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Why Krabi, Thailand Really Rocks

The golden yet gritty sands of Thailand's beaches can't compete with the powdery white strips elsewhere, but he background scenery sure can: The craggy limestone towers and photogenic grottos that frame the beaches of Krabi are simply out of this world.

While the golden yet often gritty and litter-strewn sands of Thailand's beaches can't compete with the powdery white strips in much of the Caribbean and South Pacific, the background scenery sure can. The craggy limestone towers and photogenic grottos that frame the beaches of Krabi, Thailand, are out of this world.

A two- to three-hour drive from the island of Phuket, 4,700-square-kilometer Krabi Province lies mostly on the mainland of Thailand, encompassing beach areas along the coast as well as 132 islands offshore. The picturesque Phi Phi islands are among them, while many others are no more than rocky outcroppings. Krabi Town is the non-descript commercial heart of the province and Ao Nang is the main tourist hub, where visitors head for the bustling seaside strip of souvenir shops, restaurants, beer-soaked bars, and a decent arc of wide beach. Just 20 years ago, Krabi was a string of sleepy villages, and its international airport opened only a decade ago. Today, new hotels and other developments are cropping up, though for the time being, Krabi is still a refreshingly low-key backwater compared to Phuket. The only direct flights into Krabi are currently offered by regional carriers via Bangkok.

We recently spent five days in Krabi, staying in two different hotels and experiencing two very different parts of the province. Without a doubt, we found Krabi's most scenic spot to be the Railay peninsula, where spectacular cliffs cut it off from the rest of the mainland and give it a very secluded island vibe. Visitors get there by long boat from Krabi Town, about a 15- to 30-minute ride depending on the tides (Krabi Town is about a 15-minute drive from the airport). Railay is compact and filled with low-rise hotels and cafes that stretch back from Railay Beach West's arc of golden sand. This strip, along with the peninsula's other good beach Phra Nang, is framed by stunning rock formations (the peninsula's third beach, Railay Beach East, is full of mangroves). Long boats bring in day visitors to both, but still, since the peninsula is free of roads and traffic it maintains a remote, lost-in-time feeling.

There are a number of inexpensive guest houses and small hotels on the Railay Peninsula (including Railay Village Resort at and starting at about 3,500B/US$100 a day; and Sunrise Tropical Resort at and starting at about 2,000B/US$58 a day), but we splurged on the rustically posh Rayavadee Resort (tel. 66 2 301-1852; Spread across 26 acres in one of the most beautiful settings I've ever seen, we loved everything about the hotel, except for the sky-high prices starting at 19,440B/US$565 a day. Filmmakers come for the view (James Bond's The Man with the Golden Gun was shot nearby) and climbers rate the vertical walls of stone in Railay and neighboring Ton Sai among the most impressive on the planet. Rayavadee's 102 circular two-story villas are nestled in a grove of coconut palms perfectly framed by an ancient arc of towering limestone cliffs. Elegantly rustic interiors are outfitted with dark wood furniture, ceramic tiles, earthy Thai silks and woven cottons, and lovely ginger bath products. In the standard category (Deluxe Pavilion), there was plenty of room for the four of us on the two large beds upstairs and the first level's pillow-strewn couch swing was a great perch for TV watching and relaxing with a book.

Paddling around the large sea-side pool, one could appreciate both the close-by cliffs along the edge of the property as well as the distant rock formations offshore. Brick pathways weave through masses of magenta and searing red tropical blooms, leading to grottos, caves, and the two beaches beautifully framed by the craggy rock. A beautifully designed spa with eye-catching décor, including brass monkeys holding up massage tables, is serenely tucked into rock and foliage near the fitness center, and tennis and squash courts.

Since there is no playroom or children's program, we spent the days swimming with our boys in the pool and kayaking to a small rocky island a little ways off shore. We had lunch and fresh juices at the Grotto, a casual restaurant set into the eaves of a cliff. One afternoon, while the boys played in the sand, I enjoyed a relaxing foot massage from a local vendor trawling the beach with her sheet and foot cream. Twice we hired an off-duty hotel employee to babysit for a few hours in the evening so we could dine alone at one of Rayavadee's four restaurants; one night it was Krua Phranang, a romantic Thai venue with cliff and ocean views. For cocktails at sunset, the favorite spot is the Raitalay Terrace restaurant.

Though we made it work very nicely with our five-year-old twin boys, Rayavadee is definitely geared to couples and honeymooners who value doting service, privacy, and stunning beauty.

The new 276-room Sofitel Krabi Phokeethra Golf & Spa Resort is better to suited to those traveling with children as well as the corporate groups it caters to. Looking a lot like a Disney hotel in Orlando, Florida, the hotel is set along Krabi's Klong Muang Beach and it lacks Rayavadee's seclusion and amazing setting. A two-way road bordered by electrical wires separates the hotel from a crummy strip of sand, unappealing because a mile or two down the shoreline cargo ships pick up gypsum at a rusty old industrial pier. Further on along the coast towards Tubkaek to the north, though, the beach gets better and several small-scale properties are set seaside.

In lieu of a good beach, Sofitel offers a gigantic, 7,000-square-meter free-form pool that literally stretches across the front of the entire property. A swim-up bar is on one end, another part is geared to children, and another laps right up to the verandahs of a number of rooms at one end of the hotel. As much as Rayavadee is about offering a magical setting and luxurious amenities, Sofitel is functional and mainstream, and much more affordable. Combining pretty colors (the façade is pale yellow and white), nice landscaping (lots of thick green grass) and views of rocky islands off in the distance, Sofitel gets points for its drop-off kids program and indoor/outdoor play area, spa (I had an excellent Thai massage there) and activities like cooking classes and guided bike rides and kayaking jaunts. Three restaurants include Thai and Italian, plus a sprawling continental indoor/outdoor venue. Unlike the Railay Beach strip, which has a resorty buzz at night with its restaurants and shops, in Klong Muang, there's nothing much happening outside of each hotel's borders. Many do the 45-minute drive via taxi or shuttle bus to Ao Nang for a night out.

Recent enhancements to Sofitel include a new 30-foot yacht that can be rented for trips to the nearby Ko Hong islands, where the beaches and grottos rival Railay's, and a 9-hole golf course expected to open by year-end 2008. Rooms are spacious and nicely designed, but nothing memorable. Rates start at about 5,880B/US$170 a night and children are free if occupying the same room (tel. 66 75/627800;

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