Planning your beach holiday from Hong Kong

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Summer holidays have become much more important in the past couple of years for the Tall family, as Daughter Tall’s availability is now constrained by her kindergarten’s schedule. So although I’ve always been a travel fan, and enjoy trip planning as part of the experience, the stakes have been raised. Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned, Hong Kong is an excellent base from which to travel all around Asia. And since we Talls have just completed one of our favorite kinds of holidays – a trip to a southeast Asian beach resort – I thought I would pass along a few tips and experiences I’ve found helpful in getting the most out of beach holidays.

Now, some of you may be like MrB and family – you’ve found a resort that perfectly fits your requirements, so you’re content to stay there every time you want to hit the beach. This certainly cuts down on trip planning stress! But alas, it’s not the case for the Talls. I would be happy to revisit a small rotation of places I liked from my early Asian travels, but Mrs Tall craves variety, so we’ve tried out lots more places over the years. All told, I’ve been to Phuket, Koh Samui and Koh Samet in Thailand; Pulau Tioman, Penang/Georgetown, Kota Kinabalu and Langkawi (our most recent trip’s destination) in Malaysia; Hainan Island in China; and Bintan Island in Indonesia (actually just a short ferry ride from Singapore). I’ve also stayed at just about the full range of beach accommodation, from decrepit shacks with shared toilets to five-star-plus resorts.

When Mrs Tall and I planned a beach trip in the past, we just triangulated three factors: flight/hotel package offers from HK travel agents (these usually get you pretty good prices); reviews from travel guidebooks; and whatever word of mouth we had heard. Deciding which resort to book didn’t take long: we just lined up the costs, then picked a suitably-priced resort that got a decent guidebook review, or that someone had put in a good word for.

Usually this worked out all right, but we had a few disappointments, too. For example, when we visited Kota Kinabalu, we booked a Shangri-la resort. Those of you living in Asia surely know the name, and its high reputation. We were all geared up for a great stay, but it turned out that – like Hong Kong – KK has two Shangri-las. One has a big beach – and I adore beaches – but the other is much closer to the city and has only a man-made beach. Guess which one we ended up at? Ah, well . . . .

With the Internet, there’s now no excuse for such oversights. These days I use a combination of resorts’ own websites plus reviews from TripAdvisor.com to try to divine what places are really like. If you don’t already use the incredible resources TripAdvisor provides, allow me to strongly recommend that you do. I’ve used quite a few travel sites – Fodors, Epinion’s travel section, Yahoo Travel, etc. – but I like TripAdvisor best. It often provides hundreds of reviews for popular hotels, building up informative profiles no single writer could ever equal.

But I’ve also found TripAdvisor has its own pitfalls, so here are a couple of tips when using it to find a good Asian beach resort:

Pay attention to the numerical ratings. If, that is, the resort you’re looking at has been reviewed enough times to make these average ratings meaningful. I usually start to consider them if there are, say, at least 20 reviews or so. When there are lots of reviews – for example, the resort we ended up booking in Langkawi had well over 200 – I take them that much more seriously.

Make sure you have a look at both sets of photos most TripAdvisor resort reviews provide. One set comes from the resort’s own publicity department, so these photos usually shimmer with luxury and natural splendor. But then take a look at the candid photos provided by reviewers themselves. If you notice a huge disparity between the two, beware!

Read more than just the most recent reviews. TripAdvisor default review pages show only the five most recent reviews. This sample size is too small to be meaningful. I therefore usually read the ten or so most recent reviews first, then sort the reviews according to the ‘User rating: lowest’ and ‘User rating: highest’ as well, each time reading at least another five or ten.

Why go to all of this trouble? Well, I’ve found that beach resorts are subject to wildly varying reviews.

On the high end, you’ve got the young couples, let’s say Jessica and Jason from the UK, who’re making their first trip to Asia. Jessica’s review will gush with praise; staying at their resort is ‘a must’, taking every local tour they took is ‘a must’, sampling all the exotic foods they ingested without undue intestinal distress is ‘a must’ – well, you get the picture.

