Finding my treasure island
Yacht owner Gulu Lalvani on his love of Phuket and his family yachting trips around the Land of Smiles
Back in 1970, British businessman Gulu Lalvani was living and working in London when a friend invited him for a sail on board his new Sunseeker. Up to that point, Lalvani had no idea about the yachting lifestyle, or indeed, how much he would like it. The trip would end up changing his life. “I decided after a two-day sail on the boat that I wanted one for myself. Before then, although I could afford boating life, I had no idea how pleasurable it was,” he says.
He ended up buying a yacht himself, and over the years they got bigger and bigger. He would take trips to the South of France, Italy and Turkey – and then he moved to Hong Kong and a whole new world of destinations opened up. “By then, I’d become so fond of boats that every year, I would travel to three new destinations. The destinations had to have four elements; sun, sand, sea and sailing.”
In 1991, a friend told Lalvani about a new resort that had opened in Phuket. The Amanpuri was – and still is – an iconic property set on the white sands Panesea Beach overlooking the turquoise Andaman Sea. “I’d never been to Phuket at that point,” says Lalvani, “but we decided to book a villa there for Christmas. Lalvani took his wife and three children on the trip and on the third day, they chartered a boat and sailed around the island. “I came back that night to the hotel and saw the manager of the hotel who asked us if we were enjoying our holiday. I told him I’d enjoyed it so much that I wanted to buy one of the villas!” By the end of the trip, a deal had been done and the villa was his.
For Lalvani, the only thing missing was a space to park his yacht. It sparked an idea to build a new marina, where villas would have their own private yacht berths. There was a problem though. At that time the import duty on yachts coming into Thailand was prohibitively expensive. Lalvani decided to find a solution. “I met with the prime minister at the start of 2002 and explained how he could bring more affluent tourism to the island by bringing this duty down to zero. I showed him research from the US and Turkey demonstrating how the local economy could benefit from yachting visits. It impressed him a lot and by the end of the first meeting, we’d shaken hands to make it happen.”
Lalvani’s plan to retire on the island was growing ever closer, but when construction was interrupted by the tsunami in 2004, banks started to pull out of financing. “It didn’t deter me; I invested everything to carry on. By 2005, the first villa was finished and the marina was full of boats.”
Today the Royal Phuket Marina, sitting on the east coast of Phuket, is home to a collection of world-class villas, where owners can simply walk out of their front doors and onto their yachts within seconds, just as Lalvani always visualised. Once on board, there are countless places to visit. “Phuket has something very special. One hour from Royal Phuket Marina there are 32 beautiful islands,” says Lalvani. “We don’t tend to go away for more than two or three days because all the beautiful places are so nearby.”
It’s the ideal way to holiday with his wife, children and five grandchildren, who all adore the region as much as him, flying in from London, Hong Kong and Zurich whenever they can. “We’ll take the boat from the marina and go to different beaches and islands. They all swim a lot and the water is so clear you can see 20 metres down. We also have jet skis and other things on board – I don’t use them but they enjoy it. They like the inflatable slide the best.”
For Lalvani, Phuket’s charm goes far beyond the beautiful sailing spots. “The people in Thailand are very welcoming – it’s called the Land of Smiles,” he says. That makes any holidaymaker feel very welcome. And of course, the weather is beautiful for most of the year. Even in the rainy season, it doesn’t rain for too long.”
When the family aren’t in Thailand, they spend a lot of time in Turkey, another one of Lalavani’s favourite destinations. “My wife is from Turkey so we have a boat there too – it is beautiful. Bodrum is perfect for yachting. It must be one of the top five yachting destinations in the world. Many friends who have only sailed in the South of France or Italy are blown away when they come to join us in Turkey. I think it’s an up-and-coming destination.”