One&Only Desaru Coast, the first Asian property for the brand, set amid riotously green rainforest by the South China Sea, is unashamedly luxurious. Each suite has at least a plunge pool and a personal butler; Chenot’s Swiss spa spoiling soothes on another level; and a languid omakase menu makes art of fishermen’s finds. But, what this hideaway has achieved is even more astounding: there’s soul here. Nature takes her rightful throne, weaving abundantly through late-great architect Kerry Hill’s sleek structures, with monkeys, lizards and rare birds acting like they own the place, and elder banyans enshrined. There’s a slick of Malaysian secret sauce as potent as sambal to proceedings too, be it the labours of local artisans, menus deep diving into native cuisine, lessons in a rare martial art or bonfire talks by thought leaders, and centuries-old customs. The kind of authenticity that brings luxury to life.
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Guests can choose from the 'view from the top' tree-climbing experience or the 'warrior's journey', a private lesson in the ancient martial art Silat Melayu, for two
12 noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £466.74 (MYR2,739), including tax at 6 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of MYR10.00 per room per night on check-in.
Rates usually include a Continental breakfast served in Ambara (tempting à la carte options too), welcome drink and one free daily activity (afternoon tea, watersports, yoga, guided nature walks and more).
One room in the Rainforest Wing is specially adapted for guests with mobility issues, with grab rails, a raised toilet and lowered sink.
At the hotel
Public beach, beach club, lush rainforest, manicured gardens, alfresco lounging terraces, spa with a steam room and fitness centre, tennis and padel courts, kitchen garden, boutique, free bike hire, charged laundry and dry-cleaning service, free WiFi. In rooms: Plunge or lap pool and terrace, round-the-clock butler service, local artwork, TV, minibar, tea- and coffee-making kit, air-conditioning and fan, bathrobes and slippers, mosquito repellent, beach totes, flip-flops, yoga mats, L’Occitane bath products. Villa One also has two kitchens, a dining room, study and extra living and lounging space.
Our favourite rooms
Architect Kerry Hill’s suites are sleek and contemporary, but display a deep respect for Malaysian culture. Laid out like traditional kampung (village) dwellings with a bathroom and a bedroom connected via a terrace with a pool. Filled with Malaysian carvings and paintings, floral songket fabrics and jazzy batik prints, plus locally made ceramics and glassware, there’s an air of authenticity to them that also reflects the country’s modernity. The Oceanfront Suites are named justly, as they’re nose to nose with the South China Sea, while other suites are set further back or shrouded in rainforest. But, Villa One is the most impressive by far, set on its own expansive plot with a private slice of beach, a complex of four bedrooms, sociable terraces and lounging spaces, a 27-metre pool, two kitchens, dining room, study and more still. You might find it hard to let go of the personal butler that comes with each suite here – they’ll lay out lunch, pack you picnics, schedule your activities, plan parties, mix up sundowners and even run you a romantic bath (he won’t be present for it, obvs).
The hotel has an eye for symmetry and photogenic scenes, and the pool is its centrepiece. After the informal check-in, the first thing you see is its glossy blue expanse cantilevered out through a break in the trees, reaching towards the first glint of sea. A welcome sight indeed. It’s a decent 50 metres, but there is the illusion that you could simply swim over and on and on… On each side is a bank of shaded sunloungers and there’s a submerged podium to bask on. Alternatively get your laps in at Ember Beach Club, open from 9am to 6pm (10pm on Sunday and Monday), where the (charged) day-beds lie low in the water so you can slink in and out.
The spectacular 300-year-old tree, around which seven spa pavilions (some for couples) and a lily-spotted reflecting pool are laid out, feels like a good augur of longevity. A few centuries might be a stretch, but the therapists here will do all in their power to keep you as youthful and vivacious as possible. For example, you’re welcomed with herbal tea, but you could kick things off with a bio-energetic check-up, nutritional consult, stress tests, cardiorespiratory fitness assessment, or body-composition analysis (each charged). Intense, sure, but relaxation using all-natural Chenot potions is imminent – masseurs use deep strokes, stretches and even suction to soothe; estheticians can wrap, scrub and smooth out cellulite; and your emotional wellbeing is nurtured via yoga with a view, mindfulness sessions and neuro-acoustic practices. And nail-pro Bastien Gonzalez will give you glamorous tips and toes. Depending on what you want to get out of your stay (a little slimming there, some mental brightening, to chill out to a near-comatose state), treatments can be combined into one- to three-day packages. There’s also a steam room, cooling pool and a relaxation pavilion where the views are a powerful tonic. And there’s more to eye up in the huge gym, which has a studio for the likes of Pilates or all kinds of yoga (including aerial). Plus all manner of Technogym equipment (Kinesis stations, cardio and resistance kit); bulk up a work-out with a cardiorespiratory, metabolic-rate or posture assessment.
