A visit to a Malaysian "eco-resort" has Maryanne Twentyman won over to the Club Med way of holidaying.
Arriving at Kuantan airport is an assault on the senses, but it's the warmest of welcomes in more ways than one.
It's 11pm local time and, on stepping off the Malaysian Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur on to the tarmac, the heat takes the breath away. The smell hits you next.
The heat is confirmation that the winter chills back home will remain almost 9000 kilometres away, and the smell is the promise of tropical days strolling through rainforest and along pristine beaches.
The late-night bus ride gets under way, our destination Club Med's first eco-resort, at Cherating Beach on the coast of the South China Sea. There, 80 hectares of lush rainforest and 4km of beach await, along with all the food, drinks, sport activities and entertainment one could imagine.
The drive takes about 50 minutes and goes past Kuantan, the ninth-largest city in Malaysia. Along the road are open-air eateries where locals gather late into the night.
When we arrive at the resort, the darkness can't hide the impressive three-storey traditional Malay-style buildings, made of dark teak. We're received by a group of smiling and waving young "gracious organisers" (GOs). We are exhausted, but the welcome is warm and promises much.
It's after midnight and the resort's bars are heaving with excited activity.
Gerard Blitz would be a happy man looking at this scene. Blitz was the Belgian high-performance athlete who created the Club Med all-inclusive holiday model back in the 1950s.
His idea of a pre-paid holiday based on sport and leisure activities has been replicated in 80 resorts around the world.
This is my first Club Med experience. Journalists from around the Asia-Pacific region have been invited to Cherating to learn more about eco-tourism and take part in the official opening of the resort's new "zen space" for adults - a quiet, sophisticated retreat on a stunning natural peninsula that juts into the South China Sea. All that is before us as we are taken into reception and greeted with cocktails - a Club Med staple.
Luckily for us they are non-alcoholic, a teaser of what's to come - after 16 hours of travel, we won't take any rocking tonight.
We wearily follow to our rooms - one of more than 300 on site - and are given instructions that include not leaving our sliding door to the balcony unlocked in case the monkeys get in. I store the information, unsure of what it means exactly.
Finally left to sleep, I can't imagine the scenery hidden by darkness, but the sound of the sea assures me I'm near the beach and a wonderful sight when dawn breaks.
I'm not disappointed. In the light of day are palm trees spaced in generous grounds down to the water's edge.
An Asian man strikes gentle tai chi poses and an older couple sit in silence reading books.
There are catamarans dancing through waves and couples ambling along the beach hand in hand, wearing bikinis and shorts - it's 6am local time and the heat is already rising beyond 28 degrees Celsius.
Breakfast is our first chance to see the main resort - a constant hive of activity centred around a group of pools that look inviting 24/7.
Our first group task is a treasure hunt, a way for us to cover much of the resort completing activities and competing for the title of treasure hunt champions. Our team of three Kiwis, one Aussie and five Malaysians is highly competitive.
This is our first chance to work with Club Med GOs - there are more than 60 at Cherating Resort representing more than 15 nationalities. They work six days a week, running activities for guests by day and taking part in shows in the resort theatre at night. The crew live on the resort property and work one or two seasons before being flown to their next destination in the Club Med chain.
Sales and marketing representative Qin Shen says mobilising GOs around the world broadens the experience for staff, stops them becoming stale and improves their skills..
Baby Club (4-23 months), Petit Club (2-4 years), Mini Club (4-11 years) and Passworld (11-17 years) provide tailored activities for children and teens.
"That's what swayed me to work for Club Med," Shen says. "It caters for everyone and I just loved the concept - everyone wins."
Including the adults, who can take a train, jungle or rainforest walk to the zen space, south of the main resort. Here, king-size four-poster loungers surround a beachside pool on the edge of the South China Sea. It is idyllic, quiet and peaceful.
The zen concept is an example of a business-wide change in direction, according to Heidi Kunkel, chief executive for South East Asia and Pacific, in line with customers' demands for a more upmarket, all-inclusive experience (the all-inclusive model includes return flights and transfers, accommodation, sport and leisure activities, food and beverages).
It meant closing down some resorts and establishing new ones. The quality scale for Club Med comes in "tridents" rather than "stars" and the organisation now has fewer "two-trident" resort options with a focus on three and four-trident experiences.
Club Med has 80 resorts - 58 sun resorts and 22 snow resorts across Europe, North America, South America, East and South Asia Pacific.
Every resort has activities in line with what the environment has to offer. At Cherating, our treasure hunt takes us through the jungle and rainforest, where tree-top confidence courses must be completed, or at least attempted. There's also a real flying trapeze, archery, and a "senses challenge" in the resort's Mandara Spa which specialises in Balinese-style massage and exotic beauty treatments.
With the mercury well above 30°C and the sweat dripping, we are ready to sample more international cuisine - we deserve it.
Around the resort, large iguanas laze on the warm walkways while cheeky monkeys are never far from view. Many travel in lines around the rooftops while some scale pipes to unsuspecting diners, who have been known to lose dinners - even the contents of their plates. That golden rule of Cherating, not to leave balcony doors unlocked, is because furry offenders know how to open doors and where to find mini-bars.
One Japanese visitor had photographic proof of a monkey in his room stealing a pottle of instant noodles then making for the trees.
While days can be as action-packed or relaxed as you want, Club Med comes alive in many ways at night - international dinners are followed by vibrant high-energy shows.
On our final night at Cherating Beach, dinner was followed by a Brazilian-themed evening starting with a show at the main resort and ending with a beach party at the south end of the resort.
And as midnight struck I couldn't think of a better place to celebrate my birthday - under balmy skies on the shore of the South China Sea.
Maryanne Twentyman was hosted by Club Med South East Asia & Pacific. Fairfax NZ
- © Fairfax NZ News