x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A Malaysian base for all budgets

Resort report Whether trekking through ancient rainforests, snorkelling in clear seas or lying on the beach is to your taste, John Brunton picks the best spots.

Landing at Langkawi's International Airport is like stepping back in time. There is no waiting for the bus to ferry you across the runways, no terminal with interminable corridors, just an immediate blast of hot tropical sun and the exotic smells of frangipani as I step out of the plane. A quick walk across the tarmac, and in 10 minutes I'm picking up my luggage and can see Azhar Rani from the travel company holding up a sign with my name, ready to hand over the keys for my hire car. From there it only takes me a quarter of an hour's drive to the Lighthouse (www.thelighthouse-langkawi.com), an idyllic restaurant at the edge of a palm-fringed white sand beach, looking out across the turquoise Andaman Sea and a cluster of some of Langkawi's other 99 islands. This is the perfect spot for sundowner cocktails, as every evening the sky explodes in a kaleidescope of colours. With dozens of lovely beach resorts dotting both its east and west coasts, as well as tiny islands surrounded by coral reefs, Malaysia spoils visitors for choice, but sitting here in the warm twilight, it is difficult to imagine anywhere more magical than Langkawi. Unlike its close neighbour, Thailand's Phuket, Langkawi is virtually unchanged since the first tourist developments began here 25 years ago. There are no high-rise hotels, glitzy bars and shopping malls, just unspoilt tropical jungle, deserted beaches and a rural lifestyle revolving around rice farming that carries on today. The owner of the Lighthouse is Shukrie Shafie, an old friend from when I used to live in Kuala Lumpur, who hung up his business suits years ago to come here, open the restaurant and then launch an immensely successful cooking school, Cook with Shuk, where guests visit his traditional wooden house, learning to cook spicy beef rendang and curry laksa. His signature dish, ikan pepes, is delicious red snapper baked in banana leaf.

Two long beaches, Pantai Tengah and Pantai Cenang, stretch between the Lighthouse and Bon Ton Resort. This is the only part of Langkawi that has slightly changed over the years, developing into a favourite hangout of backpacker and budget travellers, drawn here by its low-cost hostels and small hotels, beachside foodstalls and spas. At the end is Bon Ton, a tranquil spot away from the beach itself, looking out over rice paddies. This unique resort is the brainchild of Narelle McMurtrie, a feisty Australian who came to Langkawi after running gourmet restaurants in Malacca and Kuala Lumpur. She is passionate about the country's unique architectural heritage, and created Bon Ton by transforming thatched island kampung houses into comfortable guest bungalows. Last year she opened the adjoining Temple Tree, a collection of 1920s and '30s houses from all across Malaysia, that is much more luxurious, with chic interior design and what has to be the longest swimming pool I have ever seen. Staying here you have to like animals, as Narelle has set up her own sanctuary, and dozens of cats prowl the compound, deciding which bungalow - and visitor - to adopt. Bon Ton's restaurant serves inventive fusion cuisine, and the Chin Chin Bar, which resembles an opulent Chinese opium den, is a favourite late-night hangout for tourists in-the-know and expats based here.

It's not easy dragging myself out of bed early next morning, but the boat is waiting for a day's island-hopping. It is tempting to laze away a whole visit on Langkawi's main island, but a trip sailing through some of the 98 others is unforgettable, as they rise suddenly out of the sea like a Norwiegian fjord, with steep, craggy cliffs topped with impenetrable jungle. The marine life is stunning too, with no need for any scuba expertise, just simple snorkelling to view thousands of exotically coloured fish weaving through the coral. The highlights of the trip are when the boat lands at a deserted beach on Pulau Dayang Bunting, the island of the Pregnant Maiden, named after a Malay legend that promises women who bathe in the island's lake will become pregnant. After a picnic lunch underneath the coconut trees, the boat then stops off at the Marine Park surrounding Payar Island, where the shallow waters are filled with hundreds of baby sharks - totally harmless and just waiting to be fed.

Back on Langkawi, life is not just about swaying coconut trees and sunbathing on the beach, and now I'm off to discover its wilder side, some of the world's oldest rainforest that covers much of the north of the island. At Burau Bay I turn off the main road and begin a narrow, winding 17km route that plunges through dense jungle. At the end lies the Datai, one of Asia's landmark luxury hotels, but also the place where I meet Irshad Mubarak, a leading Malaysian environmentalist. Guests at the hotel can join Irshad for free early morning and night nature walks (www.junglewalla.com). He is a brilliant communicator, explaining and evoking the complex evolution of this million-year-old jungle, its wildlife, birds and magical plants in simple layman's term, peppered with quirky jokes. Once you've been on one of his walks, it is difficult to resist signing up for Irshad's day-long mangrove tour too, a long, sweaty but unforgettable safari by foot and boat that traverses an ecological no-man's land between the river and sea, half seawater, half fresh, whose vegetation has managed to adapt to the extreme changes of water level between high and low tide. The Datai's bungalows are completely surrounded by jungle, and after a day with Irshad, suddenly I'm much more aware of the myriad sounds of animals and insects, squirrels flitting along the canopy, brilliantly coloured birds swooping through the branches, and at night the macaque monkeys clamouring for food on my balcony.

