British winters suck the joy out of me. Whilst others wang on about roaring fires and being cosy, I’m counting down the days until it’s no longer dark both when I leave the house in the morning AND when I arrive home from work. It’s for this reason that I ensure I’ve got somewhere hot and sunny to visit late in the year, to stock up on sunshine for the winter, and again in February or March to help escape the misery and urge to emigrate.
Tanjong Jara is a luxury hotel in the Terengganu district on the East Coast of Malaysia. The area is less well known than the popular islands of Langkawi and Penang, and no doubt because of this, substantially cheaper. We visited during the last 2 weeks of February, just in time to watch the end of rainy season turn the beach from wild crashing waves to a calm turquoise millpond.
The difference two weeks makes
Getting there involves a 45 minute flight from Kuala Lumpur to Terengganu airport and a further hour’s drive. Taxis are cheap and readily available at the airport. If you have a long layover at KL airport, check into the Sala Sala Express airport hotel. It’s located within the airport, so you can get straight off your flight and be at the hotel within 5 minutes, without having to clear customs. They rent rooms in 6 hours blocks for about £50, which was a perfect opportunity to catch up on sleep on our 7 hour layover.
We stayed in a Serambi room, on the ground floor with a terrace overlooking the sea. Rooms are generously sized and furnished in Malay style, with a separate day bed for languishing with books, an enormous bathroom with sunken bathtub and a walk in wardrobe.
The grounds of the hotel are lush and kept on just the right side of wild. You might encounter the odd monkey, one of the resident peacocks or some of the amazing birdlife – the main pool is great for watching sea eagles, whilst there’s a family of hornbills that visit the area by the adults only pool. I also witnessed a huge monitor lizard hop into the pool, swim serenely to the other edge, then get out and resume its journey, pleased with itself for the shortcut. There’s also a turtle hatchery on the beach, and if you’re lucky enough to go at the right time of year, you can get up in the early hours and watch the baby turtles hatch and make their way to the sea.
There are three restaurants on site – one serving Malaysian food, one Korean steamboat, and the other a more international affair. The Malaysian restaurant doesn’t have a menu as such, more a list of ideas, which you then discuss with the chef who’ll make something to your taste. They also run a leisurely cooking course at the Malaysian restaurant (most things are pre-chopped for you, so it’s great for beginners or the extremely lazy) – we learned to make beef rendang and chicken in lemongrass sauce with the excellently forthright and entertaining Chef Ann.
If you want to explore by yourself you’ll need a car, but the hotel runs an interesting activity programme. I went on a fantastic jungle nature walk led by the charismatic Captain Mok, the hotel’s resident naturalist. If I were ever lost in a jungle, I’d want Captain Mok there. He lived in the Malaysian jungle for two years when he was serving with the Malay intelligence forces in the 1970’s, and informed us on how to navigate using palm trees …. My partner refused to come on the grounds that if there were snakes anywhere, they’d likely be lurking in the lush green jungle. We started with a brief talk on the wildlife of the area, in which Captain Mok described the 5 types of snake that live locally, which is the reason the hotel plants so much pandan – it acts as a snake deterrent, as the serrated edges of the plant tickle the snake’s belly. The Captain showed us the kitchen’s garden and advised on which plants we should add to dishes whilst cooking to prevent diarrhoea, and which plants we should consume if we got diarrhoea. We progressed into the jungle, seeing enormous butterflies, birds and colobus monkeys. The highlight was getting to the top of the hill, and being rewarded with a view across the beach.
My tip – ensure you wear long trousers and sleeves, preferably not in black, which attracts mosquitoes (I was wearing black trousers and could see plenty of them landing on me), and cover yourself in repellent. Even doing this, the little sods still found the two areas that I’d missed, and I emerged with a bite on my face and a few between my fingers.
The local area is quiet, with just one restaurant within walking distance – an excellent Chinese called CB Wee with main dishes for about £2. The local town of Dungun is only 15 minutes drive away (the hotel run a car service) and has a vibrant night market selling everything from sarongs to electronics. Most importantly, it has an excellent food section. We ate vast amounts of satay, fish balls, murtadak (a sort of fried stuffed roti) and my favourite – puta halba, a sugary disc of tapioca covered in grated coconut. I also took home a stash of pandan pancakes to cram into my mouth whilst watching movies in bed.
If you’re worried it’s going to be TOO quiet for you, combine it with a few nights in Kuala Lumpur, a journey through the Cameron Highlands or as a stop off on a tour of the East Coast. Or, do as I did – come here for 2 weeks, slow life right down, then return to the rain and drizzle of London with a little more optimism and the promise of spring.
Slow Rating – 9/10
Rooms – 8/10
Design – 7/10
Service – 9/10
Food – 8/10