Hong Kong's favourite Thai getaway island - three-and-a-half-hours away once Bangkok Airways' direct flights restart on July 1 - has taken advantage of the tourism hiatus caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to up its game, revamping infrastructure and reimagining its holiday attractions.
Samui, in the Gulf of Thailand 80 kilometres (50 miles) off the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, is also taking a determined step into the global spotlight. Michelin inspectors are reviewing the island's top restaurants for inclusion in its annual guide to Thailand in 2024, while Samui is a likely location for the next series of White Lotus, HBO's much watched black-comedy drama that follows the lives of guests and employees of a fictional resort chain.
"Essentially, Samui has used the lull in tourism over the last couple of years to pivot and take a step upmarket," says long-time resident Alex Hammond, author of TheKohSamuiGuide.com.
"The coils of electric wires which used to blight holiday central, Chaweng, have been moved underground, roads prone to flooding have been replumbed, the ring road has been largely repaved, and it's a darn sight easier to get around with transport apps like Grab.
"Most importantly for anyone taking a break here, resorts have used the pandemic to renovate and refresh."
Mainstream resorts have long colonised Koh Samui, but new contenders are making their presence felt.
"We opened the Avani Chaweng Samui Hotel on Chaweng Beach last September," says Nartsupak Thaweewong, the property's general manager.
"Essentially, it's a fun hotel that brings the glamorous, freewheeling spirit of 1950s Palm Beach and Miami to Koh Samui and which is best summed up by our beach club, Seen, with its cabanas, DJs, pools and a swim-up bar serving cocktails like the Thai Sabai, which contains Mekhong whisky, fresh lime juice and sweet basil leaves."
Boutique spa-centric properties such as Zazen and Bandara - both in Bo Phut, on the northern coast - have been renovated, while some of the island's swishest resorts have thought up new ways of entertaining guests.
"In May, we introduced a couple's sunset dinner in a clifftop sala [an open pavilion], together with a saxophonist and videographer," says Paphaon Suwannathamma, communications manager at the all-villa Six Senses. "It's incredibly romantic.
"And thrice a week, we host a 'Garden to Glass Workshop', serving cocktails and mocktails incorporating freshly picked ingredients from our farm, so it's as social as it's inspirational."
Koh Samui, Surat Thani. (File photo)
As a byword for sunny hedonism, Samui is a magnet for digital nomads and zoomers, so hoteliers have not been slow to adjust their templates to suit such a potentially lucrative demographic.
Explorar Koh Samui's 125 rooms and villas opened on the beach in Bo Phut in late 2022. An adults-only (16+) resort, on top of regular facilities such as a 50-metre infinity pool, a spa and a gym it also includes a spacious co-working space, which from June 2023 will have a 12-metre (39 foot) aquarium stocked with tropical fish.
"The aquarium is going to add a very chill vibe to the co-working space, which we call The Exchange," says Tim Sargeant, the resort's co-founder. "We're aiming to attract millennial holiday seekers and remote workers as well as couples celebrating a special occasion or anyone in search of a wellness getaway.
"And to get guests involved with the local culture, we run complimentary courses - cooking, language, Muay Thai, yoga - every afternoon."
Rather more adventurous, SocialTel Koh Samui (also adults only), in Chaweng, is very much the naughty new kid on the block, promising "provocative and sexy club nights with mysterious erotic performances, the freshest hi-fidelity house tunes, and wet and wild pool parties".
The accommodation runs from hostel-type bunks (825 baht, or US$24, a night) to rather more grown-up double rooms with balconies. The Drip Bar sports an IV hydration station guaranteed to counter the most gruelling of hangovers.
One of the smaller new entrants is Tembo Beach Club & Resort, on Bang Rak Beach, owned by former Hong Kong public relations maven Susan Field. The property groups nine brightly decorated bungalows alongside a humming beach club.
"We opened right in the middle of the pandemic, but we survived on the local trade and are now watching the whole show take off," says Field.
"We're very conscious of being part of the community - we use environmentally friendly cleaning products and natural amenities and buy produce from local growers.
"We support two charities - one for elephants and another for dogs - as well as a third that distributes food packages to less advantaged residents."
One of Samui's extensive cohort of wellness resorts, Kamalaya Koh Samui - which features 76 rooms and villas and treatments that embrace spiritual as well as physical needs - stole a march on the competition in February, when it opened a pop-up fine-dining experience for in-house guests - Luna by Clara - an offshoot of the award-winning Clara in Bangkok.
Chef Simone Scarparo combines local produce and modernist cooking techniques in a seven-course tasting menu that is served, as the name suggests, alfresco under the moonlight, accompanied by biodynamic wines and signature mocktails.
Elsewhere, Samui's restaurants - which have had a couple of years to refine their menus and techniques - run the gamut from Peruvian dishes, served up at Guilty in Bo Phut, to the superb mussels at The New French Kiss in Taling Ngam, to a neat take on Mediterranean cooking at Foxtrot Bistro in Bo Phut. Year-round residents insist that Supattra Thai Dining, also in Bo Phut, serves the island's best Thai food.
Throughout the island's 228 sq km (88 square miles) there is no shortage of entertainment. Fisherman's Village, in Bo Phut, has evolved into a buzzing nightlife destination, with a food market doing a roaring trade every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and fire dancers strutting their stuff once the sun has gone down.
Beanbags and hookahs festoon the beach by Coco Tam's bar, but the vibe here comes from the village's pedestrian area with its boutiques and cafes, which are ideal for people-watching.
The azure waters off Koh Samui, and in particular Mu Ko Ang Thong marine park, are a big draw. The newly launched Odyssey - a 13-metre motorised sailing catamaran - can take up to 18 passengers and provides a thrilling way to take in neighbouring islands, whether overnighting or on a day excursion, when kayaks and paddle boards are on hand.
Back on dry land, the Tree Bridge Zipline supplies an unforgettable adrenaline rush in suitably Tarzan-like surrounds in Mae Nam.
At the Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui, Udon Thani artist Patcharin Chuanlakorn leads guests through a two-hour art class on the beach, supplying them with paint, paper and palette and encouraging them to draw inspiration from their immediate surroundings.
Medical tourism continues to be one of Koh Samui's chief draws, with hospitals offering international-standard treatments at prices that compare favourably with those in Hong Kong.
The 53-bed Wattanapat Samui Hospital, in Bo Phut, opened in February, and offers a wide range of services, with private rooms starting at 2,850 baht per night.
Consumption of cannabis containing less than 2% THC was decriminalised in Thailand in 2022, although it may only be used in private for medical or health-related reasons. Public consumption can result in a 25,000 baht fine and a three-month prison sentence.
Still, the new rules on dope seem to have been viewed as a popular move on the part of the authorities, as demonstrated by Buds 4 Life, Grow High, Sweed, Weeden, Cannabis Freedom, Kunch, Blow Thailand, Kush Exotic and Samui Rainbow - to name just the commercial establishments clustered in Bang Rak.