Why Hua Hin will Cha-Am you
In season this quiet Thai strip is straight out of “To Russia with Love”. Our Hua Hin guide with boutique resort reviews, family friendly hotels and sumptuous spas.
Hua Hin railway station
A “CHIC boutique resort” that turns out to be a concrete bunker painted in gloss turquoise. An “exquisite breakfast buffet” that consists of Nescafe and mini boxes of Frosted Flakes. “International clientele” that ends up being a gang of Russian businessmen and their bleached “Natashas” in the adjacent room. There aren’t many things in life you can rely on, but ending up in a dodgy resort is one of them if you fail to do your homework.
It was with this great truth mind that my brother Mike and I approached the resort we’d stay in for our annual one-week family get-together, this time in Hua Hin and Cha-Am, Thailand. We split into two groups and did what any data-obsessed family would do: we researched the 100 or so Hua Hin resort choices, and two weeks later, presented a shortlist, happily, without a bowl of borsch in sight. Mike pushed for the Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin (formerly Sofitel), the reincarnation of the colonial-style railway hotel complete with fussy topiary and frighteningly fragile antique furnishing. All very deluxe, gracious and stuffy in a maidenly aunt sort of way.
His wife Jenny voted for the Evason Six Senses Hideaway – a casually-chic and exclusive resort at the far reaches of Hua Hin that looks and feels as if it was conceived by Greenpeace activists on a big budget, but is run like a Swiss watch. We all agreed that it was an excellent choice for a quiet escape from the rigors of life, but…
InterContinental splash/ photo: hotel
I preferred “in-town” romantic luxury lodging with candle-lit dinners on the beach, lots of facilities and great service. And it had to be quiet and private too. In my mind, Anantara Grand Resort Hua Hin fit the bill to a T. After another 30 or 40 more emails and bags of frustration we reached a compromise – two nights at Anantara, three nights at Six Senses and a big blow-out dinner at Sofitel. Mike took his loss in untypically good stride.
But he had done his homework and knew that the heritage Sofitel best represents Hua Hin, the favoured beach resort for Thailand’s royalty for some 80 years. The royal endorsement came in 1928 when King Rama VII chose the fishing village as the site for a royal retreat called Klai Kangwon (Far From Worries) Palace. Bangkok’s elite soon followed and a clutch of private holiday homes and fine traditional resorts catering to the kingdom’s aristocrats took shape.
Even after eight decades, a charming atmosphere of muted provincialism still prevails along this coast. If you’re looking for bright lights and full moon raves you will be disappointed here. Hua Hin is all family friendly resorts with clutch international hotel chains, cosmopolitan restaurants and some top-notch golf courses. The beach, while narrow, is clean and remains almost free of beach touts and massage parlours. A large part of why we picked this area is location. Just 200km south of Bangkok, Hua Hin and neighbouring Cha-Am can be reached by plane, public bus and private coach. By car it’s an easy two-hour drive along a smooth six-lane highway. While separate if connected – and inseparable – entities, for the purposes of our Hua Hin resorts review we look at the area as a single whole.
Anantara suite/ photo: hotel
Arriving by car from Bangkok, the first resorts you reach are along the sandy coast of Cha Am, a smaller city about 25km north of Hua Hin. From here, there is a mishmash of international standard resorts, budget properties and view-blocking condominiums stretching some 35km down the coast to Pranburi. Some sections are chock-a-block high-rise towers, while others are more secluded. Generally, the farther south you go, the quieter it gets.
The quality of the beach is consistent throughout – shallow and narrow in some places – and boasting fine, light-coloured sand. The water quality is good and waves are gentle enough for small children. This is no Phuket or Andaman shoreline but it’s clean. With over 100 beachfront resorts to choose from, and a slowdown in Thailand’s tourism arrivals, room rates can be very competitive with some hotels offering discounts of up to 50 percent, especially on midweek bookings. In this buyer’s market, many hotels toss in breakfast, a free meal or two and generous discounts on services.
