In past posts, I have asserted that independent travel with a twist of luxury is the essence of flashpacking. On my recent return trip to Thailand, I splurged on a stay at the Santhiya Resort & Spa on Koh Yao Yai.
In true flashpacker style, I rocked up at this 5-star luxury beach resort with my small 40L backpack strapped across my shoulders. Perhaps more accustomed to guests arriving with a set of matching suitcases in tow, more than one member of staff asked, ‘Is that all madam?’
The Santhiya Resort – the name is derived from the Thai words meaning “natural” and “beauty” – is marketed as luxury beach eco-resort. It offers “villas … and rooms that blend in perfectly with the natural mountainous surroundings and offer a rare private stretch of beach frontage.” So does the hotel live up to its marketing hype and is it worth a splurge?
This is a review of my experience. I stayed there for six nights in January 2019 as a solo traveller.
The location: Koh Yao Yai
Sitting roughly equidistant to Phuket and Krabi in the Andaman Sea, Koh Yao Yai is one of the few Thai islands that hasn’t been blighted by overdevelopment and mass tourism. The local trades of fishing and farming rubber, coconuts and cashew nuts still flourish.
The Santhiya Resort is located in Loh Pared on the south-west coast of the island and is fronted by a gently sloping white sandy beach. Although a pleasant beach, for the most part, the sand is not particularly fine.
Unfortunately, when I visited in January it was jellyfish season. The risk of jellyfish sting notwithstanding, for those with sensitive skin like me, the baby jellyfish can cause itching and stinging.
Despite the hotel’s marketing claims, I could see no evidence that the resort’s beach was private. Having said that, it seemed to be used only by hotel residents
Adjacent to the Santhiya Resort is a small, friendly Muslim village. 90% of Koh Yao Yai’s population is Muslim. As such, alcohol and pork dishes are more challenging to come by outside of the resort.
Be respectful of the local community by dressing appropriately outside the resort. It goes without saying that public nudity, including topless sunbathing, is a no-no.
Santhiya Koh Yao Yai transfer from Phuket
The easiest and quickest, not to mention coolest, way to arrive at the Santhiya resort is by the hotel’s own speedboat transfer from Ao Po Grand Marina on Phuket’s north-east coast. The shared transfer operates seven times a day and the journey takes 20 minutes. It costs 900 THB (£22) for a one-way transfer; a through transfer from Phuket Airport costs 1,250 THB (£31).
Several times a day, public speedboats and long-tail boats operate between Koh Yai Yai and Phuket’s Bang Rong Pier. Although these services are considerably cheaper than the hotel’s transfer (300 THB), they arrive at Klong Hia Pier in the north-east of the island. As travel is expensive on the island you will have to factor in at least another 300 THB for a taxi to the Santhiya.
When I did the maths, the hotel’s transfer service worked out to be the least expensive option for a solo traveller. Note also that taxis on Phuket are not particularly cheap and it will cost you at least 500 THB to get from Bang Rong Pier to the airport.
Services also run between Krabi and Koh Yao Yai.
Check in at Santhiya Koh Yao Yai
Check-in was efficient, albeit impersonal, and started at the hotel’s office at Ao Po Marina.
After the speedboat transfer we were escorted into the Santhiya’s reception area where, cold drink in hand, the hard-sell by the spa staff started. A captive audience, we could but listen.
The resort is built over a hill, with its rooms split across five buildings. The garden view rooms are on the ground floor, and the sea view rooms on the upper floors. The villas are sprinkled between these five buildings.
As much of the accommodation is some distance from the public areas, guests are transferred by wooden songthaews from the central area to a drop-off point. From there it’s a short, but possibly steep, walk to your room. Although electric buggies are available for those with mobility issues, this is not a resort for the unfit!
En route to my room, the Nepalese porter carefully explained about the resort. Although he was perfectly pleasant, it did feel a little scripted. When I veered off-subject I could sense that he was desperately trying to get back on message. I wasn’t trying to mess with his head. Honest!
The accommodation at the Santhiya Resort & Spa is the jewel in its slightly tarnished crown. Designed in traditional Thai style, and housed in steep-roofed pavilions, the rooms are constructed from teak wood.
The room’s elegant, traditional, hand-carved furniture is made from the same wood. This uniquely Thai aesthetic is echoed throughout the resort.
