Car buffs will swoon for the Porsche convertible that puts all other transfers to shame (rev to the end). Shark Week diehards, though, should dive in right here.

Sailing through Phang Nga Bay one cloudless midday, having just evaded ravenous macaques at Monkey Island and, earlier, any sign of the usual tourist suspects in Koh Hong, our boat captain veered off-course. He and our guide, Khun Boy, had spotted a shadow in the water and thought we might want to check it out. Were they ever right: it was a whale shark that they estimated to be about six meters and after we carefully puttered into its territory and cut the engine, it swam directly under the bow of the boat, as if it wanted to play.

A few fishing boats heeded the call, sailed up and sat themselves in a loose, large ring. They were there, Khun Boy explained, to catch the remora, pilot fish and other groupies that swim with whale sharks to make finding food easier. Poor guys don’t realize it also makes them easier prey for humans.

Whale sharks are fairly rare in these parts but you miiiight see one in Phang Nga Bay during December through February. This was November, so the excitement was real. Khun Boy posited the year’s utter lack of traffic in these usually heavily touristed waters was due to changing migration patterns, and noted that Tirawan “Waew” Taechaubol, the owner of Cape Kudu, the hotel where we were staying, had been trying in vain to spot one here for seven years —a fact she confirmed to me when I posted my IG story. I jokingly told her to hop on a plane, but it turned out to be solid advice. For a full week after I’d left the island, I received envy-inducing updates from friendly general manager Andres Rubio on their daily sightings of not just our whale shark but six or seven others frolicking in the same vicinity.

One of two inhabited sister islands sandwiched between Krabi and Phuket, and about an hour boat ride from either, Koh Yao Noi is that rare idyll that both lacks immediate name recognition (i.e., crowds) yet has a range of lovely resort options. With a population of less than 5,000, the vast majority of whom are Muslim, the island maintains a strong community fabric and an economy (fishing, farming and rubber) independent of tourism, which makes a visit inevitably homey, like to any small town.

This “town” just happens to be insanely picturesque, fringed by mangrove forests, home of the sacred 24-meter in circumference Big Tree, and surrounded by the six-million-year-old karsts of Phang Nga Bay. And, it has had zero reported cases of Covid-19. So, even as the pandemic wrought its havoc on typical tourist destinations across Thailand, Koh Yao Noi was seeing a rise in popularity among high-end domestic travelers, and Cape Kudu, with its whitewashed Hamptons house, cozy-cushy vibe, became something of an it spot. “They tell us they were used to going to Japan a few times per year,” Andres told me of first-time Thai guests who became hotel regulars in the space of a few months last year. “Compared to that distance, the travel from Bangkok to here is nothing.”  But it still feels like another world.

That’s due to the lack of traffic, the single 7-Eleven, the two bars… not to mention the 90-percent-local staff at the hotel and the local-immersion excursions they organize with special flair. Lobster farm? Sunset champagne after kayaking to a secret cove? A booking at stilted seafood restaurant Tha Tondo for curry crab, crayfish fried with garlic, and a photo with smiley chef-matriarch Kanchana Maikaew? Yes, yes, and yes, thanks! Also: an extra-special sunrise in Koh Hong, that stunning, hollow limestone island to which a pilgrimage is practically obligatory for anyone doing a boat trip from Phuket or Krabi, certainly those from nearer Yao Noi and Yao Yai.

As we lounged on the pillows and hand-dyed batiks Cape Kudu had used to cozy up the local boatman’s bow, the captain gingerly cruised us through the 10-meter gap in the rock wall at the tail-end of low-tide, steadying the long-tail rotor practically parallel. Birds trilled in the trees jutting out from the rocks above as we climbed down into the knee-deep water. We marveled at all the starfish chilling in the cookie-dough sand. At having the entire massive prehistoric room (“hong” in Thai) to ourselves. And at their knock-your-socks-off floating breakfast plan.

Everyone’s seen those buoyant basket trays hotels float cold eggs on in your private pool for the ‘gram. Cape Kudu had sent one along on our boat, because this world-famous lagoon was our private pool this morning, and fried chicken with sticky rice the main course of our delightfully surprising break-feast. It was an incandescent day, and the hotel had gotten the timing perfect — just as we clambered back aboard, and the captain weighed anchor, another private boat entered Hong, and by the time we’d circumnavigated the inner rock wall to make our exit, three more vessels of tourists had come in. I’m not sure I could have been smugger if I’d planned it myself.