Anantara Grand Resort Hua Hin, is an excruciatingly well-planned resort conceived by a committee of hospitality professionals. Scoff if you wish, but the result is memorable. Anantara ticks all the right boxes. The 187 rooms feel intimate and reflect Thai textures and culture. Silk-clad staffers glide across hardwood floors to offer unobtrusive service in this sort-of-boutique hotel experience minus the quirks.
Mike and Jenny appreciated the large rooms and liked the two-storey buildings nestled in the resort’s tropical garden, overlooking an expansive beachfront. Lagoon rooms have high ceilings and comfortable terraces with sofas, while bathrooms keep you smelling sweet with a potpourri of natural soaps and beauty products. We dined on seafood at the beachside Sai Thong grill. There’s also a signature Italian restaurant.
Centara Grand/ photo: hotel
After locavore lobster we planted our daughter Lucy in the children’s club for a few hours and enjoyed a visit to the fitness centre, a few games of tennis and a treatment at the spoiling Anantara Spa. This is a good Hua Hin child-friendly resort with attractive spa facilities.
Originally built in 1923, the 249-room Centara Grand Beach Resort & Villas Hua Hin (formerly Sofitel) has been superbly renovated and expanded numerous times since. The hotel offers modern deluxe comforts among the gracious confines of a bygone era. There are four swimming pools, a good spa, a children’s club, tennis courts and other facilities. Expect ceiling fans, rolling green lawns, some amazing topiary, and a nice stretch of seafront. Of course, luxury comes at a price. This sumptuous retreat is among the best Hua Hin resorts for both honeymooners as well as families. Our dinner at the Palm Seafood restaurant didn’t disappoint.
Early the next morning we headed for The Evason Hua Hin and Six Senses Spa, about 30 minutes south of the Sofitel. Jenny was sold on the private pool villas, world-class restaurants, well-respected spa and the resort’s environmentally friendly philosophy or “purpose”. As our personal butler Joy enthusiastically explained, the Six Senses “core purpose” is to “create innovative and enlightening experiences that rejuvenate our guests’ love of SLOW LIFE [sustainable, local, organic, wholesome, learning, inspiring, fun, experiences]”. It may sound like a lot of corporate mumble-jumble, but you can’t argue with the results.
Marrakesh Hua Hin/ photo: hotel
The 145 rustic but luxurious rooms spread over 22-acres of tropical gardens appealed to my rugged Canadian lumberjack roots. We stayed in one of the 40 private pool villas, showered in the open air and lazed around in the outdoor tub. The whole experience reminded me of a posh fishing camp in an uncharacteristically sunny Saskatoon. Lucy raved about the kids’ club with its own private pool, organised games and entertainment. Adult toys include a spa, tennis, archery, fishing, windsurfing and much more.
Next-door is the intimate Six Senses Hideaway Hua Hin, a grand version of the Six Senses concept, made-up entirely of humungous pool villas (248sq m to 376sq m) surrounded by stone walls for absolute privacy. The resort prides itself on offering an uncompromised standard of luxury – indicated in its rates. At the heart of the Hideaway is the very earthy Six Senses Earth Spa. Reminiscent of an African village, the spa is a collection of nine circular domed mud huts surrounded by water. There are four treatment huts with Jacuzzis, two steam rooms and a meditation “cave”. It’s the kind of place you expect to run into Madonna with her latest adoptees in tow. Unsurprisingly, this place has won accolades as one of the top Hua Hin spa resorts.
Cha-Am guide to child friendly resorts and spas
Starting up on the north of this stretch of coastline, at the opposite end of the accommodation scale, is the slew of boisterous self-contained resorts in Cha-am that are popular with Bangkok families. A good-value choice in this range is the former Holiday In, now The Regent ChaAm.
