Paradise Found: Panviman Koh Phangan

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I have to admit I wasn’t sure how Koh Phangan was going to top Koh Samui.

While Koh Samui has a reputation for luxury resorts Koh Phangan is often linked to its raucous full moon parties and backpacker-style hotels…which I discovered all lie on the southern side of Koh Phangan. On the northern side: Pure, unadulterated paradise. White, powdery beaches. Clear, turquoise waters. Lush, verdant jungles. A natural beauty unlike any other.

As much as I loved all of the pampering on Koh Samui, I had the feeling that I had been missing out on a truer, more genuine part of Thailand that I had been craving.

I found that Thailand at Panviman Resort Koh Phangan.

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Panviman Resort straddles two, secluded coves in the quiet Thong Nai Pan Bay. The unique location means that nearly every room has a slightly different and incredible view of the bay. At the resort’s stunning Pan Sea Restaurant where a daily, complimentary breakfast is served, there is a 180-degree panorama of both coves.

The view from the restaurant is so out-of-this-world gorgeous that Thailand’s tourism bureau has a video live stream running 24/7 from its balcony!

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Panviman has neatly tucked all of its manmade structures into the jungle vegetation that covers the island. I, personally, appreciate their commitment to not mar the natural beauty that makes Koh Phangan so special. (The resort also practices eco-conscious initiatives and has been recognized for its green efforts.)

After checking in and meeting some of its staff  in the open-air lobby, we were led down a series of staircases to our private pool villa. Along the way we were greeted by the calls of tropical birds and the sight of butterflies drifting from flower to flower. It seemed as though all of the island’s original inhabitants were very at home in the resort.

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From the hand-carved wooden bed to the fanciful mosquito netting and silk pillows, I loved all of the authentic Thai touches in our room. The beautiful craftsmanship gave me a sense of Thailand’s history and its natural resources. Panviman is all about sourcing locally. The room also included a minibar, television, umbrellas, robes, slippers, sandals, beach bag and a pleasant-smelling mosquito repellant that worked like a charm.

The best part of the room? The bathtub overlooking the bay. I was happy to take full advantage of this situation every day, while Bryce stuck to the waterfall shower.

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The generously-sized private pool was perched on the edge of the resort, so we could watch all the goings-on at the beach and still remain hidden behind palm fronds. Every once in a while we would see a person on the beach point out our room to someone else and we would duck our heads and laugh. I think they were trying to figure out if the pool was for real! I might have delighted–just a little bit–in staying in that villa.

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We spent so much time luxuriating in the pool and watching the activity on the beach: Fishermen bringing in their catch, kayakers paddling around the bay and scuba divers taking off on adventures. (Koh Phangan has some of the most well-known scuba diving spots in the Gulf of Thailand.) Oh, and the sunsets from that pool! What I would give to be back there this evening for one more.

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Of course, Panviman has a slew of sun loungers and umbrellas on the beach–if you can manage to drag yourself away from the comforts of your room. There is also a dreamy infinity pool surrounded by palm trees for the whole resort.

Thank goodness our private pool was also big enough to swim laps, since my muscles were atrophying from all of the relaxation thus far!

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Even with the natural beauty and fantastic amenities, the highlight of our stay was making friends with the charming staff at Panviman Resort. Nearly every member is local and most of them boast more than ten years working at the hotel.

One of those staff members was our Thai cooking class chef who taught us the secrets behind making spicy papaya salad and green coconut curry–two of my absolute favorite Thai dishes. She did not speak more than 10 words of English (and we speak even less Thai), but we understood everything thanks to her enthusiastic coaching.

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The finished results were so delicious my culinary confidence went through the roof. I’ve yet to try repeating my results at home, but I have everything I need: Copies of the recipes, a Panviman apron and my cooking class graduation certificate.

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Two more of our favorite Panviman staffers were the General Manager, who goes by Captain Jack, and the Resident Manager Ta.

