Chef Ann's informal approach is but a morsel of the Tanjong Jara's relaxed, and relaxing, charm. Some super-luxury enclaves suffocate guests with services and ceaseless, ultimately intrusive, efforts to make sure everything is just right. Here, save the odd cold towel or glass of ice water, guests are left peacefully, blessedly, alone and thus free to appreciate some of Asia's most stunning scenery. Built in 1980, the resort expertly re-creates the architectural splendor of the timber-wrought palaces of the region's 17th century sultans. The result—which won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for design—is a series of lovingly crafted wooden chalets and buildings wrapped around the most spectacular stretch of beach on Malaysia's east coast. Yet poor management allowed the site to deteriorate until 1997, when it was bought by the YTL Group. Three years later, the Tanjong Jara reopened with a second swimming pool, additional restaurants and a sprawling, palm-shaded spa with individual massage pavilions and a gamelan orchestra. The staff was likewise overhauled to include a host of specialists prepared to attend to your serenity: reflexologists who conduct hour-long sessions, ayurvedic healers from the subcontinent who lead weeklong herbal treatment courses and, lest we forget, chef Ann.
Lush gardens and strategically placed lights conjure a touch of Ali Babaesque magic at night, especially with bright clumps of stars shining in the sparsely populated region's clear skies. Guest quarters—individual villas or smaller rooms in the pavilion, each with a seaside veranda—are spread along a mile of beachfront; even when the beach is crowded guests have a sense of privacy. If you're tempted to simply sink into the natural surroundings, no one will blame you. If you want to plunge into them, however, take the resort's boat to the uninhabited islands nearby for some of Malaysia's best diving and snorkeling. There is also a resident naturalist, former Malaysian special-forces soldier Captain Mat, who leads jungle and beach tours and prides himself on an encyclopedic knowledge of the region's flora and fauna. And from May to September, visitors can take a hotel van southward for an hour to see hawksbill turtles trundle on shore to lay their eggs. Thousands of massive leatherbacks used to haul themselves onto the beach right next to the Tanjong Jara to do the same. Sadly, mistreatment of the ancient creatures—by tourists, fishermen and egg hunters—has reduced landings from some 10,000 in the 1960s to zero last year.
Still, regeneration and renewal, for humans at least, remain a part of the Tanjong Jara experience. You need choose only how you want it served.
Tanjong Jara stalwart Pak Aksah offers tutorials in village games, such as chongcat
Airfare from Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Terengganu is about $75 on Malaysia Airlines. The hotel doesn't come cheap, but by booking online (tanjongjararesort.com), you can get a two-night package rate for about $200 per person
The package includes three meals each day, which can be taken at either the hotel's main restaurant or at the Nelayan (Malay for fisherman), which specializes in barbecued seafood. There are also snack bars located next to the pools
Underwater enthusiasts should avoid the October-to-February monsoon season (even if the rates are cheaper). During the diving season, the resort offers a spectacular deal for divers: business-class fare from anywhere in Europe on Malaysia Airlines plus seven days of diving, full accommodation and meals, all for $4,563 (see the YTL Travel Center on the hotel website)