While the Datai is a hidden, discreet resort, Langkawi has one other beautiful beach where travellers can spend a holiday in total opulence. Pantai Rhu is just a half hour's drive away, and at the edge of this white sand beach, Four Seasons has created an exclusive resort which utterly pampers guests, but at a price, of course. The place resembles a Moorish palace transplanted in Malaysia, a riot of bright colours that stand out against the white sand and lush green vegetation. But the hotel does not quite run till the end of Pantai Rhu, and I drive up to where the road ends, and on one side, there is a busy jetty with boats moored to take visitors out into the mangrove, and on the other, a tiny bay marked by two limestone islets that shoot out of the water looking like a dragon with a long tail. The sunset is just as breathtaking as back on the first day at the Lighthouse, but this is living Langkawi rather than a scenic picture postcard, as hundreds of local women wade out into the low tide and harvest heavy sacks of mussels, one of the seafood specialities here, that feature on all the island's restaurant menus.

Running down the length of peninsular Malaysia from the border with Thailand down to the island of Singapore, the east coast is one long tropical beach, stretching virtually interrupted for 644 kilometres. This is the cultural heartland of the Malay people where life is lived at a lazy pace, so banish thoughts of partying or nightlife and concentrate on the suntan and discovering traditional arts and crafts in the bustling markets of Kota Bahru, Kuala Terengganu and Kuantan, where a beautiful hand-printed batik sarong only costs a couple of dollars.

The northern state of Kelantan is more conservative, and this has even led to one of the most famous and romantic beaches being renamed Moonlight Beach from the original Beach of Passionate Love. The beaches of Pahang are a much more laid-back place to be based, with many fishing villages offering simple homestay accommodation, with several tempting luxury hotels too. The beach at Cherating is one of the most beautiful, mysteriously changing shape with the tides.

Cherating is also a great place to discover Malay cuisine. Start off with a traditional breakfast of nasi lemak, coconut-steamed rice with fiery sambal, crispy ikan bilis anchovies and curried egg, and don't miss roadside stalls selling savoury otak otak, fish wrapped in banana leaves and steamed with chilli and coconut, sold for just 50 cents (Dh2). For total luxury, nothing can beat Tanjong Jara resort, an idyllic spot inspired by traditional Malay architecture which offers everything from pampering spa treatments to scuba diving on a desert island to cooking courses run by their Malaysian Chef Anne who is just as entertaining as Jamie Oliver. A double room at the Tanjong Jara resort costs from $370 (Dh1,360) per night, including taxes (www.tanjongjararesort.com; 00 60 9 845 1100). At the other end of the scale: a beach chalet at Maznah's Guesthouse, Cherating, costs from $8 (Dh30) per night, including taxes and breakfast (0060 9 581 9072).

Sitting off the east coast in the crystal clear waters of the South China Sea are half a dozen paradise tropical islands with white sand beaches, surrounded by pristine coral reefs. Redang, Rawa and the tiny cluster of Perhentian's islands, are well-known by scuba lovers and backpackers, but as yet, sophisticated beach resorts are only starting to be developed. It is Tioman, though, that has been a mythical hideaway resort since Hollywood chose it as the location for "Bali Hai" in the movie South Pacific. For years, Tioman was unspoilt because it was so difficult to get to - drive to the fishing town of Mersing then endure a choppy three-hour ferry ride. But since the construction of a small airstrip linking the island to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, travellers don't have to put up with basic chalets on the beach anymore, and instead can choose to stay in places like Japamala, a chic boutique resort that is part of the luxury Relais & Chateaux association, with spa and gourmet Asian fusion restaurant. Although Tioman is brilliant for diving - scuba or snorkelling - the island is also covered with wild jungle flora, and a strenuous seven-kilometre signposted walk that traverses the mountainous interior from one side to the other, beginning at Tekek and ending at Jaura, is an unforgettable experience, though not for the faint-hearted with temperatures exceeding 30°C. A double room at Japamala resort costs from $126 (Dh463) per night, including taxes and breakfast (www.japamalaresorts.com; 0060 9 419 7777).

