I'm standing on an emerald slope staring out at row upon row of neatly trimmed grape vines. But this isn't the Barossa or Margaret River - and it certainly isn't a place renowned for viticulture.More Thailand
Coffee and tea plantations are more the norm here in the hills above Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand. But the Siam Winery is not your common or garden estate, for the grapes growing here in the cool of the hills about 200m above sea level were tested at a nearby royal research station before the first shiraz grapes were planted on the site of this old elephant corral on King Rama IX's birthday back in 2003.
Likewise, the inaugural vintage, the Monsoon Valley Royal Shiraz bin 9, came to fruition in 2005 to mark the monarch's 60th year on the throne. Here - under a slate-grey tropical sky amid the palms, bamboo, frangipani and organically grown pineapples - the sight of a 100ha vineyard is incongruous. But while the vines are young and the Monsoon Valley wines are still developing the characteristics that will see them become more full-bodied, Siam Winery is a very pleasant place to spend a Saturday afternoon in the cool away from the humid coast.
We clamber into a World War II-era US Jeep for a novel tour of the vineyard and I'm enjoying the soft breeze on my face. There are a number of walking or cycle tracks but, in the drizzle, the canopied Jeep seems a more sensible option. The more adventurous - or those who like a better view - can take a ride on one of the resident elephants, Honey Bee or Som Sri ($10 for 15 minutes). Appetites sufficiently whetted, we join other hungry diners at the Sala Wine Bar and Bistro for delicious tasting plates matched with Siam Winery riesling and shiraz.
A couple of hours south of Bangkok, Hua Hin was just a small fishing village when King Rama VII arrived in the 1920s to build Klai Kangwon or "Far From Worries" Palace. Still an official royal residence, it's never been more aptly named, for Hua Hin has also become the weekend getaway of choice for Bangkok residents - as a result, holidaymakers would do well to choose any time other than Friday afternoon to attempt the drive south.
But despite the big-name hotels, fast food joints and shopping malls, Hua Hin is less frenzied than Phuket and Krabi. The main street is a clutch of seafood restaurants, massage parlours, dental clinics, boutiques and tailors who advertise their wares in languages from Swedish and German to Danish and Finnish. But there's a languid feel and no one seems in much of a hurry.
The 1920s also saw the arrival of the railway and Hua Hin station that reminds me of quaint Dalat, built by the French in the highlands of Vietnam. But whereas Dalat's terminal is eccentrically Art Deco and largely for tourists, Hua Hin's pink and cream wood station was once part of a royal pavilion and sees plenty of services to Bangkok.
One never has to venture far to see a temple in Thailand but if you don't look up you'll miss Khao Takiab, or Chopstick Temple, which is perched on the mountain of the same name above the small fishing hamlet of, you guessed it, Chopstick village.
We're only a few kilometres south of Hua Hin but there are none of the mod cons of the tourist resort. The waterfront is bustling in late afternoon as men drag nets laden with fish and dump still-twitching specimens into wicker baskets next to buckets full of shiny mussels. At the top of Chopstick Mountain, I'm met with an armed escort in the shape of 10-year-old Nu, whose mother sells postcards by the steps to the pagoda. As with many South-East Asian temples, this one is infested with thousands of macaques, dirty, smelly, screeching, aggressive little nuisances that can deliver a bacteria-filled scratch.
But Nu saw a gap in the security market. He spends his days off school protecting travellers from the monkeys, armed only with a slingshot and a pouch full of stones that he wears around his waist.
The macaques have become so accustomed to his lethal accuracy that he merely has to raise the wooden fork and they scamper squealing in to the undergrowth.
Perfectly aware that I'm a much bigger target than a macaque, I tip Nu but to his credit he seems both surprised and delighted and bows respectfully, palms together, when I hand him a note equivalent to about 80¢. Further along the low forest-cloaked range, a pebble path leads through a beautifully tended fig, palm, bamboo and cactus forest at Hin Lek Fai Hill (Flint Mountain) where a statue of Rama VII, the man who fell so in love with Hua Hin, stares out to the South China Sea. And a soothing breeze wafts up from the water, cooling all who followed in his footsteps where they now gaze out over the golf links to the pretty patchwork of Hua Hin's roofs which stretch along the coast as far as the eye can see.
• For more on Thailand, see tourismthailand. org/au.
• Deluxe rooms at Amari Hua Hin start from $112. amari.com
• Amari Hua Hin has a comprehensive website about the seaside town which includes information on where to shop, eat and play at destination.amari. com/en/huahin
• Signature mood massages at Amari's Breeze Spa start from $43 for one hour. breeze-spa.comNiall McIlroy was a guest of Amari and the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
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