Phuket an idyllic isle

The Big Buddha, near Karon / Pictures: Richard Pennick

The Big Buddha looks down from his mountain-top throne - at 45m tall, it's an impressive structure.

Our taxi driver has pointed out this white, marble-clad wonder in the distance as we drive south from Phuket airport, along the west coast to Karon Beach and our beachfront resort.

Beyond Resort Karon is the only one actually on Karon Beach, so that's where we stay for the first five days of our 10-day Phuket holiday. Our room overlooks the beach, which curves 5km to the far headland. We happily spend our first two days walking on the sand, relaxing by the pool and browsing the shops.

We never tire of waking to the sounds of surf, exotic birds and the familiar perfume of frangipani on tropical holiday mornings. We love to linger over extravagant resort breakfasts in a blossom-filled garden or beside a beach.

On day three, we hire a car and driver to visit the Big Buddha and nearby Wat Chalong temple. A winding road leads 6km up through the rainforest, to the Buddha and his 360-degree views around the coast of Phuket Island.

The gardens around the Buddha's lotus throne are a spiritual place of peace and harmony. The gentle sound of prayer bells floats on the breeze. There are shaded seats for contemplation. Young monks give blessings and a Buddhist wristband for a small donation at the information centre.

Thailand is a devoutly Buddhist country. There are numerous Buddhist temples (or "wat") on Phuket Island; some old, some quite new. The most important is Wat Chalong. It is by far the biggest and most spectacular temple we visit and comprises five beautiful buildings. The main temple is a place of prayer.

Outside the temple, we are startled by explosions and smoke - firecrackers. A wedding party is gathered and guests have lit bundles of firecrackers to wish for the newlyweds' happiness.

Later for dinner we walk along Karon Beach and up rock steps to On the Rock Restaurant. Under bamboo and thatch, outstanding cuisine is served - sometimes with stunning Andaman Sea sunsets. We enjoy prawns with garlic pepper, rice, and sweet and sour chicken and pork.

The next morning, in need of serious exercise, we walk for 45 minutes up through Karon town, over the hill and on to Kata Beach. Even to our unqualified eyes, this is a surfing beach and Kata town a bit of a surfie community.

Small local buses circle the towns of Kata, Karon and Patong for 37 baht ($1.30). We take one for the ride back to Karon (the tuktuk is 200 baht). The old bus chugs along about 5km/h with open windows and an ancient oscillating fan cooling the interior.

We take a tuktuk back to Kata town that evening for dinner at the popular open-sided Capannina Italian Restaurant. Proprietor Roberto Ugolini serves the most generous of portions and we break from Thai cuisine to relish the finest of Italian pizzas.

On day six, we leave the excellent resort by taxi for Surin Beach, further up the island's west coast. The small, tranquil community has five exclusive resort estates, discreetly spaced along Surin Beach Road.

We are welcomed at the Twinpalms Resort for five days of pampered luxury. We are even offered a choice of pillow type and diffuser fragrances. Our spacious, stylish room overlooks a lovely garden, frangipanis and a 50m lap pool. The resort's high foyer, lounges and restaurants are arranged around water features. The breakfasts are to die for - the croissant pudding is a first for me.

Opposite the Twinpalms Resort, a path leads through a park to a palm-shaded lane with cafes, restaurants, shops and a temple overlooking the manicured beach. The resort community maintains the area in impeccable order and the beach boys are ever-attentive.

Two of the restaurants, the stylish Catch Beach Club and more casual Bimi Beach Club, are owned by the Twinpalms Resort. Both serve excellent Thai and Western meals. After a couple of self-indulgent days on the beach, beside the pool and in the restaurants (there is also an excellent gym and library), we venture further afield.

We hire the resort's car and driver and head north and inland through the lush hills to Old Phuket Town. Guidebook in hand, we set off on the recommended one-hour historic walk.

The old town is not big. Over time, each street has acquired a "theme": clothing, herbs, art, antiques, restaurants and clubs. All are spaced around beautiful temples with peaceful gardens and cooling interiors. On Soi Romanee, a row of lovingly restored shophouses preserves the town's Sino-Portuguese architecture.

The eclectic On On Hotel is a must-see. Opened in 1929 during the heyday of the tin-mining boom to accommodate Chinese and European traders, it is a time warp, with period lounges, timbered ceilings, yellowing photographs, antique furniture, fittings and artworks.

The Sino-Portuguese architecture of Phuket's grand mansions is represented by the Thai Hua Museum on Krabi Road. It was built by European and Chinese tin-mining magnates in the early 1900s as a Chinese language school. It now preserves the island's intriguing and colourful colonial history, as well as accounts of the tin-mining era and evolution of today's rubber cultivation.

Our last stop is Central Festival Phuket, a full-on shopping mall just outside Old Phuket Town. The 120 shops in this squeaky-clean emporium offer products available in similar centres worldwide - but with the duty-free difference.

We succumb to mochas, a cinnamon pastry and welcome air-conditioning at Starbucks.

Phuket is a magnificent holiday island. The sunshine, the beaches, the food, the history, the culture and the gentle people - we enjoyed everything.