If you arrived with just your unmentionables, you might actually be ok – the hotel has two boutiques selling high-end swim and active wear (Frescobal, Melissa Obadash), and even sleeker stuff for date nights, and staff can help with gear for all watersports.
It’s the thoughtful details that count here, right down to the vases filled with water by your door for washing sand off your feet. And, take heed of the monkey warnings – they’re not shy when it comes to climbing in your windows.
Very welcome. There’s the KidZone for four to 11 year olds and One Tribe for teens, both of which have cultural and educational activities, wild encounters, sports and arts and crafts. Plus two playgrounds.
All ages are welcome, although the KidsOnly club is for guests four and up. Under-fours stay for free, and four to 12s stay for RM690 a night (including breakfast).
Villa One is big enough to sleep up to 12 and feels like a very exotic and lavish family home. But, less blow-the-budget suites can sleep an extra child. Extra beds are RM730 a guest a night; under-11s are welcome to stay for free in their parents bed.
Even the most well-intentioned ‘educational fun’ can seem like a misnomer, but here, we believe it. Naturalist Wan has specially tailored tours to take little Nature Detectives on, where they’ll learn about the wonders of the rainforest with science experiments and games, then they can get up close and personal with creepy-crawlies and tropical plants at the EcoLab. It’s all part of the free KidsOnly club (for four to 11 year-olds), which also has the Creative Studio for making Malaysian-inspired artwork and the Fisherman’s Pier, where they can try their hand at fishing or just join in at feeding time. Plus, they’ll play sports, learn about local culture and act like little monkeys at Panaga Laut playground. For older kids (aged 12 to 17) there’s One Tribe, with chill-out zones for socialising, sports programmes, gaming, biking, teqball, ping-pong, foosball and more grown-up outdoorsy fun in their own playground.
Children can swim in either pool, although parents should keep a watchful eye. The one at Ember Beach Club is more family friendly with plenty of events and a sociable atmosphere.
Hoshi is for over-12s only, but kids are welcome in Abara, Essential and the Ember Beach Club. Only the latter has a dedicated menu with chicken tenders, flatbreads and simple crowd-pleasers; Ambara’s menu might be a touch hifalutin for fussy ones, but Essential’s menu is an excellent intro to Malaysian delicacies.
Staff can help arrange a local babysitter to look after kids over four years old; prices vary and this service must be booked in advance.
No need to pack
The hotel is on-the-ball, but it is also quite remote, with no baby shops to speak of close by, so pack anything you feel is essential.
The hotel aims to be as green as the rainforest surrounding it (very green, that is). Late great Australian architect Kerry Hill left a light footprint, building around the banyan, penaga laut and jambu laut trees, and even making statement features of the oldest and noblest trees (clocking in at 300 and 600 years respectively). Suites are built with green roofs too, to aid cooling, and within there’s a swelling sense of pride in the local community, with artwork and handicrafts by native artists and materials sourced from sustainable farms (stone, yellow balau timber). The chef has cultivated a herb garden and sources ingredients from as close by as possible, and the kids’ playground is sustainably built with local timber. Plus, the hotel is working to reduce plastic use, become more energy efficient and conserve water. They have eco-friendly bath products too.
We like the massive bean bags on the terrace for drinks, and watching the action at Hoshi’s counter, but swaying together on the ‘One swing’ – a made-for-two wicker love seat facing the ocean – with a cocktail in hand really can’t be beat.
Beachy cover-ups will be fine for Ember and Essential; pack ‘proper’ clothes for Ambara and bring your best for Hoshi.
Ambara’s ingredients might not have travelled very far, with tropical-fruit preserves from nearby farms, honey from the rainforest, a wealth of vegetables and herbs from the hotel grounds, and seafood from right over there – * points at the sea *. But, its menu has some conceptual air miles, with inspiration from France to Morocco, to Lebanon; and some closer-to-home eats. So, you might have gazpacho, a Greek salad, mezze with carrot labneh and lemon guacamole, moussaka, lamb tagine, osso buco, and kunafa with spiced saffron honey. Breakfasts are also cross-continental, with pancakes and pastries, shakshuka, bee-pollen-dusted fruit salads and smoothie bowls. But the savoury Malaysian signatures are the stand outs: comforting bowls of nasi lemak (coconut rice, egg, anchovies, peanuts, cucumber and sambal chilli), roti canai with a silky dhal, beef murtabak (roti stuffed with mince, egg and red-onion pickle). At Hoshi – the hotel’s Japanese eatery inspired by the celestial love story behind the Tanabata Star Festival – the chef will sliver sashimi, fry tempura, and artfully assemble hyper-seasonal ingredients into nigiri and maki for just 20 diners. Menus start at 11 courses, served at a communal table above which hangs a Hokusai-style mural with Malaysian fauna by Abdul Rashade. Essential, the more casual eatery by the pool, mixes things up with its Malaysian-fusion menu, serving beef-rendang burgers with sambal anchovies and ginger-flower relish, and milk-tea ice-cream. And at Ember Beach Club, Michelin-recognised chef Andrew Walsh rustles up light poolside bites like tiger prawns with smoked-garlic aïoli, coconut and peanut relish; wagyu rib-eye with miso mustard; and baos stuffed with chilli crab, green curry and more. The chefs share some of their knowledge, too, at the Chilli Collective, where using different types of chilli from around the world you'll learn how to make your own punch-packing bottle of sambal.
