There’s plenty to entertain the kids in Phuket, including a resort with its own elephants.
It’s mid-afternoon and children and adults alike are scrambling from their sun loungers in search of a famous hotel resident. Lucky the elephant mascot is plodding through the grounds for his daily visit, emphatically waving his trunk with a line of fans in his wake. His star status is affirmed as guests queue up to take pictures and stroke his fuzzy head – some even get a surprise sloppy kiss as he wraps his trunk around their neck, planting it onto cheeks like a plunger.
I’m enraptured at the first encounter – the sight of a three-year-old elephant tumbling around in the Andaman Sea waves, spraying water at hysterical adults and carrying kids aboard his wrinkly back. This snapshot-worthy family scene is becoming more common in Thailand as the South-East Asian country shakes off its backpacker-on-a-budget image. A tourism boom has led to a number of new child-friendly hotels and resorts opening, mainly in Phuket, the largest island of Thailand, dubbed “The Pearl of the Andaman”.
It may not be the obvious choice for a family break but adventurous parents can find plenty to entertain their little ones. Besides the endless white sandy beaches, there are tree-top thrills at Xtrem Adventures, animal exploration at Phuket Zoo, mini eco safaris at Siam Safari, and a Las Vegas-style theme park at Phuket FantaSea. Children squeal with delight at FantaSea, feeding buckets of bamboo sticks to a parade of statuesque elephants decked out in rainbow-coloured finery.
As the rhythmic tinkling sound of traditional Thai music is piped throughout the night-time venue, there’s the opportunity for short rides and bottle-feeding the baby tigers before settling down in the 3000-seat theatre.
The Fantasy of a Kingdom main attraction is an enchanting show featuring magic acts, aerial ballet, acrobatics and a wild animal extravaganza, including those bamboo-chomping elephants performing a can-can style dance that’s met with a chorus of “ahhhs” from the audience.
Asian elephants are an enduring symbol of Thailand as the official national animal. Whether it’s elephant rides, scenic treks or stage shows, these incredible trunk-swinging beasts always feature top of activity lists. Even their poop can be precious, used to produce Black Ivory coffee, one of the world’s most expensive, by extracting 100 per cent Thai Arabica coffee beans from the dung after it has been digested. Lucky’s handler, Sor, tells me with sadness that, at the grand old age of three, Lucky is due for retirement from his role as mascot at Angsana Laguna Phuket due to his size and two new ‘Luckys’ will join the fold at the resort.
Besides petting elephants, Angsana’s recently-refurbished Tree House Kids Club, mother and kids yoga and Tuesday’s pirate of Andaman fancy dress has plenty to keep children occupied. Situated in scenic Bang Tao Bay, the hotel makes for a convenient spot for airport runs and the bustle of Phuket Town – both lie just 20-minutes away. Surrounded by the Andaman Sea, it’s the perfect pitch to explore neighbouring isolated islands, paradise-style beaches and snorkelling hotspots.
Angsana Laguna’s speedboat day tour is the most glamorous way to go island hopping, with a knowledgeable guide to steer you away from the tourist hubbub. The trip sets adults back 3500 Thai Baht (about $119), while children over three are welcome at 2100 Baht (about $71), which includes snorkelling equipment and a packed lunch and picnic mat to pitch up on the white sands of picturesque Bamboo Island.
It’s a whistlestop trip but roaring at breakneck speed between the Phi Phi islands, holding tightly onto our sunglasses, feels likes a scene from a James Bond movie. Maya Bay where Leonardo DiCaprio’s film The Beach was shot is swarming with tourists and the sea strewn with boats so we cruise on by. Monkey Beach is also tourist-heavy but it’s worth making a quick stop to see these cheeky residents. Despite the “Do Not Feed” signs, the long-tailed macaques have no qualms rustling through bags of peanuts.
The view at Pileh Cove is picture-postcard breathtaking. The calm sea separates into a clear turquoise and crystal cobalt divide that is disturbed only by brave tourists jumping from the dramatic limestone cliffs – their squeals echoing around the sheltered cove. We plunge overboard for a relaxing sea dip that’s so warm it feels like a freshly run bath. To find unspoilt, remote stretches of beach, you need to veer off the beaten track, far away from the row of colourful long-tail boats that cast their anchors to drop off groups of red-shouldered tourists.
High season for tourism is December to March when the northeast monsoon draws cool, dry air from the Asian continent, resulting in a slight drop in temperature and gentle breezes, calm seas and clear blue skies. Rain storms aren’t uncommon but it’s the perfect opportunity to sup on fresh coconut water and read a book under a giant umbrella. We made plenty of use of the local beach hut where hour-long traditional Thai massages cost just 350 Baht (just under $12). It’s a good idea to be sand-free first or it’s more like an exfoliation treatment.
On our last day, the rain beats down once again so there’s only one thing for it – one final visit to see Lucky. He’s saved the best for last…performing a handstand and taking a well-earned final bow. Bravo Lucky.