Waves, culture & history

Updated: 2013-10-27 07:36

By Mark Hughes (China Daily)

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Mark Hughes finds glimpses of paradise to delight his children on a rare visit to the delightful resorts of Asia.

My first thought was this holiday was going down the pan, quite literally. After a long climb upstairs, I'd been plonked in a bright yellow rubber boat and shoved down a dark, wet and windy tube to emerge in what looked like a WC bowl, around which centrifugal forces carried me several times before gravity took me down another tunnel that emerged in a swimming pool, my screams still echoing behind me, along with those still engaged in the surprising excitement and shock.

No wonder it's called The Toilet. But despite the less than beguiling title it is clearly the most popular ride in Phuket's Splash Jungle, a paradise waterpark close to the airport and full of entertainment for all age groups.

Waves, culture & history

Zeavola resort features a tropical island retreat, offering diving, snorkeling, kayaking, golden beaches, sailing, colorful seabed scenes and sumptuous food. Photos by Mark Hughes / China Daily

Waves, culture & history

I was there with my two daughters aged 10 and 15 to while away the time before a speedboat came to whisk us off to the idyllic island retreat of the Koh Phi Phi Marine National Park.

About a 70-minute ride out into the Andaman Sea, this is a park where watching flying fish detracted from the occasional bumpiness of the ride in which James Bond would have been proud to have had a chase and shoot-out with bad guys in this gutsy aquatic speed monster.

In fact, there actually is a James Bond Island, although we were kept too busy to find it.

One of the islands is Koh Phi Phi Ley, where the iconic book and film based on it, The Beach, the latter starring Leonardo DiCaprio, were set.

Our resort was Zeavola, on the largest, Phi Phi Don.

The attraction was not only to treat my daughters, whom I hadn't seen for months, to a sumptuous tropical island retreat away from useless UK summers, but also to educate them.

In Beijing - their first visit to the Chinese mainland - we had climbed the Great Wall, strolled around Tian'anmen Square, walked around the Forbidden City, the Olympic Park and Houhai, and looked at but not eaten scorpions and grasshoppers.

They learned a lot about history, Chinese food and culture, and the need to have eyes in the back of their head when crossing Beijing streets on foot.

But I also wanted them to learn about the need to preserve the environment.

And what could be better than a five-star resort offering diving, snorkeling, kayaking, golden beaches, sailing, sumptuous food and even TV and WiFi for when the vibrancy of the real things under tropical temperatures brings on a languor that only a lie-down and a cocktail (even a virgin cocktail) can chill you amid the yawning heat?

Far from the fun of the artifice of Splash Jungle and its primary chemical colors, here was the real thing.

My mind boggled at the variety, shades and shapes of the fish and coral during three dives. My be-snorkeled children marveled at the same sights in shallower waters, lapping golden beaches.

The beach sandwiches lived up to their name as exotically colored butterflies fluttered by and early-bird epicure mosquitoes looked for a quick fix of that tantalizing taste of human blood, shooed away by naturally grown lemon grass and flapping hands, plus a healthy spray of Deet.

Experts were on hand to ensure we remained out of trouble and to explain the fragility of the ecosystem. Some predict that unless humans do more, all coral will be wiped out by 2050.

So our resort, Zeavola, makes strenuous efforts in emphasizing that we leave only footprints behind after enjoying our barefoot luxury. Otherwise all that will be left is a barren rock.

Accommodation consists of 52 wooden chalets with all the usual comforts: air conditioning, plenty of free drinking water, a mosquito net around the four-poster beds, free mosquito repellant, a covered outside deck complete with fridge and constantly replenished ice.

In fact it matched anything a more traditional five-star hotel could offer with genuinely accommodating staff.

The chalets were set back a little from the beach, hidden by the onset of the jungle and made private with special plantations.

There was also an outside swimming pool and a series of delightful spa options.

Sadly, there wasn't time to try them all, listed over several pages in a booklet.

Dining options varied but we chose to eat al fresco on the beach by candlelight at night, choosing from a diverse fusion menu.

The chef went out of his way to cook a special meal for my eldest daughter, a vegetarian, every night, which she described as the best food she had ever eaten.

Zeavola general manager Florian Hallermann, a veteran Asian hotelier from Austria, explained he has a genuine compassion for marine wildlife and an active commitment to protecting the conservation status of aquatic habitats.

Zeavola is built around a sustainability ethos, with features such as a water reserve system that includes four deep wells and a reverse osmosis plant to completely minimize unnecessary water consumption - efforts which have earned it membership in the international "green" hotels group Green Pearls.

Not only has the resort met all the required components and prerequisites to become a Professional Association of Diving Instructor Five-Star member, it has also been awarded the PADI Green Star Award for its outstanding contribution to the environment through its project Coral Freedom.

The efforts of Coral Freedom are focused on reversing the devastating effects of coral bleaching, a consequence of high carbon footprints and increasing global warming.

As we clambered into the speedboat back to Phuket, the staff came down to the beach to wave us off. It was a touching gesture to end a touching vacation and reunion.

I pretended my watery eyes were caused by sea spray.

We were saying goodbye to paradise and heading ultimately to homes that involve work, not blessed luxury.

Thank God the roar of the engines swamped my sob. Soon the girls would be 8,000 kilometers away.

However, you can't visit a new country for the first time without seeing its capital.

Waves, culture & history

We stayed at Bangkok's new, centrally located boutique Vie Hotel, which arranged temple visits, a trip to a crocodile and elephant farm with rather dramatic shows that offered elephant rides and the chance to watch a man put his head into the open jaws of a live, giant, toothsome reptile.

We also enjoyed visiting perhaps the biggest, best and cheapest malls I've ever witnessed.

No one went home empty-handed or empty-headed, not even the crocodile fool. Just empty-pocketed in a worthwhile way.

To be honest, and to return to where we began, we were flushed with pleasure and excitement.

Contact the writer atmarkhughes@chinadaily.com.cn.