Despite the rough sea and potential rain, the transfer on Zeavola Resort’s private speed boat from Phuket to Phi Phi Island was a breeze – thanks to our skilled skipper. But regardless of the conditions, I think with my level of excitement to finally be visiting one of Thailand’s best barefoot luxury sustainable resorts, I would have survived anything.
The Phi Phi National Marine Park is an archipelago of six stunningly beautiful tropical islands in the Andaman Sea, one of which is Phi Phi Don Island. Zeavola Resort is situated on its northern tip, surrounded by lush tropical forest and on the tranquil shores of Laem Tong Beach.
We were warmly welcomed on the dock by General Manager, Florian Hallerman. Soon we were walking beneath towering trees and through lush vegetation alive with birdsong. The neatly swept paths giving way to nature with a sprinkling of leaves. We glimpsed the occasional thatch roof and wooden structure as we made our way towards reception and our first glimpse of the soft white sand and the varying shades of aquamarine of the ocean. A barefoot paradise.
Zeavola’s teak villas and suites are spread throughout the grounds to resemble a Thai village from another era. Double teak doors indicate the entrance, I remove my slops and wash the sand off my feet the traditional Thai way. I step up into the large outdoor living area, the perfect place to unwind and relax.
Our garden suite is luxurious in its simplicity, with teak walls, bamboo privacy screens and a palm frond clad roof (which are gradually being replaced with an artificial version for the sake of longevity). It is stylishly decorated in rich, colourful fabrics and the bathroom amenities are provided in hand-made ceramic jars. The floor to ceiling windows in the spacious air-conditioned bedroom ensures nature is never out of sight, and the open-air shower an invitation I could not refuse.
A glass of chilled South African white wine never tasted better. With toes in the sand and the gentle whisper of the waves a short distance away, the ambiance at Tacada beachfront restaurant and bar set the scene spectacularly for an island style Thai dinner later that evening. We dine at Baxil, Zeavola’s authentic Thai restaurant – crispy fried prawns with sesame, roasted sea bass, Thai curry noodles and the most delicious mango and coconut ice cream for dessert.
Mosquito wipes, provided daily, keep the pesky critters away and a voluminous mosquito net ensures a restful sleep. An early breakfast of tropical fruit, a variety of buffet delights and a selection of made to order hot dishes at Baxil, have us ready for an energetic day – and just as well with all the fabulous cuisine on offer!
Florian suggested we hike to Nui Bay. A paved road, used only by pedestrians and motorbike taxis, gives way to sand. It takes us past quaint restaurants, local laundromats, and the humble homes of the local Loh Bagao community near Loh Ba Kao Bay.
From the treed road we soon step onto the shore of Loh Lana Bay, a popular spot for both swimming and snorkelling. Colourful longtail boats dot the shore, and in the deeper water speed boats hover like mother hens over their clutch of life jacket clad snorkellers. We step past a tangle of knotted rope, along a rocky shore, and head towards a small sea gypsy settlement.
The sea gypsy people are known as Chao Ley, the water people, or people of the sea, and tend to live in metal-roofed homes, or even small houseboats. They have lived as nomads in the region for hundreds of years, most are fishermen, but some do work in the island’s coconut plantations. At low tide, the women will fish the reefs for shellfish, snails and even abalone. Zeavola supports the local Laem Tong Primary school and serves the Chao Ley community lunch there on a weekly basis – guests are welcome to participate, which offers a great opportunity to learn more about their fascinating culture.
We pass the gypsy settlement and scramble up a steep rocky incline, clutching a well-placed rope for assistance, and through the forest to be rewarded with a spectacular view of Nui Bay with its emerald green sea and limestone cliffs.
After a most welcome dip in the ocean, we make our way back towards the village and pop into the View Point Restaurant for a very welcome and well chilled Chang Beer. A bridge across the mangrove lagoon leads to a street lined with ramshackle restaurants, quirky bars, and a variety of shops. Need a Thai massage? Or a boat trip to somewhere? No problem, there are massage parlours aplenty and tour vendors just about everywhere.
Tired and weary we opt for a taxi ride back and head straight to the pool.
No visit to Zeavola Resort would be complete without exploring the incredible diversity beneath the ocean. We select the Maya Adventure Tour, a speed boat adventure around the beautiful uninhabited Phi Phi Leh Island with multiple stops for snorkeling and snacking.
We cruise past towering limestone cliffs dotted with caves, and vegetation that appears to defy gravity, clinging to its sides. We slow to an idle as we near the renowned Maya Bay, celebrated in the 2000 movie ‘The Beach’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Unfortunately, the influx of thousands of day-trippers with their litter, pollution and boat damage, caused untold environmental destruction – marine experts suggest that 80% of the coral reefs surrounding the bay have suffered mass destruction. As a result of this, Thai authorities saw fit to close Maya Bay indefinitely, and the closest you can get is a cordoned off section and a distant view of that famous beach. Visitors are however allowed to snorkel beyond this section of the bay, and we see evidence that the marine ecosystem is recovering with a sighting of a few young black-tip reef sharks, and an abundance of tropical fish.
