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.