Captain Jack and Ta hosted us for a special dinner on our first night at the Pan Sea Restaurant where we ate like kings: Seared duck breast, grilled lobster linguine and chocolate cake. Over dinner they told us the history of the resort and why staff members stay so long. Panviman’s approach is that if they focus on staff members’ happiness first that their contentment will show in their work and resort guests, in turn, will benefit. It’s this holistic approach to customer service that makes Panviman such a unique find.

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On our second day, Captain Jack and Ta let me tour the resort’s most sought-after room–the Presidential Suite–or as they call it, “Batman’s Cave”–because it is built into stone. Every inch of this room shows off the rich teakwood that the country is known for, as well as unobstructed views of the bay. Just outside the room is a private, oceanfront jacuzzi where you can’t help but imagine honeymooners sharing a bottle of champagne. Wow!

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I personally love the authentic Thai style of our room and the Presidential Suite, but Panviman also offers modern-style villas for guests who prefer a cleaner aesthetic. These rooms certainly have all of the bells and whistles, including jacuzzi tubs with disco lights. Captain Jack said many of their repeat guests specifically request these rooms.

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On our second night we had dinner at Panviman’s Stone Beach Restaurant. We watched the sun set while sipping tropical cocktails and enjoying a Thai feast. After the sun’s last rays disappeared, a local dance troupe put on a fantastic show for us. The traditional dances and costumes stirred memories of one of my favorite childhood movies The King and I.

It was magical.

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We ate most of our meals at Panviman, but I think it is important to note that the beach and the charming village behind the beach is packed with fantastic options. Nearly every restaurant we visited on the island had a barefoot policy–it’s encouraged to leave your sandals at the door. Talk about a laid-back atmosphere!

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Our last day at Panviman was also our last day in Thailand, so it was especially bittersweet. We swam as much as we could in the bay and ate every meal with some sand between our toes. We were really determined to squeeze out every last ounce of relaxation Thailand had left to offer us.

If we had more than three days we may have tried seeing the famous Bottle Beach–accessible only by boat–visiting the island’s elephant sanctuary or the resort’s Viman Spa. (I have some major regrets I didn’t take the time for an oceanfront massage!)

I suppose I shall simply have to return…or try Panviman’s Resort in Chiang Mai.

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Considering that Panviman Resort’s rooms begin at $100 a night (including breakfast), I believe that this is truly an affordable luxury. The Panviman staff cater to guests’ every needs, including providing their high-speed boat as pickup from the Koh Samui Airport so you arrive in style. This is the hotel I’d recommend to my friends who are looking for the complete Thai island experience. Moreover, Captain Jack said he can offer Bakersfield Blonde readers some special offers if you contact him directly via email at gm_kohphangan@panviman.com.

*This post was sponsored by the Panviman Resort Koh Phangan.  All opinions are my own. Thank you to companies like the Panviman Resort who keep Bakersfield Blonde traveling!

Nifty travel accessory

One of our favorite things to do when we travel is picnic–especially when the weather is as crisp and autumnal as it has been in Geneva lately. Sure, we love to try swanky restaurants in new cities, but eating every meal out can be rough on one’s health and budget. Plus, with no open container laws in Europe, so you can really elevate your picnic (in Paris’ Rodin Sculpture Garden, for instance) with a beer or a glass of wine!

Of course, TSA agents aren’t crazy about bottle openers, knives and the like…

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…and then I came across this ingenious gold cuff!

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Now if only they made one with a wine bottle opener. Will someone please invent that? I hope you are enjoying your Wednesday; meanwhile, here are a few fun links:

Goed Weekend from Amsterdam!

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(“Goed weekend” means “Good weekend” in Dutch–it’s not a misspelling!)

I’m so happy to be back in one of my favorite cities this weekend–Amsterdam–celebrating my husband’s birthday! On the train from Brussels we saw windmills, spotted cows and a family harvesting pink tulips. This place is truly a fairyland. We have plans to bike around town like the locals, visit this museum and try this restaurant.

I hope you find a little magic over your weekend. Meanwhile, a few links to get you there:

Where do you find travel inspiration?

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I usually get inspired to travel to a new place after reading an interesting article on it. I am a nerdy kind of traveler who likes to know the complete history before stepping foot in a city. You know, so I can rattle off WWII statistics over brunch. I’m charming that way.

