Malaysia: Going back a better way

By Anna Dudding

In Malaysia, Anna Dudding finds a supreme way to get away from everyday life.
Club Med Cherating Beach.
Club Med Cherating Beach.

What a difference a few years make.

When I was in my 20s a friend and I set off on a six-week jaunt through Malaysia and Thailand.

I remember landing in Singapore and being hit by heat that felt like a slap with a hot, wet fish. We bussed to Kuala Lumpur then reached the east coast beaches with a sigh of relief. And as we drove the grey, dusty road to the little backpacker's village of Cherating we cast an envious glance at the entrance sign for the fabled Club Med. A quarter of a century later, on Halloween, I entered those same gates.

This time around when we landed at Kuantan, it was more like being hit in the face with a hot, wet bucket of water and staff in bright yellow slickers handed out umbrellas for crossing the steaming tarmac. The omens were not auspicious. My plane had been jolted by turbulence, the black horizon lit with an eerie pumpkin-orange brightness punctuated by lightning flash after lightning flash. Creepy. Do planes have lightning rods? Then it began to rain. And rain.

Welcome to the sodden east coast of Malaysia.

Washouts are a part of life in monsoon regions and although deep drains line the highways, this deluge swamped them. A midnight minivan dash to the resort was marked by large red AWAS - danger - signs looming out of the darkness as we ploughed through motorway puddles more like ponds. Finally, we pulled up at an aged but imposing colonial-style staircase. The icing on my Halloween fantasy was the lean, saturnine greeter, Clayton, whose ink-black hair and deep-set eyes made him a perfect Dracula.

Up close, he wasn't even faintly fearsome. No sign of sharpened canines. (I might have been right about the vibe, though. Later, I learned staff had dressed up and celebrated the stormy Halloween night by scaring guests.) Clayton offered me a rainbow juice and a chilled facecloth - superfluous in the streaming rain.

My last, less scary, surprise of the night was in our rooms. My sister-in-law, Catriona, flew in earlier under her own steam on a budget airline. She was asleep in our honeymoon suite, furnished with ice-packed champagne, fresh fruit and flower-adorned linen, including a cute towel-elephant. So far, so delightful. But there was only one bed - an enormous four-poster. However, neither of us sleepwalked or snored and the bed was so enormous and the futon so firm we decided to risk sharing. I haven't slept so well for years.

Next morning, Cherating Beach was the paradise I remembered, a glittering oasis well back from a road that is a long stretch of rundown muddy shacks and roadside food stalls. Last time, we travelled on buses and helmetless on motorbikes and stayed in an unpowered beach hut. This time, I had more years on the clock and a mortgage, a family and a job. And this time, I was on the right side of luxury. Our room had Wi-Fi, aircon and a bidet with confusing labels - what does "family" mean next to a picture of wet buttocks?

But more important was the swimming - particularly in the blissful adult-only infinity pool - and what we dined on. Not only did we suburban working mothers not have to shop, cook or clean for five days, but every meal was a choice of gourmet offerings.

For breakfast Catriona invariably chose freshly baked ficelle and maybe a pain au chocolat. Fresh fruit and homemade yoghurt was my choice - followed by beef bacon, hash browns and eggs. We both had too many coffees because we could. Cold drinks were on tap and served from the bar. Given the debilitating heat, it was just as well.

Lunches and evening meals were more spectacular - gorgeously arranged duck, chicken, fish and beef to choose from - no need for the bi- and trilingual signs. My favourite sign was the one that translated English watermelon juice into French beef curry - but one of the joys of Club Med was being surrounded by different languages. Many guests were French and the staff seemed to flick effortlessly between French, English, Chinese, Japanese, and Malaysian. And then there were the Korean, Indian, Japanese, Malaysian and Chinese meal sections. I steered clear of the century eggs, looking amazing and scary at the same time.

Monkeys are ever-present.
Monkeys are ever-present.

Finally, of course, there were desserts that were works of art. I rarely had room, after my entrees, sides, mains and tasters, but Catriona was more restrained and managed to try more sweets.

This break was all about relaxation and our balcony overlooking the rolling South China Sea, drinks and snacks on hand, was perfection. Until the monkeys arrived. Out of the blue, a brazen male swept in, grabbed our bunch of grapes and bounded on to the roof to watch us while he ate, throwing back the stems. Next he got a kiwifruit, which he peeled with his teeth before wolfing the flesh inside. Suddenly, monkeys were everywhere. Sweetly, one had a baby clinging grimly to her waist, looking like a little balding waiter. We got very feminist when she was left to scavenge the kiwifruit skins, but when another marauding monkey did a commando raid on a can of Coke Zero we retreated inside.

But monkeys made this holiday. As we walked the paths, a stick would fall and we'd look up to find a trio of gibbons swinging between the trees and the orange tile roofs. After a heavy shower it was cool enough for tennis, and we played to hoots and rustling from one laidback simian grazing on green shoots among the trees framing the courts. Best audience ever. One morning, I ate in the outdoor restaurant, alone with a good book and 20-odd monkeys. I didn't get a lot of reading done because the babies tussling and playing chase in a gutter above me were much more fun. The cocky juveniles leaping on to open umbrellas and sliding down and springing into the dining area brought squeals from adults and shrieks of pure terror from kids.

Club Med is meant to be a playground so I took up the free pleasures of tennis, a sail - cut short as my co-captain, Gidday (real name), was worried the coming monsoon would splat us - swimming and aquarobics. There were other activities, too - table tennis, batik painting, gym, rock climbing and acrobatics. Next to the resort is a turtle sanctuary where you can release hatchlings. We missed out on that, but there were still a few adults and a poolful of dizzily paddling babies. Who knew that as well as being kind of thick, turtles could be so adorable?

There is entertainment you can pay for, too, so I forced myself to the spa. The massage was great. More amusing, however, was getting oiled and wrapped in tinfoil that felt just like an oven bag. Fortunately I didn't smell like roast chicken afterwards. As with many of the staff at this time of the year, my masseuse had just arrived. An advantage of working at Club Med is the chance to travel between resorts - one staffer we spoke to planned to go to Japan next, another to the Maldives. A disadvantage must be the long hours, taken up with counter service, leading trips, joining exercise sessions, doing dance routines in the blazing sun and taking part in variety shows. The resort also offers "excursions", so I revisited a decrepit local fishing village, a food market and the wildlife in the mangroves on Cherating River.

After a quarter of a century the backpacker village, the river and the buildings were remarkably unchanged - perhaps a little more slumped and tired, but then so am I. But behind Club Med's gates I found the rejuvenation I needed. As was the plan, I came home happy, tanned and relaxed.

Getting there

Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Kuantan, via Kuala Lumpur, with Economy Class return fares starting from $1511. Club Med Cherating Beach is about 45 minutes' drive from Kuantan airport.

• Club Med Cherating Beach has five-night all-inclusive holidays priced from $925 per adult and $555 per child (flights additional, valid for booking until April 30). See clubmed.co.nz for more information.

- Spy.co.nz

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