Pristine beach at the resort
If you’ve had it with crowds and seek respite from tourist spots, the east coast of Malaysia has pristine sand, shady palms and azure water without the usual hordes. An introvert’s dream, the four-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur means it’s the option for those seriously after a sliver of solitude, but it’s a picturesque enough route and much of the time you feel as if you have the place to yourself.
Evidenced not only by its 17th-century design inspired by a Malay palace, there’s an endearing focus on heritage here, which filters right the way through from authentic fare to the activities on offer. Morning yoga classes are distinctly Malaysian, indera deria, so no downward dogs, influenced rather by regional animals, including eagles and turtles; it’s an interesting mishmash of yoga, tai chi and meditation. Led by resident naturalist and longest standing member of staff, Captain Mok, famed for colourful stories and his knowledge of native surrounds. He also takes the morning sucimurni stretching exercise based on the seven animal chakras, to begin the day on a wellness high note.
There’s no shortage of big personalities at the resort. Breakfast and local speciality eatery Di Atas Sungei has become known as the ‘Talking Chef Restaurant’ due to its gregarious protagonist. Chef Ann does her rounds, stopping at each table to ask guests personally what they’re in the mood for and customising dishes accordingly – most never even pick up a menu. The concept takes inspiration from that of a Malay home, where meals are prepared based on visitors’ preferences.
Food is an important part of local culture and guests can take part in classes like Secrets of Malay Kitchen, which is among the most popular. Some are complimentary, and are a great opportunity to chat with other guests. The Wednesday traditional handicraft session involved a group of us sitting cross-legged in a circle making ketupat, a diamond-shaped pouch of palm leaves. Though commonly used during festive occasions or as a container for cooking rice, for our purposes they were combined with fresh flowers as part of a bouquet. The intricate work called for instantly built camaraderie between the less nimble fingered members of the group.
Excursions are another way to get to know other guests. The highlight of the stay, hands down, was the snorkelling (and diving for some) in Tenggol Island, a seriously underrated spot for marine life as most tend to opt for the better known Perhentian Islands, a 45-minute speedboat ride from the Dungan jetty. The coral, fish and visibility were the best I have seen in Asia, rivaling even that of the flawless Maldivian waters. The morning begins at Sunset Point, where the reef can be accessed by the beach, so you can retreat to shore and read in a hammock or have a go on the tree swings, where forgetting responsibilities is surprisingly easy.
After snorkellers and divers regroup for lunch on the beach, together we head for Turtle Point, where ogling cartoony coral and swimming with a school of bulbous humphead wrasse is a treat. The divers were lucky enough to see whale sharks on a recent dive, confirming the site as one of Malaysia’s best-kept (not anymore) secrets for thriving marine life. The crew kept us entertained with playful antics and it was a fantastic day on the water.
For a different wildlife encounter, Kenyir Elephant Village, located by Temelong River, is a sanctuary dedicated to improving the human-wildlife conflict and increasing awareness by giving rescued and orphan elephants and home, which of which 90 per cent of the 256 hectares are untouched in an attempt to preserve their natural habitat. Breathtaking landscapes around the resort also include the 300m Chemerung Waterfall, where you can hike its craggy mountainside and take a dip in crystal clear water.
If sloth-like is more your pace, you technically needn’t set foot off grounds to experience nature as a taste of the jungle is minutes away. The Jara Hill Walk & Malay Herbal Garden Visit takes you up a path into a lush tangle where frankly there isn’t a great deal to see, except for a wooden deck with views of the ocean, though mostly obstructed by the overgrowth. Douse yourself in repellent, as mozzies are relentless. If plants and herbs don’t interest you, perhaps give it a miss, though may be worth going just to hear Captain Mok’s story on surviving a king cobra bite and advice on how to repel leeches when trekking (if you’re wondering, soak your socks in seawater and let them hang out to dry; the salt repels them).
License to Chill
Considering the schlep to Terengganu, you are probably content to spend the majority of the time prone, sipping on coconuts and doing little else, with no judgement on our part. The most obvious resort indulgence aside from its idyllic setting is dining. A picnic on the beach is decadent, so come hungry as the portions are no joke – mammoth-sized pasta, sandwich, fruit and cheese plate. Nelayan is the favourite for a romantic dinner à deux. Try the cod with lobster sauce and flourless chocolate cake. Another lovely place for sundowners or steamboat (hotpot, if you’re from Hong Kong) is shady Teretai Terrace where there’s nothing separating you from the jungle.
Since you’re spoiling yourself, you may as well do it properly with the signature Asam Roselle treatment at Spa Village Tanjong Jara, where the incredible massage, scrub and tea served at the end are each inspired by the dark red hibiscus flower. Introduced into Malaysia from India, it’s used in traditional medicine and local cuisine, believed to lower blood sugar levels, ability to create collagen naturally and for its anti-inflammatory properties. The combination of long kneading strokes and exfoliation with rice and coconut oil will ensure you leave feeling, smelling and looking as you should post-getaway.