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Off the beaten track: Exploring the unexpected appeal of Malaysia
Once the retreat of writers such as Rudyard Kipling and W. Somerset Maugham, Malaysia still has plenty to offer for sea bound explorers seeking solitude. Olivia Michel checks out its superyacht credentials.
This collection of islands dotted around the azure waters of the South China Sea boasts breathtaking landscapes and an incredible diversity of wildlife. Not unlike its neighbours Thailand and Indonesia, white sand beaches, warm waters and tantalising cuisine await visitors to Malaysia. But while they share many similarities each island has its own unique flavour for superyacht visitors.
Langkawi’s dazzling coastline and picturesque backdrop make it arguably the most idyllic of the Malaysian islands. For 37.5 metre Escapade's owner Christophe Albin, it was one of his favourite stops in the country on the yacht’s maiden voyage from Auckland to Myanmar via the Flores Sea. The end point for the Raja Muda Selangor International Regatta, Albin attests that “for yachting, Langkawi is the best place on the west coast of peninsular Malaysia”. The race which starts at Port Klang was a special experience for Albin and the Escapade crew: “It was our first regatta on our own yacht and we hadn't hired any race crew, yet we had lots of fun and even came out third on the offshore race from Penang to Langkawi”. An established superyacht attraction, the Royal Langkawi Yacht Club marina is equipped with 200 berths for yachts up to 60 metres.
With its smooth service, traditional architecture and divine dining experiences, the recently renovated five-star Datai Resort on Langkawi’s west coast is worth stepping ashore for. The Thai Pavilion restaurant, balancing on stilts overlooking the jungle below, provides a romantic atmosphere paired with show-stopping dishes. The flavoursome food is enhanced by its artful presentation; specialties include deep-fried chicken wrapped in pandan leaves or barracuda fish served in a coconut shell.
For traditional Malaysian fare, take a buggy deep into the jungle to the resort’s Gulai House. Along with sampling national staples, such as the tender beef Rendang curry, guests can enjoy the fresh, local catch of the day cooked up according to your wishes. For a light dessert, the brightly coloured and richly flavoured Pandan ice-cream is presented coolly on a block of hewn ice. The thatched-roof restaurant is softly lit by lanterns and surrounded by the sound of cicadas, creating the perfect ambience.
If in need of pampering, the Datai’s rainforest spa could be counted as one of the best luxury spas in Asia. Quality treatments are provided in the heart of a secluded mangrove, complemented by the sounds of the jungle.
Malaysia also happens to possess the third largest island in the world – Borneo. Home of the orangutan monkey and a UNESCO-certified mountain, it seamlessly marries luxury beach retreat with jungle exploration. A prime example of this cohabitation is the 18-hole golf course at the Shangri-La Rasa Ria resort in Kota Kinabalu, one of the world's most scenic courses. Berth at Sutera Harbour and enjoy a morning on the manicured green, complete with resident monitor lizards and families of otters swimming in the water hazards. As you play, you can enjoy views over to the majestic, mist-swathed Mount Kinabalu, which provides a serious climbing feat for the highly active. With a summit of 4,095 metres, this rugged, cloud-cutting peak makes for an invigorating two-day climb through the rainforest canopy.
Moreover, Borneo is the gateway to world-renowned dive sites. A dip in the water or an excursion with your own personal submarine near northeast-situated Sipadan will reveal a multitude of vibrant marine life. Rainbow-coloured parrotfish, butterflyfish and bannerfish are easily visible congregating around the plum and coffee-coloured corals. In contrast to the less colourful waters of the Mediterranean, this corner of the globe will guarantee a spectacular show of brilliance with every submergence.
While Borneo and Langkawi may be the perfect locations for nature and relaxation, the best place for soaking up Malaysian culture and cuisine is Penang. The historical trading port is a melting pot of nationalities and is widely acknowledged to be the foodie destination of Southeast Asia. The Seven Terraces restaurant in Georgetown is a high-end example of the unique “Perankan” (mixed-heritage) cuisine from the area. Located in a row of refurbished shops now embellished with oriental décor, waitresses wear brightly-hued traditional dress while serving up dishes of lemongrass-infused snapper, crispy duck laced with cinnamon and orange, or crunchy soft shell crab dressed with chilli and lime.
Nearby, the colonial-style Eastern & Oriental Hotel is also worth a visit. Having hosted Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, this elegant Sarkies’ monument is accessible from the water with its own pontoon. A certain charm is added to the marbled foyers and pillared walkways by the appearance of porters in khaki and pith helmets. As the hotel’s communications manager Ms Chong, notes, “if you have a love for heritage and history, you cannot miss this place”.
Yet even in the midst of this bustling centre, a chance to explore nature is never far away. The Botanical Gardens are a piece of barely-tamed rainforest, bursting with flowers and ferns and home to mischievous Macaque monkeys. Though yachting facilities remain basic around the immediate area of Penang, safe and scenic anchorages can be found not too far from the city, for example by Pulau Pangor.
In today’s connected world, it can be difficult to find a truly off-the-grid experience. The verdant isles of Malaysia, however, are sure to provide unadulterated tranquillity, should you and your crew decide to venture there.