Getaway to romance in Malaysia
More and more New Zealanders are falling in love with Malaysia as a holiday destination. After a whirlwind trip to three of its very different locations, here's some top tips for the must-sees and dos essential to your romantic Malaysian itinerary.
TOP THREE REASONS TO LOVE MALAYSIA
Evidence of human habitation in Malaysia dates back 40,000 years but the beginning of the country's historic era is seen as being the start of the 14th century.
With so many years behind it, and with Dutch, Portuguese and British influences combining with the Chinese, Malay and Indian heritage, it's a country of fascinating history and a melting pot of cultures. No matter where you go or what you do, Malaysian people want to help. Hotel staff are exemplary - nothing is too much trouble and no question too stupid - making you feel truly treasured by the time you leave.
Malaysia is a "megadiverse" country meaning it is extremely biodiverse. Some of the country's rainforests are believed to be 130 million years old and Peninsular Malaysia has 210 mammal, 620 bird, 250 reptile, 150 snake, 80 lizard, 150 frog and thousands of insect species. There are also believed to be about 14,500 species of flowering plants and trees.
Kuala Lumpur is about 11 hours' flying time from New Zealand and you can fly direct. There is only five hours' time difference so the jetlag isn't too severe, meaning you'll be up and out experiencing this incredible country before you can say "selamat datang" - Malay for "welcome".
Cooking class at Hotel Equatorial, Melaka
In one of the conference rooms of the very grand Hotel Equatorial, we took part in "the only cooking class in town", rated by Lonely Planet as No 6 of the top 99 things to do in Melaka.
Because one of the best things about Malaysia is its cuisine, learning how to cook a traditional Nyonya feast is a great souvenir to take home with you.
We cooked Ayam Pongteh (chicken and potato stew), Udang Lemak Nenas (prawn and pineapple stew) and Apal Balik Nyonya (Nyonya-style pancakes) and the chef's step-by-step instructions made it all relatively simple, even for those with limited culinary knowledge.
After cooking, we sat down in the restaurant to eat our feast - not only did we tuck into the food we'd made, but we also were treated to many more of the hotel restaurant's signature dishes. Delicious.
TIP: Go on an empty stomach - you'll be thankful of it after your class when you sit down to eat and the food keeps on coming.
Historical tour, Melaka
As part of our stay with The Majestic hotel, we went out on a three-hour walking tour with Choo, a charming woman with a wicked sense of humour who has lived in Melaka all her life.
We walked the boardwalk along the river where we saw large monitor lizards hiding in the mangroves. From there it was on to the night markets of China Town's Jonker St, a bustling mish- mash of tacky souvenir stalls standing next to temples on a street famed for its antique shops. And then on to the terracotta- coloured Dutch colonial architecture of Christ Church and Stadthuys, and up the hill to the historical ruins of the Portuguese Chapel, St Paul's.
Choo provided entertaining, informative, amusing commentary all along our three- hour journey.
TIP: Wear sunscreen, lightweight clothing and comfortable shoes and take plenty of water with you.
The Datai hotel's Nature tour, Langkawi
Known as "the Jungle-Wallah of Langkawi", Irshad Mobarak is The Datai's resident naturalist and conducts morning and evening tours into the rainforest.
Irshad is a wonder - he has so much natural history knowledge he could give David Attenborough a run for his money and his voice is as smooth and soothing as liquid honey. His passion for Langkawi's natural environment - which in 2007 was declared the 52nd Unesco Geopark - is unrivalled and he is passionate about educating locals as well as tourists in the importance of preserving it. On his tours, you might not get further than the top of the resort's long driveway as Irshad will stop every few steps to point out an interesting tree, flower, bird, monkey or other unusual creature in the trees. Despite the heat and humidity, we could have stayed outside with him for much longer than our allotted hour-and-a-half.
TIP: Take water with you and wear sunscreen. Even early in the morning, Langkawi's jungle heat and humidity can be stifling.
Tanjung Rhu's mangrove forest eco tour, Langkawi
Heading by boat to the mangrove forests on a hazy morning was a real highlight of our stay on Langkawi. Our guide, Fendi, was one of those unforgettable characters you can meet only while travelling. A small, lean, whippet-like man, he's like a Malaysian Steve Irwin. His passion and enthusiasm for the area is second to none and he expresses distress about the litter and pollution which are ruining the ecosystem he loves. He is a keen photographer and will snap candid photos of you when you least expect it - he says he learnt some special tips from America's Next Top Model judge Nigel Barker, who went on his tour last year. Most of all, he is full of knowledge about the bats, sea eagles, snakes, monkeys and monitor lizards which call the forest and surrounding waters home.