The Dusky Monkey bar got its unusual name when the hotel was being constructed and a little dusky-leaf monkey made friends with the builders and staff who would play with her and give her treats. Sadly she died before it was completed, and so her memory lives on in the shrine with pictures of her sweet little face on the counter and the bar’s moniker. No, we’re not crying *sniff*. Be sure to raise a glass of the Dusky Monkey Signature Negroni (with spiced gin, shiraz and pinot grigio) for this fallen friend. Decorated in sultry blue-grey with warm wooden accents and flashes of startling green, it’s a stylish spot with a fine line in worldly rums from Trinidad and Tobago to Thailand. Here’s where the hotel’s afternoon tea is served too (3pm to 5pm), free if you take it as your daily activity. It’s been deliciously translated with Malaysian flavours, so on the tiers you’ll find steamed buns with duck rendang, a deconstructed laksa, teh tarik-tea cream puffs, and pastries with mango, rainforest honey and lemon. Ambara’s drinks list has worldly wines and spirits, but its cocktails caught our eyes. Playing with pan-Mediterranean flavours, there’s the likes of La Vela, with rosé, watermelon, kaffir lime and peach bitters, or an Olea Spritz with green-olive-infused Martini Bianco, tonic, prosecco and thyme. Hoshi duly has sakes and Japanese whiskies, plus Eastern-inspired muddles, such as Omukushi with Japanese whisky, burnt peach, honey, cinnamon and sage; or Yuki Gin with frozen Japanese gin, tonic water, an iced watermelon block and yuzu. And your poolside sippers at Ember run to refreshing mocktails, not-unhealthy plant-based cocktails with kale, beetroot, tropical fruits and such, and yet another cocktail list; here we like the Ember 75 with champagne, lychee and lime sorbet.
Ambara opens for breakfast from 7.30am to 10.30am and dinner from 6.30pm to 10pm. Hoshi opens from 6pm to 10pm, Tuesday to Sunday. Dusky Monkey bar pours till 10pm Sunday to Thursday, midnight from Friday to Saturday.
A breakfast menu (pancakes, quinoa porridge, avo toast, shakshuka, nasi lemak and more) is served from 7am till 12 noon. Then a menu of pastas, soups, sandwiches and local dishes runs till 9pm. Drinks can be ordered round the clock.
Darul Ta’zim, Persiaran Damai, Desaru Coast Bandar Penawar, 90
One&Only Desaru Coast is in Johor state, overlooking the sapphire expanse of the South China Sea. Its setting is nicknamed the ‘village of palms’, but the spread of rainforest is so lush and thick here you could call it a ‘megalopolis of palms’.
Senai International is the closest hub (just over an hour’s drive away), where pan-Asian flights arrive direct. If you’re flying from further afield you’ll have to connect. Alternatively, you can touch down at Singapore’s Changi airport (around a 90-minute drive away crossing the Johor Strait). The hotel can arrange transfers on request in a Tesla.
A car might come in handy – the drive along the E22 route to the resort is well-maintained and has thick banks of palm trees on either side for most stretches. The hotel’s remoteness is part of its draw, and you could just drop and flop, but if you get a yen to explore further then some wheels give you a bit more freedom to visit, say, the local waterpark or ostrich farm. There’s free parking onsite.
If you’re arriving from Singapore, catch a 90-minute ferry directly to Desaru Coast. The service runs once a day from Thursday to Sunday and leaves Tanah Merah at 8:30am. From the coast, hop in a private car for a five-minute drive to the hotel’s front doors.
