If you arrive by car or coach, you'll cross into Phuket from the mainland at the northern tip of the island via the Sarasin Bridge, along Route 402. Phuket Town, the island's historic and commercial center, is in the southeast of the island at the terminus of Route 402; local buses connect at Phuket Town Bus Station, on Phang Nga Road, east of the town center. Phuket's picturesque stretches of sand dot the western coast from Nai Harn, on the southern tip, to Mai Khao, about 48km (30 miles) north, via Kata Noi, Kata, Karon, Patong, Kamala, Surin, Bang Tao, and a number of smaller beaches north along this corridor. A busy coastal road links the popular tour towns in the south, but stops north of Patong, requiring a short detour from the main highway. The four corners of Phuket are linked with just a few busy main arterial roads. Renting a vehicle is the best way to tour the island's smaller byways or make the trip to jungle parks, such as Khao Phra Thaew Royal Wildlife & Forest Reserve, in the northeast of the isle, famed for diverse flora and fauna. The western beaches have all the services visitors might need, but everything comes with resort prices -- and don't expect to find any real Thai feel here. For a taste of Thai life, affordable services, and authentic restaurants, explore Phuket Town (especially if this is your only urban destination down south).
The Beaches -- There's a beach for everyone in Phuket, from private stretches belonging to exclusive hideaways to public bays lined with beach chairs and buzzing with jet skis. There are even camping spots close to such places as pristine Mai Khao beach. Each beach is distinct, and selecting the appropriate area makes all the difference.
Nai Harn, the southernmost bay on the west coast, is home to only one major beachfront resort, but has a host of smaller family friendly resorts and bungalows set back from the coast. Laid-back and quiet in the monsoon season, Nai Harn attracts surfers and other watersports enthusiasts. The sand is fine and the water deep. As a public beach, with a few local eateries, it makes for a great day trip, if you're staying at a more populated beach and want to run away for the day (a good long motorbike/car ride south of Kata/Karon).
Rawai Beach and Chalong Beach are two well-known, eastern-facing beaches, both hosting a few resorts, such as the luxurious Evason Phuket, and some outdoor seafood or barbecue restaurants. Cape Panwa, between Chalong and Phuket Town, also has scenic hidden beaches with a range of hotels and restaurants.
North of Nai Harn are the more popular developed beaches: Kata, Kata Noi, and Karon beaches. Though they are getting developed, they're not quite reaching the levels of over-the-top Patong. Along these beaches, you'll find resorts large and small. In general this area is all upmarket, though there are a few budget places that haven't been bulldozed and made high-end yet. Sandy beaches are long and picturesque, and the water is deep, with some nice wave breaks. This beach area has more restaurants than the remote bays and some shopping, nightlife, and travel agent options as well. But you won't find rowdy crowds here and, even with all the development, the area manages to maintain a laid-back character.
North of the Kata and Karon bays, you'll pass through Relax Bay, a small cove with a few resorts, before rolling down the mountain to Patong Beach, the most famous (perhaps infamous) strip on the island. Patong's draw is its seamy Patpong-styled nightlife, busy shops and restaurants, and brash in-your-face beat. Not surprisingly, commercial sex workers flock here to service lovelorn foreign customers. Accommodations run the gamut from five-star resorts to budget motels. Love it or hate it, the town has the most diverse selection of dining facilities and highest concentration of tour and dive operators, watersports, shopping, and nightlife. Most visitors end up spending a few nights on this strip. The drawbacks are all too visible -- endless parades of pushy touts pounce on you at every step. While some adults may find the nightlife titillating, families with kids may want to avoid some of the lurid displays of obscenity on offer. If you love to be in the center of it all, stay in Patong; if you want some peace, stay away.
North of Patong, Kamala Bay, Surin Beach, and Bang Tao Beach have more secluded resorts on lovely beaches for those who want the convenience of nearby Patong but cherish the serenity of a quiet resort.
About two-thirds of the way to the northern tip of the island, Bang Tao Beach is home to the Laguna Resort Complex, a partnership of five world-class resorts sharing excellent facilities and a fabulous beach. While this area is rather far from both Patong Beach and Phuket Town, the many dining and activity options make it quite self-sufficient for those with the means.
Far north of the main resort areas, Nai Thon and Nai Yang Beaches have limited facilities and may not appeal to most, but for real beach lovers, they are a dream come true. Nai Thon is possibly the most beautiful beach on the entire island, while at Nai Yang there is a coral reef 1,000m (3,280 ft.) offshore, just a short ride in a longtail boat. If you are looking to get back to nature, these two beaches or Mai Khao, a little farther north, are your best bet.
Mai Khao is the northernmost beach in Phuket and is famed as being prime habitat for sea turtles. It is designated National Parkland, but with all the development in the area, few sea turtles are returning here to lay eggs. Since 1996, an Italian-run marine charity has been working with (paying) volunteers and school kids to reverse this (visit www.naucrates.org for info). For the time being, this steep, desolate beach hosts just one luxury resort: the JW Marriott, Phuket, which was carefully built to respect the ecology. More developments, with no interest in eco-ethics, are sadly encroaching on this supposedly "protected" stretch of coast, though.