LIKE Prohibition, the word Terengganu brings a shudder to the heart of many expats. For them the idea of an oasis of sobriety inside a desert of booze is not an appetising one, and certainly not high on their list of holiday hotspots. But like the subjects of most rumour mongering tales, Terengganu is not the black hole some paint it to be. Okay, so it isn’t exactly KL’s Jalan Sultan Ismail with SPGs tripping gaily past the taxi pimps but then if that’s the kind of holiday you want then, Thailand is probably a more inviting prospect.
The reality is that you don’t even notice the transition from Pahang to Terengganu. There’s no mysterious transformation, no searches at the state line just a road with a marker. Similarly when you arrive at the Awana Kijal there are only smiles awaiting you and certainly not the requests for marriage certificates and other nonsense that some quarters would have you believe. The first thing that strikes you about the resort is the location. Approximately half an hour’s drive from Cherating and an hour from the airport at Kuantan it dominates the small town of Kijal. With a backdrop of towering hills and palm-lined roads it’s the archetypal picture postcard setting. You swing in through the welcome arch and the twin nine hole golf courses stretch out before you as far as the eye can see.
Golf is a major theme of the resort. It’s the only five star resort boasting a full eighteen holes in the region and certainly the only one that borders the beach. Even for non-golfers like me it’s impressive. In fact, it would be a great place for a stroll if it weren’t for the dozens of little white balls flying around at deadly speeds. An average of 70 golfers a day go round the course – the course boasts a lot of non-resident members courtesy of the local petroleum and associated industries – but the resort claims it can easily cope with 100 or more.
One of the major selling points of the course is that it’s divided into twin 9 hole sections on either side of the hotel: known as Rimba and Palma. It provides a natural break if you want to play a few holes in the morning and then again late afternoon when it’s cooler. It’s a course that most suits intermediate golfers and there are plenty of par 3 and par 4 holes that will test even the most competent business golfer with a plentiful supply of water and sand traps lined with dense jungle.
The second jewel in the resort’s crown is the Taman Sari Royal Heritage Spa. It’s one of few Javanese spas in Malaysia and the only one on the East Coast, and attracts devotees from across the country. It’s very popular so it’s best to book your treatment or programme as early as possible once you’ve arrived. Don’t worry about it too much though; the spa has been known to extend its hours to make sure that guests can be thoroughly de-stressed. If you’re wondering why the spa looks much older than the rest of the hotel structure, it’s because the large gazebo structure covering the relaxation garden, with its shady ponds, lazy tables and New Age sounds was found in the Terengganu hills. So the resort bought it, dismantled it and put it back together here. The result is surprisingly serene. Similarly, all the fixtures and fittings have been imported from Java, as have all the treatment oils, and other beautifying products on sale.
All of the treatments begin with a welcome drink of ginger tea (wedang) in the relaxation garden before taking you through to the intimate treatment suites. The spa offers a full range of packages that last from a couple of hours to a couple of days, and include a wide range of massages, body wraps, scrubs and hydro-treatments. Not knowing one end of a body scrub from another I opted for the basic Javanese massage. Javanese massage differs from Balinese in that the fingertips are used rather than the palm of the hand, resulting in a deep tissue massage that leaves you so relaxed you’ll be hard pushed to get up off the bed. Staffs are very attentive, so don’t feel shy to let them know what you’re thinking. The only downsides are that an hour arrives too fast and the unisex disposable briefs they have you wear hide no shame.
If you’re still able to walk in a straight line after so much pampering then you may fancy a stroll along the beach. If you’re the kind of person who’s obsessed with deserted sandy beaches then the Awana Kijal is going to be right up your street. The resort boasts a staggering 7.2 km of private beach and is situated roughly in the middle. There’s really not much in either direction and that’s the point; you can wander up and down peacefully, disturbed by or disturbing the occasional shore fisherman. There are no fences or signs keeping it private, just a lack of other hotels and resorts in the surrounding areas. If you want somewhere private to go and watch the sun setting over the sea, just take yourself off and sit yourself down. At night it’s also a favourite nesting spot for turtles, but check with hotel staff first if you want to watch them as they are notoriously timid creatures and shouldn’t have their breeding patterns disturbed.
