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.
The next morning begins with a jolt—or rather a lurch—as the helicopter rises from Phulay Bay’s helipad en route to nearby Phuket. Under normal circumstances, Chomtawan II (whose name means “to experience the sun”) would greet me at Phulay Bay’s beach before cruising for half a day to the Similans. But the islands have been unseasonably wet lately, and in order to take advantage of today’s sunny conditions, the resort has expedited my travels to include a 45-minute flight, followed by a 90-minute jaunt to my destination. The change of plans proves to be a plus: The aerial views of Krabi’s karst formations are breathtaking, and I am island-bound on Chomtawan II less than an hour after breakfast.
Onboard the yacht—a 52-foot, three-cabin Azimut 50 Flybridge attended by a three-person crew and a personal chef—my captain, Khun Don, spreads a map across the upper-deck dining table to show me our route. Coursing from south to north, we will encounter the islands in order. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine,” he says, counting as his finger moves up the map.
“What are the names of the islands?” I ask.
“One, Two, Three, Four. . . .” he repeats. Simple enough.
As the Similans begin coming into view, each mound of land—covered in ironwood and gum trees, with the occasional strip of sand funneling toward the sea—appears as idyllic as the last. Here, Island One’s sandy shore is a favored nesting site for sea turtles. There, Islands Two and Three appear as twin domes, surrounded by water so clear I can make out the cauliflower corals that lie some 30 feet below.
It is not until we arrive at Island Four—where my daring swim with the angelfish and wrasses results in Khun Sam’s warning—that I encounter the first signs of human life. Following a three-course lunch prepared by Phulay Bay chef Khun Sao, I board the dinghy once more for a quiet afternoon on the beach. But the sands that looked so pleasant from afar are hardly tranquil up close. All around me, snorkelers in bright-orange life vests spill in and out of water taxis along the shore. Nearby, a line of sun-dried tourists snakes out of an open-air café (one of only two in the islands). Damp T-shirts and frayed fedoras hang from tree branches, and a plastic bottle, carried by the high tide, washes onto the sand next to my feet. The solitude of my morning’s undersea excursion, which took place only a few hundred yards from this beach, seems worlds away.
Indeed, Island Four serves as a red flag for the Similan Islands. When the national park was first declared in 1982, fishermen were considered the greatest threat to the archipelago. In 1987, the Thai government banned fishing within the reserve and soon thereafter announced that the region’s delicate corals and fish populations had been fully restored. But replacing the fishermen in recent years is an increasing number of tourists, who can leave an equally damaging footprint. While preventive measures have been passed—prohibiting access to some islands and imposing environmental requirements on visiting boats—recent construction projects, including a cluster of tourist bungalows on Island Four, indicate conflicting interests.
Still, Island Four appears the exception rather than the rule as the sun sets behind Island Seven that night. Anchored in silence, Chomtawan II slowly rocks back and forth during my alfresco dinner of cold noodle salad and spicy beef larb. By dusk, the tour boats have all returned to Phuket, and aside from a single catamaran off the coast of Island Eight, the sea is vacant, calm and shining like fresh lacquer.
The next morning, Khun Don navigates Chomtawan II past a fresh crop of boats arriving from Phuket. Leaving Sailing Boat Rock—a teetering mound of boulders I had breathlessly climbed at sunrise—we orbit Island Eight before arriving at Khun Don’s “secret spot,” a banana-shaped beach backed by a thicket of gum trees. Empty save for a driftwood swing dangling from a low-hanging branch, the beach is all mine.
Greeted by a steady chorus of tweeting birds nestled deep within the brush, I spread my towel beneath a slice of shade and begin sipping on a Singha beer. The pale-blue water washing over the beach’s sparkling crystals of sand soon lulls me to sleep, but my idle moment is interrupted by a splash of human activity 100 yards away. There, three coppery men in Speedos—Germans, I assume—have swum ashore from an anchored catamaran in the distance.
Possessive of what I have begun to consider my island, I stroll toward the interlopers, feigning interest in a massive vertical rock at the beach’s far end. Alerted to my presence, the trio halts their conversation, eyeing me sideways. I casually saunter past, returning their glare as if re-creating a scene from West Side Story. Moments later, I circle back to see that my claim has been laid: The visitors have gathered their snorkels for a swim back to their boat.
Triumphantly returning to my towel, I crack open another Singha just as the gentle buzz of Khun Sam’s dinghy approaches. Hesitant to leave, I nurse my beer to the last drop, drinking in the fantasy of the Similan Islands one more time.
Phulay Bay, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, +220.127.116.112.8111, www.ritzcarlton.com