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Island-hopping in Phuket

Secret beaches, hidden coves and stunning marine life make Phuket’s islands a must-do, says Carolynne Dear.

Boats circle stunning Ko Phi Phi Leh and Maya Bay.

“Visiting Phuket and not going island-hopping is like flying to Egypt and not visiting the pyramids,” says Shaun Stenning, director of local speedboat tour operator, 5 Star Marine Phuket. It’s quite a statement, but with 14 years of leading tours around Phuket under his belt, he knows what he's talking about.

Phuket is indeed blessed to be surrounded by hundreds of insta worthy islands, from the world-renowned Maya Bay of Leonardo DiCaprio and The Beach fame, to lesser known stretches of fine white sand and hidden lagoons abundant with dolphins, fish, turtles and corals. Indeed, when it comes to marine life, the question is perhaps not what will you see, but what won’t you see. Just minutes offshore, the waters are wriggling with clownfish, black tip reef sharks, parrot fish, squid, sea urchins, star fish and triggerfish. Further afield, spot whale sharks and rays.

Swim with the sharks

“Swim with sharks, find Nemo, kayak through caves, discover hidden lagoons, enjoy a sunset BBQ on a white sandy beach, watch the sunrise over Phang Nga Bay, or see the sun set behind Phuket’s rainforest covered mountains - no trip to Phuket is complete without an island-hopping experience,” says Stenning.

Stenning at work in his 'office'.

The best time of year for island-hopping in Phuket is from November to April when the dry season ushers in calm seas and good visibility. “However, saying that even during the wet season Phang Nga Bay is relatively calm and some people would say it’s actually more beautiful at this lusher time of year,” says Stenning. The topography of Phuket means that if it’s raining and windy on the west coast, Phang Nga Bay and Phi Phi Islands on the east side can bask in calm seas and beautiful sunshine. And many islands are just a 15 minute ride from shore, perfect if the weather is a little inclement or for young families who don’t want to venture too far. The least busy times of year are October and November and then April, May, June and July when the weather is still relatively good. Peak season falls over Christmas and New Year in December and January.

“The tourists have slowly started to return,” says Stenning. “We’ve been fully booked for the last few weeks and the high season - November to April - is looking positive for Phuket." The crowds tend to head to the popular destinations such as James Bond Island and Phi Phi Islands, but Stenning's crew know when the busy times are and with a private boat at their disposal can customise their tours accordingly. "When it’s crowded, we just don’t go,” he says.

An island for everyone

So where to start? Whether you’re a hiker, diver, snorkeller, or just want a dip in the ocean or the chance to relax on some of the world’s most idyllic palm-fringed sands, there’s an island out there for you. Most holidaymakers can’t sail past the limestone karsts of Phang Nga Bay, also home to the infamous ‘James Bond Island’ which was used as a backdrop in the 1974 film The Man with the Golden Gun. And then of course there are the picture perfect beaches of the Phi Phi Islands, including Maya Bay.

5 Star Marine guests exploring the crystal clear waters of the Andaman Sea.

Maya Bay and the Phi Phis are around 45 minutes offshore and pre-Covid were such a popular spot that in 2018 Maya Bay was forced to close to tourists to allow the local ecology to recover. Hundreds of thousands of visitors and boats, swimming and anchoring in the coral bay, had come close to destroying the area. Maya Bay reopened in January 2022 with new rules and regulations in place both to manage the flow of tourists and how they are able to access the bay. In August the bay closed again to allow the authorities to assess how the previous few months had affected the area. The bay reopened for this year’s high season on October 1.

“So far we haven’t seen the interim report,” says Stenning. “But the hiatus was really good for the beach. It gave the wildlife a chance to return and when we were last there, we spotted more than 20 baby black tip reef sharks. The national park team has done a great job of creating pathways from the back side of the bay to the beach and they’ve been managing tourist numbers really well.”

Beautiful Maya Bay

The current rules have been in place since January and mean all boats must drop guests to the new floating pier at the back of the island. Direct access to the bay at the front of the island is forbidden. Swimming in the bay is also no longer permitted, although Stenning says you can paddle a little bit for that all-important Maya Bay selfie. “But don’t go too deep as you will get whistled at,” he says. Numbers of tourists are capped by the hour.

“The closure really has given Maya Bay time to recover, it’s even more beautiful now than it was. We’ve got our fingers crossed that the new rules are adhered to during this next high season.”

Taking advantage of stunning snorkelling and dive opportunities at Racha Noi.

The tourist hotspot of Phang Nga Bay of is around 30 minutes away. If you’re looking to kayak through sea caves, this is the place to head. The limestone karsts of the area adorn many a holiday brochure and form a stunning backdrop to the area which is located in the protected waters of the Ao Phang Nga Marine National Park. Some of the most beautiful beaches in the world can be found here, including, of course, the island of Khao Phing Kan, otherwise known as James Bond Island.

Away from the main tourist trail, if you’re a family looking for some straightforward snorkelling, the Khai Islands off the east coast of Phuket are an easy 15 minute speedboat ride away. Coral Island a little further south is also perfectly placed and can be combined with dolphin spotting around the sandy shores of nearby Mai Thon Island.

Diving hotspots

For more experienced divers, Stenning recommends heading out to Richelieu Rock, an hour-and-a-half off the west coast and considered to be one of the best dive sites in Asia. Expect an abundance of marine life as well as the chance to spot whale sharks in season (any time from November to April, but most commonly from February to April). Richelieu Rock is close to the Similan Islands, also a mecca for divers, but as these sites are quite a long way out to sea, they’re not recommended for beginners. Good dive sites closer to Phuket include Racha Yai and Racha Noi off Phuket’s southern tip, which offer an interesting mix of marine life, coral and shipwrecks.

Children having fun on Banana Beach (all images courtesy Pete Atkinson/5 Star Marine Phuket).

This season Stenning and his team have launched a private sunset beach BBQ and dolphin spotting tour, with exclusive use of one of their luxury speedboats. All bookings are bespoke, but guests can generally expect a family-friendly cruise around the local islands with snorkelling (all equipment is provided), followed by a ‘respectful’ dolphin spotting opportunity. The tour finishes with a sunset Thai-style beach barbecue on fine white sands as the dipping tropical sun illuminates the sky.

As for Stenning, he reveals that his favourite destination is the turquoise waters of Hong Krabi. “It’s not too well known and it has a great mix of experiences, from snorkelling, to amazing view points, a great lagoon and one of the most underrated beaches in Thailand. When visitors ask for somewhere that’s off the beaten track, this is where I take them.”

The main departure point for 5 Star Marine Phuket tours is from Boat Lagoon Marina on the east coast, but if guests are heading to the Similan or Surin Islands, boats sail from the very north of Phuket at Sarasian Bridge. Accommodation pick-ups are available. Sailing times range from fifteen minutes to an hour-and-a-half, depending on destination. The 5 Stay Marine team can customise cruises for groups ranging from babes in arms to elderly grandparents. Tours can accommodate non-swimmers and snorkelling instruction can also be provided. All that guests need to bring with them are a towel, some sunscreen - and a smile.

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