Fine Diving and Deep Dining
in Koh Tao
14 November 2017
The “Turtle Island” is well known for its gorgeous sea beds, making it a diving Mecca, and is turning out to be more and more of a hedonist refuge where “backpacker” aesthetic blends with real quality of living.
Once you arrive safe and sound in Mae Haad, the main village and hub for the island’s activities, you’ll immediately size up Tao: two streets wind toward the main road that runs to the rest of the island. Isolated and nonchalant, Koh Tao is human-sized, and people there know how to take their time. Just look at the speed
limit: 30 kph!
To get around, you should ideally rent a scooter. Although there’s no shortage of specialists around the port, the best place to rent or repair a motorcycle in Tao is a bit far removed: 23 Motorcycle Rental. At Pong Mechanic, they speak French and English, and they won’t charge for scratches.
By the way, another good address from Latitudes for any travel and leisure arrangements: Island Travel (Johnny).
In Tao, the art of living is based essentially on two pillars: food and sea. Although it’s easy to see why the sea is so important here, the island’s gastronomical has developed rapidly recently, and is really amazing. Before setting off for water sports, head to Café del Sol for a few croissants or pains au chocolat, the best ones on the island. Located in the very center of Mae Haad, the place is a landmark and popular meeting spot where you can grab a bite any time, with excellent Mediterranean-inspired cuisine. Roberto, the boss, was one of the first Farangs to settle on the island, so he can tell you about the development and all its mysteries in detail.
Beyond the simply joy of the view and numerous impromptu swimming opportunities, the waters of Koh Tao only truly reveal their exceptional beauty with a mask on your face and fins on your feet. In Tao, you need to dive in. From just snorkelling to freediving, including all levels of diving skill, there are unlimited options. We tested three of them, which are equally magical: 12-meter diving, snorkelling with sharks and free diving. Aqua Tao, located just opposite Café del Sol, is unlike any of the other numerous diving centers on “Turtle Island” because of its human size and its French flair. Guillaume came up with a customized dive for us, of which only he holds the secret, preceded by a theory class. This was our first dive, and we’d be diving twice. The first time would be to verify that we knew how to use the equipment and have learned the safety instructions, and the second time to get down to business: discovering the exceptional sea beds of Tao. Like in a dream, drifting along the path that took us here to begin with, and guided by the kind professionalism of our instructor, we wound up 12 meters deep, bubbling along with Nemo and other clownfish.
Will it be as smooth to swim with sharks? To get up close to them, which don’t really like bubbles, how about a snorkel? Our friend Eric (+66 (0)994 306 924)offers an outing lasting about two hours, which sets off from the beach in Aow Leuk. The program includes a dance with the turtles and a ball with the sharks, and you’re guaranteed to see them or the outing is free! As the co-organizer of the Tao Festival, which apart from music is also devoted to underwater life, Eric encouraged us to try free diving like Guillaume Néry, a champion of the sport, whose screening of the movie Narcose was one of the highlights of the first edition of the festival.
Like a scene from Le Grand Bleu. From the departure from the Pirate Bay aboard the ship Alvaro, Eric Serra’s music echoes consistently with the mindset that Bat attempts to prepare, with the soothing cool-headedness of the experienced diver, who can effortlessly dive to 50 meters. As a more confidential and athletic discipline than other forms of diving, free diving relies mostly on the mind and preparation. Instead the relatively easy breathing allowed with an air tank, this involves preparing the body and mind to function without air, managing your energy throughout the entire time of the dive. With a few simple breathing exercises on the boat, you quickly understand that your limits can be found well beyond what you might think, and a completely natural calm and serenity take over the mind. Once you arrive, and put on your oversized fins, holding onto a buoy with a rope leading down to the depths and serving as a guide, everything comes down to breathing, concentration, one last gulp of air, and then the dive itself. With the third try, I got down to 12 meters! Nothing that impressive, but still something to be proud of. Let’s be honest: a beginner’s session in diving is only a taste of the real pleasure provided by the sport, and just like with yoga, which is a large part of free diving, it can be a path toward balance and serenity.