Not that Cape Kudu doesn’t do spontaneity just as well. One morning, Andres introduced me to the hotel group’s Italian chef consultant, Massimo Gullotta, who was planning to leave the island that afternoon. “Let me make you a special lunch,” Massimo said. “What would you like?” I blurted out, “Lasagna!” before I considered how much effort and prep a good one takes — especially on an island where fresh Italian ingredients might not always be on hand.

But four hours later, we were sitting at our favorite table, on the whitewashed deck facing the hotel’s main pool and its IG-bait gazebo, cutting into two humongous hunks of cheesy, bolognesey, garden-fresh-tomatoey lasagna that tasted like it had been stewing in its own juices for days. It’s something special to live your life off-menu — although theirs is so well designed, I also wanted to eat everything on it, too. (The truffle grilled cheese sandwich might actually make you cry.)

I’d like to say I waddled back to my private-pool villa, so comfy in warm whites, with pops of aqua, rattan accents, wooden birds, gossamer bed curtains and ocean view for a nap. But instead we headed down the hill for ice cream at Cafe Kantary, which happens to sit next to the property’s newest addition, private villa Baan Yu Yen. It’s two bedrooms, but you could probably host a party comfortably for 10 times that, what with the two pools, airy great room, and open-plan kitchen. Waew’s filled this beach house with nice appliances, French doors, and an abundance of beach bags and sunhats.

I read her personal design choices as understated luxe, an old-school Key West or Kennebunkport expression of the good life, an impression that started with our hotel transfer. We’d come from Krabi via a ferry, a quaint wooden boat in which half a dozen locals sat catching up with each other in the shade of the hull, whose roof was stacked with crates of eggs and produce. We sat on the bow, soaking up the sun, the postcard views of the Phang Nga karsts, and the congenial mood of this particular iteration of public transport.

On arrival at the simple pier, I was expecting perhaps a cute branded songthaew, one of those converted pick-up trucks with benches in the back. Instead, I got an ivory vintage Porsche convertible that made me shriek with delight — and prompted one of my friends to later complain to his hotel on Koh Yao Noi for not being so creative. This car is big-time sexy, and cruising from the pier along a seaside road, perched up above the backseat, my silk Jim Thompson scarf fluttering behind my neck, felt fully cinematic. Now that I think back on it, I wouldn’t have been surprised had they sent a video drone to capture the scene, and complete the effect.

Even without it, the photos are killer — and Cape Kudu was just getting started. Perhaps, for example, your voracity for fun vehicles extends to Vespas. (Don’t ours all?) You are going to be enamoured of the creamy Vespa with sidecar that Cape Kudu offered up for us to tool around the island one dramatic-weather afternoon. We played hide-and-seek with storm clouds while driving through farms, along red-dirt roads, past paddy fields and to the entrance of a waterfall our guide told us was a favorite of picnicking families and lovebirds alike. The fresh mountain water that flowed into it was turquoise, a bit of a mental disconnect at an in-land pool.

Carefully puddle-hopping our way back to the scooter proved a completely futile effort once we were back on the road and the skies opened up. Yep, there was no more hiding from the storm: rain came down in sheets, mocking us for tempting fate with that last stop. The hilarity of sitting in an open sidecar in such conditions, expecting it to fill up with water like in a classic cartoon, our guide checking on us but allowing us to keep driving as long as we felt comfortable doing so, is something I’d never have expected as part of a five-star hotel experience, but lasts in my memory as the light and approachable personality of Cape Kudu’s brand: choose your own adventure, indeed.

capekuduhotel.com; from Bt3,600 for a Deluxe room including breakfast for two people, through December 31, 2021, with price subject to change depending on the selected room type and period of stay.

Check out their long-stay packages, which start at Bt23,000 per week for double occupancy in a Deluxe room, here. Half- and full-board packages, and Pool Villas, also available; contact 66/76-592-600 or reservations@capekuduhotel.com for information.

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Review: Cape Kudu

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