TIP: No matter what you see the other tourist boats doing, don't feed the monkeys or any other wildlife.
TOP THREE ROMANTIC HOTSPOTS:
The perfect place for an anniversary, celebration, or proposal...
Sunset at Sky Bar, Kuala Lumpur
Perched high on top of the Traders Hotel, the Skybar has an unobstructed view of Kuala Lumpur's Twin Towers. Book a window table for 6.30pm then watch the towers gradually light up as the sun goes down. The view is mesmerising, the cocktails intoxicating, the food satisfying and the ambience effortlessly sophisticated. A proposal here could surely not be turned down.
Afternoon tea at Carcosa Seri Negara, Kuala Lumpur
For some Old World elegance, head to this heritage hotel standing proudly on a hilltop among more than 16 hectares of garden and lawns in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. The hotel was initially the official residence of Sir Frank Swettenham, the first resident-general of colonial Malaya, but is now used as a luxury hotel and restaurant. Sit on wicker chairs on the airy verandah and nibble on delicate sandwiches and cakes, washed down with a variety of delicious tea blends, while you look out over the lush tropical gardens and dream of colonial days gone by.
Moonlight dinner at Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi
Anyone planning a proposal in Langkawi should look no further than Tanjung Rhu resort's moonlight beach barbecues. Private tables are set up far away from the main part of the resort, complete with gorgeous lanterns, candles and starched linen tablecloths. Your designated waiter will deliver wines and food to your table while you listen to the waves and watch the twilight make way for a star-covered sky. Absolute romantic perfection.
HOTELS TO MAKE YOU WEAK AT THE KNEES:
The Majestic, Melaka
Situated in the heart of Melaka - a city with so much history it has been granted Unesco world heritage status - the main mansion of The Majestic dates back to 1920.
Although it lost some of its grandeur while being used as a backpacker hostel, the hotel was restored to its former glory in 2008, recreating its traditional Colonial-era glory.
The light, breezy lobby, painted in white and Tiffany's duck-egg blue, is a haven from the outside humidity. The staff are gracious, polite and happy to help. It's almost a shame to leave the lobby and make your way to your room. But I'd advise going to the accommodation tower (tastefully added to the original mansion) as soon as possible for one of the most romantic rooms you are likely to stay in. Deluxe rooms have four-poster, king-size beds with crisp white linen and wooden ceiling fans, all which create a Colonial-style sanctuary. Wooden shutters open to reveal a free-standing, claw-foot bath tub, with room enough for two.
The hotel's restaurant, The Mansion, serves delicious Nyonya-cuisine and the in-house spa village is world-class, with treatments based on the healing heritage of the Baba-Nyonya, which combine Chinese and Malay influences.
Best for: Old World charm, history, service.
Not for: Those looking for a beach getaway or the modern luxuries of Kuala Lumpur.
Philea Resort and Spa, Melaka
Situated on the outskirts of Melaka, you could quite easily drive past Philea with no idea it's there. The resort is situated off the main highway and it is a world away from the travelling traffic.
The resort is a lush, tropical retreat, with each log-cabin accommodation block constructed from trees imported from Thailand and Russia and built in a Swiss-chalet style. Inside the log cabins, the suites are tastefully decorated and luxurious, with a modern tribal feel.
On-site, there is a spa, a lagoon- like swimming pool complete with waterfall, gym, restaurants, bar and karaoke rooms. Honeymoon suites are especially luxurious - they have their own private lap pools with double day-beds, perfect for lazy lounging.
Best for: Seclusion, sanctuary.
Not for: Those who want to immerse themselves in Melaka's Colonial past.
Sheraton Imperial, Kuala Lumpur
From the moment you are greeted in the lobby, first impressions are excellent in this grand, towering hotel in the heart of KL. Standard rooms are 42 square metres and perfectly proportioned to feel spacious, with an entrance hall, walk-in wardrobe, large bathroom with separate shower and bath, king- size bed, sofa, coffee table and desk.
Some rooms have views of the city's famous Petronas Towers.
The hotel itself has so many fantastic facilities you could quite happily spend your entire trip there: three restaurants, a cafe and a lounge bar, large pool area, gym, spa, ballrooms, free internet, business meeting rooms, and, for the rich and famous, the palatial Presidential Suite which has hosted stars including the Black Eyed Peas and Bruno Mars.
If you do venture outside - and you really should - the Sheraton Imperial offers a free shuttle service to the Golden Triangle shopping area in the city.
Best for: Luxury in the middle of the bustling city, excellent food options without leaving the hotel.
Not for: Those looking for a boutique hotel experience.
