Simon N. Ostheimer, for CNN • Updated 24th March 2017
Editor's Note — CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN) — Gazing on the developing island of today: Five-star hotels. Upmarket dining scene. Plentiful shopping. It's hard to believe that up until the 1970s, no paved roads existed on Koh Samui. It was only in 1989 that the island's airport was built.
While the isle's built-up northern and eastern coasts increasingly cater to the tourists, in the south and west locals still stick to the simple life, and traditions that brought backpackers on rickety fishing boats from the mainland to this island paradise in the first place.
Most of the seafood at Barracuda comes from local waters.
One of the most noticeable tenants of The Wharf -- a 24,000-square-meter open-air mall opened in 2015 at the western end of Samui's Bo Phut walking street -- is Barracuda. The stylish concrete and chrome restaurant sits close to the sand.
Run by German Ferdinand Dienst, it serves Mediterranean-influenced dishes using local ingredients -- 80% of the seafood comes from the surrounding waters. All its vegetables are locally and organically grown. Barracuda's concept is winningly simple: serve fresh, high quality product on a small menu that changes frequently, with service to match.
It's rare to come across a restaurant that earns universal acclaim, but you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone with a bad word to say about chef Francois Porte's Chez Francois. Guests enter on a street close to the Fisherman's Village through a large, ornate door into a cozy space with black and white checkered floors, and a large wooden centerpiece table. At the back is a small bar. The menu changes daily, depending on what Porte finds at the market. Reservations are a must.
Stacked serves the classics.
From the yellow-bricked open kitchen to the bare-light-bulb chandelier to the electric green neon surfboard sign, the design at Stacked is contemporary and comfortable. The menu is full of classics like grilled Caesar salad, New England clam chowder and a selection of steaks.
But Stacked is most famous for its burgers. For those that feel up to it, the Stacked Burger Challenge consists of four burgers and eight strips of bacon in a black sesame seed bun served with double fries and double slaw. It's free to anyone who can finish the monster in 20 minutes -- otherwise it costs THB1,000 ($28).
No-fuss European gourmet at The Larder.
The expat duo behind this favorite "decided Samui was lacking a down-to-earth eatery where the atmosphere is warm and welcoming, without the food dropping in standard." They came up with The Larder, a pretension-free European gourmet restaurant -- if you have a little beach sand on you, that's cool.
Menu offerings include chicken breast and liver pate, Spanish chorizo and potato minestrone, and Serrano ham with soft-boiled quails eggs, glazed cauliflower and wild rocket. Fine food, island vibe. Tough to beat.
When he quit his job at one of the island's five-star resorts, chef Vivian opened his own restaurant, the cheekily named Cafe 69. The interior is as colorful as the owner, with glittering silver tablecloths, turquoise walls and an oversized 69-shaped ceiling light, casting its glow on diners.
The food, perhaps best summed up as Thai with a twist, is similarly inventive. Green curry pie with mango and fettuccine tom yum goong carbonara are solid examples. The small space can fill up quickly, so booking ahead is recommended. Closed on Sundays.
Krua Chao Baan
A best of Koh Samui beachfront feast for locals and visitors, this restaurant is a well-kept secret among lovers of fresh local seafood. The vast menu includes interesting southern delicacies like gaeng som, a popular local sour curry, as well as a full list of Thai favorites.
The red snapper with chili and mango salad is a treat, as are tiger prawns in tamarind sauce, if available. Everything goes well with coconut juice straight from the tree. Diners needn't worry about stuffing their face -- they can always work off the calories by going for a post-meal paddle in the restaurant's kayaks, offered free of charge.
Think cafe has a prime sunset-viewing position.
It's hard to miss this funky little cafe. Not just because of its location -- in the middle of the west coast, a few kilometers south of Koh Samui's capital of Nathon -- but because it's made from recycled shipping containers, refitted and daubed in bold yellow, red, blue and orange.
The fence of colorfully painted old tires is also an attention getter. Like many establishments in the southern Thai islands, Think has adopted a hippie-beachcomber, ramshackle decor. The collection of chairs and tables set in the sand at its covered entrance is the best place to watch the sunset with a drink in hand.
Rock Salt's Dragon's Egg: Passion fruit custard with dragon fruit granita, vanilla poached meringue and jackfruit ice cream in a caramel cage.
British chef David Lloyd has worked at a number of Michelin-starred restaurants. His own Rock Salt occupies a classic tropical beach-side restaurant setting, with bamboo ceiling, chunky wooden furnishings and bohemian decorations. The food from a chef who has cooked for the likes of Tom Jones and Kate Moss is superb. Immaculately presented dishes include wagyu hash with sous-vide poached eggs.
Starfish & Coffee
With its warm Mediterranean decor and beach-side terrace in the heart of Bophut Fisherman's Village, Starfish, as it's known, is always abuzz with vacationers. An eclectic, occasionally quirky menu of Thai and Western dishes complements the restaurant's fresh daily seafood offerings, the latter displayed on ice out front and cooked fresh to your taste.
