25th October 2018
(CNN) — Never before has afternoon tea been quite this thrilling.
It’s 4 p.m. and the sun’s heat is beginning to fade as our family of four steps into a large bamboo basket beneath the jungle canopy and buckles our seat belts.
Staff hit a switch and our “pod,” attached to a series of wires, rises slowly through the trees, views of the Gulf of Thailand emerging in front of us as we ascend 60 feet into the sky.
A loud whiz then cuts through the air as our waiter flies in via zipline, carrying a selection of bottled drinks in a basket.
Back and forth between the pod and the nearby kitchen he zips, delivering a gorgeous selection of sandwiches, salads and desserts to our large table.
Less than an hour later the tree pod is lowered and, stuffed full, we question how we’re going to make it to dinner in two hours.
Thailand’s fourth largest island
Tree pod dining — which can be booked for breakfast, lunch, dinner and high tea — is just one of the unique travel experiences on offer at Soneva Kiri, a luxury resort on the island of Koh Kood.
Set at the far side of the country’s eastern coast, which arcs across the Gulf of Thailand, Koh Kood is Thailand’s fourth-largest island. It’s got some of the country’s most beautiful stretches of sand, but is often overlooked by travelers looking for a beach escape.
Access is the main issue.
Unlike Phuket, Krabi or Koh Samui, getting to Koh Kood requires a bit more commitment unless you’re staying at Soneva Kiri. (Guests arrive on the resort’s private plane from Bangkok, which lands on a nearby “airport island,” then take a 10-minute speedboat ride.)
Otherwise, travelers need to take an hour-long speedboat journey from the mainland province of Trat, which borders Cambodia.
“Koh Kood feels a million miles from the real world,” says Soneva Kiri general manager Francisca Antunes. “The sense of tranquility, seclusion and harmony with nature is second to none. It is off the beaten track. It really is Thailand as it used to be 30 or even 50 years ago — untainted.”
It’s this remoteness that makes Soneva Kiri, which opened a decade ago, so special.
Made up of 36 spacious pool villas built with natural materials — the largest has six bedrooms — the resort sits in the northwest corner of the island in its own private corner.
Each villa comes with its own battery-powered buggy, which guests can drive around the massive property, as well as a Mr. or Ms. Friday — a personal attendant who can help arrange everything from dining experiences to excursions.
Outdoor movie screenings, helicopter day trips
As per the resort’s barefoot luxury ethos, guests are encouraged to go without shoes.
(It’s an oddly satisfying feeling to walk into the cheese room at breakfast without footwear.)
If you can stay at least a week, do it. Trying to cram everything into a three-night visit is pretty much impossible, as we found out.
There are more than half a dozen dining options. Among the stars on that list is Thai restaurant Benz.
Accessed by boat and set in a beautiful patch of mangroves, it sits on wooden stilts. There’s no menu. Guests are served a nine-course set menu created by the brilliant Chef Benz made up with whatever’s fresh and in season — all grown and caught locally.
“We have an extensive list of unethically produced foods that we simply refuse to serve,” says Antunes. “On Koh Kood, we are lucky as the island has so much right here, thus reducing the carbon miles of our meals. We make as much as we can on site and actively promote local produce.”
The GM says the resort’s focus on elevating the guest experience has also helped ensure its success.
Resort excursions include snorkeling/scuba trips, boat rides, jungle trekking and mountain bike tours. Want to really get wild? There’s a helicopter day trip to Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
In the evening, Soneva Kiri’s outdoor cinema screens classic films. A high-tech stargazing observatory is open nightly as well.
“It’s not just about visiting a luxury resort, it’s about the entire experience.” Soneva Kiri GM Francisca Antunes
A short boat ride across the bay sits the resort’s private North Beach, which offers non-motorized water sports and yet another restaurant.
And new experiences are always being added, giving guests a reason to come back.
“Our latest experience is called Koh Kood by Sea, where guests can travel by boat around Koh Kood Island and enjoy a full seafood lunch with wine at a tiny fishing village run by an ex-Soneva host,” says Antunes.
“We are creating a new dining experience on North Beach … So when our guests return (and our repeater rate is high), they are always seeing something new. This is important. For our guests, it’s not just about visiting a luxury resort, it’s about the entire experience.”
No plastic bottles, waste treated onsite
Soneva Kiri’s next-level commitment to sustainability is a huge draw as well.
Among its many sustainability projects, Soneva Kiri has its own Eco Centro to deal with waste, which is equipped with a bio-diesel plant, recycling center, oxidation ponds and an organic produce farm.
All water is bottled on-site, no plastic allowed.
“A major challenge we had in the past was that people couldn’t understand how we could open an ultra-luxury resort that was also sustainable,” says Antunes. “People couldn’t understand how the two concepts could work together. But that is changing now as attitudes are changing.”
Did somebody say ‘free chocolate’?
Although Soneva Kiri is ideal for couples looking for a romantic break, family holidays are where it really shines and its kids’ centers are among the best in the world.
Geared towards school-aged children, The Den is a huge, colorful bamboo playground shaped like a manta ray that’s dedicated to music and visual arts.
Nearby, the earthy Eco Den offers childcare and special programs for one- to five-year-olds.
Daily kids’ activities include fishing trips, jungle walks and child-friendly cooking classes. There are even spa treatments tailored for the little ones.
As if all that weren’t enough, there’s a complimentary ice cream parlor and a room filled with free chocolate.
The downside of all this, of course? You’re setting the family vacation bar really darn high.
Good luck planning your next trip.