Clockwise from Nathon, Mae Nam Beach, on Samui's north shore, is 12km (7 1/2 miles) from the ferry pier, facing nearby Ko Pha Ngan. The coarse sand is shaded by palm trees, and its peaceful calm bay has water deep enough for swimming; it is often spared the fierce winds that whip up during the stormy months. Although bigger, upmarket resorts have moved in here, there are still some affordable resorts and a number of simple, charming bungalows. Ban Mae Nam, a small commercial hub, is just east of the Santiburi Resort and has lots of good little restaurants and shops.
Bophut Beach, the next village along the north coast, is one of the island's fastest developing areas. Bophut's long coarse-sand beach narrows considerably in the monsoon season, but the water remains fairly calm year-round. Turning off at "Big Buddha," there's a sign marking the entrance to Fisherman's Village, a delightful small street where you'll find restaurants and guesthouses among a beachside clutch of small houses and shops. It's definitely worth a wander.
Big Buddha Beach (Bangrak) is just east of Bophut and has a fairly clean, coarse-sand beach and a calm bay for swimmers (shallow in the low season, May-Oct). Many small restaurants, businesses, shops, and an increasing number of new resorts and taxis create a busier pace than is evident at other, more removed beaches. However, it is becoming a popular choice, with several new resorts that look out over Ko Faan, the island home of Ko Samui's huge seated Buddha. The Queen Ferry leaves from Big Buddha pier, taking Full-Moon partygoers to Had Rin on Ko Pha Ngan four times a day. Speedboats also leave from a nearby pier, departing hourly during Full-Moon Party time.
Ko Samui's northeastern tip features the beautiful headland of Choeng Mon, with stunning views all around from west to east; this is home to some of the island's most exclusive resorts. Bold rock formations create private coves and protected swimming areas -- though from mid-October to mid-December, the monsoon can stir up the wind and waves, creating a steep drop-off from the coarse-sand beach, and a strong undertow. Tongsai Bay is a beautiful cove dominated by one resort; its privacy is a plus or a minus, depending on what you are looking for.
Southeast of Tongsai, as the road descends from the headland down toward Chaweng, is the fine sandy stretch called Choeng Mon Beach, a gracefully shaped crescent about 1km (2/3 mile) long, and lined with shady palm trees (and an increasing number of shops). Swimming here is excellent, with few rocks near the central shore, although the water level can become very low from May to October (low season). Across the way is Ko Fan Noi, a deserted island with an excellent beach. You can swim or, if the tides are right, walk there -- but be careful of the rocks at low tide. Note: Ko Fan and Ko Fan Noi are not the same. Ko Fan is off the northeastern tip of the island and has a famous Buddha image covered in moss.
Although Chaweng is the busiest destination on Ko Samui, if you don't mind the hustle and bustle (or Starbucks or McDonald's), it can be great fun. Money-changing, high-speed Internet cafes, laundry facilities, travel and rental agencies, medical facilities, shopping, restaurants, and nightlife are all on your doorstep. The two Chaweng beaches (Chaweng Yai to the north and south is Chaweng Noi) are the longest on the island, but, in some places, an offshore reef limits the water to wading depth only -- an advantage if you have young kids. Still, you should at least take a wander here to see what you're missing. The more recently developed north end of the strip abuts the rocky coast, but the swimming is better to the south (though a bit shallow near the shore in low season).
The long sand beach of Lamai Bay, in the southeast, is comparable to Chaweng's, and although many top-range resorts are moving in, there are a few budget options offering bungalows at the north end of the beach. The town area is less developed but does have a wide range of services, cafes, and restaurants, although nightlife tends to center on the small bars on the main street. Samui's waterfalls lie inland of Lamai, toward Ban Thurian at Na Muang.
Laem Set Bay is a small rocky cape on Samui's southeast coast, with dramatic scenery that prompted the construction of a few resorts, some of which have been around for 25 years.
On the west coast, you'll find one of Samui's better beaches at Ao Phang Kha (Emerald Cove), south of Ban Taling Ngam, on Route 4170. Generally, the west coast beaches are the most isolated on the island, offering few facilities and rocky waters, making the beaches barely swimmable. Many Thai families stop for picnics at Hin Lat Falls, a rather uninteresting inland site 2km (1 1/4 miles) southeast of Nathon. Samui used to supply enough freshwater for the whole town, but now high-season droughts blight the island.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.