It was the original Thai beach resort. Wedged between mountains and the sea, Hua Hin first became popular with members of the royal family in the late 1890s who would make the journey from Bangkok on a procession of elephants. Now, after a noughties makeover, Hua Hin is back in vogue.
It was the original Thai beach resort. Wedged between mountains and gentle breezes sweeping off the Gulf of Thailand, the former fishing village of Hua Hin became a popular getaway for members of the Thai royal family in the late 1890s. They built palaces along the village’s shores and would make the journey from Bangkok each summer on a procession of elephants.
When, in 1919, a railway was pushed through the steamy jungles linking Singapore and Penang with Bangkok, Hua Hin became the holiday hot spot.
Bangkok’s hi-so set built bungalows along the town’s shores and the Railway Hotel, a 14-room beachside resort, was built to lodge guests of the royal palace and dignitaries from neighbouring British Malaya.
Edwardian in style, it has a sweeping driveway lined by gigantic tamarind trees and is a white-and-red low-rise building gilded with marble floors, chandeliers and hectares of manicured lawns peppered with clipped animal hedges boasting elephants, rabbits and a flock of geese. The hotel heralded a new age of luxury lodgings in Asia.
Like most of Thailand’s beach resorts, Hua Hin has undergone dramatic developments. Skyscrapers now line the three-kilometre waterfront. Every weekend, Bangkokians descend on the town en masse.
But laid-back, with a languid, unruffled ambience, Hua Hin remains remarkably unblemished by tourism. The beach is still relatively uncrowded; the locals are less jaded by tourism; the nightlife is a little more virtuous than other beach towns in Thailand. The king still lives here and his palace, Klai Kangwon, means “Far from Worries”.
The fact Hua Hin has remained sleepy and off the radar is incredible; considering it’s only a two- to three-hour zip up the highway to Bangkok is almost a revelation.
Perhaps it’s the royal presence and the king’s quest for sustainable development that has kept Hua Hin in check. Or perhaps it’s the close proximity to Bangkok that causes many tourists to overlook it for Samui or Phuket instead.
You can still arrive, as I did, at the original railway station, a postcard-pretty building washed in red and gold with hand-painted tile floors and lattice awnings that was modelled on the nearby Italian-built Maruekhathaiyawan Palace (Palace of Love and Hope).
From here, it’s a short walk to the original Railway Hotel, now Sofitel Centara Grand Resort and Villas Hua Hin, where you can bunk down in 300-thread-count sheets in rooms adorned with period furniture, then graze on high tea on a marble verandah overlooking the beach.
Or you can opt for one of a dozen other luxurious digs that have opened in recent years.
The Anantara Hua Hin was the first hotel for the Bangkok-based Anantara when it opened in 2002 (the group now has 15 properties scattered around Asia, the Middle East and Indian Ocean). A few kilometres north of Hua Hin town, it’s still one of Thailand’s most romantic resorts, with 187 Thai-inspired rooms set within 5½ hectares of lushly landscaped gardens and ponds. On the southern end of town, Chiva-Som International Health Resort opened as Asia’s hottest spa in 1995 and has been a permanent fixture on the radar of spa-goers since. This full-service health resort on three hectares of frangipani gardens boasts a six-to-one staff-guest ratio and a floating pool, a homeopathy centre and more than 150 treatments.
Hua Hin’s biggest news of the noughties was the Barai, a new wing off the Hyatt Regency resort that opened in 2007. A “resort within a resort” designed by Thai architect Lek Bunnag, the Barai mimics the architectural styles of the ancient Khmers, whose Angkor Wat-based empire stretched as far as Hua Hin. An 18-room spa and eight lavish guest suites are set within a temple-like complex of ochre- and plum-coloured passages, water-filled courtyards and a Japanese Zen garden filled with giant tamarind trees and a 50-metre black-slate pool running up its belly.
Guest suites have been custom-fitted with four-metre beds, steam rooms, tubs built for two and both Thai and Swedish massage beds. There are Lavazza espresso machines, yoga mats, board games, Kerstin Florian toiletries and (slightly exposed) private plunge pools on the ground floor; book a terrace suite and save your pennies for the spa instead.
As Hua Hin has become more built-up the hotel scene has started moving further up and down the coast, to the white-powder sands of Cha-Am and dawdling pace of life at Pranburi.
The Bangkok-based resort group, Six Senses, started Pranburi tourism traffic in 2002, when it converted a dinky 1970s two-star resort into the plush, eco-friendly Evason Hua Hin that bases its philosophy on what they dub SLOW LIFE – Sustainable Local Organic Wholesome Learning Inspiring Fun Experience.
Then, Pranburi’s seclusion was the biggest drawcard.
Flanking Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, a 98-square-kilometre expanse of forested hills and secluded white-sand bays along the coast, Pranburi was a gentle place of fishermen and farmers.
Its location, a 20-minute drive south of Hua Hin, has since turned it into a mecca for boutique hotels and beachside cafes serving Thai dishes and ice-cold beer under grass huts.
