Phuket is one of the hottest travel destinations in Thailand. The island can cater to your every whim, be that partying to the early hours, shopping up a storm or getting lost in a book on a sandy white beach.
CARA BOATSWAIN discovers that despite all the tourists, it is still possible to find a secluded part of paradise that caters to the gluten-free diet, too. All you have to decide is beach or jungle?
THE JUNGLE – KEEMALA
The hot, humid air is a shock to the system as we exit the air-conditioned comfort of Phuket international Airport. My hair, unnaturally straight thanks to the assistance of a straightening iron, almost immediately begins to frizz and curl.
“Welcome to Thailand, Kuhn Cara,” says a gentleman with a broad smile. “Please wait here while I collect the car,” he says and disappears in a flash.
The airport is busy and it is some time before the driver returns with an air-conditioned minivan. As we make ourselves comfortable, he passes out cold towels and even cooler bottles of water. “This is how all holidays should start,” I say to my partner, running the refreshing towel over the back of my neck. I feel like the holiday is well underway and we haven’t even left the airport.
Design Like No Other
It’s a 45-minute drive from the airport to Keemala Resort. Thanks to a back road short-cut taken by our driver, it’s a comfortable, stress-free journey without too much interaction with Phuket’s busy streets.
The resort is nestled into the hillside behind Kamala Beach. Unlike other holiday resorts with direct beach access, the distance provides guests with an opportunity to immerse themselves in the resort’s 5-star facilities and take time to switch off and disconnect.
While not an adult-only resort, Keemala doesn’t have any family-friendly features and children are politely discouraged. This makes the resort a fabulous destination for honeymoons, anniversaries and those looking to reconnect with their partner.
The resort sits at the top of a steep hill and our minivan drops us off halfway. We are greeted by staff from the hotel and told to wait. It’s not too long before a buggy appears to take us on the final part of the journey.
Arriving at Keemala is like being transported into another world. The villas cling to the surrounding hillside and rise through the jungle like a futuristic village. It’s refreshingly different in design and style and has been developed and brought to life thanks to a Bangkok-based architectural firm and local design firm.
While the buildings of Keemala may remind you of a Star Wars set, some reflect elements of Thai culture. Take, for example, the award-winning Mala Spa. On an exclusive tour of the resort, customer service manager Aor explains how traditional Thai fishing methods inspired the unique structure of the spa.
The focus on preserving the natural environment is also in stark contrast to many hotels and resorts in Asia. The architects were asked to integrate the facilities into the existing surrounds without destroying the original environment or topography. No doubt a difficult job for those involved in the project, but the finished result can only be described with one word: paradise.
A tropical holiday should be spent by the pool, and at Keemala you can swim, relax and sunbake at a large communal pool complete with waterfall, or privately at your villa. Each of the 38 villas has their own private pool, so you really can interact with other guests as much or as little as you wish.
The resort is spread out across 29,000 square metres and while walking is possible, staff are on hand to whisk you from your villa to the restaurant, spa or communal pool in buggies. Be prepared to hang on, as the hills can be steep and the path narrow.
Eat With Confidence
While the luxurious nature of accommodation is important, as a gluten-free traveller my food needs trump any demands for comfort. Fortunately, Keemala provides the goods on both fronts.
Mala restaurant is the only restaurant located at the resort, and under the watchful eye of food and beverage manager PK and head chef Poongsak, gluten-free guests can enjoy from an extensive selection of Thai and Indian dishes.
Over lunch, PK proudly tells me that Mala is the only venue in Phuket offering customers gluten-free vodka. While vodka is usually made with fermented gluten-free grains, it can sometimes be made using wheat or rye. According to both Coeliac Australia and Coeliac UK, when manufacturing spirits the distillation process removes any traces of gluten (including the barley in malt whisky), but it’s nice to know the resort takes the diet and gluten-free claims seriously.
To make things easier for guests and kitchen staff, in most cases the kitchen uses only gluten-free sauces. “Take ketchup for example,” says PK. “There is no flavour difference between the gluten-free and gluten sauce. So why use both? People may get confused.”
