If not for the grand stone wall - with the words Tanjong Jara Resort Malaysia - standing sentry-like by the side of the road, I wouldn't have known that a luxury resort lay just a little further up from the guard post. Well hidden by trees, the resort only came into view moments after the guard had waved us through.
Another car filled with other guests pulled up at the same time. And so began my four-day, three-night stay at Tanjong Jara Resort in October last year, just before the resort closed for the monsoon season.
General manager Philippe Cavory and his assistant, Emmanuel, were on hand to welcome guests. While we waited to be registered, the hotel staff served up welcome drinks made of roselle. The whole place was wonderfully quiet and tranquil.
The sprawling resort is clad in lush greenery, beautifully landscaped. Insect sounds in the middle of the afternoon reinforced the closeness of nature. Dotting the landscape were sunbeds, gazebos and hammocks for guests' use.
The Aga Khan award-winning resort was built to resemble a 17th century Malay palace. It clearly exudes old-style palatial grandeur and elegance.
Of the 99 rooms at the resort, the Anjung Suite is the largest type of accommodation. It is situated above the river that flows into the South China Sea. Its prime location comes with a spectacular view of the resort's stretch of golden beach.
The Bumbung and the Serambi room types are similar in layout and decor, but the Serambi comes with a private terrace.
My Anjung Room is really spacious and comes with a very comfortable king-size bed as well as a day bed, a big flat-screen TV, a small safe, a long writing table, tea/coffee-making facilities and a well-stocked bar fridge.
The room is most elegant, featuring dark wood flooring and a very high ceiling. It felt organic and luxurious to walk on the timber floor.
For guests' reading pleasure, there are four fabulous coffee table books enticingly laid out on the day bed plus several glossy magazines on the sideboard.
Solid wooden sliding doors separate this main area from the wardrobe section, and beyond that is the outdoor sunken bathtub in a private garden.
The resort here may not have gold-plated taps and door handles, or shiny Italian marble flooring. But it oozes charm, history and character - what GM Cavory terms "intelligent luxury".
Fun and adventure
My room has two entrances: one facing an inner garden, and the other facing the beachfront Anjung Gardens, the venue of the weekly Kampung Life showcase.
During that hour every Saturday evening, resort guests get a taste of the village lifestyle, including local food and beverages.
Cavory points out that the showcase involves people from the local community - a batik-painting artist, the kompang troupe, two women holding the bamboo poles for the traditional dance, and the pak cik chopping coconuts.
Guests can also join in a game of sepak takraw.
Those who like a good workout can hit the gym or the tennis courts on the resort grounds.
For those who wish to venture outside the resort, there are also plenty of exciting activities that can be arranged. One can go on a bicycle tour, cruise along the Marang river, visit the Elephant Village, jungle-trek, or snorkel/ dive off Tenggol Island. If you like to learn new things while on holiday, there are various classes to choose from, such as batik-painting, handicraft and cooking classes.
Fees apply for some of the activities while others are complimentary for resort guests.
During the monsoon season (mid-October till end-January), some of the activities are not available.
After a gruelling trek through the jungle to reach the Chemerong Waterfalls (the spectacular view of the waterfalls is well worth the effort getting there), I could not wait for the massage at the award-winning Spa Village.
Their signature Asam Roselle body treatment was another highlight for me. During the 100-minute massage, the masseuse's long kneading strokes gently eased away my body aches, from head to toe. Aah, how good that felt!
Towards the end, she slathered Roselle Cream Scrub all over my body to exfoliate and remove dead skin cells. My skin felt baby-smooth after that.
There are three restaurants at the resort: Di Atas Sungei, Nelayan, and Teratai Lunch Bar.
At Di Atas Sungei, a "Talking Chef" mingles with guests to discover their tastes and preferences, and then recommends or customises dishes to please their palates. That evening, Chef Ann was on duty. Not once or twice but a few times, she went from table to table, to check on the guests.
I had the Buttermilk Prawns (it was rich and delicious), Roselle Chicken (tender and tasty) and stir-fried Mustard Greens with Garlic, served with steaming white rice.
For a private dinner themed Dinner On the Rocks on a separate evening, a table was set on a huge flat rock at the edge of the sea. The chef did the cooking several metres away, on the beach. And there was a personal waiter!
From the appetiser to the dessert, every morsel of food was delectable.
As the evening wore on, and with the wind blowing in from the sea, it got increasingly colder. The resort staff went the extra mile and made a fire on the beach! Such is their attention to guests' needs.
A stone's throw from the Nelayan restaurant are the infinity pools. Another swimming pool - free-form, smaller and for adults only - can be found at the Teratai Terrace. Here, one can also find the Cinema Under The Stars.
The Teratai Lunch Bar serves Western and Asian delights. You can't go wrong with the mouth-watering Grilled Seabass Fillet and the juicy Beef Tenderloin. As for the Coconut Pudding … it is out of this world - rich, creamy and not too sweet.
It was the perfect meal to end a wonderful stay at the resort, which lives up to its tagline: "Unmistakably Malay" - not only in terms of its architecture but also its gentle hospitality and heart-felt warmth.