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LUXURY RESORT:  Tanjong Jara Resort, Kuala Terengganu, MALAYSIA
Style: Royal Malay
Scene: Jungle meets the sea
Seen in the lobby: Ex-pats, Asian middle classes at play
It is the isolation that helps make Tanjong Jara Resort special, its neighbours are fishing villages not other five star resort chains. To get there we drive past tiny stalls of dried fish, tiny homes facing the sea their washing flapping like fish on a line and restaurants with plastic chairs and plates piled with nasi goreng.

The resort buildings too takes inspiration from the local culture all modelled on royal palaces from the days of the old Malacca Sultanate , with dark wood interiors and curtain-draped day beds. The Luxury Travel Bible particularly likes the Anjung Rooms (choose 302 or 402 for beachside isolation) with their private outdoor plunge pools. The premier Suite is the Anjung suite which overlooks the mouth of a creek which flows into the sea.

The resort is set in flowered gardens, with lawns that run down to the South China Sea. Behind is green jungle where toucans caw and macaque monkeys swing. In front a curve of yellow sand (blessedly hawker free) and beyond that an underwater coral reef that is a major drawcard for divers.

The resort (in this latest incarnation) is twelve years old now and a little tired. It doesn't have the swanky designer feel of some newer luxury resorts but it makes up for this by having a real spirit of place. From its native herb gardens to its evening gamelan music this resort never lets you forget where you are.

Take the Mandi Bunga bathing ritual for example.

corridor by moonlight
corridor by moonlight
anjung villa exterior
serambi room
teratai pool
mandi bunga

I confess when I received my invite to participate in the Mandi Bunga bathing ritual the night before I had been less than thrilled. It is an invitation given to selected guests (often honeymooners) at Tanjong Jara Resort where each morning a procession marks the official opening of the spa for the day. Sitting at Nelayan beach restaurant, several chardonnays into dinner when the note is delivered, my companion and I giggle ungratefully at the thought of being singled out. We are both female and patently not lovestruck honeymooners, having left husbands and children behind for a spot of 'R' n 'Spa', and we consider ourselves unsuitable and quite possibly (given our giggles) unworthy too.

But this morning after a spot of embarrassment at breakfast, when we are hijacked over our Bircher muesli and publically robed up, the beauty of this traditional royal cleansing ritual and its ancient significant begins to seep into our ungrateful souls. And that is the essence of Tanjong Jara Resort. Here away from the KL crowds amid the curling jungle of peninsular Malaysia in the isolated far north-east what you get is an unadulterated taste of Malay culture.
Wrapped in a sarong, followed by a procession of women carrying brass trays heaped with flowers and men with water pots I walk in the footsteps of ancient Malaysian royalty. A drum bangs rhythmically at every step and the early morning sun makes the sea sparkle.

When our procession reaches the Spa Village (yes this resort has a whole spa 'village' not just a room or two) I am taken to one of the private pavilions with outdoor bathing benches on which I sit as a therapist gently pours flowered water over me, and quietly wishes me health, happiness..all the good things in life. The blossoms stick to my sarong, water droplets hang on my eye lashes and I feel, well, like a queen.

  ...the beauty of this traditional royal cleansing ritual and its ancient significant begins to seep into our souls.

Now I have a confession to make, this isn't the first time I have been pampered in a spa. In the course of my lucky life I have been face down on a massage table more often than Bill Gates has made another billion. And I can honestly say that the special Asam Roselle massage at Tanjong Jara was one of the best spa treatments I have ever had. In part because of the beauty of the surrounds and but mainly because of the gentle expertise of my therapist.

YTL Resorts which owns Tanjong Jara, is deservedly know for its extravagant Spa Villages (you can find others at Pangkor Laut Resort and in the Cameron Highlands) but it the companies philosophy of using ingredients and therapies from the region, rather than ubiquitous treatments found anywhere in the world is what makes these spas really special.

The Malay treatments at Tanjong Jara have been handed down from generation to generation (all be it with a large dose of creative adaption five star spa use). The ingredients used come from indigenous herbs and plants, not a large cosmetics company , which is why you'll find leaves in your bath and crushed husks in your skin scrub.

In danger of being over-spa'd and over-indulged we take a day trip out to snorkel off the island of Pulau Tenggol with its sheer cliffs and ribbon of silky sand. This is the heart of Terengganu Marine Park and the sea is the kind of clear that underwater photographers pray for; a turtle glides down into the turquoise depths - click- hoards of a brightly colours parrot fish rotate their fins in unison - click- jewel-bright nudibranch cling to rocks - click- a black tipped reef shark slinks away - click (slight camera shake on that one).

There is some serious diving to be done here too, through underwater channels to depths of up to 82 feet (25 metres). The Amazing Grace dive site is where the lucky few will get to see the rare shovel nose shark gliding amid blue spotted stingrays. But today we're happy to swim in the shallows snorkelling indolently amongst the shoals. We eat lunch out of hotel Tiffin boxes in the little cafe and resort on the island and lie on the beach reading bad airport novels until it is time to get back on the boat.

On our last night we eat at T the Di Atas Sungei perched above the creek. No menus here just chef Ann who will make anything you ask for. To be honest she leads you gently by the hand with mouth watering descriptions of what I suspect are tried and tested combinations. We eat fresh fish and spicy chicken as the torches flicker and the sound of gamelan music floats out over the bay.

Check in: Tanjong Jara Resort, batu 8 off jalan dungun, 23000 Dungun, Terengganu, Malaysia. Te +609 845 1100
Ultimate Luxury:  The underwater wonderland on the resort's doorstep
Most Indulgent Moment:  Any treatment in the spa
Insider Secrets: Resident naturalist Captain Mok lived among the jungle tribes when he worked as an officer for the Malay Special Forces.  He is a fascinating man to talk to.
The Little Things: A batik sarong is a take-home gift for all who visit the spa
Junior Luxies: No kids club but families are warmly welcomed
Dress code: Sarong meets silk
Dent in the platinum:
Luxury Link: www.ytlhotels.com www.tanjongjararesort.com
Hilary Doling 19/7/10
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