Saturday, 1 August 2009

Pulau Perhentian, June 2009

After spending 2 nights in KL, we flew out to Kota Bharu in order to get to Petani Beach House on Pulau Perhentian, our island destination. At the airport we bought an official airport taxi transfer ticket to Kuala Besut's jetty. We had been told by Debbie (the lady who manages/owns Petani Beach House with her husband Hash) to not go for the cheaper combined taxi-boat tickets if we wanted a better "boat experience". She also advised to look for Kuala Besut Travel at the jetty. It was a little hidden away, but was worth looking for since we managed to get a boat ride before most of the other people who were waiting for their boats. The lady who manages Kuala Besut Travel was very efficient and quickly got us on our way. The jetty is quite chaotic and confusing, so having someone that takes control is very handy. By the way, since Pulau Perhentian has been made a "Marine Park" you now have to pay an admission fee of 5 MYR to get on the island.

We must have looked a bit "out of place" with our over-sized luggage (blame the city destinations), excessive hand luggage and Siân's white leather handbag. The boat ride itself was fast, very fast and a little bumpy.

Getting all our luggage from the boat onto the beach, being helped by Eddie, we were greeted by Bianca who looked slightly amazed at the amount of stuff we brought along. Luckily a few days later we felt much better when Paul and Georgina arrived on the island carrying hard shell suitcases ;-)

My partner Siân was slightly worried about the fact that we wouldn't have aircon nor hot showers, but she wanted a "perfect beach" destination. I discovered Petani Beach House by accident 10 years ago (was able to find my name in the early pages of the Register Book) and afterward never managed to find a beach that lived up to that particular beach setting, not even The Crane in Barbados.
Now, in order to get the perfect beach on an island such as Perhentian you have to be willing to make a trade-off between luxury and nature. It would be really difficult to build concrete aircon bungalows without affecting the surrounding nature and destroying some coral while at it.

I knew the accommodation was going to be quite basic (but not as basic as some other places on the island) and that we should expect some creepy crawlers inside (the backyard literally is jungle), but I was also hoping that the atmosphere and setting would compensate for all these minor issues. And it did! Big time!

Even though Siân had asked me to come up with a Perhentian back-up plan (meaning a place with aircon and hot showers), once we arrived at Petani Beach House she didn't want to leave anymore. The atmosphere at Petani Beach House was just amazing, which was mainly due to the setting and the people who are running the place.

The owners, Debbie and Hash, were visting family in South Africa when we went, so they left the management of Petani Beach House to their children, with their partners and friends. Bianca and David are excellent at running "front of house", while Icken and Raisa are producing amazing food in the kitchen. And even with everybody being very efficient at what they do, there is no trace of stress to be found on this beach. If you can't chill at Petani Beach House, you need valium and if you don't like the food, you need other taste buds.

Remember me saying Siân was initially slightly worried about staying at Petani Beach House, and I honestly was also slightly worried how she would react to it after the 5 star luxury in the cities ... well, have a look at her review on TripAdvisor and you'll see she also loved it!

Tips when staying at Petani Beach House:
  • Go for the "specials" at dinner time. Every evening Bianca or David came by the bungalow to say what the special was that evening (always fresh from the day and served at about 8pm) and we systematically just went for it. We had some amazing food, and I particularly remember the red snapper, calamari and crab.
  • David organises his own snorkel tour which is just amazing. Do it! With David being ex-military, a qualified diver and having a certificate for rescue at sea, he made us feel very safe and relaxed while we were just totally gobsmacked at seeing sea turtles from up close, giant rays, sharks, and the most techni-colour bunch of fishes ever.
  • Make sure to have an underwater camera. I'm still kicking myself for not having brought one to the island.
  • Bring some battery powered LED book lights and torches when staying at Petani.
  • If you are planning on keeping some snacks or food inside the bungalow, make sure to bring Tupperware style containers, because the ants seem to be able to find your food wherever it might be (even when hung, in a tightly knotted plastic bag).
  • Mosquito repellent! Loads of it, and go for the strong stuff! Even though Bianca and David hand out mosquito coils and use them under the tables at the restaurant, the mosquitoes are really aggressive. Seemingly Off is one of the most efficient mosquito repellents for the island according to them.
  • For the ladies, bring a mirror you can place on the deck outside if you want to do a bit of pampering. (the light inside the bungalows might not be bright enough)
  • Get yourself a local Malay SIM card before going to islands. All the major Malay mobile network providers have a decent signal on the island.
  • The nearby bigger Impani resort is handy for when you want a snack when Petani's restaurant is closed, or when you need extra rental snorkel equipment.
  • Try the local Orang Utang rum, also known as "Monkey Juice". It mixes very well with Coke or pineapple juice.
So, if you love a good beach, you want some relaxation, amazing snorkeling and don't mind rather basic accommodation ... this is the place to be!