Park Royal Suites, Kuala Lumpur
For shopaholics, Park Royal Suites is the best hotel for proximity to the Golden Triangle, KL's bustling shopping district.
The spacious self-catering serviced apartments are great value for couples who want to get out and about during the day, but save money by eating in at night. The suites have great facilities, with full kitchen, broadband and home entertainment systems. The hotel has a gym, residents' lounge, self-service laundrette and restaurant downstairs, but by far the best part is the adults-only rooftop pool and jacuzzi with views looking out over the city.
Best for: Value, proximity to shopping, views from the rooftop pool.
Not for: Those looking for a historical hotel experience.
The Datai, Langkawi
If heaven was a hotel, it would be the Datai. Situated on the tropical island of Langkawi, it's a place where every single detail has been considered and taken care of. For example, the minibar has complimentary soft drinks, as well as bottled water, and universal plug adapters and insect repellent plug-ins are provided as a matter of course. The bathrooms have adjustable lighting, twin vanity units, large luggage racks and wardrobes, in a separate room to the shower, bath and toilet. The bath has complimentary bath salts and an incense stick - with matches - and the plug and taps are in the middle, so if you're sharing, no one has to sit at the uncomfortable end.
There are two swimming pools: an adults-only pool at the top of the resort and a family pool which is through the forest, down the hill, and next to the beach. Poolside showers have Molten Brown shampoo, conditioner and shower gel. The spa has treatment rooms which open out to the rainforest, so you can hear birdsong, animal calls and the gentle flow of the stream as you are massaged.
The poolside restaurant's wine list is two full A3 pages, complementing the excellent Indian/Malay-inspired cuisine. The Datai is an oasis of calm and seclusion, in the middle of a living, breathing rainforest (tip: don't leave your balcony doors open unless you want to share your room with monkeys) and is the height of romance and luxury.
Best for: Seclusion, romance, serenity, nature, luxury, wine, spa treatments.
Not for: Anyone afraid of creepy crawlies/lizards/mischievous monkeys - there's no escaping Malaysia's diverse wildlife.
Tanjung Rhu, Langkawi
This five-star property has its own long stretch of private beach just steps away from the spacious and luxurious rooms. With three pools, an excellent spa, four on- site restaurants, a reading room, tennis court, gym and watersport facilities, this eco-resort is another tranquil paradise. I can highly recommend the daily happy hour - the cocktails are delicious, and taste even better while you dangle your feet over the pool's edge into the cool water. The food and service are excellent and the location is perfect for those who want to check-in, unpack and instantly unwind.
Best for: Beachfront location, romantic moonlight dinners, cocktails by the pool.
Not for: It's hard to pick a reason why you wouldn't like this hotel and other visitors agree - the resort was named the seventh- best spa/relaxation hotel in Malaysia in the Trip Advisor 2012 Travellers' Choice Awards. The Datai was close behind at ninth.
Where to stay: The Majestic, 188 Jalan Bunga Raya, 75100 Melaka, ph +6 06 289 8000, majesticmalacca.com. Philea Resort and Spa, Lot 2940, Jalan Ayer Keroh, Off Jalan Plaza Tol, 75450 Ayer Keroh, Melaka, ph +6 06 233 3399, phileahotel.com. Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur Hotel, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, ph +6 03 2717 9900, sheraton.com/imperialkualalumpur. Park Royal Serviced Suites, 1 Jalan Nagasari, Off Jalan Raja Chulan, 50200 Kuala Lumpur, ph +6 03 2084 1000, parkroyalsuites.com. The Datai, Jalan Teluk Datai, 07000 Pulau Langkawi, Kedah Darul Aman, ph +6 04 959 2500, thedatai.com.my. Tanjung Rhu Resort, Mukim Ayer Hangat 07000 Pulau Langkawi, ph +6 04 959 1033, tanjungrhu.com.my.
Where to eat/drink: Skybar, Level 33, Traders Hotel, Kuala Lumpur City Centre, 50088 Kuala Lumpur, ph +6 03 2332 9888, skybar.com.my. Carcosa Seri Negara, Taman Tasik Perdana, Parsiaran Mahameru, 50480 Kuala Lumpur, ph +6 03 2295 0888, carcosa.com.my.
What to do: Culinary Class at the Seri Nyonya Peranakan Restaurant, Level 3, Hotel Equatorial, Bandar Hilir, 75000 Melaka, ph +6 06 282 8333, equatorial.com/mel. A Many of the hotels and locations featured provide wedding and honeymoon packages. Contact them direct for specific information.
Stephanie Holmes travelled thanks to Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.
Sunday Star Times