On the other hand, the lowest resort reviews are often written by men, and usually fall into one of two categories. Either Mr Dissatisfied feels that he’s ‘spent all that money for a luxury holiday for my precious family only to find that the resort’s rooms/pool/bar/buffet breakfast (my own obsession, I’ll freely admit)/local transport arrangements are unacceptable/overpriced/inconvenient/just not what he expected’; or some member of the resort staff was rude to him/didn’t understand proper English/was observed openly goofing off instead of rushing over and asking him ‘Please, Sir, may I provide you with another frosty Carlsberg immediately, Sir, please?’.

Obviously, neither of these types of reviews should be taken all that seriously. But reading reviews from both ends of the spectrum will usually alert you to a resort’s genuine good points – and its failings.

And all resorts have failings, don’t they? No matter how powdery the beach, no matter how attentive-but-unobtrusive the staff, no matter how exquisitely prepared the Bircher muesli at breakfast (there I go again . . . ), there’ll always be a fly somewhere in the ointment. And the more you pay, the more eagle-eyed you’ll be in spotting them. Even the very nicest resort we’ve ever stayed in – the Banyan Tree in Phuket – isn’t perfect. It doesn’t have direct beach access: you have to take a little golf cart, or walk for five minutes or so. If that’s not asking a lot of a guest, I don’t know what is!

Seriously, though – how do you avoid being disappointed when you’re paying quite a bit for a resort holiday? I’ve decided it comes down to making several fundamental choices:

Beach vs. pool. Now, before you start spluttering ‘hey, this is not a mutually exclusive category!’, bear with me. I’ve noticed that many – not all, but many – resort websites feature prominently either their fabulous pool, or their stunning beach, but not often both. If you have strong preferences about these watery resources, I’d suggest examining all available sources to see what they’re really like at the resorts you’re checking out. Most resorts of course provide both, but sometimes even very high-end establishments don’t have great beach access, for example. And there’s are a couple of good reasons for this, which we’ll get to next . . .

‘Best beach’ vs. newer/bigger/better resort. In many Asian beach areas, for obvious reasons, the most beautiful beaches were developed earliest. Koh Samui is a good example. Chaweng Beach, which is truly lovely, was the epicenter of the island’s first wave of tourism development. We stayed there a couple of years ago, and it’s great – except that the entire beach is fronted by a seemingly endless string of beach hut complexes mixed in with smallish resort hotels. The one we stayed in was nice, but it wasn’t big enough to support the kinds of amenities many of us enjoy, e.g. multiple restaurants, a big pool or pools, a gym/sports facilities, a spa, and so on. Samui has bigger resorts, but they were built later, at less impressive beaches. This pattern is repeated in numerous places around Asia: famous beach = lots of small places; newer, more luxurious resort = secondary locations, often chosen for their remoteness. Again, there are of course exceptions, but it’s often a choice you’ll need to make.

‘Exclusive’ vs. ‘convenient’. Here’s a good culture-clash category that’s closely related to my previous point. When many of us westerners dream about beach holidays, we see ourselves walking hand-in-hand with Mrs Tall (at least I do), down a softly surf-washed beach at sunset, with noooooo one else in sight . . . . (Daughter Tall must be back in the room watching Monkey King episodes.) But Mrs Tall doesn’t like truly isolated resorts, no matter how picturesque and ‘exclusive’ they market themselves to be. Why not? First, she (and I, too) resent being part of a captive market for food and transport. We’ve stayed at a couple of places that really were remote, and we quickly tired of paying way-over-the-top prices for unremarkable – even bad – food. Also, Mrs Tall again likes the variety of restaurants and shops available at beach areas with at least several resorts – she likes a least a bit of ‘buzz’ that doesn’t require a long taxi or minibus ride to get to.

