x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Malaysia's near east

Facing the South China Sea are the peninsula's best beachest and clearest waters, yet few travellers venture to this sublime part of south-east Asia.

The traditional-style Tanjong Jara Resort has beachfront villas and a dive school that offers snorkelling trips to nearby Tenggol Island.
The traditional-style Tanjong Jara Resort has beachfront villas and a dive school that offers snorkelling trips to nearby Tenggol Island.
As I wait to board my flight to Terengganu, everyone around me is buzzing with pride for this lesser-known Malaysian state.

But instead of being enticed, as I am, by the prospect of exploring a long coastline with the finest beaches and clearest water on peninsular Malaysia, it turns out I'm sharing the jet with jubilant members of the state football team who are returning in glory after winning the FA Cup Malaysia with a last-minute goal in extra time.

While many of the other passengers are fans who jostle for photographs with the players and their trophy (bigger and more gaudy than even the FIFA World Cup), my goal is exploring the tropical archipelagoes that extend into the South China Sea and which offer a dose of splendid isolation - within an hour or two of the mainland.

All along the coast are close-knit fishing communities with busy night markets. The east coast of peninsular Malaysia may be a road less travelled but anyone who makes the journey here will be richly rewarded.

On landing in the state capital, Kuala Terengganu, I leave behind the football mania and check into Aryani Resort, a charming beachfront base from which to explore the city and surrounds.

Owned by a relative of the Sultan of Terengganu, there is a refined ambience here among the villas. I walk along the shore passing fishermen wading waist-high casting into the ocean while their children play in the waves. Then I return to the hotel to lie back on one of the hotel's rattan loungers and gaze out at the fishing boats bobbing in the South China Sea.

On my first morning, I visit Terengganu's Central Market with its stalls of pungent salted fish, shiny fresh squid and dried cuttlefish. I gaze forlornly at the pyramids of turtle eggs, still covered in grains of sand (collecting turtle eggs is an illegal practice but the law is neither well respected nor well policed). In the vegetable market I come across milky-green chillies and trunks of banana trees. I buy a half-dozen ripe mangoes and sweet apple-bananas, as well as keropok prawn crackers, a local delicacy.

Alongside the market I walk through the streets of Chinatown with its 19th-century shopfronts converted to cafes, boutiques and batik ateliers. Small ferries offer trips to nearby villages such as Seberang Takir, where families still earn a living through age-old cottage industries and can be seen outside their homes frying crackers, printing batik and drying salted fish under the sun.

From the city I head north to Kuala Besit, where travellers come to catch a ferry to Pulau Perhentian, a duet of islands that is one of my favourite hideaways in Malaysia. This is not a destination of five-star service or fine dining but instead a place to escape the trappings of the world. The islands are ferociously beautiful, clad in thick lush forest and fringed with white-sand beaches and teal-green water. I spend my days on Perhentian Besar, the more grown-up and family friendly island. Perhentian Kecil is preferred by low-budget travellers but neither island is heavily developed and hotels are low-rise and low-key. A large number of dive schools operate here and many visitors come to obtain their scuba diving certification. In the water, the wide-eyed fish are so curious they butt my goggles. By night, the only sound is the croaking of geckos and the rhythmic chirruping of crickets.

A few hours south of here is Pulau Redang, the largest island on this stretch of coastline and with the hands-down best beach I encounter on my trip. The Taaras Beach & Spa Resort sits on an unrivalled crescent bay with sand as fine as sieved icing sugar and with sparkling waters.

Reaching Redang is straightforward enough. Its small airport operates regular flights from Kuala Lumpur (60 minutes) and Singapore (75 minutes); passengers are on the beach within minutes of disembarking.

Back on the mainland I return to Kuala Terengganu to visit the State Museum, one of the largest institutions in South East Asia. The building itself is a fusion of traditional timber and palatial concrete architecture. Inside are galleries of ancient Islamic manuscripts, Chinese porcelain and fine old photographs from British colonial times. I still remember the delicate examples of antique songket, a brocade fabric through which silver and gold threads are handwoven in beautiful, intricate geometric designs.

I drive to the nearby small island Pulau Duyong, or Mermaid Island, with its classic stilted Malay villages built among coconut trees. I stop to buy losong, boiled fish sausages, from a family-run roadside stall run by the men while the women are rolling out the next batch of fish paste mixed with sago. I eat the losong piping hot, straight from the newspaper wrapping and dipped in chilli paste.

Duyong is also well known for its traditional boat-building industry. Inside one dock I watch the elderly craftsmen and carpenters working on a beautiful fishing boat akin to a Chinese junk, sawing and chiselling the hardwood by hand. The boss explains to me that the boat will be ready for their Australian client in a year; it'll set him back US$200,000 (Dh735,000), a snip for a handmade, hardwood vessel with such fine elegant lines.

Continuing south, I next stop at Tanjong Jara Resort, a graceful property set back from the beach among verdant gardens. I stroll back and forth down the long stretch of sand before folding myself into a hammock to listen to the crashing waves.

I arrive on a Thursday, when it's the turn of the coastal town of Kuala Dungun to host a buzzing pop-up night market. Families wander from stall to stall sampling sweet rice cakes, fried coconut and beakers of syrupy juice; in the air is the smell of crispy fried dumplings and burnt palm sugar. During Ramadan, I'm told, the markets were even more frenzied. "Do not think of the holy month as a time of fasting but as a time of feasting," one man tells me.

