From behind her check-in desk at Rome international airport and between gritted teeth, Beatrice Falchini would resentfully wish happy holidaymakers a wonderful journey as they headed to departures.
Processing hundreds of passengers and their baggage every day, she daydreamed about escaping the rat race and enjoying a simpler life.
Four years ago, she and her boyfriend, Fabrizio Polici, accidentally discovered the unspoilt island paradise of Koh Rong. While travelling in Laos, Beatrice was craving the sea and opening Google maps, she digitally swooped over the waters of the Gulf of Thailand, hunting via satellite for crystalline waters and white sand. Off the coast of Sihanoukville, she spotted Koh Rong “shaped like a butterfly” and the couple set out to find this beautiful island gem.
Beatrice and Fabrizio fell in love with Koh Rong and last March they abandoned Italy and moved to the island.
In January, they opened Pura Vida Resort on Long Set beach. So far, they have only their restaurant and bar and two wooden beachside bungalows: construction has started on a third.
Their focus is on simplicity and comfort and, indeed, the accommodation is basic, but clean and very comfortable. Quality mattresses have been carefully selected, a big bathroom includes all the necessities and a decent mosquito net ensures that your sleep won’t be disrupted by any irritating insects. They don’t plan to expand very much; they value the tranquillity of the beach and the attention they can afford to only a small handful of guests.
Aside from Pura Vida’s three-and-a-half buildings, the beach is an entirely unpopulated four-kilometre stretch of luminous fine sand, lapped by crystal clear sea which shades from bright turquoise to navy blue. Behind the beach, lush green jungle reaches up into the hills. There are no sounds other than the waves, the wildlife and the rush of cool sea breeze through the foliage.
At night, the stars are radiant, almost matched by the sparking phosphorescence in the sea.
There is little or no mobile reception or internet connection on the island, which is a two to three hour boat trip from the mainland, leaving nothing at all to distract from total relaxation. The warm water is perfect for swimming and there are decent opportunities for snorkelling and diving around the island.
The surroundings are sublime, but it is the fine Italian cooking which makes Pura Vida truly spectacular. Both passionate (and excellent) cooks, Beatrice and Fabrizio proudly prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner for their guests. Theirs is the best Italian food I have found in Cambodia, probably in no small part thanks to the care and dedication invested in their kitchen.
They painstakingly source or import Italian pasta, quality extra-virgin olive oil, parmesan and balsamic vinegar as well as perfectly soft Italian flour for baking mango cakes. I ate one for breakfast every morning of our stay, sprinkled indulgently with chocolate chips. They use only the freshest ingredients and meals are prepared to order, depending on what produce arrived on that morning’s boat.
There is no menu at Pura Vida. Beatrice will describe the contents of her larder to diners and suggest potential combinations, all of which will make the mouth water. Her squid with fresh tomato was cooked to perfection and spaghetti with bacon was delicious. Chicken escalope in white wine sauce was incredible and accompanied by a huge mixed salad and crispy potatoes seasoned with rosemary. Pura Vida has a good selection of wines and plenty of cold, local Klang beers. Priced around US$7 per main course, the cost is a bit higher than other restaurants on the island, but the quality more than justifies a couple of extra dollars.
At $50 a night, Pura Vida’s bungalows are also significantly more expensive than other options on the island, but the pristine seclusion and wonderful service makes it worthwhile for those not counting the pennies on a backpacker budget.
There are major plans under way for developing Koh Rong: a ring road, golf course and casino have all been mooted. Go now; it still remains a paradise with near perfect espresso.