The gardens of Keemala are a source of inspiration to chef Poongsak who uses seasonal produce to create special meals for guests. I’ve noticed banana trees dotted around the resort, heavy with fruit soon to ripen. Poongsak smiles when I mention them. “Soon guests will find many banana recipes on the menu,” he says. “Banana cake, banana pancakes. I even make my own banana jam.”
Also spotted on the menu are dishes featuring wing beans (you must try the salad), morning glory, lettuce, mushrooms, papayas and traditional Thai herbs, including basil and lemongrass, all of which have been organically grown in the gardens of the resort.
Rise And Shine
Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but when staying in hotels, it can be a disappointing affair for gluten-free guests. At Keemala this is definitely not the case. A champagne stand has been installed at the entrance to the restaurant. A sign encourages guests to celebrate breakfast with a glass of bubbles. Inspecting the bottle, I discover that it’s French. A very nice touch.
A waiter leads us past the breakfast buffet to a table on the deck. While there are only glimpses of the ocean, it’s a beautiful time of day to be outside.
I’m feeling a little nervous; the buffet didn’t appear to overflow with the gluten-free options I’d expected from my previous dining experiences. Of course, I shouldn’t have worried. The waiter returns with menus and explains the buffet is only part of the breakfast experience at Keemala.
On inspection of the menu, I wish we were staying at Keemala for at least a week so that I could make my way through all of the delicious gluten-free options. There are the traditional Australian-style café meals including buckwheat waffles, quinoa porridge and smoothie bowls as well as more savoury Thai breakfast dishes.
As I wait for my Phuket Rice to be prepared, I inspect the buffet and am pleasantly surprised by the gluten-free options. In addition to naturally gluten-free yoghurt, fruit and freshly squeeze juice, guests can also select gluten-free cereal, which is served in portion-sized glass jars, to eliminate cross-contamination risks. There’s also a salad bar, an array of cheese and house-smoked kingfish.
I was full-to-bursting when chef Poongsak arrived with a plate of freshly baked gluten-free croissants, Danish and bread. “We make the pastries in-house for our gluten-free guests,” he tells me. I admit I was very impressed by the layers of flaky pastry, rarely seen in gluten-free croissants.
Sounds Of Silence, Almost
When I picture paradise, I imagine palm trees, an infinity pool, sunshine and a fruity cocktail, but in my imagination, I never considered what paradise would sound like. After a visit to Keemala, I now know. It’s not always quiet in paradise.
A jungle setting, where the natural habitat has been encouraged to thrive, means Keemala is home to an abundance of local fauna. In the tropics that means cicadas, and if the sound level is anything to go by, the local cicadas were enjoying Keemala as much we were.
“Sometimes guests have not heard cicadas before,” says Aor. “We get calls from guests asking if the noise can be stopped or why the fire alarm is going.”
As an Australian, this only added to my positive experience as it conjured up the long, hot, lazy days of summer. Though I can understand how the sound could be terrifying to those hearing it for the first time!
We say goodnight to our noisy friends when we close the heavy, wooden door to our villa. Fortunately, we’re blissfully unaware of their presence as we stretch out on the luxurious king-sized bed. I fall asleep intending to rise early to attend the morning yoga class, but I sleep so soundly that it’s long finished by the time I’m awake and head straight to breakfast. Sleep, eat, swim, repeat. Keemala really is paradise.
THE BEACH – THE SLATE
It’s dark as we make our way to Black Ginger, one of eight restaurants and bars at The Slate Resort. We’re using a map given to us at reception and I’m sure we’ve followed it correctly, but it doesn’t feel like we’ve arrived at a restaurant that’s been described as “the best Thai food in Thailand.” It seems we’ve made a wrong turn and stumbled onto the set of Survivor.
We’re standing on a wooden platform and the only light comes from the spectacular flames from torches and what appears to be the restaurant in the distance. The issue is the body of water that separates us.
On closer inspection we notice a barge is slowly making its way across the water to where we’re
waiting. The maître de stands at the edge of the barge holding the reservations book with great reverence. Tribal council awaits.