So Sofitel Hua Hin / photo: hotel
The 560-room The Regent Cha Am Beach Resort (formerly the Holiday Inn Regent Beach Cha Am) is no slouch when it comes to facilities with two pools, tennis, squash, volleyball and a kids’ club. While in need of a good spring-cleaning, it offers a wide variety of room choices to fit most budgets. The standard rooms are clean, if basic, while the 33 Anavana Villas and Suites take a stab at 'romantic' for couples. Enjoy spa facilities and all-day dining at the Thai and mixed cuisine Sakuna.
The Springfield@Sea Resort is an example of the new hip boutique resorts than have sprung up along the coast. The cool Springfield has 105 rooms and most provide sea views from sweet-scented botanical verandahs. Large family suites are a good bet with kitchen (but not cooking) facilities and there are eight luxury villas. The Springfield also has a full spa and meeting rooms not to mention a 36-hole golf course, Springfield Royal Country Club, of which the villas are a spinoff. If you’re in need of a Hua Hin golf resort for a longer stay, give this one a gander. The group also runs the child-friendly Springfield Beach Resort.
A high-end choice is So Sofitel Hua Hin (formerly Hotel de la Paix). Designed by one of Thailand’s leading architects, the hotel’s collection of 72 rooms and seven pool villas, is comfortable and luxurious, created with minimalist straight lines and mod cubes with cooling water features. Garden rooms feature a terrace, while villas have a private pool and terrace. Each pool villa features a master bedroom, lounge and dining area, and a room that can be converted into a second bedroom or nursery. Rooms come with WiFi, flat-screen TVs, music and film collections, mood lighting and rain showers. There are two pools (one for family use), a spa and two restaurants. The Red Bar offers complimentary afternoon tea, and families can check out the library, which has a collection of magazines, novels and games for kids.
Veranda Resort and Spa/ photo: hotel
The first thing that strikes you about Veranda Resort and Spa, located between Hua Hin and Cha-am, is the imposing curved tile roof. A contemporary beach resort choice, Veranda has 118 rooms and nine room categories including Veranda Deluxe to Sky Spa Pool Villa. “I Sea” restaurant serves local seafood with a modern twist and provides a good analogy for the rest of the resort – traditional Thai with a twist. Veranda Spa serves up natural herbal and holistic treatments.
The recently opened 240-room Sheraton Hua Hin Resort and Spa, one of the new-wave all-inclusive international resorts, offers value, mixing family-friendly facilities with good service in a luxury package. The low-rise architecture is bright and airy with lots of nooks and crannies to give the Sheraton the feel of a much smaller resort.
Terraces in the Garden View and Lagoon rooms on the second floor are bigger and look over a large pool. An interesting choice, for families without wandering toddlers, are the lagoon access rooms on the first floor that open directly onto the pool. There are seven restaurants and bars, a spa, fitness centre and busy kids’ club.
The advantage of the nearby Dusit Thani Hua Hin is that it offers a real Thai experience in five-star surroundings. The refurbished two-decade-old high-rise hotel harks back to traditional Thai “royal” décor with plenty of gold trimmings, black accents and dollops of crystal. With almost 300 rooms, the throngs of conventioneers cruising the lobby and package tour groups crowding the buffet tables may not be to everyone’s taste. But things get done at a fair clip.
Hua Hin spa resorts and family escapes
Sheraton works for kids/ photo: hotel
Things crank up a notch at Dune Hua Hin. With just five rooms on offer the style is highly personalised and luxurious. In-room you’ll find standalone baths and modern minimalist décor with all the extra gizmos and gadgets, including free Internet, iPod docking and LCD TVs.
Another smart choice is Asara Villa & Suite, Hua Hin. Villas and suites range in size from 120sq m to 360sq m. Villa bedrooms have separate entrances, making it a great choice for friends and families travelling together. All rooms are modern and stylish, but surprisingly homely with comfortable sofas at every turn – even on the beach. The spa, with private chambers, couples’ suites and outdoor thatched pavilions, is a must if serious about relaxation. These are two that tend towards the Hua Hin boutique resorts scale of things.
