867km (539 miles) SW of Bangkok

The name "Phuket" is derived from the Malay word "Bukit" (meaning hill and pronounced poo-ket); true to the name, lush, green hills dominate much of the island's interior. There are still some rubber plantations and relics of the island's tin mining operations remaining. The ideal way to explore the island is by hiring a car (with or without driver) and taking a hair-raising drive along the cliff roads and through the island’s interior.

Most visitors come to Phuket for two reasons: blissful days at the beach or the island’s hedonistic nightlife scene. But one doesn’t have to come for both. It’s easy to avoid the bar areas with their sex shows, sex workers, and sex-hungry patrons. Travelers seeking more wholesome activities can head to to the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, the island’s first and only ethical elephant camp; spend an unforgettable day sea kayaking, and seeing awe-inspiring offshore caves and limestone hong (literally "rooms"—hidden lagoons with sheer walls that become accessible at low tide); or island hopping on a motorized vehicle.

What’s less easy to avoid is Phuket’s hideous overdevelopment. Much of Phuket is covered with unsightly concrete bunkers patronized by budget tour groups from Asia, Russia, and Europe. Areas such as Patong, with its seedy commercial strip and sleazy nightlife, can be a bit much for families or single women travelers in search of tranquility, but Patong does have some very good restaurants, so it shouldn’t be avoided altogether. And though there is a mafia presence (the sky-high taxi prices are a result of the local taxi mafia) it doesn’t endanger tourists; crime issues for visitors tend to begin and end with pickpockets.

In dry season, Phuket is at its optimum: You’ll find long sandy beaches, warm water, snorkeling and scuba diving, and an up-and-coming surf scene. It also boasts some of the most delectable seafood in Thailand, not to mention some of the best international gourmet food available anywhere in Thailand. Sure, its prices are more than a tad overblown, but for well-heeled fun-seekers who want to be at the heart of the action, Phuket is a fabulous choice. While there are days without a cloud in the sky and very little rain, the monsoon season of mid-May to October is often disappointing to visitors.

If escape at any cost is what you need, Phuket has heaps of elegant resorts designed for tropical solitude; an increasing number offer private villas and pools. Evason Phuket even provides a honeymoon villa on its own island, Ko Bon. Expect superlative facilities with levels of service beyond that in Europe. But with prices here way above those even in Bangkok, it’s not suited to travelers on a tight budget. If you need to keep costs down, consider staying in Phuket Town, the cultural hub of the island, from where you could visit a different beach each day.