While Penang certaintly doesn't have fabulous beaches to compare with Malaysia's other resort destinations, it has now become one of the country's hottest destinations since it was recently awarded coveted Unesco world heritage recognition. During the colonial days of Sir Stamford Raffles, the island was known as the Pearl of the Orient, and today, the capital, Georgetown, is one of the last remaining truly authentic Chinatowns in Asia. So while holidaymakers can always head off to the palm-fringed beach of Batu Ferringhi, which is lined with hotels that cater for all budgets, great seafood restaurants and a busy night bazaar for cheap shopping, a much better plan is to base yourself in Georgetown and then just grab a taxi for a dip in the ocean. Georgetown has a host of highly original places to stay, beginning with the legendary Eastern & Oriental Hotel, built by the Sarkey brothers at the same time as they opened Singapore's Raffles and Rangoon's the Strand, and which has been returned to its former glory after a long renovation. Then a sumptuous Chinese mansion, Cheong Fatt Tze, was transformed into an exclusive boutique hotel, and now fashionable interior designers are busy renovating ancient Chinese shophouses and opening hip bed and breakfasts, the latest, the Straits Collection, having opened only a week ago. Apart from the combination of sandy beaches, ancient Chinese temples and grandiose colonial architecture, another good reason to spend time in Penang is that any Malaysian foodie will tell you that this is the food capital of the country, with inexpensive and highly creative restaurants all over the island, serving food 24 hours a day. Start out at Gurney Drive, a long seafront esplanade just outside Georgetown, lined with scores of street stalls specialising in Chinese seafood. Don't miss hokkien black mee, tasty wok-fried noodles with inky squid and plump prawns. A double room at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel costs from $195 (Dh716) per night, including taxes (www. e-o-hotel.com; 0060 4 222 2000). A double room costs at the Straits Collection costs from $120 (Dh440) per night, including taxes (www.straitscollection.com.my; 0060 4 263 7299).

The west coast of Malaysia has nothing really to compare to the beaches of the east coast, with just one small family resort destination, Port Dickson, halfway between Kuala Lumpur and the once-great port of Malacca. But opposite the rubber and palm oil plantations of the state of Perak lies Pulau Pangkor, a jungle-clad island with shady bays and fine white sand beaches that is a favourite weekend hideaway for Malaysians escaping the stress of big city life. And they don't just come here for the beaches, as there is also jungle trekking, sports fishing, and snorkelling and scuba around the surrounding uninhabited islands. Pangkor can be chic or cheap. On the main island, basic beach huts go for as little US$5 (Dh18) a night; it costs the same to rent a motorbike for the day, and restaurants are a bargain. But just across the water is the private island of Pangkor Laut, one of Asia's most exclusive getaway resorts, attracting an A-List clientele of Hollywood celebrities, visiting royalty, opera divas and rock stars.Travellers used to have to drive down from Kuala Lumpur to the port of Lumut and then wait for the local ferry to slowly chug over to Pangkor, but like Tioman, the island has developed much faster recently since a small airstrip was built here. A double room at the Pangkor Laut Resort costs from $370 (Dh 1,360) per night, including taxes (www.pangkorlautresort.com; 0060 5 699 1100).

While many visitors end up staying only on peninsular Malaysia, there is almost another country waiting to be discovered over on the island of Borneo, where the states of Sarawak and Sabah stretch along the north-western coast, with the tiny independent kingdom of Brunei squeezed imbetween them. Sarawak is still known as the Land of the White Rajahs, dating back to when it was under the personal control of the English Brooke family, a private fiefdom that lasted right up to the beginning of World War Two. The native Iban people here have a notorious history as headhunters, and today they still live in traditional longhouses, where a whole village of a couple hundred people all reside under the same roof.

Before heading upriver into the rainforest on this kind of eco-adventure holiday, though, travellers can still stop off at the quaint capital, Kuching (literally "cat city"). A half-an-hour's drive away is Damai Bay, an idyllic setting where a narrow strip of beach sits between the South China Sea and the steep jungle slopes of Mount Suntobing. There are three resort hotels to choose from on the bay, and golf enthusiasts come here to play at the Arnold Palmer-designed Damai Golf and Country Club. A double room at the Damai Beach Resort costs from $195 (Dh717) per night, including taxes (www.damaibeachresort.com; 0060 82 846 999).

Sabah is known as the Land Below the Wind, and it is the least accessible of Malaysia's resorts, but has a reputation for deep-sea diving that attracts scuba enthusiasts from around the world to its far-flung islands. Travellers fly to the capital, Kota Kinabalu, and can check right in to a plush Shangri-La hotel on Tanjung Aru beach, just 10 minutes' drive from the airport. Then the transport arrangements start getting complicated, with small planes and boats linking the dive islands. Pulau Sipadan is an oceanic island formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcano in the Sulawesi Sea, and became famous when it was described by Jacques Cousteau as one of the best diving spots in the world. From Sipadan you can hop over to Kapalai Island, little more than a sand bar but with a resort village of stilt villas built above the water, and then on to Mabul Island, a favourite destination for fans of the sport of muck-diving.

A double room at the Shangri-La Tanjung Aru Resort and Spa costs from $158 (Dh580) per night, including taxes (www.shangri-la.com; 00 60 88 327 888). Dive enthusiasts should check into the Sidapan Water Village Resort on Mabu Island (www.swvresort.com; 00 60 89 784 227). A four-day package including two dive days costs from $965 (Dh3,500), for two people, full board, including taxes. travel@thenational.ae