Fantasy islands

Luxury island escapes are all about flawless pampering from pier to pillow. Cambodia’s a newcomer to the five-star island resort scene, with the first resort opening in 2012, and these properties now beckon satisfied guests to white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, the best food and blissful detachment at every turn. Discover takes you to three of the country’s top water-locked getaways

words by Tom O’Connell
photography by Sam Jam

Alila Villas
Koh Russey

We waited for our boat on Alila Villas’ private pier outside Sihanoukville in a plush air-conditioned waiting room with Wi-Fi, magazines and well-appointed bathrooms, a respite from the bustle outside and another hot day in Cambodia. With our luggage ported and icy bottled water in our hands, we could already glimpse a bit of the indulgence yet to come.  The wait to paradise wasn’t long, and soon we were whisked by speedboat ten minutes away from the mainland to the private island of Koh Russey, where smiling staff greeted us to the heart of the so-called Cambodian Riviera with kramas and more cold drinks.

While our rooms were prepared, we kicked off our flip-flops and sank our toes into the sand at the resort’s beachside Beach Shack, a casual eatery under a thatched roof. A fresh fish amok with splashes of fish sauce and chillies, plus an icy mango shake, revived us as the sun and sand sizzled all around.

The meticulously manicured grounds were designed to be an “ecological escape”, the resort’s wood and stone minimalist architecture blending into the island’s native jungle habitat. The design of the shallow terraced pool was inspired by the footprint of Angkor Wat, drawing a connection to Cambodia’s historic empire. Beyond the edge of the green oasis stretches 1.2km private beachfront to explore – by foot, snorkel or paddleboard.

The Alila Leisure Concierge Team tailors individual itineraries to guests’ desires, integrating indigenous nature, cultural traditions, local flavours and water sports for an all-around exotic island experience. Excursions go to popular mainland spots like Bokor National Park, with its colonial-era hill station and Popokvil waterfall; Ream Pagoda and its coastal overlooks; and La Plantation pepper farm in Kampot. Romantic-minded couples can take a sunset cruise on a luxury long-tail boat while sipping champagne and nibbling canapés. For something a little closer to home base, a cooking class can be arranged to introduce guests to local ingredients and some secrets to preparing Khmer cuisine.

And for the least active activity, there is the spa. Stepping into the spa feels like entering an alternate reality where the prime directive is to simply relax and allow any worries to melt away. The waiting room is dark and tranquil, with new-age music tinkling and an uber-friendly attendant to help you choose your treatments. I lasted maybe 30 minutes into my hour-long full-body massage before drifting off. I floated back to the private terrace of my sea-view room rejuvenated and without a care in the world.

Island escape: friendly staff are essential to the full luxe experience at Alila (bottom left); guests enjoy lounging in Alila’s many relaxing public areas, especially the Angkor-inspired pool (below); Six Senses guests enjoy ocean and island views along its meandering wooden boardwalks (right)

Six Senses

Koh Krabey

When our boat pulled up to the dock of the brand-new Six Senses, we were greeted by smiling staff holding cold beverages and frozen washcloths. Our luggage was whisked away and we were led to a golf cart for a personal tour of this latest addition to the Six Senses family.

The entire sprawling resort is pleasantly shaded under a jungle canopy. The lush tropical environs soothe the senses, with only the occasional golf cart to disturb a walker’s idyll. The property has an impressive roster of ways to relax, exercise and fuel up. An extensive spa, one of the first stops on our tour, was the star of the show – a massive complex providing services for any and all holistic bodily needs. Six Senses’ other highlights include a sunset bar, two restaurants, an oceanfront boardwalk, a sky observatory, an open-air cinema, a lap pool, an outdoor fitness circuit and even an ice cream parlour.

My room was a lap of luxury that included a private infinity pool, an egg-shaped indoor soaking tub, an outdoor socialising area with a fire pit, a Fender Bluetooth speaker, a lush master bedroom and a fully stocked bar. It was hard to leave after I got settled in, but the spa awaited.