The Evason’s sister property, the Six Senses Hua Hin, a 55-all-pool-villa resort with attached spa hidden behind a maze of whitewashed walls and lush foliage, is the pick of Pranburi’s boutique hotels. Six Senses scores kudos for its simple but lushly designed rooms and commitment to the environment – elimination of plastics, growing its own organic herbs and vegies, composting waste, recycling water and installing a reverse osmosis plant that turns mains water into clean drinking water – but not for charging 50 baht ($1.60) a bottle for it and adding a mandatory carbon tax to your bill.
A stone’s throw away, the Aleenta also holds sustainability close to its heart. The cute, two-winged resort moulded from salmon-coloured rammed earth, supports ocean awareness campaigns and provides safe breeding grounds for turtles.
The Hua Hin area offers plenty to do. The first golf course opened here in 1924 and the game has since become the town’s biggest sporting industry, with greens designed by international golfing experts such as Phil Ryan and Jack Nicklaus.
There is also an assortment of handicraft markets and adventure sport on offer, such as fishing, kite boarding and parasailing.
But, as for the royals who made Hua Hin their getaway early last century, the real joy of of the place is to wander the beach, stopping for an iced lemon juice under the shade of a grass hut, a massage or a dip in the sea.
Almost 100 years after it became Thailand’s first beach resort, Hua Hin is still klai kanwong- far from worries.
When to go
Hua Hin is lovely year-round, although the months between November and March assure sunnier skies than the monsoon season between June and October. November to March is also high season, with room rates matching demand.
Where to stay
Sofitel Centara Grand Resort and Villas has double rooms from 4413 baht ($140) a night. +66 32 512 021; sofitel.com
The Barai has doubles from 21,774 baht a night, double occupancy. +66 32 521 234; hyatt.com
Six Senses at Pranburi has pool villas from 8671 baht a night, double occupancy. The Evason has rooms from 3241 baht a night. +66 32 618 200; sixsenses.com
Aleenta has double rooms with breakfast from 4500 baht. +66 25 148 112; aleenta.com
Three things to do
1 Eat. Hua Hin’s night market is an institution for tourists and locals alike. Head to the northern end for hawker stalls preparing cheap-and-cheerful dishes such as pad thai and som tam- strips of green papaya tossed with fresh lime juice, shallots, garlic, sugar and fish sauce. In the south, street-side restaurants offer fresh seafood such as chargrilled whole red snapper served with a piquant dipping sauce.
For a dash of novelty with your dinner, try Azure at the new Intercontinental Hotel. Here, dishes such as Thai-style bouillabaisse and 48-hour stewed wagyu beef are served by smartly dressed waiters while your feet dangle in the pool. 33/33 Petchkasem Road; +66 26 560 236
Want an authentic taste of Thailand? Ask your concierge or butler where they like to eat. That’s what I did to find Sopa Seafood, a dinky seaside shack on Huadon Beach serving excellent Thai dishes such as yum talay- spicy seafood salad- and ginger fried fish. Huadon Beach; +66 81 8807 112
2 Drink. With an average daily temperature of 30-35 degrees, high precipitation and flat topography, Hua Hin doesn’t have the climate or geography usually associated with viticulture. Leave preconceptions behind and head to this sprawling vineyard a 40-minute drive outside Hua Hin for lunch or an afternoon snack and glass of vino. Established 25 years ago, Hua Hin Hills Vineyard, under the label Monsoon Valley, produces more than 300,000 bottles a year. The heat forces the grapes to ripen quickly and the humidity results in a lot of rot and mould, which has to be selectively cut out, meaning production is highly labour intensive. But for some varietals- such as colombard, a Bordeaux grape traditionally used for cognac and armagnac- such conditions work well. Thai wines are not cheap- a whopping 400 per cent local liquor tax keeps prices high and makes them bad value compared with imported varietals. But spending time in the sultry humidity of a Thai vineyard is so peculiar it could end up being one of your best memories. 1 Moo 9, Baan Khork Chang Patana; +66 81 7010 222; huahinhillsvineyard.com
3 Spa. When Chiva-Som International Health Resort opened in 2002, it started a boom in Thai spas. The sprawling resort, serving only wholesome, pescetarian food, a full exercise class schedule and state-of-the-art therapy facilities, set the benchmark. Now every hotel in Hua Hin worth its soap has a spa.
The Barai at the Hyatt Regency is the most luxurious, with 18 rooms nestled inside temple-like surrounds offering treatments such as caviar facials and luk prakop, whereby Thai herbs and flowers are steamed in cloth compresses. Book a spa suite so you can kick back after your treatment in Roman-like bath-tubs.
Six Senses Earth Spa has treatment rooms in traditional mud “caves” replicating those used by villages in northern Thailand. Huddled around lotus ponds and verdant gardens, they are earthy and rustic. Walls are built using mud and rice husks, keeping the caves cool. The spa bases its treatment on “skin food”, believing you shouldn’t put on your skin what you can’t eat. Try the honey, lime and cucumber facial.