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55km (34 miles) N of Ko Samui; 80km (50 miles) SE of Chumphon

Some 75 years ago, tiny Ko Tao, or Turtle Island -- so-named for its outline and resident marine life -- was a penitentiary for insurgents, though few visitors these days would find any punishment in being marooned on its idyllic shores. Until lately, it has been known almost exclusively as a destination for divers. With the arrival of some chic new resorts recently, the island's appeal is far wider and, in turn, the island is rapidly going upmarket. Though dive resorts (and a social scene based around the local diving expats) do dominate, there are still lots of rustic budget choices, as well as the sort of secluded high-end hideaways that won't oblige you to book a dive.

As its popularity grows, power outages become more frequent, and, each high season, the island suffers from a scarcity of water. Nonetheless, it is blessed with pretty offshore isles, clear turquoise waters, and pristine coral reefs. Nestled in secluded bays are numerous stunning resorts, reached by boat, or by a roller coaster ride in a jeep or four-wheel drive. Just off the northwest corner lies a trio of islets known as Ko Nang Yuan or Ko Hang Tao (Turtle's Tail). Had Sai Ree and Ban Mae Had, both on the west coast, form the main centers, where you'll find most of the budget accommodations and dive resorts. There are excellent restaurants, some fun bars, and Internet cafes along this long shore, and there are plenty of funky boutiques and trendy shops over at the Sairee Shopping Center.

As many properties here don't have land lines, you should instead head to the useful website www.kohtaoonline.com. It offers an Internet booking service as well as lots of updated info on island life, boat timetables, dive packages, and environmental concerns.