The concept of staying at a remote luxury spa resort might not be everyone’s idea of a holiday – I know this for a fact because I used to be one of them, preferring the adventure of getting lost in a big city than to be trapped with nothing to do. However, a few years wiser, I’ve learned to not judge a book by it’s cover. Although packaged as a retreat, Tanjong Jara Resort offers a rich cultural experience with plenty of things to do.
In desperate need of R&R, we arrived at Tanjong Jara after two flights and a 1.5 hour drive. The allure of the region is its azure waters and remoteness – it’s far, but not as far as Bora Bora. We won a bid to upgrade to business class on Scoot which turned out to be the best AU$101 I’ve ever spent. The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner makes a substantial difference – the flight was so quiet and smooth, I couldn’t believe how much work I got done (sleep is for the weak 😉 )! The chauffeur pick-up is a must as well, the luxury of being whisked away from a humid airport straight into a plush air-conditioned vehicle takes the stress away from travelling.
Located on the east coast of Malaysia, you won’t find many Aussies at Tanjong Jara. It is however a popular destination for the British and local Malaysians and Singaporeans. Be sure to check the local school holiday dates as we accidentally visited during their peak period (something I normally try to avoid) – although despite the resort being at full capacity (the resort consists of an astonishing 99 rooms!), we were delighted with how spacious and uninterrupted the facilities and pools were.
The Anjung Rooms (RM2335 per night with breakfast) and the Anjung Suites (RM4198 per night with breakfast) are the resort’s most prized rooms. Popular with honeymooners, they feature large sunken outdoor baths, private gardens and stunning beach views. As with booking things last minute, these were booked out, but the Serambi Room (RM1305 per night with breakfast) did not disappoint. There’s also the Bumbung Room (RM1200 per night with breakfast) which are situated above the Serambi Rooms and have the same setup but without the private terrace. The Serambi Room though… The size of the bathroom is the stuff dreams are made of.
The resort is modelled on a 17th century Malay palace and every corner reflects this grandeur. I love the harmony and countryside elegance of the timber architecture. Fringed by lush gardens and idyllic palms, with plentiful daybeds and hammocks spaced out to offer privacy when you need it, the resort maximises the calming sight of the ocean from any vantage point.
Being far-removed from the main town centre of Dungun, the resort ensures that the dining options cover everything from club sandwiches and chips by the pool to Peninsular Malaysia’s local delicacies. We looked forward to breakfast every day. Unlike my daily routine where a soy latte would suffice, life at Tanjong Jara started only after a multi-course culinary adventure at Di Atas Sungei restaurant’s breakfast buffet.
There was a station dedicated to freshly baked buttery flaky croissants, and at another, a teh tarik barista served up bottomless mugs of luscious frothy milk tea. The roti stand alternated from day to day, sometimes it was roti canai with chicken curry and dahl, and other days, it was lacy roti jala. I wish we stayed long enough to sample their entire roti range! There were also the standard breakfast items of bacon, eggs, grilled tomatoes, etc, but the highlights for me were the Malaysian flavours – tom yum noodle soups, congee with salted duck egg, nasi dagang (coconut rice with cucumber pickles and tuna curry), and the various types of Malay kuih including a sweet epok-epok (curry puff) filled with fish, kuih ketayap (pandan crepe with coconut filling), kuih cek mek molek (fried sweet potato dumplings) and kuih lapis (steamed layer cake).
Dinner at The Nelayan was a more refined affair – although it had the makings of a great fine dining restaurant, the experience didn’t live up to the price point. The catch of the day arrives every day at noon with the ringing of a bell. On the night we dined, our choice was between snapper (RM260) and sea bass (RM220) – sufficient to feed two. Our snapper fillets were sumptuous even though the serving style was a little confused from what the menu promised. Perhaps if it were served whole or on the bone, I might have retained my excitement from seeing the fish display at the restaurant’s entrance. Sadly, while the apple tart (RM60) looked the part, the crust fell short of shortbread and the jam was too runny for my liking.
We spent as many nights as we could at Di Atas Sungei, much preferring to explore the ‘no menu’ restaurant. Every visit was like a lucky dip, we never knew what we’d be having until a chat with the chef. It was like coming home to Mum and being asked what I felt like to eat – in her jolly way, chef Ann would rattle on about different cooking techniques and ingredients until our eyes lit with satisfaction.
We became fans of butter-milk anything – with prawns or calamari, the batter added texture and the creamy sauce was divine every time. Sambal belacan was another popular cooking method with guests, we tried it with water spinach on our first night, and with a combination of winged-beans and eggplant on another night. The assam snapper, a tamarind-based fish curry was deliciously sour, salty and spicy.
For dessert, we couldn’t say no to the pandan creme brulee, which was irresistibly fragrant, and the banana, coconut and tapioca soup.
Teratai Terrace at the adult-only pool offered Korean BBQ and hotpot and by night, transformed into an outdoor cinema. Somehow, we never quite made it there.