Worth getting out of bed for
Johor, the hotel’s home state is home to more than 155,000 acres of national parkland – safe to say, it’s not lacking in verdure. So what makes the hotel’s 128 acres of lush rainforest (only three per cent of which has been developed) feel so special in a region where palm trees become nigh-on pedestrian? Well, this is a bangarang of natural beauty, where boughs stretch like they’re leisurely yawning, trailing greenery runs amok, beasts of banyans have played silent witness to history for centuries and cheeky monkeys and other critters enjoy prime leafy real estate. It’s the kind of place where breathing feels easier from the moment you arrive. And, the South China Sea and its beachy edge only enhances its loveliness. So, start by getting acquainted on a guided nature walk (one of your free daily activities) with resident naturalist Wan, who’ll point out dusky-leaf monkeys, white-handed gibbons and pig-tailed macaques alongside majestic birds: eagles, hornbills, babblers… All the characters of the Panti forest reserve, before laying out a tropical picnic under the canopy. Go after dark and your way will be lit by fireflies, and for an extra charge you can wake to a romantic wander with a champagne breakfast. Or get huggy with some of the tallest trees here as you climb up their trunks, supported by a rig and an arborist who’s scaled giants before (for an extra charge). The Cycle Hub has all sorts of two-wheelers (bamboo bikes, road bikes, kids' bikes, even tandem bikes) to use for free; and solo and group runs can be arranged through forest or along the beach. Archery, is free to try too. And, the Chef’s Garden tour will intro you to rare herbs and botanicals. The shore is fertile ground for wildlife spotting too – and you’ll have plenty of sunbathing room to yourself on the soft dun sands. From July to October, hornbill turtles nest on the sands, dinky hermit crabs scuttle for shelter and the odd monitor lizard lollops lazily along. Keep your eyes peeled as you recline in your cabana and have your butler bring you cocktails and cold towels. Ember Beach Club meanwhile is for party animals, with its DJs till late and live music, takeovers by celebrated chefs and mixologists, barbecues, pool parties and movie screenings. Both offer exhilarating fun by sea, with hobie cats, jet-skis, paddle boards and kite surfing, or dive to see coral gardens that mimic the rainforest’s extravagance. Fishing excursions will win you some very chonky black marlin and sailfish too. And, in this authentically Malaysian space, you can take an art tour to admire Fuan Wong’s botany-inspired pieces, Anniketyyni Madian’s wood-carvings with traditional Sarawak textiles woven in, and street-artist Abdul Rashade’s jungly mural in Hoshi restaurant among other works and artefacts. Or play mahjong in the lounge. You can also learn the ancient Unesco-listed practice of Silat Melayu, a martial art inspired by the movements of animals, and come sundown, gather round a beach bonfire for talks by native ‘thought-leaders’ and indigenous music. There's a tennis court and padel court designed by Adidas, plus expert instructors, and the Els Golf Club is a big deal, due to kickstarting investment along this stretch of coast, and for its manicured Ocean Course with 27 holes in total. And, after sundown, staff bring telescopes out from the lounge onto the terrace so you can gaze up at the stars.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this greenery-gone-wild resort on Malaysia’s south-east coast and unpacked their jar of sambal paste and woven-palm beach bag, a full account of their monkeying-about break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside One&Only Desaru Coast by the South China Sea…
Like to make an entrance? One&Only Desaru Coast, a dreamy Malaysian resort wrapped in rainforest and rested by the South China Sea, is happy to oblige (in this and all things). A hearty pounding on a jidor (barrel drum) heralds each guest arrival – just one of the touches that make this polished modern resort feel at home in its hallowed setting. Suites are laid out like traditional kampung residences with a bathroom one side, bedroom the other and plunge pool in between; Johor artisans have crafted murals and sculptures, colourful songket and batik fabrics and more; and breakfasts might be comforting bowls of sambal-spiked nasi lemak or dhal-dipped roti canai. And this sense of pride is well-founded, because this stretch of the southeast coast and the rampant greenery running along it is an astounding sight. Late architect Kerry Hill was clearly besotted, because buildings wend around the banyan trees respectfully and frame ‘wow’ moments as you come face to face with a brilliantly blue horizon, giant 600-year-old tree, or thick verdure where dusky-leaf monkeys play, making this an exciting labyrinth of a hideaway. If you’re wondering what could possibly make this experience more heavenly – the answer is: plenty. You’ll have a butler to pack you picnics and plan pool parties, a new adventure for free every day (yoga, all manner of watersports, afternoon tea, guided nature walks), sampling the chef’s Malaysian-fusion fare (duck-rendang burgers, teh tarik-tea ice-cream) and omakase offering, and full-body work-overs in the Chenot spa. But, it’s the privilege of being in such soul-lifting spaces that feels like the true luxury – waking up to an almost primaeval world, watching macaques and gibbons chatter away (careful, they like to make friends when you have food), and feeling time slow to halt as you bask like one of the resident monitor lizards. Things start with a bang here, and end with a contented sigh.