If you’re looking for a private romantic hideaway free from nosey neighbours or curious colleagues, consider the Haven Resort Hua Hin. Minutes from the airport, and with just 53 rooms, the Haven is a Thai-style resort tastefully furnished with hardwood floors, flowers and local handicrafts.
The seven deluxe villas have private rooftop terraces, outdoor showers and views of the beach, while the suites benefit from a private plunge pool, a rooftop deck and an outdoor Jacuzzi. Facilities are limited (there’s a small fitness centre and one restaurant serving Thai and Continental cuisine) and the service is warm and friendly, rather than slick.
Asara Villa/ photo: hotel
Located just next door to the Sofitel the Hilton Hua Hin Resort & Spa offers no surprises and fewer thrills. It is a high-rise conventional hotel, a bit out of date – and place – on this fast-developing strip. On the plus side, the Hilton is well located in the central village area with easy access to shopping, the night market, and good beachfront seafood restaurant stalls. The Imperial Beach Resort Hua Hin is a child friendly option with a large beachfront pool and several restaurants and activities to pick from. Expect a fitness room, sauna and a children's playground along with the Imperial Spa. If you're in need of meeting space for a corporate conference the hotel has private rooms that accommodate around 120 persons each. By contrast the 77-room Wora Bura Resort & Spa is a neat and sedate Thai-style faux-colonial escape with a large beachfront pool, stately fountains and gardens. Pop into the Wora Spa or plan a wedding on its seaside lawns.
While its playful logo featuring three wise monkeys is singularly light-hearted, the Rest Detail Hotel, quirky name aside, is pretty serious about serving up a contemporary chic and down to earth experience. Just down the strip from the Hilton, this is a modern Hua Hin boutique-style hotel set on the beach with four-poster canopied sun loungers, straight lines, squares, and geometric precision. A rectangular blue pool licks out towards the sea around which is set the Pool Village accommodation.
Hua Hin Marriott/ photo: hotel
There are 65sq m rooms by the seafront in the Beach Village along with larger Pavilions from 260sq m to a whopping 485sq m. Double-storey Pavilions feature upstairs verandahs and patio dining downstairs. Rooms have timber parquet underfoot, starched white interiors, with modern decor and controlled bursts of colour. And for massages and spa treatments in all sizes and shapes, there’s the Restfully Yours wellness escape.
The Hua Hin Marriott Resort & Spa (a level up from the Courtyard Marriott) is a well-managed all-inclusive resort (219 rooms on seven floors) minutes away from the town centre and the largest shopping mall. It’s typical Marriott so expect a seamless holiday experience, a wide variety of dining choices (we recommend Big Fish, the beachside restaurant for seafood, and Amber Kitchen serving all-day Thai) and never-ending facilities. There’s a large free-from pool, a kids’ club and pool, spa, fitness centre, whirlpool, jet skiing, volleyball, tennis and much, much more. Ask about the attractive family packages with free meals for children.
New kid on the beach, InterContinental Hua Hin Resort, is the flagship property for InterContinental Thailand, setting the benchmark for the area. For sleepy Hua Hin this should be a shock, albeit a welcome lift from laid back torpor.
Set along the beachfront at Petchakasen Road, the 119-room resort includes ten rooms with direct pool access and three beachfront villas with private plunge pools. Standalone bathtubs and large airy rooms are the order of the day with floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto large shuttered balconies. Décor moves away from overwhelming Thai influence and keeps it smart, contemporary and simple.
Hyatt Regency villa/ photo: hotel
The presidential suite doubles up as a wedding chapel too, if you're in the mood. Being on a good stretch of beach close to town doesn’t do the resort any harm either. InterCon's arrival is helping set the pace for the growing crop of Hua Hin luxury resorts.
The Hyatt Regency Hua Hin offers big rooms with large balconies at a quiet end of town. Made up of clusters of low-rise buildings in traditional Thai design, the resort covers 12.5 acres stretching along 250 metres of white sand beach. It is a well-run full service five-star resort, with five dining choices and a spa. With Camp Hyatt for kids, plus a massive freeform pool and water slide, the Hyatt is a top-notch choice for families.