The impressive spa sits at the highest part of the property and boasts several treatment rooms, meditation and yoga rooms, and workout facilities. There is even an interactive workshop where an expert educates guests about local ingredients and then demonstrates how to make your very own scrub, herbal poultice or steam bundle to be used in your treatment.

For those who are looking for in-depth attention to their wellness, the resort offers an Integrated Wellness Program. The first step is a consultation with a doctor of Oriental medicine, who checks guests’ “microcirculation” via sweat glands as well as weight and pulse before recommending modifications to diet, exercise and sleep habits and suggesting helpful spa treatments. I opted for a 60-minute holistic Signature Massage whose goal is “to bring about a balanced, calm and stress-free state of being”. That it did, because once again, I was snoozing halfway through the treatment. I awoke to monks chanting through hidden speakers, and was soon on my way back down the hill.

But the highlight of our Six Senses sojourn was the five-course prix fixe dinner with wine pairings at Tree, the resort’s main restaurant. Each course combined fresh fish with other Cambodian flavours, and included dishes like crudo of red snapper with green mango, peanut, cucumber and dried pork and sea bass with cauliflower, clams, tiger prawns, turmeric butter and fried curry leaves. The final savoury course was a Battambang-style fried rice with mud crab, egg white and spicy XO sauce. We rounded out this culinary trip with a final glass of wine and a dainty dish of lemongrass lychee sorbet.

After dinner we enjoyed some magical conversation around the fire pit and agreed it would be hard to top the lovely experience.

Turquoise bliss: (left to right) the pool at Royal Sands meets the oceanfront; fresh fruits and juices refresh guests on a hot day; contemplating a dip in the pool at Royal Sands

Royal Sands

Koh Rong

The approach to Royal Sands is stunning. A white line appeared off the bow of our boat, growing into a gorgeous beach as we got closer. Perhaps it is the colour of the sand that gives the water surrounding this part of the island its dazzling turquoise hue. The water was so clear, we could see a school of stingray staring back up at us. Tiny fish leapt from the water. Soon we were docked and welcomed and we were giddy to be in a postcard paradise.

After getting settled in our cabanas, we headed to The Chill for lunch. This open-air casual eatery is right next to the pool and steps from the ocean, featuring easy comfort food along with fresh barbecued seafood. It’s a perfect place to, ahem, chill over beers and snacks between dips in your choice of the ocean or the pool. Better yet, choose one of the two poolside hot tubs or one of the bamboo “nests” resting inside the pool and ask a friendly server to bring your comforts to you there.

The property has accommodations for every taste and whim. Its private helipad enables guests to come straight to the resort from Phnom Penh. Yoga enthusiasts can enjoy an outdoor yoga ‘sala’ with views of Koh Rong’s mountains. Senses Spa features private and outdoor facilities for treatments, yoga classes and various therapies. Indoor treatment rooms feature a shower and a glass floor through which the sight of frolicking tropical fish adds to the relaxation. There’s a modern fitness centre, and guests can also go snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking, paddle boarding, mountain biking and trekking. Another popular activity is to swim at night among the bioluminescent plankton with a guide to show you an extraordinary marvel of nature.

After exploring the property and watching the sun set over glasses of wine on the beach, it was time for dinner at the Ocean Restaurant, which features a Buddha statue between it and the ocean – as well as another amazing culinary experience. The menus are overseen by a Vietnamese executive chef named Chau Doan who brings her own modern take on Western and Asian cuisines.

When our island hopping adventure had to come to an end, as happens with all great things in life, we drew it out as long as we could with a delicious breakfast buffet at Ocean, with fresh papaya and mango juices, made-to-order omelettes and all the deep locally-sourced black coffee we could drink before we stepped off the dock and onto a boat to take us back to our lives – refreshed, rejuvenated and with indelible memories to last a lifetime.

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