Cost vs. luxury. Making this choice is unavoidable. Although Asian beach resorts in general are excellent value, there’s still a point at which most of us must say ‘enough is enough’. The problem is, once you’re stayed at a very good place, it can be hard to resign yourself to dropping back down the luxury ladder. If you are making a once-in-a-lifetime kind of trip, e.g. a honeymoon or big anniversary, I’d say go crazy, because you’ll likely get good value and fond memories. But if you’re going on ordinary holidays like the Talls, you have to rein in your ambitions most of the time, and settle for less. Keep in mind what you’re really looking for: if it’s the beach, sun and sea you’re after, remember that often the best of these aren’t dominated by the ‘best’ resorts, so you should have plenty of good mid-range options. If you must have absolute top-end service, though, you’re going to pay for it no matter what the location.

Whew! I’d better wrap up. I think my days of lazing on the beach last week left me far too primed for expounding on this subject.

Readers, what are your favorite resorts/tips for enjoying the beach?

Comments

In praise of Phuket

Mr Tall's right, the Sheraton in Phuket does have a seemingly irresistible attraction for the Family B. We were there for a visit earlier this year, and will be visiting again in a couple of weeks time.

As beach / resort holidays go, it's just about spot on for us. Looking down Mr Tall's checklist, it meets all the requirements, and even meets to beat some of the usual tradeoffs - eg it has both a large swimming pool & a great beach, is a newish resort with lots of facilities plus the beach isn't crowded.

Still, two times in one year is enough to get me thinking we really, really need to try somewhere different for our next trip. It's likely to happen too, as our holidaymaking plans are about to take a change in direction.

For the last few years we've had at least one young baby to think about, but with MissB-jr just passing 18 months, I can see that's going to be much less of an issue. Our spring holiday has also had to take my Mum into account, and at 70+ she's not looking for wild adventure. Sadly it looks as though she can't make it out for any more holidays here, so that changes the requirements too.

Then where to next?

We've also tried the Shangri-la near Kota Kinabalu town (the STAR resort, not the one further up the coast). We had three days which were pleasant, but very breezy. Then the last day we woke to calm and headed down to the little beach. We have some beautiful photos from swimming in a mirror-flat sea, but the photos don't show the whole truth. By the time we got back to our rooms we were itching like crazy. We'd been introduced to the area's sand-flies. Like Scotland's midges, when the wind blows you're safe, but once it's calm you're in trouble. We were told that locals head out to one of the nearby islands for their beach outings, as the islands are sand-fly-free. Given that the beach is a major attraction for the girls, we won't be going there again.

Short flights are good, so maybe the Philippines or Hainan? The times we've been to the Philippines, the food hasn't been that great. Other friends have had no problems though, so maybe that's just our poor skill in choosing restaurants? I'd certainly like to try Hainan, so that's a possibilty.

We'll be looking for places the girls will enjoy too. So some of the smaller, we visited and enjoyed as a couple (eg Hua Hin in Thailand, Badian Island on Cebu) probably won't make the list for a few years. We'll likely give Club Med a try some time in the next few years.

As the girls get older, other types of holiday become more attractive too. After all we're spoiled for easy access to beaches in Hong Kong, and most weekends we head out with the buckets and spades. I don't know how possible it is, but I fancy spending a week or two in a village in Japan. Maybe a farmstay holiday in New Zealand or Australia, or drive around them in a camper-van? Something that will be very different from our usual Hong Kong life.

We're spoiled for choice!

How about you, where do you go when you want a trip away from HK?

MrB

Beach holiday to Hua Hin, Thailand

We're just back from a 5-night stay at the new Sheraton resort near Hua Hin. We (aged 2, 4, 40-something and 70+) all had a good time. Our two young girls in particular had a lovely time. Lots of swimming with mum & dad, playing on the beach, cartoon channel on TV, and a good kids club. Hard to beat if you're that age!