Kuala Lumpur, June 2009

From Singapore it only took a very short, SilkAir-operated flight to get to Kuala Lumpur. On arrival at the impressive KLIA airport, we went straight for the official Airport Taxi Desk, which seems to be subsidised, offering really good rates for what is quite a long drive actually (almost one hour) to get to KL city. There are several types of official airport taxis so just make sure you specify the type you want: Budget, Premium, Family, ... We had booked Traders hotel after having read some really positive reviews on TripAdvisor. On arrival we were greeted by Ronaldo who took care of our luggage and made sure to show us to the check-in desk on the 32nd Floor of the hotel. We had booked a Traders Club room, which gave us access to the Club Lounge with its own reception desk for fast check-in and check-out. The Club Lounge is available for breakfast (instead of the more extensive breakfast selection on the 5th floor) and complimentary afternoon tea, but this place really gets buzzing from 5:30pm onwards when the complimentary cocktail hour starts (until 7:30pm). Even though it is advertised as "nibbles", the food during cocktail hour is actually really good and I'm sure it would be challenging for anyone's stomach to go out for dinner afterward. We enjoyed many G&Ts and snacks here, and also used cocktail hour to do some online research using the free WiFi. The Sky Bar on the 33rd floor of the hotel is a definite must-see and while during the day the same space functions as the pool area, it is at night that it is at its best. It feels and looks a bit weird during the day with people trying to catch some sun coming in via the open side windows. The loungy cushioned seats are being used as improvised sun loungers, so in the evening you might end up sitting where previously had been some sweaty backs.

Our room offered an excellent view, with the Petronas Towers just in front of us. The room itself was decent, but not as functional storage-wise as one would expect.

Even though Traders hotel caters mainly to a business crowd, some of the facilities such as the complimentary business centre (free Internet and printing) and free cocktails and nibbles in the Club Lounge make it enjoyable to the leisure traveler. A special mention for Nick at the Concierge Desk. His recommendations were excellent, he checked us in for our flight while we were having a chat and also introduced us to Shangri-La's new resort on the Maldives. We didn't have time to explore much of KL but we went to Chinatown for some compulsory
knock-off shopping and we picked up a Malay SIM card in order not to get hammered with roaming charges when making local calls. KL's Golden Triangle, where many of the popular hotels are located, is trendy, high-tech and looks very cosmopolitan. In the evenings we went to Bukit Bintang and had a few drinks, while Jalan Sultan Ismail also is a popular spot for bars and restaurants.

Even though Kuala Lumpur is a top-notch South-East Asian capital city, it didn't have that "unique" feeling you get when going to Bangkok or Singapore. Even though everything is really good, nothing really "stuck" with us except for
the quality of the hotels. Which leads me to the Mandarin Oriental hotel. We stayed there for one night on our way back home from Pulau Perhentian. Now, if there is one thing I will remember from KL, this will be it! Together with Ca' Sagredo in Venice (even while being very different), this is the best hotel we have ever stayed at.