A distinct French influence means there's a good wine selection and desirably dangerous desserts, such as the ever-popular mango and sticky rice. Named after a Prince song, the restaurant opens at noon so no chance of eating its butterscotch clouds and tangerines for breakfast.
Is the great view one the precious parts of 9Gems? You'll have to see for yourself.
9Gems is part luxury villa, part upscale lounge. There's fusion food, tapas and cocktails, all served hillside, with great views over Chaweng Lake stretching to the beach. "Miami Vice" meets Buddha Bar -- this best of Koh Samui place offers the white linen brigade a sassy place to splash its cash.
High on the west coast, at the pinnacle of the InterContinental Samui Baan Talin Ngam Resort, Air Bar is consistently rated as the best place in Samui to watch the sunset. It consists of a large open deck and stylish square, back-lit bar that juts out over the hillside, flanked by an array of sofas and armchairs all facing out to the vast ocean view. Getting there around 5 p.m. helps secure a front row seat. The cocktail menu is excellent, created by Bangkok-based mixologist Joseph Boroski.
You come here for the Woo view toward Koh Phang An.
In the battle of scenic places from which to watch the sunset, Woo sets the bar high. There's the infinity pool, with sunken, circular loungers, book-ended by a large white "W," which reflects in the water. The amazing views northward look toward Koh Phang An -- particularly stunning as dusk falls and the lights come on. A DJ is on hand nightly from 6-11 p.m. Drinks promotions include Thursday's "Mo-Hee-Toe Madness" -- free flow of 10 signature cocktails for a small price (about $36) supplies lubricant for the evening.
Nikki Beach Samui is part of the legendary global network of beach clubs founded in Miami in 1997, with branches in St. Tropez, Marrakech, Ibiza, Bali and -- until it closed in the summer of 2015 -- Phuket. The brand identity is glamor and indulgence,
Starched white umbrellas shelter wealthy patrons sipping on champagne while they listen to DJ beats. Immaculately dressed guests, often head-to-toe in white linen, start to arrive around noon and occupy the plush daybeds until late.
Bees Knees Brewpub
Bee Knees Brewpub: Craft beer in Koh Samui.
The Bee's Knees is, so far, the island's only brewpub. But it's swiftly developed a great reputation for its beers. These include Summer Bee, a pilsner-style lager and Wheaty Bee, made from German and Australian malts. The owner is usually around to explain the brewing process, which takes place in massive tanks visible through a glass divider.
Green Mango Road
A few clubs in Chaweng manage to regularly fill their dance floors. The best of Koh Samui nightlife in one area is Chaweng's Green Mango Road, which has an aircraft hangar-like club of the same name. Another top club to hit on the Green Mango strip is Solo, popular with the late-night crowd and known for bringing in a regular rotation of quality DJs from around the world.
Samahita: Don't let the tide get in the way of that Zen moment.
This calming yoga and wellness retreat is located in the rural southern part of the island. Meaning "balanced" in Sanskrit, Samahita offers a range of classical yoga practices and meditative techniques, as well as personalized detox and de-stress programs. Guests vary from beginners to experienced, singles to families. Located on the beach, the center is committed to environmentally friendly practices, including solar-powered hot water, rainwater harvesting and cultivating its own fruit trees and herb garden.
The Spa Samui Beach Resort
This beachfront resort has been selling Samui as a center of the wellness universe for more than 20 years. Now with two locations -- the other is in the hills overlooking Lamai Beach -- the two decades since it opened have seen it attract people from all around the world for intriguing treatments that include hypnotherapy, Hawaiian healing and astrology.
The vibe is relaxed, with a convivial atmosphere that encourages guests to share their experiences and bond in a beautiful setting. A shuttle runs regularly between the two locations.
So isolated, you can break out the yellow pyjamas.
Koh Samui may not be far enough removed from your daily grind. If that's the case, a slow ferry north to a little bay called Had Tien on the neighboring isle of Koh Phangan reveals a magical little oasis. Be warned though, things here are rustic. There's no land line phone or permanent electricity, and it's strictly cash only.
But that's the attraction. Along with yoga and detox treatments, there's a fun lineup of weekly events, including "movies under the stars" on Tuesdays and open mic nights on Thursdays.
Chaweng Beach gets a lot of criticism for crowds, but it's still a pretty darn nice strip of sand.
Picking which strip of Samui sand to plop down on depends on whether you're looking for white sands with no crowds or want to lay in front of a beach bar run by dudes who never seem to tire of listening to Bob Marley. For action, the busiest strip of sand in town is Chaweng Beach. It has the most concentrated accommodations and best nightlife. Though crowded, it's a nice beach with white sand and turquoise waters.
Second on the popularity scale is Lamai Beach. Not as busy as Chaweng, but with plenty of hotel options and a lovely beach, it's an alternative for traveling families who want to be in the thick of the action but without the wild nights.
