A slice of pandemic paradise: The Renaissance Phuket Resort & Spa
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After 26 hours of travel to Thailand, I just wanted to soak my weary muscles in a tub and go to bed.
I’d flown out to Phuket to see what the “Phuket Sandbox” program was like — reviews had been mixed — and how hotels would deal with a surge in foreign tourists after well over a year of pandemic travel decline.
There are hundreds of hotels to choose from in Phuket, but I was looking forward to being pampered after a long day of traveling. Hotels in Phuket can range from ultra-exclusive beachfront resorts to inexpensive, no-frills accommodations. I found a bit of both during my stay at the Renaissance Phuket Resort & Spa, located in the northern part of the island.
A mid-July trip to the beachfront resort found a peaceful beach oasis, budget-friendly rooms and suites and a warm staff all-too-eager to welcome tourists back. Just a single night’s rest erased the previous days’ travels, and five nights seemed to have nearly eradicated a years’ worth of pandemic fatigue.
I previously wrote about the Phuket Sandbox’s complex application and entry requirements. Still, for all of its obstacles, it seems that hotels like the Renaissance are ready to welcome tourists again.
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A “suite” upgrade surprise
I landed in Phuket on a rainy afternoon after a six-hour flight from Dubai.
After taking the mandatory arrival COVID-19 test, a driver in a Mercedez Benz whisked me off to the hotel. After the long journey and confusing entry specifications, I was eager to check out my room and get some much-needed shut-eye.
The Marriott Renaissance Phuket Resort & Spa is located a short 20-minute drive from Phuket International Airport (HKT), along Mai Khao Beach. The resort feels like an oasis, with stunning infinity pools near the reception and an open, airy design. Check-in was a breeze and reminded me of pre-pandemic times.
The friendly front desk staff acknowledged my Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite status and reminded me that I’d booked a promo called the “Phuket Sandbox Beach Getaway.” This promotion, which requires at least a three-night stay, includes breakfast (which I’d get as a Gold member) and a THB 1000 (about $30) spa credit, which I fully intended to take advantage of during my stay.
I booked this five-night stay for $445, electing to put the charge on my The Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 1x points. With the Amex Platinum, you earn 5x on prepaid hotels booked with Amex Travel. However, bookings through Amex Travel generally don’t confer hotel elite status benefits, so I decided to book directly through the property.
The Renaissance Phuket is a Category 5 property, which means you’ll spend 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points per night on nights with standard award availability or just 30,000 on off-peak nights. There are a dozen Marriott Bonvoy properties in Phuket, ranging from the Category 3 Four Points to the Ritz-Carlton Reserve.
Normally, I tend to stay in Hyatt hotels, as I’m a World of Hyatt Globalist. But while there are a handful of Small Luxury Hotels of the World properties in Phuket, elite benefits (other than standard points bonuses) don’t apply. And Globalists also can’t redeem suite upgrade certificates, so I decided to book with Marriott, where I would at least have a shot at an upgrade.
The room…or villa
On the flight between Dubai and Phuket, I received a push alert on my Marriott Bonvoy app with my mobile key instructions — and an upgrade from my deluxe king room with a balcony to a one-bedroom king villa with a plunge pool.
I’ve been a Marriott Gold member for nearly three years now, but I can’t ever recall getting upgraded, especially at a resort. While I was pleasantly surprised, the upgrade was still a reminder that travel is still nowhere near being back to normal.
I’m not often rendered speechless. But when the bellhop dropped me off at the door to the villa, it took a moment to compose my words. And even then, I was left with a single: “Wow!” There are a handful of villas at the property, some with oceanfront views. My garden villa, #20, was located about a minute’s walk from the Quan spa and about a three-minute walk to the beach or reception desk.
The entire villa, including the outdoor space, was probably the largest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in. It very much felt like its own property, so if you’re looking for privacy, you may want to splurge on a villa or hope to get upgraded.
I was greeted with two sliding wooden doors which led into the main room with wrap-around floor-to-ceiling windows. A queen bed takes up the center of the room, with a small seating area at the foot of the bed. The high ceilings, made of wood, felt cathedral-like, and the design reminded me of the longtail boats popular in Thailand.
There was a massive bathroom just off the main room with a large soaking tub and a rain-head shower.
Travelers looking for exclusivity and privacy may want to book a villa, as I didn’t see or hear anyone while in the room or sitting out on the deck. But perhaps the most breathtaking feature of the villa is the private pool and outdoor shower. Simply put, it was stunning.
The water was warm but might be too deep for small children or people who can’t swim. There were two lounge chairs and an umbrella to keep the non-existent sun at bay.
There was also an outdoor shower, which seemed like a great idea until I turned the faucet and brown water spurted from the showerhead.
Phuket is reopening just as Bangkok and five other Thai provinces are under restrictions for 30 days after a surge in COVID-19 cases.