The crowning glory of Tanjong Jara Resort is its location, and how easy it is from here to reach Pulau Tenggol, the island furthest from the Terengganu coastline and one of the country's best-kept diving secrets. The watersports centre is run by enthusiastic divemaster Richard Smith, who takes me on one of my best dives of the trip. Only an hour away by the hotel's motorboat, Tenggol rises up like a petite rocky outcrop amid a marine park. On a deep-water dive I spot black-tipped reef sharks, barracudas and nudibranch. In shallower waters shared with snorkellers I find turtles around the island's shore, as well as schools of bat fish, giant trevallies and jacks. Richard explains that during the months of March and April, and then again in September and October, migrating whale sharks pass by here.

Back on the mainland, I drive south through plantations of palm trees. Studding the endless mono-crop landscape are grey, windowless concrete buildings resembling watchtowers but which are, in fact, houses for swiftlets, the tiny, highly manoeuvrable bird found in this region. These constructions, I learn, are used to lure in the birds to build nests, which they make with strands of their saliva. The nests are harvested to produce a regional culinary delicacy - the so-called "bird's nest" - particularly sought after among the Chinese community. The industry is relatively new but evidently already lucrative, given the number of these concrete towers dotting the countryside.

My final beach stop is Pulau Tioman. Claimed as the backdrop film set for the movie South Pacific - reputedly filmed here in the 1950s - even today it could pass off as a pretty Polynesian isle. Although tourism has taken off here, particularly among Singaporeans on weekend jaunts, Tioman has managed to maintain a sense of serenity. The island, like Pulau Redang, is also easy to access with regular flights from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, as well as frequent ferries from the port of Mersing on the mainland.

The most perfect place to stay on Tioman is JapaMala, perhaps Malaysia's most romantic hotel. It's built on a forested shoreline in a rocky bay, with villas cleverly concealed within the landscape. The rooms inside feel like a cross between treehouses and a labyrinth of caves. The delightful property offers a stylish finale at the end of a trip.

Astonishingly, it does feel like there are places in Malaysia - such as Pulau Perhentian and Pulau Tenggol - yet to be discovered. Tourism has not boomed uncontrollably here like in some other parts of South East Asia. I had braced myself for shiny ferry terminals and fast-food chains, maybe even high-rise hotels and helipads, but instead find a softer, more modest, laid-back way of life and an endless golden coastline with remarkably few tourists. At least, for now.

The resorts

Perhentian Island Resort, Pulau Perhentian

It is far from five-star but Perhantian Island Resort (is the most comfortable option on these two sleepy islands. Reserve one of the bungalows on the beachfront, which have their own terrace opening on to the sand. The buffet-style restaurant is average but there are plenty of other restaurants and bars on neighbouring beaches, just a short stroll away. A double room with garden and pool views costs from 310 ringgit (Dh360) per night, based on two sharing, including taxes. Visit www.perhentian.com.my or call 00 603 2144 8530.

Aryani Resort, Kuala Terengganu

Set back from an alluringly long beach, this authentic Malay-style architecture sits amid landscaped gardens of wild guava and coconut trees, as well as frangipani, lemon grass and banana. The Heritage Suite is built of 100-year-old timber and the spa offers traditional treatments such as the "mayang mengurai" hair treatment using local ingredients. Double rooms cost from 345 ringgit (Dh400) per night, based on two sharing, including breakfast and taxes. Visit www.thearyani.com or call 00 609 653 2111.

Taaras Beach & Spa Resort, Pulau Redang

Formerly known as Berjaya Redang Resort, this hotel sits on one of the best beaches on Malaysia's peninsula. The pontoon in the crescent bay is a welcome place to pause between snorkelling stints, and there are also boat trips to nearby reefs. This kid-friendly hotel has interconnecting rooms, entertainment zones and a movie theatre in the works. The resort is scheduled to reopen on March 1. Double rooms cost from1,021 ringgit (Dh1,183) per night, including breakfast and taxes. Visit www.thetaaras.com or call 00 609 653 2111.

Tanjong Jara Resort

The sprawling, elegant resort embraces traditional architectural styles, with villas tucked back from the beachfront. There are two excellent restaurants and chefs offer cooking lessons as well as visits to local night markets. The dive school offers snorkelling and diving trips to Pulau Tenggol, an hour offshore. Back on the mainland, try out a night-time turtle-watching safari. Double rooms in low season start at 550 ringgit (Dh644) per night, based on two sharing, including breakfast and taxes. Visit www.tanjongjararesort.com or call 00 603 2783 1000.

JapaMala, Pulau Tioman

The honeymooners' choice. Guests arrive by speedboat at the hotel's private pier, where there is also an over-water Italian restaurant that allows diners to watch reef sharks circle below. Beyond the rocky shoreline there is snorkelling in the bay, and there are plans to open a new swimming pool by the end of the year. In the low season, villas cost from 450 ringgit (Dh527) per night, including breakfast and taxes. Visit www.tanjongjararesort.com or call 00 603 2783 1000.


If you go

The flight Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) has return flights from Dubai to Kuala Lumpur from Dh1,800, including taxes.

The package Audley Travel (www.audleytravel.com; 00 44 1993 838 130) has a 10-night trip to Malaysia, with five nights at the Aryani near Kuala Terengganu and five nights at the JapaMala on Tioman Island. From £1,095 (Dh6,340) per person, based on two sharing, including breakfast, regional flights, ferries and private land transfers. International flights not included.

The info During monsoon season, expect heavy rain and rolling seas. Many resorts shut from November until February.