Another way to take advantage of it is with the resort’s quad bikes. These four-wheel bikes were designed for all kinds of off-road conditions and a quiet beach means few people to run over so you can really let loose, ramping off the dunes, and if you want, screaming to the wind. Another advantage of the quiet location is the lack of people to see you disgrace yourself as your arms and legs flail over the jumps and the bike flies up and hits you in the ass. Some moments are better left private. Besides, it lets the James Bond in us all come out, skidding in the sand, and with a little bit of skill and a couple of friends you can play kamikaze tag, as long as the hire operators aren’t watching. Two words of warning; Quad bikes do not like sea water – they are not remotely submersible and watch out for the Star Cruises jetty: if you are taller than the average Malaysian, please go around it rather than under it or you may go home considerably shorter than you left it.
All the usual water sports are catered for. Jet skis, windsurfing, canoes can all be hired on the beach, and for the brave and terminally stupid they also offer those Banana Bar rides where you sit on a large inflatable thing and get towed at great speed through the water. The excitement outweighs the posterior pain until you try and sit down on dry land. For the more sedate, mountain bikes are also available and you can cycle around to your heart’s content. One word about the main roads though, drivers in Terengganu do not have the patience and tolerance of KL drivers, and have two speeds: bottom of speedometer and top of speedometer. They are also liable to choose the shortest route around roundabouts and treat traffic lights as something you gaze at for a brief moment before continuing your journey. If you suddenly feel like someone has shut out the sunlight that will be a petrol tanker over-taking on your side of the road around a blind bend.
Other than that it seems exceptionally safe. Awana Kijal is very much a family resort, which is reflected in many of the resort’s facilities. It boasts the largest landscaped pool on the East Coast and there’s a mock pirate boat in the middle of the kids pool that allows the little darlings to clamber and tip buckets of water over each other. Unusual for a resort pool, the adult side boasts a depth of five feet, so you don’t have to worry about scraping your knees on the bottom when doing a few laps. There’s also a shallower area where you can play water polo – the resort has its own teams which takes on all-comers on Mondays – and most importantly there’s the sunken bar. There’s always something exceedingly decadent about sipping a long drink whilst submerged and semi-naked. Outside the pool there are the usual kid’s playground facilities as well as volleyball and beach volleyball. There’s also a reading station where you can pick up a book to read by the pool. It’s a free service and the books are mostly donated by guests so don’t expect the plays of Chekhov; it’s one of those nice altruistic touches that now gets called ‘added value’. For the indoor enthusiast there is also pool and table tennis and halls for badminton can be arranged. Of course, all this activity requires food. And a five star resort has to deliver in terms of quality. Fortunately, the Awana Kijal has a lot to offer.
The Kampong Restaurant offers an extensive buffet selection of (mainly) local dishes and soft drinks. The Waterfall Café caters to most needs with an excellent mixture of local and Western dishes, and some pretty fantastic sandwiches. If you’ve experienced what Malaysians usually offer up as a sandwich, you’ll recognise the leagues of difference between those and the deli creations on offer here. The Thai Salad is also a pretty good option but watch out for the cili padi. Though it’s not on the menu, they will serve you beer and wine, so feel free to kick back and enjoy the alfresco atmosphere as you look out at the sea over the golf course. For fine dining there is the Windows By The Sea Restaurant, offering a mixture of Eastern and Western cuisines, and the Steamboat comes highly recommended. If you want something more basic there’s a block of shop houses just outside the resort gates that offer a variety of coffee shops and mamaks, and there’s a general store and medical clinics.
Of course, the ultimate test of any resort is whether you can get a beer on the beach. Here the Awana has the Oasis Hut. It’s a cosy little place: a live band plays in the evenings if you’re a fan of such things, but for the purist you can’t beat the crash of surf on sand as you pour a gin and tonic down your throat. Guests can also bring their own wines but they will be subject to corkage charges.
