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Destinations in Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur – known to the savvy visitor as ‘KL’ – is Malaysia’s brash and bustling boom-town: a heady urban blend of impossibly tall towers and ornate temples, mega-malls and chic eateries, big business and pure pleasure.
Vibrantly multicultural Penang – a turtle-shaped island off the north-west coast of Peninsular Malaysia – tantalises with its colonial charm, colourful streetscapes and mouth-watering mix of cuisines.
Nestled on the north-east tip of Malaysian Borneo, Sabah has almost mythical status. Where else in the world can you climb a majestic mountain, venture into primeval rainforest and swim with turtles, all in a matter of hours?
Start in spick-and-span Singapore, a city known as much for its designer shops and scintillating street food as its superlative airport (yes, Changi really does have a rooftop pool, giant slide and butterfly garden). Hop across the Straits to Malacca, a little gem of shaded alleys, Portuguese ruins and inspired Nonya cuisine. The Petronas Towers dominate Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it’s affectionately known), a pulsing but laid-back metropolis with a pleasing café culture and serious shopping habit. Stock up on tea stops and cool air in the undulating Cameron Highlands, lose yourself in foodie-heaven Penang or relax in sultry Sabah, where you can climb majestic mountains, dive Sipadan’s turtle-rich waters or play with orang-utans.
Step off the grid in Sabah, an island where crystal-clear waters, primeval rainforest and untamed fauna beckon the wild at heart.
With its untouched, dramatic landscape, this north-eastern pocket of Malaysian Borneo is a place for adventurers. Idling the days away on pristine beaches and in bath-warm waters may be tempting, but its vast wilderness lies waiting to be explored. This is a playground for eco-adventurers: active types can enjoy river cruises, white-water rafting and caving. Don a snorkel from the dive shop at Bunga Raya or pick up a PADI license to explore the reefs around the islands of the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park (+60 (0)88 523 500), which is home to jungle-clad Gaya Island where you can spy giant clams and blue-spotted rays. Back on dry land, hang out with gentle ginger giants at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (+60 (0)89 531 180), see pygmy elephants at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve (+60 (0)88 267 266) or trek up the daunting, Unesco-protected slopes of Mount Kinabalu.
Seducing art-admirers and luxury-lovers faster than you can wiggle a paintbrush, boutique hotel Macalister Mansion in Penang boasts gallery-inspired design without skimping on cosy touches. This handsome heritage hideaway also has eight contemporary rooms, a sociable Cellar bar and two tempting restaurants.
Underwater explorers will love Gayana Eco Resort's coral-dotted, marine-reserve dive centre (the treks into the Borneo jungle won't disappoint, either). Bali's Alila Manggis is splashing distance from seven of the globe's best dive sites and is edged by sublime snorkeling waters. Sumba, an hour's flight from Bali, is a hush-hush travellers' secret, and at Nihiwatu you'll sample the island's best: incredible ocean views, breeze-cooled outdoor living and world-class surf breaks in reach. A speedboat ride from Amanzoe, a marble-hewn hilltop haven in southern Greece, is the island of Dokos, whose diver-drawing coast lays claim to the world's oldest known shipwreck.
Tucked away in an upscale corner of Kuala Lumpur, Villa Samadhi’s Thai-styled rooms are set around an inviting lagoon-shaped pool; ladders from ground-floor terraces allow guests to swim out from their rooms.
Tiny Tioman Island can only be reached by boat. Perched over the South China Sea, Japamala Resort’s luxury tree houses and cliff-clinging chalets are the ultimate back-to-nature retreat, with courtyard Jacuzzis, secluded sun decks and overwater day-beds.
Set on a peaceful lagoon, romantic Gayana Eco Resort in Sabah even has its own marine research centre. It’s just the place for overwater plunge-pool petal-strewn baths à deux, if you’re into that sort of thing. And, let’s face it, who isn’t?
Weird and whimsical, Wanderlust is a vivid dreamscape of a boutique hotel set in the heart of Singapore’s Little India. No two rooms are the same – expect 29 flights of fancy inspired by pop art, origami and childhood fantasies.
With fabulous hawker fare and bags of colonial charm, there are plenty of reasons to visit Penang. Soak up the fragrant flavours of the Straits with a culinary tour.
You’d be remiss not to sample Georgetown’s celebrated street food: Malaysians flock here from across the country to pull up a plastic chair in atmospheric Chinatown. Tastebud-tingling Nyonya cuisine is the star of the show: wander down brash, neon-lit New Lane and pick the most appetising hawker stall. Tuck into char koay teow, a deceptively simple dish of smoky stir-fried noodles studded with juicy prawns, or try fresh popiah rolls and chargrilled stingray.
Missed out on Malaysia’s national dish? Sample award-winning satay in First and Business Class on Malaysia Airlines and order tender braised lamb shank, moreish tandoori prawns or delicate cod from its Chef on Call service. Gourmet Economy travellers can also upgrade to six fine-dining meals including Japanese, Malay and Western treats.
Laid-back Bunga Raya boutique hotel and spa in Sabah, Borneo, is a tropical-island paradise without the schlep. Its powdery white beach, rainforest backdrop and endless ocean views will ensure you’ll feel miles away from the real world, even though the airport is just half an hour away. Your villa is a cool enclave of simple luxury from which you can step directly onto the beach or into the jungle.
Just-remote-enough Japamala Resort on tiny Tioman Island is the ultimate back-to-nature escape. Joined by a series of canopy-skimming walkways, the hotel's luxury treehouses and cliff-clinging chalets are secluded and serene, promising rainforest-ringed privacy and vertiginous vistas of the South China Sea.
Shopping is Singapore’s national pastime; savvy visitors avoid the glitz and glamour of Orchard Road in favour of its quirkier designer boutiques. Tucked in a Chinatown nook, World Savage stocks repurposed vintage togs and hand-made jewellery; Haji Lane is home to a string of fashion-forward boutiques and scandi-furniture store cum bespoke cocktail den Bar Stories. When you’ve had your fill of plastic-flashing, turn to the spiritual at intriguing Tamil festivals; in KL’s Batu Caves, Thaipusam is a colourful display of faith, endurance and penance. Singapore’s verdant new ‘supertrees’ dominate the skyline at Gardens by the Bay, but for the real thing head to Sepilok’s pocket of rainforest, home to an orang-utan sanctuary and rehabilitation centre.