At 60 sq. m, my Supreme Deluxe Sea View room was spacious enough to accommodate a small family. Entering the room really had the wow factor, with the bedroom opening onto a large terrace housing a day bed and bathtub. From here, there were sweeping views of Phang Nga Bay, with its limestone islands peeking out from the emerald water of the Andaman Sea.
If indoor bathing is more your style, then you are in luck with the bathroom’s spacious rainfall shower and plentiful fluffy white towels. The natural oil burner was a nice touch. In line with the resort’s eco credentials, liquid soap, shampoo and hair conditioner are provided in refillable dispensers. My only criticism is that the bathroom’s lighting veered towards the atmospheric rather than the practical.
For me, a comfortable hotel bed with plump pillows is a must, and the Santhiya did not disappoint. A turndown service was offered each evening.
I loved the little touches such as the Pioneer sound system to connect with my iPhone – and thence Spotify playlist – a basket to use on the beach, a sun parasol and elegant, complimentary faux silk slippers. Sadly, the bathrobe wasn’t complimentary.
Plentiful bottles of water were provided daily. There were also limited tea and coffee-making facilities. However, I found refilling of these supplies unreliable.
The breakfast buffet was plentiful and offered a broad selection of Western and Asian options. Fresh eggs were cheerfully cooked on request.
Breakfast was served at the Saaitara restaurant, perched on the hillside, and at the hotel’s beachside Chantara restaurant. I opted for the Saaitara which was a short walk from my room and, from its terrace, there were fabulous views of Phang Nga Bay.
Service was sometimes a little slow but always friendly. I was impressed that the staff remembered how I liked my coffee and that I liked a few refills!
Food and drink
The Santhiya Resort has six restaurants. However, as I did not spend a single baht in them I am unable to comment on the quality of their food and service. There are two reasons why I didn’t dine at the hotel.
I am not a naive traveller and expect a certain mark-up on the price of food and drink. But at three times the price of equivalent offering outside the resort, I wasn’t prepared to pay this premium.
But it goes a little deeper than mere frugality. In the spirit of ethical travel, I believe that it is important to support the local community. Therefore, each night I would try a different local restaurant, either on the beach or in the village. I also found a fantastic, chilled beach bar – Gypsy Bar – within 15 minutes’ walk from the Santhiya.
The Santhiya Resort has two swimming pools: it’s main feature waterfall pool and a smaller infinity pool. I preferred the infinity pool as it was quieter and closer to my room. However, it is much smaller and can accommodate only 20 or so sun loungers.
The service at the hotel’s pools didn’t match its 5-star status. By way of contrast, I started my Thailand trip at the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok where two fluffy poolside towels and iced water were standard.
Poolside standards at the Santhiya Koh Yao Yai could not have been more different. Guests were required to sign in and out for their towel, which resembled a very large cotton tea towel. Failure to sign out your towel resulted in a 300 THB fine. Is this really 5-star service? And the iced water? I’ll let you figure that one out.
Other facilities at Santhiya Koh Yao Yai
The Santhiya offered free yoga and Thai boxing classes. There were also free paddle boards and kayaks available for guests.
Of course, there was also a spa. However, aid not use this, instead opting for excellent massages from the local women on the beach. At 400 THB for an hour it would have been rude not to.
Should you stay at Santhiya Koh Yao Yai Resort?
Staying at the Santhiya was a splurge. Even with bagging an excellent Black Friday deal on Expedia, it cost an average £156 per night. So is it worth it?
Without a doubt, the room at the Santhiya was one of the best that I have ever stayed in and had spectacular views. It wears its eco-credentials proudly and is aiming for ozone-free zones within the resort, which has to be applauded.
However, after a few days, the shine did start to wear off and I found the need to get a shuttle to and from the hotel’s central area irksome. Although the Santhiya’s young staff were consistently friendly, service levels were patchy and did not reflect the star rating of the hotel. By contrast, I received consistently better service at a modest guesthouse in Ayutthaya, a few days earlier.
Whilst I felt that the hotel’s restaurants were overpriced, if you looked closely enough there were a number of special offers in place. However, these weren’t that well publicised. Maybe it would be better if they just reduced their prices slightly?
However, these quibbles notwithstanding, if you want to stay in a beautiful resort on an unspoilt Thai island, then the Santhiya may be for you. Just manage your expectations around service levels. And if you are a solo traveller, be aware that this is a popular spot for loved-up couples!