Service was second to none, the room was fantastic, the bed and pillows were outstanding and the room service was of excellent quality (and the aircon worked properly all of the time, something that Sentosa Resort nor Traders Hotels seemed to manage).
We booked this last-minute on the phone, while staying on Pulau Perhentian. With it being weekend we were offered the room (and one breakfast) for less than £100. Amazing value for money! Since we had a late flight, we asked if it would be possible to accommodate us with a late check-out and we were immediately offered a complimentary 3pm check-out. This already made things much easier, but since we would only be leaving at 6:30pm we still needed "a solution" for the next 3 hours. Now, we had been told locker rooms and showers were available (near the pool) for us to change before our flight, but we didn't expect these to be as good as they actually were. The so called locker rooms offered dressing tables with toiletries, several different types of showers, a jacuzzi, sauna, steam bath and relaxation lounge. Absolutely flawless!

Before booking the Mandarin Oriental, I also called the Shangri-La hotel because of our previous positive experience in Traders, but the booking agent on the phone was much less helpful and when I asked what the options were to accommodate a late check-out I was immediately told "50% of the price for 1 night", nothing else. I even asked if they would have a complimentary late check-out (which I know they do from a couple we met on Pulau Perhentian), but I was told that we would need to pay an extra 50%. This was in stark comparison with the telephone booking agent for the Mandarin Oriental, who couldn't have been more helpful, accommodating and polite. The entire process from calling the Mandarin Oriental to book a room, to actually leaving the hotel was flawless. The words "benchmark" and "best practices" come to mind when thinking about the Mandarin Oriental hotel.

Singapore, June 2009

Our latest holiday combined 5 star luxury in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur with quite basic island accommodation on Pulau Perhentian (Malaysia), and it was absolutely fantastic!

We started off our holiday by staying at the Manchester Airport Radisson SAS hotel. This allowed us to catch an early flight without needing to leave home extra early, nor getting stuck in stressful traffic jams. The hotel is actually situated within the airport grounds and allows direct access to Terminal 2. From hotel check-out to being checked in with Singapore Airlines, it took us about 10 minutes.
By choosing for the Room + 15 days of Parking bundle we managed to make our departure much more enjoyable, while not paying much more than airport parking.
This hotel gets very mixed reviews on TripAdvisor, but in our case it worked really well and we would certainly stay here again. The rooms (and most of the hotel) look a little dated, but staff was excellent and the convenience outweighed all the potential negatives.


A fully packed 13-hour flight later we landed in Singapore at 6am. I'm sure Singapore Airlines must have had a "
Nursery Promo Sale" earlier on, because I've never experienced so many babies on one flight. Needless to say it was absolutely impossible to sleep and the Emergency Exit looked disturbingly appealing, even at 35,000 feet.
On arrival we unfortunately made the mistake of trying to make our way to the hotel using public transportation and the hotel shuttle bus from Vivo City (shopping mall). Even though this was a good way of getting an immediate feel for Singapore, I wouldn't suggest this if you are traveling with much luggage. The MRT public transportation system is very efficient, but the many changes and stairs make it a bit of a drag, literally. Also, it is not that easy to find the Sentosa Resort shuttle pick-up area outside Vivo City. We ended up spending 2 hours getting to our resort while a taxi would have done it in less than 30 minutes, and taxi prices are very reasonable in Singapore.

We had booked The Sentosa Resort & Spa on Sentosa island via XO Private. Yvan and Isabelle from XO Private had suggested this place and it actually looked much better in real life than it does on The Sentosa's own web site. We checked in and after just a few minutes it was clear that this would make the perfect start to our holiday. The place looked great, the grounds were immaculate, the peacocks added yet another aesthetic touch, the service was very good, the concierge was faultless, the food and drinks were amazing and the big pool and sun loungers really gave this place an immediate holiday feel. We enjoyed the place that much and were really able to relax to such extend that I completely forgot to take daytime pics of Sentosa Resort and the island itself. At no point in time did the thought cross my mind "oh I should get my digital camera out" even though everything looked fantastic at the resort. There is a really good atmosphere at night time too with The Pavillion and The Cliff bar allowing you to enjoy a nice drink in a surrounding that is miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Which literally is only miles away ...

