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.
Double rooms from £240.74 (MYR1,287), including tax at 10 per cent.
Rates include buffet breakfast.
You'll need to be an early riser to nab one of the six cushioned cabanas that line the beach, but latecomers aren't left out: staff will happily spread sunloungers and bamboo mats on the sand.
At the hotel
Gardens, day spa, boutique, library. In rooms: flatscreen TV, DVD player, minibar, Samadhi toiletries.
Our favourite rooms
With a day-bed cantilevered out over the ocean, the views from Seaview Chalet 16 take some beating. If privacy is your priority, plump for the Seaview Sarang, which has a cool waterfall pool, courtyard Jacuzzi and a secluded sun-deck.
A curvaceous, seaside stunner, Japamala's main pool is complete with overwater cabanas and a soothing waterfall. There's a petite, older pool in a courtyard behind Tamarind restaurant, but the beachfront oasis is the prime spot for splashing.
Leave the sarong at home – there are colourful batik wraps to borrow in your room. Be sure to stash some hard-core insect repellent – the sandflies here are vicious.
The hotel's WiFi is patchy at best; take the opportunity to unplug and relax.
This is more of an adults' retreat – leave the smalls at home.
When building the 13 chalets, the resort's natural environment wasn't altered in any way, so rooms are reached via winding bridges and walkways, and huge boulders inform the interiors of some of the rooms.
We liked the laid-back elegance of the overwater perches at Mandi-Mandi, cabana-style tables that jut out over the sea. For a more look-at-me locale, ask staff to set up a torch-lit table on the beach.
During the day, simply slip your sarong over your swimwear. Things aren't too fancy at night, either, with jewelled sandals and sundresses for the gals, and cotton shirts for the guys.
Breeze-blessed Tamarind restaurant is set in an open-sided pavilion between the beach and the pool, dotted with Buddha statues, solid wooden furniture and a series of ponds (mind your step!). Authentic Thai and Vietnamese dishes are the stars here, including zesty salads and lip-smacking seafood curries. Bountiful breakfasts and virtuous juices are also served. A short walk over the ocean (don't worry, there's a jetty) and you'll reach Mandi-Mandi offers international cuisine and barbecues (when the tide cooperates!). The lastest addition to the hotel's restaurants is Il Tiempo which deals in classic Italian fare, such as pasta, pizza and steak.
There's a little lounge in the Tamarind pavilion, overlooking the pool, or pop over to Mandi-Mandi for a freshly shaken fruit cocktail and chilled tunes. You can also order drinks in the cushioned salas down on the beach, which are perfectly placed to take in the sunset.
Japamala isn't a late-night lush... expect things to wrap up around 10pm.
No official room service, but there is a minibar stocked with snacks and wine, and it's often possible to pre-arrange in-room meals in advance.
Set on the untouched west coast of Tioman Island, in the South China Sea, Japamala is accessible by boat or plane.
Private transfers from Villa Samadhi in Kuala Lumpur involve a four-hour drive to Mersing port, then a 45-minute crossing on a private speed boat to the hotel; this cost RM1,680 for two each way (roughly £290). Villa Samadhi in Singapore is slightly closer; the land transfer to Mersing takes around three hours, followed by the 45-minute boat journey; this costs SG$390 for two people each way (around £215).
If your flights coordinate, catch the hotel's daily crossing which takes 45 minutes. Otherwise you'll need to catch a ferry at Mersing port to get to the hotel; meet at Let's Go Island main office. Times change daily so let Smith24 know your flight times and they'll advise on the best crossing time. Transfers cost RM530 (between £90 and £100). Japamala boat service will not be available during the east coast rainy season, which runs from November through February, due to choppy sea conditions; public ferry services will still be available during these months.
Worth getting out of bed for
A whole host of boat trips are available from the hotel, including missions to Monkey Bay Marine Park, village visits to Tekek and Genting, fishing tours and waterfall excursions. To really get the lay of the land, opt for the round-island cruise, which circumnavigates this tiny isle. Tioman's untouched interior is home to monkeys, monitor lizards and an array of birds. Take a 30-minute trek to the neighbouring village; guides are available if you'd like to be led, or simply follow the well-trod path through the jungle. South China Sea scuba sessions can be teed up through the Tioman Dive Centre. If you're happy to linger on the surface, simply borrow a snorkel and fins from the hotel to glide over the house reef just offshore. Sadly the coral here has seen better days, but you'll spy schools of tropical fish and spiky sea urchins. Kayaks are also up for grabs, giving you free rein to explore the secluded coves and beaches that surround Japamala. Afterwards, simply kick back on in one of the cabanas that line the beach, or a bamboo mat laid out on the sand. If pampering is more your bag, get thee to the day spa. There are only two treatment rooms, so be sure to book in advance. Tempting treatments include Javanese massage, post-sun soothers and indulgent three-day retreats.
Japamala is tucked into an isolated pocket of Tioman, so once you've arrived by boat there's little reason to stray. Fortunately, the food at Tamarind and Mandi-Mandi is top notch, and chefs are happy to cater to off-menu cravings.
The trouble with Paradise? It's only ever going to be a let-down. Set your expectations too high and you're bound to find fault. Love your harp music, nothing but praise for the angels you have serving nibbles, but I have to enter a password for the free WiFi?!
