Johor Baru is more than just a convenient stopover

"Are we really doing this?" a fellow journalist asks.

"Well, they didn't make us sign an indemnity form. That's a good sign, right?" I reason.

Honestly, I wasn't reassured. There wasn't any mention of a boat ride in the itinerary of our extensive and rushed three-day Johor trip organised by Tourism Malaysia.

Our group - comprising journalists and travel writers from Kuala Lumpur - has been completely blindsided.

In a wool-blend long sleeve shirt and slim-fit chino pants, I'm certainly not dressed for an adventure in the swamps. But poor sartorial choices are the least of my concerns. Ahead, the speedboats lined along the docks look precarious.

Once the safety vest is buckled, I pray hard the boat doesn't capsize. And in the unfortunate event it does, there aren't any crocodiles around.

"Oh, but I've seen them in these parts," says Pak Ibrahim, the friendly elderly fisherman who captains our boat.

Uh, oh, too late! The jetty of Kampung Sungai Melayu in Gelang Patah is far behind now.

A cruise along the Straits of Johor is probably the last thing I would expect to do on this trip. After all, here's a city known for its frenetic pace.

For me, Malaysia's southernmost state has always conjured up images of busy urban dwellers waking up before sunrise in pursuit of their bread and butter across the Causeway.

It doesn't help that a travel booklet issued by the state tourism office carries the following line: "Due to its history and proximity to Singapore, this state has always prided itself in being the most modern in Malaysia".

So, yes, the only encounter I was expecting with a jungle is of the concrete kind. But a visit to the 120-year-old Kampung Sungai Melayu certainly reveals another side of Johor Baru, a city known simply as JB.

The village has benefited greatly from being a catalyst project for ecotourism in the state. Village head Tok Pandak Ahmad says the place is now on the map for anglers and bird-watching enthusiasts. Besides immersing yourself in kampung life, another must-do here is the floating mussel farm tour.

Tok Pandak says the various tourist activities have given the villagers - mostly small-time fishermen - an avenue to brush up their interpersonal skills.

"We do get international students who visit as part of their school trip. Before their arrival, our villagers learn the English terms of plants and animals so that they can relate them to the young visitors," he says. "There will be some funny miscommunication along the way. But that's OK because everybody learns."

I do learn a thing or two during my time at Kampung Sungai Melayu. As our speedboat moves past the lush mangrove forest, I learn that there's so much more to JB than the metropolitan life.

More than a layover

The capital definitely deserves more credit than its status as the gateway to Singapore. Spend a couple of nights in the thriving metropolis and you'll discover plenty of dynamic holiday experiences.

For some mouth-watering snacks, head over to the Pisang Goreng Mawar store on Jalan Kolam Ayer. Located a stone's throw away from our accommodation at Thistle Hotel, the banana fritters here are crispy on the outside and sweet on the inside.

Coated in a surprisingly non-greasy batter and fried to golden perfection, these tea-time guilty pleasures are served with a heavenly savoury sauce. Pisang Goreng Mawar is a great place to just sit back and watch Johoreans, young and old, bonding over coffee and tea.

But perhaps the city's youthful energy is most electrifying at Kilang Bateri. In English, the name literally means "battery factory". It's apt, considering how the building was a former factory manufacturing Eveready batteries.

Step into the newly refurbished premises at Jalan Tampoi and you'll find eclectic art installations, hip eateries, a skateboard rink and a cornucopia of vintage-looking shops. It's all very hipster and awfully Instagram-worthy. It's an observation that's, in part, prompted by the large presence of youngsters on that weeknight.

There is plenty to do in JB before bedtime. Clever town planning by the town council has made the city lively and vibrant when dusk beckons.

In April, the first musical fountain in the state was installed in Taman Merdeka. Its blend of music and lights provides decent entertainment. Our tour guide Fauzi jokingly remarks that the next best thing about the venue is that it's free.

"You'll probably have to pay an entrance fee at some similar attractions over in Singapore," he muses.

Jokes aside, Taman Merdeka provides a relaxing setting for an evening stroll after a hearty dinner. The musical fountain shows operate daily from 9pm to 9.30pm and 10pm to 10.30pm.

Before you call it a night, make a stop at Sky Screen along Jalan Ibrahim. Located at an area closer to the old town of JB, this spot is a popular hangout for people to enjoy the evening breeze, says Fauzi. Although, I must warn you, the lights can be too glaring against the dark skies.

Family-friendly fun

Of course, no holiday in JB would be complete without a trip to the theme parks. The past few years have seen many family-friendly themed attractions cropping up in the city. This is most evident at Nusajaya in the Iskandar region.

The best place to start is Legoland Malaysia Resort. The country's first international theme park recently unveiled a new attraction called Lego Ninjago And The Realm Of Shadows.

Based upon the popular Ninjago: Masters Of Spinjitzu Lego series, the 20-minute live puppet show features nifty illusions, futuristic video-mapping and a respectable plot.

The young ones are the intended demographic but, with its great production values and storyline, adults will probably lap it up too.

Photo: Tourism Malaysia

Another place in the vicinity that's worth a visit is the Sanrio Hello Kitty Town. Growing up with Power Rangers instead of the anthropomorphic feline, attractions such as the iconic Kitty House and Wishful Studio were all Greek to me. But I could see the appeal for true blue fans.

However, one doesn't have to be familiar with the Angry Birds franchise to enjoy the Angry Birds Activity Park. Located within the Komtar JBCC mall, the venue looks unassuming on the outside.

Once inside, though, you'll find one big interactive playground. Let your inner child out as you swing from ropes, jump on trampolines and fall onto a giant air mattress. The Angry Birds Activity Park will provide plenty of fun for all in the family.

Talking about family, shopping is a always great activity to do together. And you'll find just the right place at the Johor Premium Outlets. This premier factory outlet store offers savings of between 25 per cent and 65 per cent on over 130 brands. That said, it's quite a drive to get there from JB.

So that encapsulates my experience at the southern city - it's worth a visit. With many new sights, and more attractions in the planning, it looks like JB will soon shed its status as just another convenient stopover.