We’d be amiss if we didn’t include the Chiva-Som Health Spa on our list. This deluxe spa and fitness destination wins rave reviews from spa worshippers worldwide. It is not a resort where you can pop in for a night or two – but a total wellness destination that offers programmes on balancing and rejuvenating the mind, body and spirit. It was one of the first in Thailand – even in Asia – to set the wellness craze in motion. A minimum three-day stay is required depending on the treatment programme chosen. The spa is staffed with expert health professionals including consulting doctors, naturopaths, fitness instructors, spa therapists, nutritionists and alternative health practitioners. For fussy vacationers, this is certainly one for the diary.
Chiva-Som new-look Ocean Rooms/ photo: hotel
Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2015, Chiva-Som unveiled new-look rooms designed by Ed Tuttle, also known for his extraordinary work on Aman Resorts. The feel is rich Thai with contemporary flair. Expect gleaming wood floors, louvered partitions, crisp white lines and scalloped ceilings with gold hues set in recessed octagons. Mood lights can set the tone. Pick from Thai Pavilions or Ocean Rooms. Expanded Ocean Rooms now feature twin vanities and views across the Gulf through floor-to-ceiling windows. Apres massage savour the sea breezes in a balcony or verandah. This is the ultimate in style with fresh trimmings and a brisk new pace. If you spot hints of Aman 2.0, now you know why. But Chiva-Som is not a copycat by a long shot. It is the original Thai spa resort of choice for the cognoscenti, and with good reason. This was the address that set the Thailand wellness bandwagon rolling.
And for romantics on the loose in need of seaview bungalows and pool villas, there’s a slick offering from Aleenta with a spa, all mod-cons, and activities ranging from cooking classes and Thai boxing to tai chi, meditation and kite surfing.
Mike and I are already planning next year’s holiday choice – in the running is the resort town of Astrachan on Volga River in Russia. Rumour has it that the Soviets invade Phuket every August and the beach is empty.
The Marrakesh Resort and Spa, Hua Hin, is a jaunty pink-walled Moroccan fantasy between Soi 83 and Soi 85 with a palm-tree-lined sea-facing pool and a range of accommodation going up to a Jacuzzi Suite. The resort offers 'customised' service with a can-do attitude be it off-the-menu ordering or a midnight splash in its 24-hour pool. Why should resorts pools clock off at 8pm? Exactly. You get the idea.
This is a place to spoil yourself and stretch the boundaries of fun. The Noora Spa is on hand for wellness escapes and the beach is right outside if you wish to burn calories by leaving footprints in the sand. Also expect a fitness centre and a kids' club for the younger set to keep them entertained while you get down to the serious business of romance and holidaying.
Hua Hin shopping, nightlife, dining sightseeing
Marrakesh Jacuzzi Suite/ photo: hotel
Hua Hin and Cha-Am are active fishing ports noted for fine, fresh seafood. Thai visitors and those in the know generally skip the resort restaurants and head straight for stalls along the beachfront or in Hua Hin's Night Market on Phetkasem Soi 72 near the clock tower. Dining here is a very simple affair and restaurants display English menus and fresh seafood on tables in front. Most also serve non-seafood dishes and forgettable Western choices – including borsch – all at very reasonable prices.
Another enclave of seafood restaurants in Hua Hin is on Naresdamri Road, just south of the pier, near the Hilton. Ao Takiap Beach, five kilometres to the south, has several famous places and there are some excellent restaurants to the north as you approach Cha Am. Lively competition can only benefit consumers and resorts in the area put in an extra effort to attract trade. They don’t try and compete on price with local outlets, but focus on creative menus and good service at reasonable prices. Some resorts offer cash vouchers or discounts at inhouse restaurants or free meals for children as part of the room package.
