Desaru Coast washed by the tides of change

Waves of nostalgia wash over me as I sit inside an undulating boat heading to Desaru, a sleepy coastal town in Malaysia, after a break of seven years. That was the last time I had managed to get my immediate family (this always includes my sister) to go on a spur-of-the-moment trip! It’s a bitter-sweet feeling, mostly happy but with a catch in the throat because this little outpost of serenity was my young family’s regular weekend getaway when we first left the security of our Indian home to live in far-away, exotic Singapore 32 years ago.

Those emotions played peek-a-boo with me one recent morning as I set off on a ferry to this little Malaysian beach haven with a cheerful hubby all set for a game of golf, and a book. It was a weekday so the ferry was half empty with only a motley crew of drowsy journalists, three Caucasian families with young children and a few lone male travelers.

We were going there as guests of Desaru Development Holdings to have a ringside view of the launch of Desaru Coast, Malaysia’s latest curated integrated destination and the catalyst for the renaissance, as they claimed, of this beautiful coastal town. Why are they guilding the lily, I thought cynically as I packed for the trip, feeling protective of its old-world charm.

But I need not have worried. The change is not half as stark as I had feared. It has been done sensitively keeping in mind the environment and Desaru’s laid back ambience. We were to be among the first few pampered guests at the new and snazzy Hard Rock Hotel and the Els Golf Club for the next three days and I was glad I had cancelled other appointments to be here on an extra-long weekend.

The centre-piece of the launch – the Ombak festival – which encompasses rock concerts, local cultural shows, the art and crafts of the region and exciting watersports and world class golf along with world class hotels, is set to be an annual cultural event that will draw tourists to Desaru.

Some of the crafts there, such as the hand-made fabrics, made from actual leaves are so eye-catching, that I couldn’t resist buying a gossamer gown that looked fit for a dryad. The shy middle-aged Malay lady artist who turns pieces of fabric into a forest of nymphs kindly gave me the address of her home where she has a studio, so that’s another reason for a return trip!

Although this was just the soft launch of the hotel, the rooms and service were impeccable, belying the fact that the hotel was still a work in progress. Its official launch is slated for September this year but we were the lucky few to get a pampered preview. 

What stands out at this particular Hard Rock is the artistic aura of the bohemian Mexican artist Freda Kahlo which seems to permeate the place. From an entire wall of our room adrift with dreamy butterflies to the deliciously authentic Mexican fare at The Elephant & The Butterfly a laid-back poolside restaurant, the hotel exudes her reformative liet motif at every charming turn.

It must have been a pull factor for the Sultan of Johore too, known to enjoy art, who was the Guest-of-honour at the launch ceremony and also a guest at the hotel, his Red Rolls Royce MPV flamboyantly marking his royal presence outside our hotel.

Another new and impressive attraction is the one-year old Adventure Water Park boasting the largest wave pool in Asia. Situated just behind the Hard Rock Hotel it’s hard to believe the wide expanse of sandy beach and palm trees surrounding this mammoth water body is made-made.

At sunset as a glowing orb sent plumes of fiery colour through the windy sky over the South China Sea, a sumptuous seafood barbeque against a backdrop of giant waves and bare-bodied surfers made us feel like we were in Phuket minus the crowds and commerce. 

All that pomp and circumstance was a far cry from our weekends when we first came to Singapore over three decades ago. They were about limitation and escape, one way or another, and Desaru was our escape, our bolt hole. The emotional limitations of an alien land – no comforting familiarity or wildernesses to lose oneself in – drew us there instinctively.   

Desaru, with its unspoilt, bucolic charm and unhurried pace felt achingly like the lushly virgin hinterland of Northeast India that we had left behind. It was the Pole Star for this little family of Robinson Crusoes, blunting the sharp edges of our home-sickness, while adrift in a land where we suddenly found ourselves bearing the burden of adulthood unassisted by the broad shoulders of loving parents. Now, in a land where we had no blood ties, we ourselves were the parents, the grandparents and the extended family.

Somewhere between being grown-up children and nervous new parents we were suddenly catapulted into full on adult-hood where we had to manage without an older generation to help us make all the major decisions, to cushion our falls. We were suddenly and worryingly completely on our own.

But gentle and non-judgemental Desaru came to our rescue – it drew us and replenished us again and again.

It was here too that some endearing rites of passage took place. In a lovely but slightly decaying hotel in this languid little town perched on the sea our 11-month old son surprised us with his first triumphant steps and became a bona-fide little biped of the genus Homo Sapien as we adults clapped and crowed with pride while the sound of the South China Sea echoed faintly through the air-conditioned windows. It was also where I suddenly found I was pregnant again. Discovering such unexpected fecundity, a second time in quick succession, after yearning for a baby for seven years bound me even more to Desaru. 

Malaysia’s identity is woven out of small town life and Desaru is a microcosm of it – its identity is woven from its gentle pace and stunning 17 km coastline, many parts of which would often be empty even on weekends, inhabited only by our little family and a few crabs and gulls. We didn’t know it then but as the focus of new money cast its glare on gleaming resorts in a rapidly developing Malaysia, Desaru’s life was hanging on a thread, its half-hearted attempts at resort development drowned out by other louder, more garish but more successful testaments to Mammon on other coasts.

But it mattered little to us. Desaru was where our loyalties lay and its restorative atmosphere that drew us back always. Every weekend we would pack our bags and baby stroller, stow it with snacks and drinks into the boot of the car and drive onto the car deck of the huge ferry and enjoy the wind-blown 40-min ride to the sleepy harbor port of Bandar Belungkor that still serves Desaru.

Now that’s all set to change with the launch of the new Desaru Coast, Malaysia’s latest curated integrated destination which is set to pit Desaru town against Asia’s leading coastal resorts and serve as a socio-economic catalyst.

I’m not a soothe-sayer but with languid and lush written into its DNA, Desaru is impossible to commodify. So, I am confident its gentle denizens will take the revamped Desaru Coast a notch higher than its competitors. Another and much more accessible Bali in the making, perhaps? 

Tips for travelers:

Desaru Coast is located in the South-eastern region of Malaysia, spanning over 3,900 acres along a pristine 17km beachfront facing the South China Sea. It is easily accessible via land, sea and air.

Desaru Coast is home to four globally renowned hotels:

  • Hard Rock Hotel Desaru Coast
  • Anantara Desaru Coast Resort & Villas
  • One & Only Desaru Coast
  • The Westin Desaru Coast Resort

Desaru Coast also includes two world-class golf courses:

  • The Els Club Desaru Coast – Ocean Course
  • The Els Club Desaru Coast – Valley Course

Desaru Coast is set to unveil its destination offerings in stages. The Els Club Desaru Coast Ocean Course opened in 2016 and the Els Club Desaru Coast Valley Coast in 2017, followed by the remaining components from June 2018 onwards. Some of the hotels are still awaiting their official launch.

Getting there:

By road: accessible from Singapore, Johor Bahru and Kuala Lumpur.

  • One hour 30 mins from Singapore via the Causeway

By Air: accessible via the Senai International airport, Johor

By sea: accessible via Changi Ferry Terminal, Singapore

  • 30-min ferry ride from Changi Ferry Terminal to Tanjung Belungkor Ferry Terminal followed by a 30-minute drive to Desaru Coast.

Shobha Tsering Bhalla

Shobha Tsering Bhalla is the Editor-in-Chief at India Se.