Club Med's huge Asian eco-resort is expanding as the French business turns towards the east, writes Anne Gibson.
One of the world's largest Club Meds is undergoing big changes, opening a new, quiet zone offering guests a respite from the sometimes noisier resort activities of family-centred holidays.
Club Med Cherating Beach on Malaysia's east coast is about a 45-minute drive from Kuantan, itself a 50-minute domestic flight from Kuala Lumpur.
On 9 September, the sprawling jungle-edged 291-suite eco-resort opened its new Zen space with a quiet pool.
This is a mini-resort within the site, set on a thin strip of land between two palm tree-lined, golden beaches on the edge of the South China Sea.
An infinity pool overlooking one of the beaches is the centrepiece and service buildings are set back from the waterfront where kayaking, windsurfing and other watersports are offered.
Back on the main site, Cherating's traditionally-designed Malay kampong-style suites are arranged in long houses, with outdoor corridors, on poles one level up above the ground.
The charming teak-coloured buildings sprawl along only a tiny portion of the 4km of beachfront and at one stage the buildings set a world record for being the longest continuous wooden man-made covered structure.
The new Zen area has no accommodation. It's designed purely as a daytime and evening retreat, aimed mainly at the many honeymooners and couples from Asia, drawn by its vast green areas and isolation from big cities.
Jimmy Ng, Club Med's general manager of Malaysia, Thailand, India and Indonesia, says only 15 per cent of the site is used by the resort.
The Zen zone is a 10-minute jungle walk or a short "train" ride from the main resort's open-air reception area and has a number of cabanas, the Rambulan Restaurant, which seats about 100 people, and bar with poolside service.
Speaking to an Asia Pacific media contingent on 19 September, when the Zen zone was opened, Club Med South East Asia and Pacific chief executive Heidi Kunkel said Cherating held a special place for the wider business in Asia.
"Cherating was opened in 1979 and was the first Asian resort," said the Australia-born, Singapore-based executive, telling how a new noodle bar with poolside service will open at the main resort soon and a new baby club with a splash park is being built along from the main children's club area.
"This is the largest Club Med by far in the Asia Pacific region, perhaps two or four times the sizes of our other resorts in terms of the area of land," she said.
Cherating's changes are part of Club Med's upgrade of all its 80 resorts around the world, distancing itself from its roots and the more organic hut-style accommodation, to cater now for an increasingly sophisticated, more demanding clientele.
"Since 2004, Club Med has been repositioning itself. We started off with huts on the beaches but now we're evolving to be much more upmarket and we've had to take decisions to close resorts which were not up to standard," she said, referring to Australia's Lindeman Island in the Whitsunday Islands.
"We got hit by huge cyclones and the strong Australian dollar and a downturn in the Whitsundays and we were not able to offer a product in line with our positioning," said Kunkel.
Not only are existing resorts like Cherating being upgraded, but Club Med's wallet is open for more properties and it has bigger expansion plans, particularly north of Malaysia.
"Asia is a big growth market for us and China in particular. In the next five years, we will have five resorts in there and we have a team of developers very active," Kunkel said, describing how ski and beach resorts were being sought.
"The Asia Pacific region is the fastest growth for Club Med."
In May, Club Med will open its second Chinese resort at Guilin, a 40ha site framed by misty jagged mountains that southern China is famous for.
New Zealand, with a Club Med office in Auckland's Wyndham St, remains a relatively small part of the wider business, accounting for only about 5 per cent of its guests, Kunkel estimated.
"But a lot of our staff members are New Zealanders and in terms of the fit and the clientele, New Zealanders love to be active and to interact with other people."
Rain-hating, luggage-ravaging, noodle-eating, screaming, river-fighting, roof-walking, bar-dwelling, hash brown-eating, sugar-hunting, urinating, defecating monkeys: where are you?
While I hunt for them, other guests avoid them, having been warned about the macaques at Club Med Cherating Malaysia - although one visitor summed up the resort online as "friendly staff, great food, brilliant monkeys".
Quite true, I discover.
On arrival, guests are told not to leave their suite doors open for fear of a monkey invasion.
But in late September, the fascinatingly agile critters keep their distance, hardly visible in four days stay. Guests were asking after them.
Bar staff laugh, gesticulate skywards, saying the rain is deterring the primates but claim the monkeys are "all around". Where? Other guests say they are "playing outside on the path by the rooms when we got back last night".
Two troops were spotted briefly at breakfast, walking sure footed across the terracotta roof tiles in single file, three with an uber male bringing up the tail. Later, monkeys were spotted fighting in trees above the river on the jungle outskirts, defecating and urinating on each other in an attempt to gain more room in the trees.
Staff say the monkeys' routine follows that of the guests, hanging out not far from the breakfast area in the morning, then around the open-air bar around 5pm for snacks. Guests are banned from feeding them.
Ban or no ban, towards the end of the stay, a roof-walking monkey was spotted chugging back a lemonade can, then breakfasting monkeys emptied sugar sachets down their throats, far out of reach in the rafters, while a hash-brown eater quietly shredded the cold savoury from the same safe vantage.
Resort resident monkeys from the 80ha of protected jungle know the value of getting into a suitcase and guests have returned to find their room resembling a burglary scene.
Where are the monkeys at Club Med Cherating? Wherever they want to be.
Getting there: Five-night all-inclusive packages from $2779 an adult, $1765 a child (4-11 years). Sale lasts until 31 October, travel until 30 April 2013. Includes flights and transfers (from Auckland), superior twin share accommodation, all meals, open bar (excludes some premium branded spirits and champagne).
Activities: Sports and activities with expert tuition: Archery, rock climbing, tree tops course, aqua-aerobics, sailing, yoga, jungle walk, trapeze. No tuition, but available: tennis, gym, beach volleyball, kayaking, soccer. Conditions apply.
* Anne Gibson was a guest of Club Med Cherating Beach