From Koh Phi Phi to Phang Nga Bay, Risa Merl reviews Thailand's most beautiful islands as she cruises through the Andaman Sea on board 68.5 metre Amels motor yacht Lady E_._
I cling to the steep limestone wall 40 metres above the water, my toes perched on a narrow rock shelf. In some places the stone is as smooth as glass – polished by the weather and climbers’ shoes – in others it is craggy and sharp. There is a small strip of sand below, the tapering end of Railay Beach, from where my rock-climbing guide watches my ascent. He urges me to stop and enjoy the view before I abseil back down. I turn my back to the rock gingerly. From this lofty vantage point I have a commanding panorama of the serene horseshoe-shaped bay ringed by mangroves.
Though technically a peninsula, Railay feels more like an island because it is accessible only by boat. Its three beaches are cut off from mainland Thailand by dense jungle and these steep limestone cliffs beloved of climbers.
Out of sight on the other side of the rock wall, the Amels 68.5-metre Lady E, available for charter with Burgess, is moored off Railay Bay West. She has been my home for the past few days, ferrying me between high-adrenaline activities in the Andaman Sea. It’s her and her skipper’s first season cruising this region, but Captain Charles DuGas-Standish has already created an intriguing itinerary that makes the most of Thailand’s credentials as a natural adventure playground. During a week’s island-hopping you can scuba dive, rock climb, hike forested mountains, swim through caves to find hidden beaches and even visit a movie set or two. This plethora of varied activities has seen Thailand emerge as a popular cruising destination in recent years, despite an ongoing debate over charter tax regulations. Seven new marinas are planned, from Phuket to Pattaya, to support this emerging market. Yet it is still far from turning into the Med – you can cruise and not see another superyacht for days.
Our first stop takes us straight into the heart of Phang Nga Bay, a protected national park that is renowned for its condensed cluster of karsts. My eyes instantly lock on to the formations that jut up from the sea like the spires of a sunken church. It is here that scenes from the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun were filmed. We cruise right past the island of Khao Phing Kan – better known as “James Bond island” – where Roger Moore as Bond paced on the beach, preparing for a duel to the death with Christopher Lee’s Francisco Scaramanga. Ko Ta Pu rises 20 metres out of the water just off the shore. Both the beach and rock have become huge attractions for day-trippers, who visit in the ubiquitous long- tail boats that skim these waters. But in late afternoon there are few tourists and we have the Hollywood-worthy views to ourselves.
We jump ship and board kayaks for a tour of the bay, manoeuvring through caves at the base of the karsts and emerging in a lagoon where the canopy of trees frames a heart shape of blue sky above. We move to a nearby anchorage for the night and for those of us who are still eager to play, the crew unload paddleboards and rev up the ski boat to tow wakeboarders around the flat- calm water. I swim around Lady E in the warm, blue-green water, staring up at the towering karsts overhead.
Back on board I am immediately greeted with a fluffy beach towel. The yacht’s sporty crew love having active guests on board and are accustomed to entertaining all generations. Everyone on board has additional qualifications, whether it be as a PADI divemaster, kiteboard instructor or yoga teacher. Onboard wellness expert Susanna Rosic, meanwhile, can provide treatments such as restorative oxygen facials. Rosic owned a skincare centre in Palma that attracted crew and after hearing their tales she sold her business and came on board. New Zealand-born chef Barry Orr concentrates on modern organic dishes with plenty of flexibility. “We have a simple rule: we like to offer you something naughty and something nice and let you choose,” he says. For breakfast, Orr offers up delicious gluten-free muffins for those who decline his freshly baked bread. Lunch might include his “house special” Garden of Eden salad with a bed of colourful vegetables, or a simple piece of fish cooked exquisitely, followed by a decadent dessert – chocolate mousse topped with berries, crowned by a delicate sugar glaze.
One morning before breakfast, we take the tender to explore Emerald Cave on Koh Muk. One of the joys of travelling on your own yacht is being able to get ahead of the crowds. The only way into the cave is at mid-tide via a dark 20-metre tunnel that cuts through the rocks. All daylight is extinguished as the tunnel curves and some guests yelp in the sudden pitch-black. The crew switch on flashlights and we soon find ourselves stepping on to the sand of a hidden beach surrounded by high limestone walls, topped with a mass of shrubs and trees. It is easy to see why pirates are said to have chosen this spot to hide their tide, the green-tinged water reflects light on to the walls, giving you the sensation of standing in a shimmering gemstone.
That might be enough adventure for the day for some but we are just getting started. While breakfast is served, the yacht moves to anchor off Ko Rok Noi, where we can indulge in some serious watersports. The crew pull out all the stops, unloading one toy after another, from the top deck waterslide and inflatable jungle gym to electric surfboards and Seabobs. “We can put you on the flyboard, the flyride, the WaveRunner, and we also have the ski boat for ‘skurfing’ [waterskiing on a surfboard] and wakeboarding,” says Captain DuGas- Standish. “In a two-hour period, we can work out every muscle in your body, and we haven’t even gone diving yet.”
DuGas-Standish is a former commercial diver and dive instructor and is fanatical about providing guests with a great underwater experience. During charters, Lady E offers only rendezvous diving but the captain ensures that this feels like an extension of the vessel. “Our crew go with the guests to make them feel at home,” he says. “We prep all the dive equipment and bring all the snacks. We have to have the manpower that’s capable of doing that.”
When we go for a dive the next day in the Phi Phi Islands we are joined by four crew members who are all avid divers – one is even a divemaster. Paired with the guides on the local dive boat, which has been chartered exclusively for our use, we have a generous ratio of more than one crew member per diver. The dive boat makes the run over to Koh Phi Phi Leh, which played the utopian paradise island in the film The Beach. The beach itself, called Maya Bay, was once bombarded with long-tail boats offloading tourists who turned the idyllic spot into anything but. The government noticed the environmental damage and has banned boats for now, but you can still moor outside the harbour entrance and see the jungle-lined beach where the film’s action took place.
The real view, though, lies beneath the water and we don our gear and descend. We are greeted by a landscape populated with electric-blue starfish and neon fish. A pair of grey- skinned moray eels poke their heads out from beneath an outcrop of coral, snapping their jaws menacingly. I spot an enormous school of miniature yellow snappers swimming tightly together. The school scatters and merges, bends and weaves. I stay as still as possible, breathing slowly, and the school turns right in my direction. Soon I am surrounded by a wall of yellow fins as far as I can see.
Like the fish, the superyacht community can be tempted to stick together but for those who are prepared to break rank from the Caribbean, Thailand is the ultimate adventure destination. Whether scaling cliffs or exploring its deep coral reefs, these islands are full of breathtaking sights and epic experiences. And I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Lady E is available for charter with Burgess. Her weekly charter rate starts from €476,000, burgessyachts.com