Have you ever heard of Natai beach? Imagine a stretch of white sands ten kilometres long that's completely free of vendors and beach umbrellas. There are no big hotels, tailor shops or sleazy bars in the area, and absolutely no buzzing jet skis or speedboats.
Where is this magical place? If you're on Phuket it's easy to find – just drive over the bridge to the mainland Phang Nga province and within 10 minutes you'll reach Natai's quiet shores. Driving along Route 3006, the road that runs alongside the beach, is a scenic journey taking you through a tropical landscape of coconut groves and water-lily strewn lagoons. Several public paths leading to the beach from the road are found along the way. The beach is also known as Pilai beach, since part of it is in Pilai village.
Strict building laws have meant that hotels in the Natai area are allowed only a maximum 80 rooms and much of the beachfront land has been designated a forest or conservation zone. So, as long as the building codes are enforced, Natai will never see a giant Hilton or similar branded mega resort.
The downside of these strict laws, for budget travellers, is that most of the Natai beach development has been at the high end, with mostly luxury resorts and villas lining the beach. Some of the extreme luxury places in Natai include the privately owned Beyond Villa, a giant 6,500-square-meter house that was sold in 2010 for a reported US$24 million.
Nearby is Villa Viva, another private villa, that last time we checked was available for rent at US$10,000 per night, and the new Villa Iniala, a collection of chic rental villas with a restaurant serving meals at 6,000 baht each prepared by a three Michelin-starred chef.
For those of us not living the high life, affordable places to stay at Natai are few and far between. Hotels along the beach include Aleenta resort, the Ranyatavi, Mai Khao Dream and the Hotspring Beach Resort. All are in the four- to five-star range with prices to match.
No budget rooms are found on the beachfront, but there are a few small guesthouses just inland across the road. The cheapest deal we could find was at Natai Beach Bungalow, which is not a bungalow at all but a rather grim looking rowhouse with rooms going for 500 baht a night.
A more appealing budget option, also just back from the beach across the road, is CFun Cottages, which looks to be recently built with thatch-roof bungalow rooms at 1,500 baht for air-con and 1,000 baht for fan rooms, WiFi included.
A sign out front said rooms are available at 30 per cent discount from March through October. The cosy common area is shady and well designed with the bungalows set around a small central pool. We would have liked to have had a peek inside a room but there was absolutely no one around when we visited.
Two other bungalow operations, Gordons Guests and next-door Khaopilai Bungalow, found at the south end of Route 3006 as it approaches the beach, were also unmanned and empty of people when we stopped by. As we've mentioned, Natai is very quiet! We called later and were told that rooms are 1,000 baht a night.
The only independent beachfront restaurant we found is Rabian Lay Thai seafood, with most dishes in the 100 to 200 baht price range. If you're not staying in Natai, this is a choice spot to park your towel on the sands for the afternoon in the shade of towering casuarina trees. Dining at more local prices is available at the nearby town of Kokkloy, a typical southern Thai town of mostly concrete shophouses with some banks and grocery stores.
If you tire of strolling the sands in solitude and cruising Natai's peaceful roads, you could head down to the public pier where many locals like to cast a fishing line, especially at sunset. On the nearby sands are the huts and boats of the local fishermen – you'll need to be there in the early morning or late afternoon to see any action with fishermen departing or returning with their day's catch. At midday it's quiet with only a few small long-tail boats scattered along the sands.
Whether you're prepared to spend many thousands of baht or nothing at all, Natai's a fine escape from the hustle and hassles of Phuket's busy resort beaches, and it's only a 25-kilometre hop north from Phuket International Airport.
Aleenta Resort 33/7 Moo 5. T: (02) 514 8112 www.aleenta.com/phuket
CFun Cottages Route 3006, Natai beach. T: (081) 1422767
Gordon's Guests 55/8 Moo 14. T: (087) 270 0941 www.gordonsguests.net
Hotspring Beach Resort 79 Moo 8 Na Toey, Thai Muang. T: (076) 580 000-28 www.thehotspringbeach.com
Khaopilai Bungalow 55/10 Moo 14. T: (087) 270 0941 khaopilaibungalows.com
Maikhao Dream Resort & Spa Natai 55 Moo 6. T: (076) 371321 www.maikhaodream.com/natai
Ranyatavi Resort 32/7 Moo 5. T: (076) 580 800 www.ranyatavi.com