I can say, without a doubt, I’ve never been inspired to visit a place based on a catalog.

Until now.

J. Crew this week released shots from their fall line–taken all over Amsterdam. The photos feel casual and off-center; somewhat as if they were taken for Instagram. All they need is an overhead shot of some Dutch pancakes! #yummy

Instead of being inspired to buy a sweater, the images inspired me to plan a trip back to Amsterdam. We visited in 2015 for their national holiday and had a blast, but have been meaning to return during a less-touristy time. Luckily, my husband has work in Brussels at the end of this week and a quick Google search revealed Amsterdam is less than two hours by train from Brussels. It feels meant to be!

(As for J. Crew’s clothing, I’m still a fan because they ship to Switzerland tax-free.)

Heaven on Earth: The InterContinental Koh Samui

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You know how therapists recommend visualizing a “happy place” to combat anxiety? Well, I never had one until I went to Thailand.

Now, my happy place is The InterContinental Samui Baan Taling Ngam Resort.

Two weeks ago my husband and I spent three, relaxing, sun-filled days at this gorgeous resort on Koh Samui island. It has taken me a few days to sift through the hundreds of photos I took and decipher my scrawled notes written poolside, but here goes.

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Checking in was actually one of the highlights of our stay and that is not something I think I’ve said before about a hotel. While hotel personnel ran my credit card, we were seated in the stunning, open-air lobby and presented with orchid bracelets, glasses of fruit juice and cool towels. We were already feeling pretty pampered and sinking deeper into the sofa cushions, when we caught sight of the postcard-perfect ocean views…

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…which is why we stayed in the lobby for drinks and canapés: Papaya salad, springs rolls, salmon nigiri, caprese and seaweed salads. We happily munched while watching the sun sink closer to the turquoise waters. My husband ordered a very un-tropical cocktail, an Old Fashioned, and made friends with the bartender who had studied oenology in Burgundy. Small world.

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Finally, we were ready to see our room.

Since the hotel sits perched on a hill, guests must be ferried from the lobby by golf cart down to the beach. As we were driven down the winding road through the lush jungle, I told myself surely I will walk from now on; no one needs to be chauffeured around like Lady Crawley on Downton Abbey. By the time I checked out, I didn’t remember life before golf carts.

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When we first opened the door to our one-bedroom, oceanfront villa I said out loud “This is how Oprah vacations!” Which probably sounds like I’ve never been in a luxury hotel…I have, but I don’t think I’ve ever stayed in a room of this caliber. If you could even call our standalone villa “a room,” since it was nearly the size of our Swiss apartment.

Moreover, we do not have a butler in Switzerland but we had one at The InterContinental!

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Our butler, Natt, was sadly underused since we could not think of anything to request that was not already provided in the room: Stocked minibar, robes, bath and beach towels, umbrellas, daily newspapers, a safe, an indoor and outdoor shower–even sandals and sarongs. I especially loved the room’s dramatically vaulted ceilings and the locally-produced wooden furniture.

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Now I know a hotel should not be judged by its amenities alone, but the tiny shampoos play a big role in my happiness. The InterContinental’s Harnn products did not disappoint.

This natural skincare line is produced in Thailand using flowers, fruits and herbs found in southeast Asia. Harnn uses ingredients like mulberry, jasmine and even rice. As most of my skincare veers French I was intrigued with the holistic, herbal approach. I squirreled away a few bars of soap from our room (I can’t help myself!) and purchased a bottle of their Water Lily Blossom Toner.

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The only downside to having a private pool is that you can never imagine life without a private pool! I miss it dearly. Although too diminutive to really swim laps, the pool was just deep enough for a refreshing dip. The best part about having your own pool? No closing time. The underwater lighting was perfect for spontaneous, late-night swims.

Of course, the main attraction was the ocean–just a few hundred feet from our front door.

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On our first morning we took off early in the hotel’s high-speed boat to visit the uninhabited islands surrounding Koh Samui. Thanks to our knowledgeable guides we were able to catch the rare, pink dolphins feeding near one of the islands. Although I couldn’t manage to capture a decent photo of these magical creatures, I promise you they are real and they are pink!