Tioman once stood in for Paradise, or so the story goes. Back in 1958, this tiny Malaysian island, barely an hour's flight from both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, was allegedly used as a backdrop for romantic musical movie South Pacific. In the 1970s, Time magazine voted it one of the world's most beautiful islands. What was that about high expectations?
Since then, though, Tioman has fallen off the radar, overshadowed as an easy weekend escape from South-East Asia's big cities by Bali, Bintan, Phuket and anywhere else with a bigger marketing budget. Instead, it quietly chugs away as the preferred destination for divers looking to do their PADI scuba courses on the cheap. So, despite regularly plotting minibreaks from Singapore, neither Mr or Mrs Smith had ever given it much thought. Until, that is, we hear about Japamala Resort.
It turns out that Paradise is still served by a daily twin-prop plane from Singapore, the kind that conjures up images of adventure the moment you get on board and which has Mrs Smith's heart in her mouth as we circle the jungle landing strip (Mr Smith is too busy squeezing his eyes shut to be scared). But there's nothing like a seamless, scenic transfer to calm the nerves: we are out of the airport and onto Japamala's private boat within just 10 minutes of touching down. Another 15 minutes across the blue of the bay, past some ramshackle fishing villages, and we’re pulling into the hotel’s very own, very small cove – not another property in sight. Two minutes more and we’re stood on the jetty, icy lemongrass welcome drink in hand. Score one for a Tioman we've not been told about.
If the in-house spa quickly becomes Mrs Smith's favourite haunt (more on that in a minute), it is that same jetty where you'll be most likely to find Mr Smith throughout the weekend: snorkelling beside it in the morning, enjoying some perfectly grilled seabass for lunch at informal Italian restaurant Mandi-Mandi (perched on stilts right over the water), then back there for cocktails at happy hour (surely the most comically unnecessary name when you're already spending the entire day kicking back somewhere like this) with stunning sunset views over the ocean. Purely for research purposes, Mrs Smith insists we visit the resort's other restaurant for dinner: the more formal Thai-Vietnamese Tamarind, set back behind the beach. While it is hard to fault, especially given that all ingredients are brought in by boat, it doesn't quite have the same away-from-it-all excitement of eating out over the water and it does have a fair few more mozzies. They do a mean tom yam, though.
Our days take on a pleasantly predictable routine. A lazy morning in our Jungle Luxe Sarang (there are 13 ‘rooms’ at the resort, but even this affordable option is a stand-alone chalet hidden from view), and the terribly tough decision of whether to start the morning in our private alfresco hot-tub or take in the views up the jungle valley through the glass wall of the shower (we do both). Then, an even lazier breakfast (the espresso-infused smoothie a perfect, liquid metaphor for the pretence that we'll be in the slightest bit busy). A few hours tanning on the golden sand, with something to read from the small bookswap library. Some manoeuvring to make sure we get our preferred cabana, though with so few other guests, and all of them couples, there isn't much to squabble over. A dip in the new, beautifully designed swimming pool right beside the beach (the old pool, tucked away under the trees, is much less appealing and, now, rather redundant). It's all what's referred to throughout the resort, embossed on both the dressing gowns in your room and the bag of cookies they give you on departure, as the Japamala State of Mind. It's certainly a nice state to be in.
Fancying himself something of a Bear Grylls, on the second day Mr Smith sets off down the coast in one of the resort's sea kayaks, although the hunter-gatherer charade quickly falls away at the promise of a pasta lunch. The view of the island from even a few hundred feet offshore is jaw-dropping, with towering, jungle-clad peaks tumbling down to aquamarine shores: it's an easy excursion we highly recommend. We also spy some construction underway a short distance down the coast, suggesting the next year or two might be the best time to make the most of this currently unspoilt spot.
Whether it is sore shoulders from kayaking or simply scorched feet from the sand, we find ourselves measuring out the day in terms of whether we've yet earned the right to visit the spa. Not that it's fancy – during the day just a couple of massage beds overlooking the beach, in the evening or for the more indulgent treatments a little wooden cottage at the top of some stairs – but boy, is it good. Who'd have guessed that the lady offering us an aromatherapy turndown service on check-in would also be such a master masseuse? Who knew that foot reflexology could feel so restorative when you've barely walked a hundred yards all day?
It's perfectly possible to be a bit more active during a stay at Japamala. The resort offers half- and full-day tours out to nearby islands, where the snorkelling is apparently much more impressive, as well as fishing trips and even a hike through the jungle to the nearest village. But we are in no rush to leave, happy just to settle into that lazy routine and ensure that, whatever else happens, we are on the jetty and have drinks in our hands come sunset.
Paradise? There's no such thing. But the perfect, relaxing weekend away? It's hard to imagine a much better one. You don't even have to enter a password for the WiFi.
Whenever you book a stay at a Smith hotel or villa, we’ll invite you to review it when you get back. Read what other Smith members had to say in Japamala Resort’s Guestbook below.
Such an incredible retreat. A very quiet island where you don't feel guilty for just lazing on the pier reading, or snorkelling the reef. We stayed in the sea chalets, which were old but a wonderfully rustic feel. Very good food, but only choices are Thai and Italian. Snorkelling and waterfall excursions highly recommended. The staff are utterly fantastic and do all they can to make your stay perfect.
Lots to do or nightlife.
Stayed on 1 Aug 2018
The isolation of the hotel and island. The peaceful beach and view from our sea chalet room. The staff were amazing, nothing was too much trouble. They were courteous and very helpful.
Nightlife and late evenings. Most people head off to their rooms early.