Tim Roxborogh finds someone to share 'his' haven in the South China Sea.
I've been booking holidays to the same mountainous, jungle-covered island in the South China Sea for 10 years now. Since Tioman Island first hooked me in back in 2008, I've returned every couple of years.
Given it takes a bit of effort to get to the island (several hours of bus and ferry/speedboat from Kuala Lumpur), trust me when I say it's worth it. This most recent Tioman adventure was different though. As it was my honeymoon, the more backpacker and flashpacker-style digs I'd chosen for Tioman visits one through four would not do. So even if this was the fifth instalment in my future memoir Tioman And Me: A Love Story, it was in some ways like going there for the first time.
Ahhhh, that first time on Tioman. A couple of friends and I had decided to end a month-long Southeast Asian jaunt with three nights on an island Time magazine hailed some decades ago as one of the 10 most beautiful in the world. I still can't believe we only had three nights because those memories are tattooed into my brain to such an extent I swear we were there several weeks. Memories of trekking through virgin jungle, otherworldly snorkelling, sunsets with campfires and guitars, white sand and locals and fellow tourists who became like old friends.
I went back again and again. Each time I'd discover a new beach or hidden bay and would keep adding pages to my future Tioman bestseller, reaffirming it was "my island". I didn't care if a million other people claimed it as theirs too. The more the merrier. But if humans instinctively crave a place to call their own, I'd decided pretty much from the get-go that Tioman was mine.
So much of the charm of Tioman is that it's so simple. This is a largely uncommercial slice of Malaysia where the biggest stress of the day (even for some of the locals) seems to be what time you'll go snorkelling, whether you feel like a jungle walk and what fish you'd like to eat.
As such, Tioman has long attracted a like-minded crowd of international travellers more interested in natural wonders than in mega-resorts or bucket-sipping full moon-style parties.
Those natural wonders can't be overstated. At 136sq km, with towering limestone peaks that pierce the dense jungle and with 245km of coral reef-fringed coastline of the clearest waters, Time's 70s-era praise of Tioman is still justified.
It helps that government-enforced protections of the rainforest and the marine life have saved Tioman from the scourge of commercial logging, palm oil and over-development. And without a circular road linking all the villages, you can be lying on your chosen Tioman Beach and feel a million miles away from the rest of the world.
We found our beach. A bit of pre-honeymoon Googling pointed us in the direction of a small 5-star eco-resort towards the island's southern tip called Japamala. I'd never swashbuckled through the jungle (or water-taxied) this far south on Tioman and though the place looked suitably honeymoon-tastic on its website, nothing online quite prepared us for the reality of Japamala. Arriving via a one-hour speedboat trip from the mainland port town of Mersing, we were greeted by smiling staff on a long, photogenic, light-adorned wooden jetty.
We could see beach cabanas and palm trees next to a glorious strip of white sand, but no noticeable accommodation. All that was really visible was a virtual wall of green rising steeply from the beach. This really was the jungle. As for the jetty, we'd soon learn it also doubles as a romantic over-the-water restaurant. Looking down at the sea as our bags were offloaded, the unimpeded sight of the tropical fish and all the coral had us itching to jump in (and try our dorky new full-face snorkels) as soon as possible.
After check-in at the outdoor reception at the base of the jetty, we were shown to our room. "Room" isn't really accurate though, because along a wooden boardwalk into the forest with boulders all around was our split-level jungle house. Enveloped by the oversized foliage I've always loved, Japamala's "Hillside Sarangs" (sarang means "nest", "den" or "lair" in Malay) are rustic, luxurious homes where not a single tree nor boulder has been removed.
This leads to awesome little quirks like bathrooms with big boulders partially inside. The boardwalks of the property twist and turn to work around (and with) nature. Our sarang had a living room, balcony and plunge pool with day bed on level one and the bedroom and bathroom on level two. Those four nights with the accompanying gentle hum of the Tioman jungle were some of the best sleeps I've had in years.
Japamala is all about rest and rejuvenation in a resort completely in tune with the environment. Days were spent reading our books in the sun (Japamala's beach really is postcard-perfect) and alternating between swimming with the fishes or in the main swimming pool with its cool mountain water cascading over more boulders. Then evenings would arrive and we'd head to the restaurant on the jetty for cocktails and dinner as the sun set into the South China Sea.
On one of the days I donned my infamous sweatbands for a hike to the nearest village, finding more little white sand beaches along the way. I thought they were unbeatable, but they were ultimately eclipsed by an offshore dot called Coral Island.
A 20-minute boat ride away, this is a protected reserve where no one is allowed to live and no development of any sort permitted. It's the prized destination for all Tioman snorkelling trips, and we took Japamala up on the offer of snorkelling and lunch on Coral Island, a place I easily proclaimed to be heaven on Earth.
The teal water of the island's lagoon almost glows, the soft sand is paper white and as we sat against the untouched jungle (deep green, — Tioman is all about the colours, even more once you dip your head underwater) and ate our picnic of fresh fish, salad and tropical fruit, I couldn't think of a more beautiful place on the planet. A lucky lad to have someone to share it with.
Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur, with Economy Class fares from $1157.
Japamala Resort is part of the Samadhi group of boutique hotels that also includes the Villa Samadhi in Kuala Lumpur and Villa Samadhi in Singapore.