Other good options include Choeng Mon, Bophut, Lipa Noi and Maenam. If views of neighboring Ang Thong National Park are preferable to fine sand, there's Taling Ngam, which sits in a remote corner of Koh Samui. Keep in mind, this one is really far from the action.
It'll take a few tries before you look this good kiteboarding.
Learning kiteboarding skills takes energy and commitment. But vacationers can still nurse a hangover and give it a go. Koh Samui is one of several Thailand beach destinations that attracts fans of the sport, thanks to the island's optimal wind conditions. For lessons, there's the Samui branch of Kiteboarding Asia.
Ang Thong Marine Park is reachable on a day trip, and deserted enough to offer unspoiled Crusoe charm. "The Beach" may have been filmed elsewhere, but it was this 42-island archipelago that provided the inspiration -- a truly stunning spot to snorkel, dive, lie on the beach or kayak. One of the park's islands, Maekoh, has its own emerald inland lake. Most hotels and Koh Samui travel agencies offer a variety of Ang Thong tours.
Best dive spots close to Samui are off the southwest coast around Koh Taen.
Because Samui is essentially a sand island, the water just offshore can be murky. In other words, the island's dive options suck. But there are inspiring snorkeling and dive trips that leave Samui daily for nearby islands like Koh Phangan and Koh Tao and Ang Thong Marine Park. For snorkelers, the waters around the much-photographed islets at Koh Nang Yuan, off Koh Tao, are often fishbowl clear.
Sail Rock is a popular world-class dive site halfway between Koh Phangan and Koh Tao, one of the few places in the world where you can dive with whale sharks. Sightings generally are present between March and August. Koh Tao itself has more than 30 dive sites and considerably more schools and operators. The 100 Degrees East Dive Team limits the number of divers/snorkelers per trip and heads for less-visited areas or gets to the popular ones early to avoid the crowds.
Samui claims to have Asia's first cable ride.
Not all the action in Samui takes place on the water. There's also flying through tropical treetops strapped into a harness while snatching glimpses of the glistening coast below. The rides at Canopy Adventures, which claims to be Asia's first cable ride, are set in one of Samui's least spoiled patches of forest, near Mae Nam on the northwest coast. Altogether there are 15 cable rides, with 21 treetop platforms, totaling some 2,000 meters. A secret waterfall for a cool-off awaits along the way.
Koh Samui has two mountainside golf country clubs -- Santiburi and the Royal Samui Golf -- with above-par views from the tees. At Santiburi, carts are mandatory and absolutely necessary. The course takes players up, down and around a wide area, offering fantastic views that challenge you to keep your mind on the game.
Magic Buddha Garden
Hidden in the mists of Koh Samui's hillside jungle, the Magic Buddha Garden is a mystical anomaly created by local septuagenarian fruit farmer Nimm Thongsuk. Along a mountain stream, Uncle Nimm built statues and sculptures that portray various deities and mythical creatures.
It's an oddball, best of Koh Samui attractions that's worth including on an island tour, in addition to the usual Big Buddha and Grandfather/Grandmother (penis/vagina) rock stops. The final climb up to the garden can be a little steep.
Bangkok Airways operates daily flights between the Thai capital and Koh Samui.
As Samui International Airport is privately owned by Bangkok Airways, the only carriers flying in are the airline itself, plus some flights operated by Thai Airways and Silk Air. However, international connections are easy via Bangkok. Bangkok Airways flies direct to more than a dozen destinations throughout the region.
A variety of fast and slow ferries connects mainland Surat Thani with Koh Samui, arriving and departing from piers at Nathon, Lipa Noi, Bang Rak and Mae Nam. If you're traveling through southern Thailand by car (which makes for a scenic road trip), regular car ferries run every hour from 5 a.m.-7 p.m.
Most hotels provide airport transfers, but for a slightly cheaper option there's an official airport taxi counter, where you pay the fare in advance. Local cabs aren't metered so, for example, it's usually 400 baht ($11) for a 10-minute ride to Bophut. It's 100 baht ($3) in a shared mini-bus if you're not on a tight schedule.
If you plan to do more than hang out on the beach, the easiest way to get around the island is by car. The airport has several rental counters -- Avis, Budget, Hertz, Europcar -- each offering a fleet of sedans, SUVs, minivans and jeeps. Local companies such as TA Car Rent usually have lower rates than the big brands and flexible drop-off and return locations.
Motorbike rentals are about 150-250 baht ($4-7) per day depending on the bike's condition. Despite many people driving without them, Thai law requires wearing a helmet. The island has one of the highest road fatality rates in the country. Legend has it the only activity that's deadlier is sitting under a coconut tree.
A safe way to get around is to flag down a converted red pickup (songthaew), the island's non-scheduled public transportation. Prices range from 30-80 baht per ride for short distances. For longer distances, the rule of thumb is 100 baht ($3) per beach you want to travel to (for example, 300 baht from Chaweng to Bophut).