While Thailand is open to vaccinated tourists from certain countries, there are many restrictions. Tourists traveling to Phuket can only stay at what’s known as SHA+ (Safety and Health Administration) property. According to the government, these properties are certified with a sticker, which means that at least 70% of staff have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Sandbox travelers have to go directly to their hotel after arriving in Phuket and have to quarantine in their hotel rooms while waiting for their airport test results.
Hotels also monitor travelers’ movements. Sandbox travelers must download an app called Morchana, a contact tracing app that notifies the hotel if a guest has been near a person who tested positive. Hotels must scan guests’ QR codes every day; travelers have to stay in their designated hotel overnight and can’t stay at another hotel or residence.
The hotel took precautions by requiring daily temperature checks and keeping hand sanitizer on hand. Every staff member I saw wore a mask, and most guests I encountered also adhered to the policy.
And while travelers are required to take a COVID-19 test before and after arrival, they’re also required to take another once in Phuket. On my fourth day, the hotel arranged a van to take me to get an RT-PCR test, which was just a 10-minute drive from the resort.
Sandbox travelers wait in their vehicles until testing time. The entire process took roughly 25 minutes. The test felt like the much-maligned “brain swab,” a very thorough nasal swab that made my eyes water. Results were sent to my email about a day later.
Officials hope the “Phuket Sandbox” will provide a successful blueprint to reopen Thailand’s other popular tourist hot spots on October 1, the target date set by Thailand officials.
The amenities were stunning — with one major caveat
If you’re planning to travel to the area soon, you may want to check the weather forecast before you go — especially if you plan to hang out on the beach.
Monsoon season in Phuket is between May to October, and it rained much of my stay. Even on sunny or overcast days, the beach wasn’t an option as the water was pretty rough, and several staffers warned against getting too close to the shore.
If you don’t mind gazing at the waves from a distance, there’s a small setup with a table, chairs and a hammock. You can order food and drinks directly to you at the nearby Sandbox bar.
While the beach area was scenic, with great views of the mountains in the distance, it was the most disappointing aspect of my stay. The area was pretty dirty and didn’t seem well-kept.
There were several pools throughout the resort, one closer to the beach and a smaller area near the reception for children, which seemed to be wheelchair accessible. I didn’t spot many other guests during my five-night stay, but many I did see were congregated around the pool. I didn’t hang around too much, opting to spend time in my private villa pool.
For travelers who want to stay fit during their stay, there’s a full-service gym and bikes are available to rent.
I capped off the stay with a relaxing 60-minute massage at Quan Spa, the highlight of the stay. The spa included a large water garden and a small seating area, where guests are served ginger tea after the massage.
Dining and service
I opted to spend my entire stay at the resort due to the rain, so I got to check out most of the restaurants at the property.
For breakfast, I opted for Loca Vore which serves a mix of Thai and Western food. It is buffet style — which I’d genuinely thought was a casualty of the pandemic — but there were gloves at each station. The breakfast options were solid: think egg benedict, bacon, pastries and juice. There’s also an outdoor section with views of a small waterfall.
While you can order drinks anywhere, the poolside bar, Sandbox, offered frequent happy hours. I enjoyed several mai tais and mimosas while munching on a fish sandwich, which was delicious.
The signature restaurant is Takieng, a showcase of Thai cuisine. While pricey, it’s absolutely a must-visit if staying at the property. I ordered the Thai-style grilled pork shoulder served with spicy tamarind sauce, wok-fried morning glory with oyster sauce and topped off the meal with a drink inspired by mango sticky rice.
As part of the SHA+ rules, Sandbox travelers can’t have meals delivered to their hotels. I ordered room service on rainy days, which typically only took around 30 minutes each time.
Unfortunately, there was no in-room mini-bar, but guests can order snacks and drinks directly to the room.
The service went above and beyond without it feeling overwhelming.
For instance, I had a late flight and figured I’d simply check out of the resort and spend the afternoon at an airport lounge. I received a call from the front desk staff telling me that I could keep the room until 9 p.m., which I found to be an incredibly nice gesture.
Staffers seemed genuinely thrilled to see tourists — Phuket’s tourism industry was decimated by the pandemic — and were always happy to chat.
My stay at the Renaissance approached near perfection. The hotel provided a luxury stay for an affordable price, from the villa to the amenities to the food. With travel still not back to pre-pandemic levels, there’s a solid chance you may score an upgrade even if you aren’t a top-tier Marriott member.
But even with my near-perfect stay, I might urge tourists — especially travelers who enjoy spontaneity — to avoid traveling to Phuket right now. The Phuket Sandbox application process is complex and confusing. And once in the country, international visitors cannot travel to the Thai mainland for 14 days. Travelers not staying in Phuket for the full 14 days cannot travel to the mainland at all.
Still, these restrictions don’t take away from the relaxing experience I found at Renaissance Phuket. From the excellent food to the affordable rooms and the friendly service, the stay might be worth it in the end if you don’t mind navigating Phuket’s complex applications and entry requirements.
All photos by the author
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