Paddling through the dark, we entered the sea cave from an opening below sheer cliffs — the only way to reach a secret lagoon in the centre of the doughnut-shaped rock.
My wife Morgan and I were spending the day exploring the jungle-covered isles that sprout like jagged teeth from Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay.
We’d set out at midday on a ferry with John Gray’s Sea Canoe, a tour company named after its founder, a big-hearted, grey-bearded American, and the first westerner to explore the protected islands off the coast of Phuket via canoe. Sailing from the mainland, John and his crew served a buffet of incredible local dishes to rival the poshest cruise line.
We island-hopped around the bay, laying anchor to unload the canoes, then rowing out to otherwise impossible-to-reach lagoons and beaches. Then, as sunset, we built traditional floating lanterns called krathong.
Made from banana wood and decorated with folded banana leaves and wildflowers, they serve as a thank you to the water gods. Canoeing into another cave, we placed our gift on the water, where it must have been accepted. After blowing out the candles, it was dark enough to notice specs of glowing blue algae in the water all around us.
Our guide explained how the more you disturb the water, the more sparks are set off. So, in a soggy Guy Fawkes display, we spent the next five minutes splashing water at the cave walls, then at each other, where it turned to neon fireworks.
We then sailed back to mainland Phuket, under the brightest of full moons, then on to our hotel, the Dusit Thani Laguna, a family-friendly 5H spot on a prime stretch of perfect golden sand.
The next day, after an incredible hotel breakfast, we were back out in the bay, this time on a speedboat sent for us by Paradise Koh Yao Resort on Koh Yao Island.
Cold drinks in hand, the resort’s stylish vessel was not your average hotel transfer. The captain paused along the way to point out limestone sea stacks, covered in lush foliage up top and eroded at the base by centuries of tides.
The mysterious top-heavy totems look as if one well-aimed rock would send them toppling like skittles into the Andaman Sea. They caught the imagination of James Bond filmmakers when one appeared in 1974’s The Man With Golden Gun, as the secret hiding place of Francisco Scaramanga’s dastardly laser beam.
Finally, as our speedboat rounded the headland, a private cove opened up to reveal a village of thatched roofs and tall palms, sandwiched between steep jungle cliffs.
Paradise Koh Yao Resort is only accessible via the sea, unless you fancy a two-hour drive through thick forest. The land rises steeply here, up into a jungle of rubber and banana trees, monitor lizards and hornbills.
Up in these tropical green cliffs was our recently refurbished sea-view apartment, which combined powder blue shabby chic furniture with natural materials for a beach house vibe. An outdoor shower and sea-view Jacuzzi made it tricky for us to drag ourselves down to the perfect sandy bay below.
There is no escaping the isolated resort for dinner elsewhere, as the nearest town is miles away, so it is lucky that the food is so fantastic. We enjoyed local Thai food as well as European dishes cooked surprisingly well for such an isolated place.
At sunset on the island, it is like someone blew out the candles as the night sky appears in a flash. We spent most nights on our balcony, just staring at the stars — like bats eyeing underwater constellations in their cave
ISLAND-hopping is the best way to see the many beautiful gems near the party isle of Phuket. Booking with Travelbag made the process of moving between the below hotels relaxing, meaning we could just enjoy our stay . . .
BEACH: Phi Phi Island Village Resort
None of the overcrowding of nearby Maya Bay, where Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach was shot. Thatched beach houses line the shore, and there are two pools, three restaurants and three bars.
At night, ditch the sea views and head to the row of restaurants just outside. One night’s room-only is from £48pp based on two sharing. See phiphiislandvillage.com.
CITY: The Slate, Phuket
A modern, design-led resort that takes its name from the slate mines that were the island’s main industry before tourism.
Gardens, waterways and infinity pools connect nature with the buildings. We even enjoyed a fantastic couples’ massage in a giant treehouse.
One night’s room-only is from £45.50pp based on two sharing. See theslatephuket.com.
CLIFFTOP: Santhiya Koh Yao Yai
Every surface in the resort is carved in teakwood.
Our Supreme Deluxe Sea View room came with an outdoor bath on a large balcony, but the clifftop infinity pool was our favourite spot. Down by the private beach there was a huge pool, waterfall feature and restaurants.
One night’s room-only is from £30pp based on two sharing. See santhiya.com/kohyaoyai.
GETTING/STAYING THERE: A ten-night island-hopping holiday is from £1,199pp based on two sharing with Travelbag, including seven nights’ B&B at the Pullman Phuket Panwa Beach in Phuket, three nights’ B&B at Paradise Koh Yao on Koh Yao, and return flights from Heathrow. See travelbag.co.uk/thailand or call 020 7001 5268.