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Malaysia: Pulau Redang and Pulau Lang Tengah are near-perfect islands

I get fidgety on holidays. Even by Day Two, while others are sleeping-in, making selections at an omelette station or claiming a poolside deckchair for the day, I’m clambering over a rocky headland, half-lost, or hiking unexpectedly into a village square full of bemused locals doing some kind of weaving.

It’s often rewarding, this early-morning obsession with exploration. Sometimes, though, I think I’d be better off staying under the 220-thread sheets, within arm’s reach of the mini-bar.

Macaque attack

Such was the case with my recent 6.30am jungle trek on Pulau Redang. My aim was to walk from Pasir Panjang (not the street in Singapore but Redang’s nicest beach) on the east coast of the island, up to deserted Teluk Dalam in the north.

Few people bother with this trek. This much was quickly obvious from all the ropey spider webs that broke across my face along the path. It’s not a lot of fun, disturbing fist-sized orb spiders with your nose.

Still, it’s more fun than being attacked by a family of macaque monkeys. Yes, macaques – those pesky but ostensibly benign critters that hang around the car parks of Singapore’s nature reserves. Halfway through my trek, an enormous family of them appeared in the canopy above. Initially, I was unfazed. A bunch of noisy monkeys? Pffft.

Then, however, the animals began descending the trees towards me – 20 or more of them, in formation, flapping their lips back in frosty fashion. I had a sudden vision of a gruesome demise in paradise.

My escape was undignified. After breaking into a sprint (or a trundle, at least), I tripped on a tree root and made a mess of my right elbow. I still bear a faint scar; a reminder whenever I’m at a fancy resort never to venture beyond the Lobby Lounge or Garden Spa.

Redang’s recent arrival

The most foolish part of the story is that the place I’d escaped for the morning warrants spending every second in its luxurious embrace.

Newly opened, the Sari Pacifica occupies the cosy northern end of Pasir Panjang, a long white strip of sand facing the kind of aqua ocean that makes office workers waste countless hours on TripAdvisor planning their next leave.

Accommodation at the Sari consists of 74 black-and-white bungalows, almost Singaporean in style. They’re ultra-comfortable yet unpretentious. Those that aren’t set around a lushly flowered lagoon are perched right on the dunes, with a front porch leading down to the sand and tranquil waters beyond. Pay a bit extra and secure one of these.

Things were in soft-opening mode during my visit; more recently, a spa has opened on the premises, taking the Sari another notch beyond the other five or six resorts vying for tourist dollars on Pasir Panjang.

The food is very good, too. The Sari Pacifica doesn’t offer buffet dining of the ice-sculptures-and-free-flow-Moët variety; rather, it treads a more modest path, one befitting a mellow beach holiday off the coast of Malaysia. The earthy local curries are a standout. I especially enjoyed the refreshing guava juice offered at breakfast, too, if only because I’d just run two kilometres in about six minutes to escape a jungle full of chest-beating apes.

The rise of Redang
Late 1980s
When the first resorts began opening on Redang, the island was home to around 250 fishing families. Many lived at Kampung Air (“water village”) on the southern coast.

1991
Redang was declared a marine park, which simultaneously helped conservation efforts and attracted more visitors.

2000

The release of the film Summer Holiday (not the Cliff Richard one, but a hit movie from Hong Kong) gained international exposure for the island, where many of the scenes were filmed.

2003

The Berjaya Group completed work on the airport and the first direct flights between Kuala Lumpur and Redang commenced in 2004.

2005

Direct flights between Singapore and Redang began.

Sharks are a doddle
Redang, with its surrounding islands and reefs, attracts divers in their droves. The Sari Pacifica’s dive-master, Paul, is a chilled-out Brit who never lets a few of the ocean’s snappier creatures get in the way of some quality time spent below its surface.

“It’s really refreshing to see so many sharks around here,” he announced, mere moments before I leapt into reasonably deep water wearing just a pair of board-shorts and a snorkel. “It means the water is extremely clear.”

But I wasn’t overly concerned. I’d faced a phalanx of marauding gorillas only a handful of hours earlier, so this was nothing. Almost like he was reading my mind, Paul piped up: “Anyway, they’re only white-tip reef sharks.”

“See?” I felt like saying to the nervy group of Singaporeans on the dive-boat. “They’re only white-tip reef sharks. Now, take a can of Toughen-Up and get in the water!”

The snorkelling was excellent, by the way. No sharks in the end, but plenty of pretty coral, parrotfish and enormous hump-head wrasse. I also kept an eye out for Green and Hawksbill turtles, since Redang is a nesting and conservation area for these awesome but threatened animals. If you come for the diving, there are historic shipwrecks to explore: both the HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse were sunk by the Japanese navy off Redang in the Second World War.

Back at the Sari, we enjoyed an evening barbecue on the beach, the tables brightly lit by spotlights rigged up in the coconut palms and by the intense illumination provided by my sunburn.

Island hopping
Fifteen kilometres away from Pulau Redang is Pulau Lang Tengah. It’s a drop in the ocean – barely two kilometres long and less than one wide. Until recently, this turquoise-rimmed island was considered a budget-minded afterthought to the real deal over on Redang. Three modest properties offered unfussy divers plenty of full tanks but only the most threadbare of facilities.

Things are afoot. Not content with opening on Redang, the Sari Pacifica recently unveiled a Lang Tengah resort, too, occupying a beach of Caribbean perfection – a cerulean sea, and whiter-than-white sand made from coral crushed so fine it feels feathery.

I only popped over to Lang Tengah on a day-trip from Redang, but it was hard to leave. It’s probably a good thing that the Sari’s rooms weren’t quite ready during my visit or I might still be hiding there today, pretending to be a room-service guy, and occasionally swatting a macaque away with a chilled hand towel.
Fact File
Where to stay: Check out the three new Sari Pacifica resorts off Malaysia’s east coast (Pulau Redang, Pulau Lang Tengah and Pulau Sibu) at www.saripacifica.com. Rates start at US$350. Note: the resorts are open until 15 November, at which time they will close for the monsoon season, reopening three months later on 15 February 2011.

Getting there: Berjaya Air flies directly to Pulau Redang from Seletar Airport, but you’ll still need to get a boat from the airstrip to the resorts on the island’s east coast. It’s much cheaper – and arguably more interesting – to take Firefly (a subsidiary of Malaysia Airlines) from Changi to Kuala Terengganu on the mainland, from where it’s a short bus ride to the coast then a 30-minute trip by boat to the Sari Pacifica.

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