The northern part of the east coast of Malaysia is known for beautiful blue sea, white beaches and wonderful marine life, including turtles. The thing is it’s a bit of a pain to get to from Singapore.
It’s definitely better now that Firefly has direct flights to Kuantan, but you still have a long road journey to get to the best beaches; alternatively, you can fly to KL and get a connecting flight to Terengganu, but again, there’s a decent drive at the end of it.
And once you get there, you can’t guarantee what the accommodation is going to be like – friends of mine went up to the Perhentian Islands and spent a fortune on a very average place. So it’s not surprising that a lot of expats skip it in their general review of where to travel in the region.
I recently took the plunge on a press trip to Tanjong Jara on the east coast of Malaysia to see if there was somewhere up there that’s got it right. I do think it’s worth the fairly complicated trip, and I’m pleased I went. Tanjong Jara Resort, on the coast between Kuantan and Terengganu, ticked all the boxes in terms of a very laidback environment with fantastic service. The food ranged from absolutely delicious (buttermilk prawns) to mediocre (overcooked fish) but that was okay, since the snorkelling and nearly everything else made up for any shortfall in that area.
The bedrooms in the new two-storey block where we stayed are lovely, large and clean. I was in the Bumbung Room upstairs with views over the sea; in the morning you can sit on your large balcony and watch the sun come up. There are also the single Anjung Rooms – bungalow-style, with sunken outdoor baths. These look straight onto the grass and out to sea. But I actually liked being higher up, plus there’s more privacy in the upstairs rooms.
The sand is white and the beaches are long and empty – perfect in my book. The sea just off the hotel is nice, but you really need to boat it out to the other little islands for the special stuff.
We went on a day trip to Tenggol Island, part of the Terengganu Marine Park, where you can choose to snorkel or dive from $150 to $250 including a barbecue lunch on the beach. Just 45 minutes by boat from the hotel takes you to the best coral I have seen. The entire sea floor where we lunched was covered in about ten different types, with colours ranging from rose to deep purple. There were also huge starfish, fish of all different shapes and sizes and a substantial sized turtle who wasn’t shy! It’s very protected and no flippers are allowed.
Diving in areas of up to 30 metres guarantees sightings of giant trevallies, jacks and barracudas and sometimes event whale sharks. The new dive operator is the Quiver Dive Team; we had three Brits who took us snorkelling and diving.
The Marine Park is only accessible by boat so it’s generally quiet; there are some very rustic accommodation options on the island, but I have no idea what they would be like. Judging by the toilet, I’d give them a miss…
Back at the hotel, breakfast in the Di Atas Sungei restaurant is lovely with a choice of dining on the terrace under the trees or inside. We also ate dinner here the first night and became hooked on the prawns in buttermilk – actually just prawns in garlic cream with crunchy shavings of egg on top. So unbelievably good that we got them to make it for us on the second night and bring it down to the other restaurant, Nelayan, which is on the beach. When the weather’s good, as it was for us, you can eat right next to the water under the stars with a bonfire nearby. It was beautiful.
The Village Spa is lovely, a complex of little chalets amongst gardens and pools. My Malay massage experience including a flower bath was well deserved after our bike ride – not for the fainthearted (or soft-bottomed). We cycled through local villages (and, sadly, a fair bit of rubbish) to a “roti and coffee” stop, with a longer than planned visit at the night market on the way home. I was with a group of Singaporean journalists and hadn’t realised just how important food was to them – even after all this time! – until I saw them in action in Malaysia. Where does it all go? After all of this they still managed to go straight to dinner…
If you’re a foodie or just want to be able to cook the prawn dish I mentioned, you can also take part in cooking classes and a trip to the local market to buy the ingredients. Alternatively you can try your hand at batik painting classes, or take a nature walk with someone who can tell you all about the various plants in the area.
The gardens are not as pristine as you might find at the top hotels in Bali, and it’s definitely not the manicured look of Singapore, but it’s very natural and calm – and there isn’t staff everywhere you look, which I also liked. We all decided that this was one place we would want to come back to – which is a huge plug.
YTL is a Malaysian owned chain that also has hotels in Thailand, Indonesia, China, Japan, France and the UK. Their Pangkor Laut Resort was voted the world’s best in 2003, so they know how to do things right.
When to go: March to October
Diving: Quite strong currents outside of the little bay
Food: Huge variety in and outside of the hotel
Contact: +65 6836 2455 | firstname.lastname@example.org
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