The journey takes 2.5 - 3 hours from Bangkok airport. There is a taxi / limo company with a desk in the luggage reclaim area of the airport. You won't miss them, as one of their staff will come looking for you to see if you need a taxi. They offered me a one-way trip to Hua Hin for 5,200B (I'll use 'B' as the symbol for Thai Baht, their local currency. At the time of writing 1 USD = 30B, or 1 HKD is appx 4B). As I walked away she offered 4,700B as the 'last price'. MrsB, who was walking a little distance away, was offered 3,900B by the same company! We went outside and went to the desk under the 'Public Taxi' sign - it's outside door #9. There the price was 2,700B going, and 2,500B on the return trip. It was a 7-seater - something like an Espace - so fine for 2 children & 4 adults.

The resort opened in late 2007, so is all in very good condition. It's in a U-shape, with the reception and restaurants at the base of the U, rooms down both sides, and the seafront across the open mouth of the U. The central area is a mix of greenery and a long, winding pool. If you enjoy swimming, it's a lot of fun.

The beach is long, and very quiet. The sea is warm & wavy, but not very clear. I went in for a swim, but brushed through several pieces of plastic debris and rope, so after that I stuck to the pool for swimming. It's a good beach for shells and sandcastles though, and there's a lovely beach bar overlooking the beach and sea.

Our girls enjoyed playing in the kid's club. The ladies running the place were great, and the building is bright and airy. Children four and older can be left there unaccompanied. We only left our older girl there for an hour or so each day, but you could leave your children there from 9 til 6 if you wanted a day out of the hotel. The activities seemed to consist of TV games, toys, computer time, and making things though, so if you have very active children they might find it dull.

Breakfast at the hotel was good, but the lunch and evening meal we had were just so-so. We found the nearby Dusit hotel had a good Thai restaurant (dinner for us all was around 1500B, just drinking water) so we ate there a couple of evenings. One night we walked along the beach to get there (a 10-20 minutes walk), and the other night we asked the Sheraton to call the Dusit for us. The Dusit will send a car to collect and return you if you're eating there.

The nearest 'big' town is Hua Hin. The standard guidebook description of the place seems to be 'hidden gem'. It was certainly a lot quieter than say Phuket town, and though there are plenty of shops and restaurants we were left in peace throughout our stroll. It makes a nice change from the more heavy-handed touting you get in the bigger cities.

We're still keeping the Phuket Sheraton as our favourite though. For starters the Hua Hin property is much smaller, so it gets more claustrophobic after a few days. Then there are little things that add up. eg the staff are friendly as can be, but language problems meant there were several mistakes in timing and billing. Or that the pool's opening hours were 7am til 7pm, but towels don't appear 'til after 8am, and seemingly have all been used up by around 5pm.

We also found the hotel was very busy when we arrived on the saturday, but quiet during the week. That, and the language issues, tie in with the description of Hua Hin as a popular destination for Thai people getting away from Bangkok for a weekend break.

So, we'll keep Phuket as the preferred family holiday destination. But a couple of days in Hua Hin could be a great add-on if you're planning to visit Bangkok, and also fancy a few days somewhere quieter.

MrB

Where to change money on your beach holiday

I'm just looking at the different exchanges we made last week in Thailand. In summary:

  • Money changers gave good rates
  • You could get better rates if you withdraw 10,000B+ (HKD2,500+) from an ATM, but if you made lots of smaller withdrawals from ATMs you'd end up worse than using a money changer
  • Credit card payments get a slightly worse rate than changing cash or using the ATM, but not enough to worry about

Hang Seng charges me HK$30 for each ATM withdrawal I make in Thailand. That's why it's not good to make lots of small ATM withdrawals.

I didn't check the hotel's rate, but I assume it'd be terrible. However I found that there was an ATM tucked away behind a staircase at the hotel - it's worth asking if there's an ATM nearby before changing money at your hotel's reception.

Here are the figures:

  HKD 1 buys: HKD 2,000 buys:  Change
Hua-hin money changer 4.030 B 8,060 B  
Withdraw 10,000 B from ATM * 4.042 B 8,084 B + 0.3%
Withdraw 2,000 B from ATM * 3.838 B 7,676 B - 4.8%
1,600 B meal on credit card 3.950 B 7,900 B - 2.0%