A bleaching event about eight years ago – likely to be caused in part by El Ninio effect, but also by overtourism, also caused untold coral destruction causing the Thai government to very quickly close an open water reef called Hin Klang. This reef has been off limits for about seven to eight years, but is showing great signs of recovery. About two years special permission was given to dive this reef and Florian accompanied National Geography Photographer York Hovest for a book, ‘Heroes of the Sea’ – Zeavola is mentioned in the book and the cover picture of the book is Wang Loh on Phi Phi Leh.
It is important to remember that the use of chemical-based sunscreen products adds to the pollution in the ocean. A 2016 study by a team of international scientists found that a common chemical, Oxybenzone, or BP-3, found in many sunscreen lotions and cosmetics is highly toxic to juvenile corals and other marine life. See details HERE Thankfully, I was able to purchase a tube of reef friendly sunscreen from the Zeavola shop and could slip into the warm emerald tinged water with confidence knowing I was doing no harm whilst protecting myself from the sun’s harmful rays.
We enter Loh Samah Bay and take our place alongside other speed boats and a plethora of longtail boats, beautifully adorned as blessings for a safe journey. The ocean is deliciously warm and the underwater life quite beguiling. A snack of fresh watermelon and pineapple replenishes our energy.
We joined a steady stream of boats entering the lagoon, adding to the many that were already there – a bun-fight for sure, and this was the low season. This just highlighted the impact that over-tourism is having on destinations as well as the environment. Something that governments, tourism organisations and conservationists are all grappling with.
Local legend has it that some sailors lost at sea managed to find the cave and survived by eating the nests (made from the saliva) of the resident swiftlet colony. Bird nests, made into a healthy soup, is a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. They are harvested by locals who from February to April, when the chicks leave their homes, use fragile bamboo scaffolding to collect the nests – quite a risky job, as it is done in the dark. It is said that the market price of a kilogram of birds’ nests is in the region of 150,000 Baht. The cave is closed to visitors, but we get to see the sections of scaffolding at the mouth of the cave.
As the name suggests, the surrounding cliffs and beach of Monkey Bay are home to monkeys. Macaques on the cliff side watch eagerly as we pass by – waiting to be fed I’m sure, as despite the strict regulations I’m sure many tourists still feed them. We end our adventure in the calm clear water of Loh Lana Bay. It was the best snorkeling of the day, it was as though I had been dropped into a tropical aquarium, all I needed to do was stay afloat and be amazed at the incredible diversity beneath me.
From sunny skies and a warm clear day to soaring limestone cliffs, aquamarine water, and an astonishing variety of marine life… we oohed and aahed over the stunning scenery, spent hours in the water and marvelled at the abundance of life underwater. From black tip reef sharks to brightly coloured parrot fish, shoals of teeny tiny shiny fish to a whole host of speckled, striped, sleek, chubby, fat-lipped, and you name it kind of fish. And then there were the corals, sea urchins, sea cucumbers and more… I probably spent more time in the ocean in four hours than in the last decade. I even had the wrinkly fingertips to prove it.
But warm ocean and sandy beaches aside, Florian had promised a and passion evident. “It’s all about ensuring a safe and natural environment for our guests, each other and our partners on Koh Phi Phi Island. It’s not only what we achieve, but how we live it that determines the real value of our company”, he says. I soon learn that it is about the people – guests, colleagues, partners, and the local community, about the environment and about conservation.
Our last evening is celebrated in style with a seafood dinner comprising locally caught fish cooked on an open fire. The smokiness adding to the taste as well as the ambiance. We linger over dinner, enjoying a lively conversation with Florian, willing the time to slow down and potentially even pause.
Unfortunately, we have a plane to catch the next morning so leave we must. Our memorable experience on this island paradise ensures a return visit at some point, if not in reality, most certainly in the dreamy recesses of my mind.
So, what did I love most about Zeavola Resort?
- Zeavola’s unassuming barefoot luxury, and the fact that paradise so easily seeped into my soul.
- The wonderfully fresh and diverse range of cuisine.
- Slipping into the warm aquamarine ocean and the wonderful snorkeling.
- An island that is easy to explore and get off the beaten track – I loved that we didn’t have to dodge any motor vehicles!
- The great service and ever-present smiles
- The stellar commitment to responsible tourism. In every respect.
To find out more about Zeavola Resort’s sustainability, check out ‘Zeavola’s Little Green Book’ written by Florian Hallerman – click HERE to download.