Black Ginger takes experiential dining to the next level. The structure is a beautiful traditional Thai teak house and it’s lit almost entirely by lanterns and torches. From the moment you set foot onto the barge and are pulled by rope along the fire-lit lagoon, you know it is going to be a special evening.
The customer service team at The Slate had already informed the restaurant that my partner and I would require gluten-free meals. We’re warmly greeted by a waiter and shown to our seats and left to peruse the menu. The romantic but dim lighting in the restaurant, meant we had to break the “no phones at the dinner table” rule.
Soon the waiter was back with our drinks and we were ready with questions as there were no gluten-free markings on the menu. Fortunately the waiter was able to show us a number of dishes that could be prepared gluten-free. Spoilt for choice, we asked for some more time to decide.
We were still debating our options when the waiter was back. It appeared that after a conversation in the kitchen, the chef had decided what we would eat. While it certainly made things easy, we weren’t sure we wanted Pla Kapong Neung Manao (steamed whole white snapper with chilli, garlic and lime).
As always, the chef knows best. What followed was a delicious series of dishes that we could enjoy knowing that they had been selected because they were meals the chef was confident could be served gluten-free.
With no room for dessert, it was time to catch the barge back to our room. The tribe had spoken.
With eight restaurants and bars within the resort, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to meal times. Even guests who require gluten-free food have plenty of options. Rivet, the on-site Japanese restaurant, has been transformed to be able to offer a completely gluten-free experience when required, explains Anthony Reynolds, director of food and beverage, formally from Melbourne. Soy sauce, so common in Japanese food, has been switched to a gluten-free tamari and other sauces and seasonings have been checked to ensure they are suitable for guests who require a strict gluten-free diet.
For lunch, Anthony recommends visiting the Underground Café. The extensive menu includes pizzas made with a spinach-broccoli or pumpkin-carrot base, a selection of salads and traditional Thai dishes. Marked on the menu are gluten-free and vegetarian options, as well as meals containing nuts.
Breakfast is served at The Tin Mine, an al fresco pavilion which pays respects to the island’s tin mining history. It’s your standard hotel breakfast, with an egg station, fresh fruit, salad, cheese and pastries. Gluten-free guests haven’t been forgotten, with freshly made gluten-free bread and banana muffins.
Dinner is also served daily and the à la carte menu features a number of dishes marked as gluten-free.
Location, Location, Location
Proximity to the airport is not usually something I would consider a plus when looking for holiday accommodation. The start of happy hour should be the only thing interrupting my time by the pool, not plane noise. But despite being a mere five-minute drive from Phuket International airport, thanks to the expansive layout of the resort and its intelligent design, you’d never know.
The grounds of The Slate are extensive and with good reason – the “all villa, all-suite” resort has 177 large “villa” rooms, plus an additional seven private pool villas. That’s a lot of guests to accommodate during peak-season. Despite this, the resort never feels crowded, perhaps because there’s so much to do. You can also take your pick from three swimming pools (two of which are adults-only), a fitness centre, cooking school, spa, on-site dive centre and a kids’ club.
For those wanting to explore the surrounding area, more delights await. The resort is nestled on the lush Nai Yang beach on the northwest coast of Phuket. Part of the beach lies within Sirinath National Park and despite such a picturesque setting, the beach is not nearly as crowded as nearby Surin.
With the magic combination of sand, sun and fun, it’s easy to see why Phuket is the holiday destination of choice for so many. Now it can be a holiday hotspot for gluten-free travellers, too.
While Thai food can easily be prepared gluten-free without losing any of its flavours, some of the sauces used in local restaurants may contain gluten, and visitors need to be on alert. While gluten-free travel cards translated to Thai can help, having the option of staying at two resorts with a solid understanding of the gluten-free diet and correct food preparation is indeed a blessing. If you’re struggling to choose between the jungle and the beach, with their proximity to the airport and air-conditioned transfers you can experience two slices of paradise.
Cara Boatswain stayed as a guest of Keemala Resort and The Slate.