A few sights worth dragging yourself off that comfy lounger include the Hua Hin Railway Station, a colonial gem built in the reign of King Rama VI. Klai Kangwon is the palace that started it all. In 1926 King Rama VII decided Hua Hin would be a grand place to build a summer palace and so it was done. The three Spanish-style mansions are open daily from 9am to 4pm (tel: [66-32] 511-115).
Located in a charming old traditional house on Naepkhehat Road, the Hua Hin Arts and Crafts Centre exhibits contemporary works of Thai artists, old furniture and photographs of old Hua Hin. Want to stretch your legs more than round an art gallery? Try climbing the 400 steps to Khao Chong Krachok or Mirror Mount monastery and visit a small pagoda and a troop of playful monkeys. Enjoy the views.
Hua Hin golf courses and clubs
Haven deluxe room/ photo: hotel
There’s a lot of golfing to be had in Hua Hin and Cha Am. If you get sick of waves lapping on deserted sand beaches take a swing at one of these – our pick of the best golf courses in Hua Hin, all within a short drive of the resorts mentioned here. Royal Hua Hin Golf Course (tel: [66-2] 411-360, www.golfhuahin.com/royalhuahin.htm) has the accolade of being the oldest golf course in Thailand, opened in 1924. Good maintenance has ensured that it has aged more like a fine wine and less like you mother-in-law.
With the electric carts and decent clubhouse at modern The Black Mountain Golf Club (www.bmghuahin.com) you don’t even have to pick up a golf club to have a good time. But if you’re here to swing the well-linked course is a bonus. This is luxury golfing with well-appointing villas and condominiums for endless days and nights course-side. At The Banyan Estate & Golf Club (www.banyanestatehuahin.com) a fully stocked pro shop, restaurant and dramatic sea views provide fair distraction or well-earned reward after the 18-hole course. Palm Hills Golf Resort and Country Club (tel: [66-32] 520-800, palmhills-golf.com), about 10km north of Hua Hin in Cha Am, is a popular course in a good location. Considered one of the best golf resorts in Thailand and the venue for the 2000 Thailand open, Springfield Royal Country Club (tel: [66-32] 471-303, www.springfieldresort.com/golf/) has a resident PGA professional and thanks to high levels of competition between clubs, won’t cost you any more to play (Bt3,000 to Bt3,500). New kid on the course is Majestic Creek Country Club and Beach Resort (tel: [66-32] 520-162) with challenging water hazards and forebidding holes to help it stand out from the crowd.
FAST FACTS / Hotel Contact List
Dune Hua Hin/ photo: hotel
Exchange rate is roughly US$1= Bt31.9 though hotels and moneychangers will convert US dollars for around Bt39 or so. Use moneychangers or banks in tourist areas for the best rates. Rates listed here are a mix of rack or published full rates and Internet deals. These tend to fluctuate with the season so do check.
Numerous taxis and limousines services depart from Bangkok International Airport and take two to three hours to reach Hua Hin or Cha Am. Prices vary but start at Bt2,000 one way. You can hire a self-drive for about the same per day. Air-conditioned buses depart Bangkok's Southern Bus Terminal on Sukumvit Road about every 30 minutes for Hua Hin. Siam GA Airline (www.sga.co.th) flies several times a day between Bangkok and Hua Hin. The one-hour flight costs about Bt5,400 round trip. Express trains depart daily from Bangkok for Hua Hin and Cha-Am five times per day. Rapid trains leave Bangkok four times a day and Diesel Railcars leave Bangkok twice vice daily at 9am and 1.40pm. Tickets can be booked in advance at any train station or at www.railway.co.th.
Cha-Am Resort and Hotel Directory
Dusit Thani Hua Hin. Tel: [66-32] 520-009, fax: 520-269, (e-mail: email@example.com or www.dusit.com/hotels/thailand/hua_hin/).
Hua Hin Resorts guide
Aleenta Hua Hin, Bangkok. Tel: [66-2] 508-5335, fax: 508-5336, (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.aleenta.com/huahin/).
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