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"Welcome back!" he greeted us with a smile and then drove us in a buggy to our villa.
Such service is the standard at Phulay Bay: a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, an exclusive 54-villa retreat on Thailand's Andaman Sea in Krabi, near Phuket. In 2009, Phulay Bay was the first Ritz-Carlton property to open under its new Reserve brand and offers a level of luxury steps above the hotel chain's already high standards.
Designed for discerning global travelers who seek personally tailored vacation experiences, the Reserve portfolio comprises one-of-a kind, environmentally friendly resorts featuring unique, locally inspired design elements. Upcoming locations include Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos, the United Arab Emirates and San Jose del Cabo, Mexico (which opens in 2014 with 124 oceanfront villas, each with private infinity pools).
Butler service is just one example of the Reserve indulgences that clients can expect at Phulay Bay. Each villa has butler service, and ours appeared like a genie whenever we needed him. As part of our in-villa check-in, he even bathed our trip-weary feet in a bowl of warm water and scented oil, into which he sprinkled rose petals.
In fact, practically all aspects of Phulay Bay rank at the top of the "wow" scale. Arriving at the resort, we entered through 20-foot-high aubergine walls and walked on stepping stones over a vast reflection pool in a courtyard lit at night by 2,000 candles.
The resort's opulent villas were created by Thai architect, Lek Bunnag. There are five different categories; Bunnag clearly had fun with the 16 Reserve Villas, as no two are alike. Clients can opt for a private rooftop overlooking the dramatic limestone karsts (rocky island outcroppings) in Phang Nga Bay. Or they can choose a villa (like ours, Number 16) with a private lap pool and outdoor daybed, plus another teak sala (lounge) in the garden.
All Reserve Villas are enormous -- 1,150 square feet plus another 2,650 square feet of private outdoor space. A gigantic 13-foot bed dominates the center of the white marble bedroom (great for sleeping at one end and watching television from the other). Massive teak doors, which open into the bathroom, are handpainted with colorful Lanna-style scenes of Thai dancers and villagers.
Bathrooms have soaring purple-domed ceilings that appear to be at least 20 feet high with skylights that filter the sunrays down on to a frangipani-shaped terrazzo tub. One evening, we returned from dinner to find our room lit by candles, the tub filled with soapy bubbles and rose petals and even toothpaste squeezed onto our toothbrushes ready for use. Add to that ornate trays of Salvatore Ferragamo bath products, mother-of-pearl vanity boxes, shimmering Thai silk bathrobes and slippers, and another outdoor bathtub in a desert garden, and I felt like a pampered princess.
The best value accommodations, however, are the Resort Pavilions. They're smaller than the Reserve Villas and don't have private pools. But the resort's main infinity pool overlooking the sea is nearby. Curtained cabanas and complimentary coconut juice (the staff chop the tops off fresh green coconuts, from which the juice is enjoyed with a straw) make the pool an inviting place to relax in the heat of the day.
The resort's beach is rocky. So for swimming and snorkeling, Phulay Bay offers free, private half-day excursions by longtail boat to pristine Hong Island, a scenic 30-minute ride away.
Restaurants and bars include the Chomtawan sunset lounge where clients can feed bananas to a baby elephant that visits with her mahout every two evenings.
If I had a quibble, it would be with the spa. While my massage with Thai herbal compresses was excellent, the Espa is an indoor, enclosed facility that doesn't take advantage of the rainforest surroundings like other top Thai resort spas, which have breezy outdoor areas. But that's a minor quibble indeed.
Resort Pavilions start at $675 in high season (November to mid-April, excluding Christmas and New Year's); Reserve Villas start at $1,