Diving really works up an appetite, and you deserve a good meal! It’s time to get down to business and throw off your regulators and weight belts and pick up a glass and a fork. After going diving, you’ll want to have a bite and drink, and there are three options to enjoy the view of the sunset: The Roof Bar, a partner of Aqua Tao in Mae
Haad (Sunset Canopia Guesthouse), or head to Sairee, the island’s second-largest village more centered on nightlife. There, you can rest your feet in the beach sand at the Sunset Fizz, or even at the top of the beautiful terrace at the Darawan to get an overview of the place, or even at the Beer Masons, which is more urban, and boasts an impressive selection of beer and cider from all over the world.
There’s no shortage of dining options, so as a service, Latitudes has tested and approved four restaurants that are worth checking out. In Sairee, the Barracuda is the top choice, with fine yet affordable cuisine, focusing on flavor fusions such as its outstanding roast barracuda filet wrapped in Parma ham. A bit farther on, the very trendy Baia B (“B” for “burgers”) does wonders with organic ingredients.
In Mae Haad, vegetarians and vegetarian-curious alike will enjoy the delicious veggie dishes at La Carotte Qui Rit.
Finally, on the road to Baan Kao, Ananas is unique, with flavorful Thai cuisine and Farang dishes more focused on modernity.
In a class of its own, Chez Albert is a luxury grocery shop and wine bar, like a bit of France teleported to the middle of Thailand. Eric and Lucie offer European terroir products and French-style art of living: fine wines, cold meats, cheese, selected spirits and original delicacies, as well as delicious roast chicken you can have there or take away. You’ll also find a few surprises such as the very pretty concrete jewelry of Stefania, or organic tobacco. The barrels used as tables are now a famous symbol in Tao, coming directly from France where they were used to age wine.
For lodging, we advise heading south-southeast, either in the direction of Aow Leuk, the island’s most beautiful beach according to many locals, or toward Shark Bay. First, we wanted to return to the roots of Koh Tao with Aow Leuk 2, which represents everything about the island’s success: a cabin nestled in a cliff, overlooking a sublime beach with a panorama of infinite turquoise water. It is simply a must-see, where luxury resides in a very natural Zen-like setting. On Sunday afternoons, the Tao Festival team organizes Groovy Afternoons, a great time for music and friendliness.
As for Cape Shark, Elisabeth and Rolf’s eponymous villas are admirably blended into the cliffs, and will be perfect for those who love privacy and sumptuous views.
Nearby, the Jamahkiri, a luxury hotel that is also harmoniously integrated into the impressive cliffs of Koh Tao, offers spacious suites with a breathtaking view of the turquoise sea. With its spa, swimming pools, bars and restaurants, the marina and the Padi diving center, it invites travelers to get away from the outside world for a well-deserved (or even undeserved!) rest.
As far as Latitudes is concerned, our desire to sink our feet into the sand won out, and for this trip, we set our sights on the Haad Tien Resort.
HAADTIEN : SUPERGREEN!
A gorgeous resort located on of the island’s most beautiful beaches, Haad Tien provides a dreamlike setting of turquoise waters and palm trees, in exotically luxurious bungalows with easy-going comfort. Since Haad Tien is a partner of the Tao Festival, we’d already had the opportunity to discover the place when we met with one of the event’s main artists, American DJ Kevin Yost, who has no shortage of good things to say about the comfort and tranquility of his bungalow on the water. After an impressive hike through the hills, ending with a dizzying descent to Shark Bay, Haad Tien curls around Thian Og Bay (Shark Bay), sheltered from the dominant winds, letting it enjoy pleasant weather conditions year-round. Haad Tien was not designed to be just another boutique hotel. The surroundings of the resort form a stunning backdrop, and have remained family-owned and untouched for more than thirty years, so it’s a sort of refuge far from Bangkok, with all its noise and pollution. This sanctuary spirit and boundless respect for nature is now found within the warm welcome of the place and in the discreet harmony of the bungalows and the amenities such as the swimming pool with the lush greenery wrapping around them.