Tanjong Jara’s tagline, ‘Unmistakenly Malay’, is celebrated across all the roster of weekly activities and the market tour (RM55), cooking class (RM215) and bike tour (RM55) gave us a taste of the local life.
Under chef Ann’s guidance, we cooked up a storm and devoured it afterwards. Her jovial personality and no-fuss approach to cooking was practical and fast-paced, a stark contrast to the rest of the resort’s unhurried aura. For city folks like me, this was a welcoming eruption of frenzy that I secretly missed.
Rendang, an aromatic spicy curry, fragrant with lemongrass, tumeric, galangal, chilies, cinnamon and coconut milk is commonly slow cooked with cubes of beef short rib until tender and soft. Our cheat’s version was whipped up in under a hour by substituting with thin slices of sirloin. We learned to replace kaffir lime leaves with the zest of a lime, and fresh tumeric with ground tumeric. It turned out that we had such a fun time at the market tour that chef Ann forgot to buy these ingredients!
We also learned how to inject sweet and sour notes into an assam curry by balancing tamarind pulp with sugar. Spiced with chilli, our assam udang was vibrant and deliciously addictive.
I spent the rest of that afternoon in the lobby for the free wifi. Many of the other guests I spoke with were shocked that I’d planned to go on the bicycle tour that afternoon given the heat, but by 5pm, the sun was setting and the South China Sea breeze made the two hour leisure ride surprisingly pleasant.
With our guide Ismail, we cycled into the charming fishing village of Kampung Seberang Pintasan where the time-honoured tradition of fishing has remained as the village’s main source of income. Weaving around the back streets, children of all ages ran out to wave us hello. Roosters, hens, goats, kittens and the odd cow seemed to roam freely. The housing was rustic, mostly single storey Malay-style wooden chalets, mixed with some modern concrete developments. We cycled past many lush pockets of forest and were even lucky enough to come across a large family of monkeys. Sadly, the rest of the group who sped up ahead of me missed this sighting but Ismail, who patiently got off his bike to walk with me down a steep hill was my witness.
We made several stops, each time, Ismail enlightened us with tales of the local way of life. His countless jokes kept us entertained and distracted me from the aches of cycling. Naturally, my favourite stop was at a coffee house where we drank teh tarik and kopi ais and snacked on freshly made roti.
The next morning, we were rewarded with a visit to Tanjong Jara’s award-winning spa for their Malay Signature Experience: Asam Roselle. More than three centuries ago, the Roselle plant (hisbiscus sabdariffa) was introduced into Malaysia from India. The red Roselle flower has a high vitamin content, containing vitamin C, fruit acids calcium, iron, potassium as well as antosianin, and has long been used used in traditional medicine and local delicacies. It is known to benefit the kidney system, lower blood-sugar levels an have diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties. It forms natural collagen and assists in vitamin absorption thus improving complexion and assisting with anti-ageing.
The experience commenced with a mandi bunga, a traditional cleansing ritual. We donned on sarongs and the massage therapists poured floral bathwater over us, while they recited an incantation for longevity, health, happiness and prosperity. The chilling water refreshed both the mind and the body.
The Asam Roselle treatment consisted of three elements – we started with an asam (sour) scented massage of long kneading strokes (the massage oil was a blend of Roselle, ginger, nutmeg, galangal and karoteno oil), followed by an indulgent Roselle exfoliating scrub with added rice and coconut oil, and concluded with a cup of Roselle tea.
We were given the sarong as a souvenir and feeling more relaxed and reinvigorated than ever, we even hit the gym several hours later!
Of course, we couldn’t come all the way here without visiting Pulau Tenggol (Tenggol Island).
Known for its rich marine life, we visited two snorkelling spots during the Snorkelling Tour (RM310 per person including lunch), both of which I was kicking myself for not having learned to dive. As a protected marine park, the use of fins are not permitted; it was a windy day so the water was choppy and as a precaution, life vests were recommended which made the snorkelling experience ridiculously effortless! While we encountered a kaleidoscope of clownfish, bumphead parrotfish, triggerfish, butterflyfish, pufferfish, and even a few baby black-tipped reef sharks, it felt like we only scraped the surface. The conservation of the reef has produced one of the most mesmerising underwater playgrounds (sorry my photos don’t do it justice!). We refuelled with an exquisite barbecue lunch of chicken wings, whole fish, sausages, prawns, salads, fruit salad and more!
Despite the myriad activities on offer, some of the most memorable moments were the quiet lazy ones on the daybeds, facing the glittering emerald sea, shaded by tall palms – the drifting breeze and the perfume of the lush gardens created a soothing sense of timelessness which gave me a chance to finally catchup with myself. Just four days here and I’m ready to tackle the world again.
Note: Tanjong Jara closes annually October to February for maintenance (during the monsoon season)
Photography by Jennifer Lam; taken on Canon 5d Mark III. Camera equipment from Discount Digital Photographics
I Ate My Way Through stayed as guests of Tanjong Jara Resort