Travel Malaysia

Southern Sensation: Johor and Desaru Coast Beckon Travellers

Aerial view of Desaru Coast in Johor

For an enjoyable domestic getaway in Malaysia, head south to Johor to take advantage of the eclectic city offerings in Johor Bahru or the beautiful beachside resorts of Desaru Coast.

Johor, the southernmost state of Peninsular Malaysia, is much more than merely a place to travel through on the way to Singapore, as it has many tourist sites in the capital Johor Bahru (or simply ‘JB’), two leading themed attractions, beaches, golf courses, shopping, dining, and even agrotourism destinations. In addition, Desaru Coast offers an increasingly magnetic draw, and the offshore Johor Islands in the South China Sea are remote but tranquil and considerably less visited than Malaysia’s more popular islands.

Old shoplots contrast with newer highrises along JB’s Jalan Tan Hiok Nee

Downtown on Foot

The capital’s historic downtown is best explored on foot despite the traffic, heat, and lively pedestrian traffic. Exploring any destination is generally best done on foot, and JB is no exception. In this sense, as well, it does not disappoint. While many visitors, especially those from Singapore, follow well-developed routines of shopping and dining, first-time visitors will find more than enough to distract them here for a couple of days. (Singaporean shoppers head across one of two crossings en masse at the weekend, and the immigration and customs facilities at the Causeway and the Tuas crossing can get very crowded, particularly if a holiday is in the mix.)

While new international hotels have opened in the capital and Danga Bay, well-established hotels like the five-star Thistle Johor Bahru retain the best city location with impressive views over the Straits of Johor towards Singapore. One of the most interesting areas is Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, where old Chinese shoplots look mostly unchanged over the decades. This street is a heritage oasis surrounded by a sea of ever-rising tall buildings. I have often wondered how the street might retain its character in the future, as developers no doubt have their sights trained on the area. The historic enclave is still popular with the locals who come to chat over their richly brewed local coffee or slurp down a bowl of Johor laksa.

A coffee shop in an older part of downtown JB

Chinese food is popular in several kopitiams, with Teochew and Hokkien regional cuisines dominant in the city. Hiap Joo Bakery and Biscuit Factory located here is joyfully trapped in a time warp, not least in their use of a huge, wood-fired oven to bake the freshest breads, richest cakes, and tastiest pastries. This is a JB baking tradition that is over a century old, as its blackened interior walls testify. The locals are happy to queue for baked buns filled with kaya, red bean, and coconut. These buns are delicious, with a slightly smoky flavour from the unique bread-baking technique adopted. The shop, however, is perhaps most famous for its moist banana cake and, like all its products, no preservatives are used.

Buns fresh from a wood-fired oven at Hiap Joo Bakery and Biscuit Factory

Caffeine Culture

Traditionally, kopitiams dominated Johor’s coffee scene, but these days, trendy young urbanites have more sophisticated palates. While international coffee concepts have made an impact, several vibrant coffee outlets cater to more sophisticated palates.  

Faculty of Caffeine is one that stands out. Equipped with a sophisticated La Maazocco coffee machine, the staff brew rich cups of coffee accompanied by light snacks (waffles plus bacon and eggs). Its walls are decorated with modern art and there is a cosy outdoor section.   

One of many places to get your coffee fix in JB

I also enjoyed similar rich brews at Chaiwalla & Co., Malaysia’s first ‘container café’ concept, as the shops are fashioned into shipping containers! Additionally, Doi Chaang coffee, from the hills of northern Thailand, has several outlets in JB and its coffee is one cut above those found at most international concepts.

Chaiwalla & Co. in Johor Bahru

What to Do, Where to Stay

Families will doubtlessly enjoy travelling to JB to visit Asia’s first LEGOLAND theme park. This popular, themed attraction has 40 rides, shows, and displays to keep children entertained. There are exhilarating rides, 4D films, and – unsurprisingly – myriad opportunities to design, create, and build LEGO objects. (Note that LEGOLAND is currently operating on a limited schedule; kindly check their website for opening days and hours.)

LEGOLAND Malaysia remains a popular choice for families

Tollways and a network of new roads constructed in tandem with the development of the massive Iskandar Malaysia project now enable visitors to reach destinations beyond the capital much faster than before, with the drive from central JB to the Desaru Coast taking about an hour. The tranquil East Coast beaches at Desaru have been developed to complement existing facilities and those at Sebana Cove.

Desaru Coast is the latest mega-recreational initiative that includes a massive waterpark, hotels, restaurants, conference facilities, and shopping. Hotels here include Hard Rock Hotel, The Westin, Anantara, and the recently opened One&Only. For fun-filled diversions, Desaru Coast Adventure Waterpark appeals to families, and two 18-hole Els Club golf courses will tempt golfers with their challenging, scenic layouts.

