KOH SAMUI, Thailand -- It's a perfect day to swim in the "bowl of gold," aka Mu Ko Ang Thong National Marine Park -- an archipelago of 42 islands 30 km northwest of Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand.
The sky is sunny and the water couldn't be calmer -- ideal conditions for a boat excursion to these lush tropical islands, with their hidden coves, lagoons, deserted beaches and unusual rock formations.
Draw up a list of features for the ultimate day trip in this marine park and it might include the following: Perfect weather, postcard-pretty scenery with varied natural landscapes and a range of activities, none of them overly strenuous. This turns out to be the script for our day-long speedboat tour covering three islands and four beaches, with opportunities to hike, swim, snorkel, kayak and relax, plus some unexpected wildlife encounters.
One such encounter occurs shortly after leaving the dock, when two dolphins appear and frolic alongside us in the waves created by our boat.
An hour later we anchor offshore in the northern reaches of the marine park and snorkel in some of the clearest water I've ever seen, thanks in part to the calm sea and the sun's rays, which penetrate the shallow coral reefs. The many colourful inhabitants of the reef include multi-hued parrot fish and bright yellow angel fish.
On Mae Koh -- our next stop -- we pull up onto a beach and join a few other visitors climbing some steep stairs that lead to a platform overlooking an emerald-coloured lagoon on one side and views of the gorgeous island chain on the other. After admiring the landscape for a few minutes, we make our way down and out through a series of limestone formations, at one stage climbing through a small natural opening in the rock and later following a wooden path with towering rock walls on either side.
There is no one else on pretty Tham Rang Beach, where we stop for lunch a short time later. A few people discover some well-placed swings strung between two trees and pass the time idly gazing out to sea. A few of our guides prepare some freshly caught squid, and lay out a spread of chicken, noodles, rice and pineapple to energize us for a kayaking excursion not far from where the movie The Beach was filmed.
If there are any cows on Ko Wua Talap (Sleeping Cow Island) our final stop, we don't see them. But there's plenty of wildlife, judging by exhibits at park headquarters, which describe some of the 16 species of mammals, 50 species of birds, 14 species of reptiles and five amphibians to be found in the park. A skeleton of a Bryde's whale is the central display in the visitor centre.
Outside, on a grassy area amid tall palm trees, visitors can find accommodation in one several bungalows or at a campsite. An hour on the island, which is all we have, isn't quite enough time to hike the nearby Pha Jun Jaras Nature Trail, which is rated difficult and takes one to two hours to complete. While it leads to one of the best views of the archipelago, no one seems to mind that we'll miss it, especially when we spot some monkeys at the trail entrance.
The dusky langurs -- distinguished by the white rings around their eyes -- don't seem to be living up to their reputation. Having just read that the animal, "doesn't like to expose itself to people," I find myself standing beneath a tree with more than a dozen langurs playfully jumping about in the upper branches, not the least bit disturbed by our presence.
One visitor even has his camera trained on a baby langur seated on an overhead branch less than a metre away from his lens. The number of human observers grows as we continue watching the animals' antics until it is time for the boat to leave and we have to say "La gon" -- goodbye in Thai.
A perfect day deserves a perfect night, and you can't do better than the stylish W Retreat Koh Samui. Popular with honeymooners and trendsetters, this sprawling property wows visitors with its fashion-shoot-locale-worthy entrance featuring a circular infinity pool with built-in lounging pods. Villas, with comfy pillow-top beds, face the sea and come with outdoor showers and private pools big enough for swimming laps. Craving a midnight treat? Unlimited free ice cream is available 24/7 from freezers stationed near the villas. W's beach is uniquely positioned so you can enjoy both the sunrise, and the consistently spectacular sunsets. You will be tempted to spend the entire day there. For more, check whotels.com/Kohsamui.
NEED TO KNOW
For travel information, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand at tourismthailand.org/us or 416-614-2625. For more on touring Mu Ko Ang Thong National Marine Park by speedboat, see grandseatours.com. Cost is 2,100 baht (about $68). Another trip worth taking is the Samui Island tour, which stops at landmark temples, Buddha statues and natural attractions such as Grandmother and Grandfather rocks.