Far from the cosmopolitan bustle of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's east coast offers secluded islands, tranquil beaches and dramatic rainforest - all at bargain prices.
Most of the south-east Asian peninsula that jabs down towards the equator seems familiar territory to many British travellers. Malaysia's dazzling capital, Kuala Lumpur, has long boasted numerous luxury hotels; and, more recently, its northerly neighbour, Langkawi, has been developed as a destination for indulgent tourists. Yet the capital has not left the past entirely behind in its headlong rush to the future, and the spice island of Penang is as rich in history and nature as it is in beachside hotels.
The port of Melaka is firmly on our mental maps, too - perhaps because of that indispensable part of the Edwardian gentleman's wardrobe, the Malacca cane. Yet even though the British are inveterate island-hoppers, few have discovered the string of pearls on Malaysia's east coast.
This could be the summer to make good that omission. In July and August, prices for Mediterranean resorts soar in line with temperatures in Europe. Conversely, fares to long-haul destinations can actually sink: on Monday you could fly non-stop from London to Kuala Lumpur for £638 return on Air Asia. And east-coast Malaysia is one of those tropical destinations that is not at its best in the depths of the British winter; indeed, you should avoid the region from November to February, when the eastern monsoon prevails and many of the resorts are closed.
The state of Terengganu has an enviable share of the eastern coastline, augmented by half a dozen islands lined with coral reefs and white sandy beaches. Here, you can explore crystal waters and endless coral gardens in which you might find yourself snorkelling alongside turtles and baby sharks.
The difference from Malaysia's cosmopolitan west coast is apparent the moment you land at Sultan Mahmud airport in the state capital, Kuala Terengganu. This is the Malay heartland. It came under British control only in 1909, much later than the rest of the peninsula, and was a focus for sometimes-violent resistance.
Europeans are welcome these days, but as I looked around the airport arrivals area it was clear I was the only outsider. And the Chinese and Indians who make up around 30 per cent of the country's population were also notable by their absence. Ethnic Malays constitute 95 per cent of this sleepy, conservative and religious state. Almost without exception women wear the tudung (headscarf). But not Arab-style: often it is pink or beige, studded with sparkling gems, complemented by T-shirt and jeans.
Local traditions remain strong here. Kite-flying, batik-weaving and even traditional boat-building can all be found where the Terengganu river meets the sea. A road stretches the length of the coast, lined with stalls selling keropok lekor (the chewy, deep-fried fish sausage which is an eastern speciality) and punctuated by jetties offering ferries to the islands. The pace is perfect for relaxation.
Kuala Terengganu has grown from a fishing town into a modern city, but it shares little in common with the national capital apart from the first part of its name (Kuala means "river mouth"). Though it has none of the bustle or excitement of Kuala Lumpur, there are a couple of worthwhile sights. One is the "floating mosque", Masjid Tengku Tengah Zaharah, a simple but spectacular combination of modern and Moorish design on a platform surrounded by a lake; it lies 4km south of the state capital, and close to the sea; the other is Kampong Ladang, where smithies still forge the Malay keris, or dagger. But after one night in "KT", I headed for Marang, 20 minutes' drive south.
This small port is the departure point for Gemia - the first island on my itinerary, just 15 minutes' away in a speedboat. Situated a few hundred metres off the larger island of Kapas, Gemia is so small that you can circumnavigate the island's rocky outcrops in a quarter of an hour. It is almost the sole preserve of the Gem Wellness Spa and Island Resort. Forty-five wooden chalets line the south-western shores, flanked by two beaches. The other notable residents are turtles; there is a hatchery on Gemia, and a mother deposited eggs on Kapas one night when I was there.
On my arrival I was welcomed by Hizam, the cheery, laid-back resident manager. A long awning stretched from the white-painted promontory next to the jetty all the way to the airy, lattice-windowed restaurant, office and games area. As I sipped a juice beneath it, I learned that business was not exactly booming: I was one of only 15 or so guests.
Thick vegetation covers much of the island. The resort's wooden rooms are built above the rocks that fringe the jungle, and my room was simply furnished but comfortable. At the end of a gangway sits the spa, where an oversized bath overlooking the sea is available for post-massage relaxation. One ofV Cthe pair of beaches is kept pristine, without even a lounger in sight (one morning, I almost burned my back lying on the sand). At the other, kayaks and snorkelling gear can be hired from attendants whose smiling, easy-going demeanour suggests that the concept of the rat race or high-pressure living has probably not occurred to them. There is none of the formality of chain hotels - nor are there any regimented, liveried staff. If you want something - be it a boat-trip or a snack - you ask anyone. They'll find the person who can arrange it for you soon enough.
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