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The Westin Desaru Coast
Kraken’s Revenge at the Adventure Waterpark

The 275-room Westin Desaru Coast Resort has sweeping panoramic views of the South China Sea. Guests can dine or drink in The Beach Bar, Prego, MIX Lounge, and Splash. The Heavenly Spa offers Western and Asian therapies while the Westin Fitness Studio is open around the clock. The well-appointed rooms offer comfort and excellent views of the sea. The Westin has extended a special offer to residents of Johor, as has the Hard Rock Hotel, below. For details, scroll to the end of the article, or visit www.desarucoast.com for more information.

Beachfront accommodation at The Westin Desaru Coast

At the Hard Rock Hotel Desaru Coast, meanwhile, all 365 rooms boast rock star interiors and spacious verandas. Specially curated music, videos, and feature film playlists are screened in the rooms. The hotel wraps around Desaru Coast Adventure Waterpark, just metres from the white sands of the near-deserted Desaru beachfront. Throughout the property, you can explore a vibrant collection of music memorabilia at your own pace or join in for an enjoyable complimentary tour. The Hard Rock Hotel features four dining outlets, including Sessions all-day dining, Constant Grind coffee & bar, The Elephant & The Butterfly – a Mexican poolside bar & grill, and the GMT+8 Lobby bar with its live music performances.

The hard-to-miss Hard Rock Hotel entrance at Desaru Coast
The Hard Rock Hotel, exterior

These days, a renewed focus on safety and hygiene is front and centre for hotels and resorts, and Hard Rock Hotel is no exception. Accordingly, they have just launched their ‘Safe + Sound’ initiative, which encompasses a rigorous 272-point inspection that’s independently assessed by NSF. The initiative was recently announced in conjunction with two special room package deals for November. (See full details for the promotion at the end of the article, along with a separate special deal for Johor residents for both Hard Rock Hotel and The Westin.)

The sumptuous Anantara Desaru Coast Resort and Villas is also part of Desaru Coast, which collectively spans over 16 sq km along a pristine 17km-long beachfront. The resort has 108 rooms, comprising 90 deluxe rooms in low-rise buildings that overlook the gardens, lagoon and sea, and an additional 18 villas and residences, offering the ultimate luxury. Facilities include Sea.Fire.Salt (specialty grill and seafood restaurant), an all-day dining restaurant, observatory bar, beach pool bar, and Dining by Design (private dining in secluded settings).

Accommodation at Anantara Desaru Coast

Not to be overlooked, Desaru’s newest celebrated addition is the uber-posh One&Only Resort, the boutique chain’s first property in Malaysia. Facing either the sea or the jungle, the resort has a collection of 42 Junior Suites, two expansive two-bedroom Grand Suites and an exclusive four-bedroom residence, Villa One. All boast private plunge pools, abundant indoor and outdoor living spaces, separate decadent bathrooms and Malaysian-inspired design features.

Aerial view of One&Only Desaru Coast

One&Only features a number of notable dining outlets. The signature restaurant, Hoshi, marries traditional Japanese sensibility with modern culinary techniques. Ambara, meanwhile, embraces dishes from the Mediterranean coasts using produce from local farmers and the resort’s own garden, all in an airy and casual setting for breakfast and dinner. The diverse, vibrant flavours of Malaysia are explored with inventive local specialities at Essential, while at the open-air Dusky Monkey bar, guests can enjoy a selection of bar bites and curated cocktails. Finally, the newly opened Ember Beach Club offers dynamic beachfront barbecues to resort guests and local residents alike.

The gorgeous Desaru Coast sets the stage for the Ember Beach Club | Image Credit: SCMP

Desaru Coast is near Iskandar Malaysia and is easily accessible via a 45-minute drive from Malaysia’s Senai International Airport, or slightly over an hour from central JB.

A Vision Beyond Desaru

Offshore, several islands attract guests seeking laid-back, Robinson Crusoe-style escapes. The islands of Rawa, Sibu, Besar, Tinggi, Aur, and Tengah all have accommodation ranging from luxurious to rustic and especially appeal to divers and those who really want to get away from it all.

Pulau Aur offers visitors loads of appeal | Image Credit: 1Step1Footprint

Johor’s grand Iskandar undertaking is driving development in the state and tempting foreigners to invest in various real estate offerings. There are several mega-developments in the state including Iskandar and Danga Bay. The latter is an integrated development that includes commercial, residential, and leisure areas. Known as the ‘Vision City of the South’ it also incorporates a marina, convention centre, and residential estates, as well as restaurants and cafés.

Please find the details for Hard Rock Hotel Desaru Coast and The Westin Desaru Coast limited-time promotions below:

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