Our guides then took us to a secluded island where we snorkeled for an hour with some fantastically striped and iridescent fish. Since I haven’t mustered up the courage to try scuba diving, the snorkeling satisfied my curiosity.

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Wiped out from our adventurous morning, poolside burgers and fries were in order. (I mean, who could eat fish?!) We lounged the afternoon away, taking a dip when it got too warm and playing cards in the shade of palm trees.

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That night we had dinner at the hotel’s beachfront restaurant Flames. The restaurant takes its name from its signature, flame-grilled dishes. The chef will grill anything from vegetables and wagyu beef to lobster and fresh fish. Although simply prepared, nothing beats the taste of grilled seafood while you have some sand between your toes.

On the side was a lavish buffet of Thai curries, salads, noodles and desserts. I couldn’t stop myself from having crêpes suzette for dessert!

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After dinner, local fire dancers performed on the beach. We were bowled over by their fearlessness and gracefulness! It was kind of like watching a fireworks show up-close.

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On our second day we finally got to visit the attraction that was at the top of my list: The Baan Thai Spa. Although located not far from the lobby, the teakwood structure on stilts is completely surrounded by a tropical jungle, so you feel totally removed from the hotel. You can hear birds singing and leaves rustling in the breeze. The serenity was palpable.

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My husband and I were ushered into a candle-lit room by two aestheticians and asked to change into robes. Our session began with warm foot baths and then we were led to side-by-side tables for our treatments. I chose the Hydrating Facial for my sun-scorched face and my husband chose the Oriental Massage.

The spa uses all Harnn products, but I was way too relaxed to ask my aesthetician about each one she was using during the facial. That said, I wasn’t as relaxed as my husband who ended up snoring through the last 15 minutes of the treatment!

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Is it a shame to admit we spent our last day at our villa? We really meant to try the complimentary stand-up paddle boards or Thai boxing classes. We had plans to check out the cooking classes or at least visit another of the hotel’s seven pools…but when the view is this heavenly, what more do you need?

So, we spent the day reading books, soaking in the pool and pillaging the minibar.

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I find more and more that I would rather spend three nights in a nice hotel room than one week in a hostel bunk bed. Perhaps it means I’m getting old, but I value a good night’s sleep, polished customer service and eye-catching interior design. Comfortable accommodations turn a trip into a vacation; and The InterContinental is on the dream vacation level.

By Thai standards (a country known as a backpacker’s paradise), The InterContinental is a splurge. A basic room begins at about $250 per night, but there is nothing basic about the room hotel management let me tour:

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Can’t you picture yourself sunning on that daybed with a good book and a cocktail?

This is the kind of hotel for a honeymoon, an important birthday or because you may only get one chance to visit Thailand in your lifetime. I can honestly say it is worth the money (especially if you are a Club InterContinental member).

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We left so incredibly relaxed and high on life, it is hard to put a price tag on what we gained from staying at The InterContinental. I’m already looking for a way to return.

*This post was sponsored by the InterContinental Samui Baan Taling Ngam.  All opinions are my own. Thank you to companies like the InterContinental who keep Bakersfield Blonde traveling!

Bon weekend à tous!

IMG_9468.jpgAlthough I still find myself waking up at 4am and I can barely keep my eyes open through dinner, all of the jet lag in the world is worth traveling to Thailand. I’m so excited to share my Thai travelogues with you next week.

What are your weekend plans? I’ve got an itch to ready my closet for fall (bye bikinis!), make my favorite burger and take some long walks around Geneva. It’s been so long since I’ve been home that I feel like a tourist again–which is a welcome surprise. Meanwhile, here are a few links to get you through Friday:

 

Back from paradise

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I’m just waking up from the dream that was two weeks in Thailand and I can’t wait to share more about what makes this country so incredible! The photo above captures about one-tenth of its beauty and 100% of my excitement. I’ll post more photos soon. For now, a few fun links if you are still getting in the hang of your workweek: