A Perfect Nine

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The Andaman Sea fizzes and swirls, bubbling up around me like a fresh flute of Champagne. To my left and right, schools of emperor angelfish in their electric-blue-and-yellow pinstripe suits dance excitedly through the whirlpool, nibbling at mossy reefs as they drift by. The sharp sound of shrimp claws clicks in the distance while a trio of puckered-lip wrasses scuttles past me, powered by the rhythmic chaos of the salty swell.

Suddenly, a high-pitched wail interrupts my undersea symphony. Reluctantly resurfacing, I see Khun Sam standing in a dinghy some 50 yards away. A small man with deep creases nestled into his bronzed face, the Thai guide is beckoning me toward the deeper sections of the sea, closer to our anchored yacht, Chomtawan II. It is safer there, with fewer rocks jutting out of the water, and tranquil waves that will not splash into my snorkel. But the fish prefer this rapturous tide, and thus so do I. Feigning ignorance, I give my chaperone a thumbs-up before dunking my head once more into the bubbling blue.

My independent streak somehow seems justified in the Similan Islands, a collection of granite landmasses some 50 miles off the western coast of southern Thailand. Named for its total number of isles—similan means “nine” in Malay—the archipelago sprouts from the sea as a postcard of paradise, covered with dramatically stacked boulders, thick tropical jungle, and chalk-white sandy beaches. The islands are most impressive, however, from underwater, where colorful fish circulate among 5,000-year-old coral reefs, and giant squid and whale sharks inhabit the greater depths. Declared a marine national park in 1982, the 50-square-mile seascape is open to the public only six months out of the year, from November to May, making it a highly sought-after—yet not so easily visited—destination.

The most common ways to see the Similan Islands are on a day cruiser crammed with dreadlocked backpackers or via one of a handful of no-frills live-aboard PADI boats. But my quest to carve out a special corner of this pristine archipelago has brought me to Phulay Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve resort that opened in Thailand’s southern Krabi province in 2010. This past fall, Phulay Bay launched its Similan Island Experience (from $25,000), a package combining three nights in one of the resort’s Royal Beach Villas with three nights exploring the nearby archipelago aboard a private charter yacht.

Set along a remote western-facing cove in the Andaman Sea, the 54-villa Phulay Bay blends Southeast Asian style (butlers in traditional Thai dress, hand-painted Lanna-style murals) with over-the-top amenities (13-foot-wide beds, side-by-side bathrooms). Sandy courtyards and aubergine walls lined with bamboo forests lend a Zen-like atmosphere throughout the property. But the scene is lively when I arrive just before dusk, as guests gather around a thatch-roofed beach bar to watch the sun slip behind the bay’s towering limestone islands. Tired from my travels and anxious for the adventure ahead, I choose instead to hide out in my villa, watching from my lotus-shaped infinity-edge pool as the sky turns pink, then orange, then black.