I did find some other pics online which might give you a better feel for the resort...

Singapore City itself was quite impressive and it definitely is the most "sanitised" (in a good way) of all South-East Asian capital cities I've experienced. Some people seem to have a bit of a problem with this, but what is not to like about a well organised graffiti-free city with extremely polite, helpful and highly educated people? This place makes you feel really safe, comfortable and "at home" in no time. Maybe that is the only concern, feeling "at home" while being on a long-haul holiday is probably not really the idea ... but it is very easy, I must admit, after a long haul flight and being jet-lagged.

Clarke Quay and Boat Quay offer a wide wide variety of bars and restaurants and you definitely have to go and experience the almost-Disneyland'esque atmosphere in some of these places. In Clarke Quay we ended up having dinner in a seafood restaurant along the water. It was absolutely packed, mainly with locals. I don't remember the name of the place, but I do remember the scallops main dish and the absolutely fabulous award winning Chili Crab.

We afterward had a drink at Le Noir and tried to get a taxi at closing time. From the taxi queue we spotted a few more bars that were still open and we ended up at Cuba Libre. You can't queue while being on a holiday, when there's a perfectly good bar around ;-) We ended up having a good night at this bar, chatting with a group of PE teachers out on an international sports event. Amongst them a Belgian expat now living in Manila and a German expat living in Kuala Lumpur. The Sunday evening BOGOF at Cuba Libre made it even more chatty.

We only briefly went to Chinatown and ended up eating in a Cantonese Restaurant that has been around for ages and that was quite busy with mainly locals and expats. The deco was a bit rubbish, but the food was excellent and we ate the best Roasted Peking Duck ever! I had read about a bar called The Breeze in TimeOut Singapore, so we decided to give this nearby bar a try.

The most impressive aspect of this bar is actually the hotel on top of which it is located. The Scarlet is absolutely amazing. Everything about it, just says "Absolutely Fabulous". The deco is glamorous and ornate, without being tacky. The attention to detail is amazing and even though the shapes and colours are bold, it just works. It takes a great designer to achieve such a "More is Less" interior.

The location of the hotel feels a bit weird however and its lack of an outdoor pool with sun loungers might not make it the ideal leisure hotel, but depending on the experience you are looking for this might just be a great place to spend a few days feeling like a rock star.

In the Old Colonial District we went for the compulsory Singapore Sling at Raffles' Long Bar.

It obviously is a bit of a tourist attraction with overpriced cocktails (don't stick to the Singapore Slings) and the obligatory peanut shells on the wooden floors, but the house band Moudique was very, very good.

We initially didn't intend on staying at Raffles all night, but the band was just too good and so we downed a few more drinks while getting into the groove ;-)

Raffles really is quite impressive and walking through its corridors gives a feel for the grandeur that Sir Thomas Raffles brought to Singapore in the early 1800's. It seems the entire neighbourhood has been Rafflesized actually.

Our only real daytime trip, was the have-to-do Orchard Road shopping trip. It is one big stretch of luxury shopping malls, but once you've seen one Louis Vuitton shop, you've seen them all ;-) Getting hungry we spotted a Food Centre and went for sushi, which again was really good. Sushi in South-East Asian shopping malls and food courts seems to systematically be so much better than what we are being offered in most European sushi restaurants.

Sentosa island itself has quite an artificial feel to it, and the little trains (not really on rails) running around the island give it a fair park feel. The man-made white sand beaches you find around the island are ok, but the big tanker ships cruising along spoil the view a little obviously. Now, I must admit this is purely based on first impressions because we didn't explore too much of the island. The pool at The Sentosa Resort & Spa was just too appealing for jet-lagged daytime leisure.

When flying Singapore Airlines, this is now going to be a regular stop-over because there is so much more to see and do in Singapore that it would be a shame to miss out on this.

We only spent 3 nights in Singapore, after which we flew out to Kuala Lumpur... see next Blog post!