The best meal of the day, though, has to be the Awana Kijal’s breakfast buffet which boasts the largest continental breakfast buffet I’ve seen in Malaysia. All the pastries and breads are baked in house, and anywhere that offers four different types of croissant along with half a dozen different breads and a great brioche gets my vote. You can also opt for nasi lemak, congee and a huge selection of fruits and cereals but why bother when there’s so much pastry heaven on offer. Sugar-rush contained, you might decide to get out and about after a day or two, and have a look at what the East Coast is really all about. The hotel can arrange a huge range of trips and tours for you and even has its own in-house travel agency. If you want to get out independently, the hotel can arrange limos but there’s no hire car facility, so i wandering types are best advised to hire a car at the airport on arrival.
For a gentle introduction to the area you can opt for the Kampong tour. Terengganu is famous for its batik and dishes like lemang and keropok lekor and the kampong tour is the ideal way to discover all of them. Passing through the nearest main town Kemaman (They have an A&W if you require a junk food fix), the tour’s first stop is Kuala Kemaman, a little fishing village about 20 minutes from the resort. At the numerous roadside stalls, you can watch the villagers preparing the soft round keropok lekor in huge pots over wood fires before frying them up. They may not be the healthiest of foods but make a great mid-morning fishy snack. Then it’s off to Cherating for a quick look at the Turtle sanctuary. Free to enter, the sanctuary has an extensive information centre and a number of turtles in special pools. While it’s not the largest facility you’ll ever see, it’s interesting for its insights on local marine life, particularly the elusive dugong (Manatee).
From there it’s a five-minute ride to various craft shops where you can see batik printing, carpet weaving and an assortment of other local crafts. You can even indulge your artistic pretensions and make your own batik at some of the stores. It’s the part of the trip where you’re encouraged to part with your money, but when you see the level of craftsmanship that goes into making them you quickly realise what a discount you’re getting on the city prices. Then it’s off for more food before returning to the resort: freshly cooked lemang and satar. Of the two, satar is the more palatable but these char-grilled fish paste packages pack a huge chilli wallop. Lemang on the other hand is more of an acquired taste, if you like glutinous rice then you’ll love these rice-stuffed bamboo tubes.
If you’re more of a water babe then there are a variety of river and waterfall tours operated by the resort. We opted for the Cemerloh waterfalls. It’s a long drive up into the hills, about an hour and a half, but the scenery is fantastic as you pass through some really isolated villages, and skirt the buffalo, goats and the occasional lizard that litter the winding roads. There are seven ‘steps’ to the top of these great falls, and a journey to the top will take you a further 2-3 hours, so make sure you go in the morning if you want to get to the summit. For lounge lizards, you can just take the first step and go swimming in the deep-water pool at the base of the falls – but watch out for the undercurrent and try not to let too many people see you toppling off rocks and into the water when you lose your footing.
If you’re the kind of person who prefers their excitement closer to the beach and bars of home, you can arrange to go jungle trekking without leaving the resort grounds. You disappear into the side of the golf course and climb up a steep path that’s hidden from view. There are two routes, one taking about an hour, and the second around double the length, but both are quite gruelling, particularly for jungle novices. For much of the journey it’s a gentle walk up to the top of the hill, towering about 100 m above the resort, but the descent is much tougher as you go ‘off-road’, swinging on tree trunks for dear life and clambering along stream beds before emerging onto the beach about 3km down from the hotel. You will definitely need a shower and a long, cold drink at the end of it.
In short, the Awana Kijal is a great place to take a break. If you don’t want to leave the resort, it has everything you’ll need to keep you as occupied or unoccupied as you wish. The rooms are great; large, comfortable and, the ultimate test, you can watch TV from the bath. The staffs are friendly, helpful and all speak good English. And if you want adventure, then the hotel is more than willing to accommodate you with all the trips and tours on offer. The only problem is the check-out: after a few days in Terengganu, the last place you want to go is back to the city.