Friday, September 24, 2010

Holiday in Kuantan, Malaysia

If you're looking to get away from city life for some R & R with your kids, and not deal with airline ticketing, long haul flights and packing large suitcases of stuff, a place like Kuantan could be one destination you might want to consider.

For those of us living in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur, Kuantan, the capital of the state of Pahang, Malaysia would be just about a very manageable three to four hours' drive via expressways, or scenic coastal roads if you choose. Kuantan is well known for its beaches in Teluk Cempedak, Batu Hitam, Balok and other nearby beaches such as Beserah and Cherating.

According to Wikipedia, Kuantan has the most beaches compared to other cities in Malaysia. It has quite a number of hotels too, ranging from basic ones to resort types.

During the school holidays earlier this year in March, my family and I made a trip to Kuantan and stayed at the Swiss Garden Resort. It is a popular resort among families as they have quite affordable packages. The hotel amenities are reasonably good with the usual F&B places one would find in a resort, adults and kids swimming pools, gym and sauna, spa, jacuzzi and a pretty decent beach.

The seaview rooms

The swimming pool area

However, I found their ability to cope with a full-house situation a little lacking. You can make reservations online through their website or by calling them. Since it was peak period, checking in and checking out took some time. There were many Malaysian and Singaporean families at the resort since it was school holidays then for both countries.

The complimentary breakfast spread was satisfactory like most hotel breakfast buffets. The only problem we faced was the overwhelming crowd. There were not enough tables to cater to the full-house crowd at the Garden Terrace where breakfast was served so the queue at the entrance could get long if you arrived at the peak breakfast time. As the place overlooked the pool and featured a partially open concept, it was fully drenched by the morning sun, giving you a rather hot and humid start to your day if you happen to get seated at unstrategic spots. They have an outdoor deck section and a fully glass-walled indoor section so you can imagine how much sunlight the place was getting. It however, transformed into a very nice restaurant in the evening with a warm, cozy ambience created by clever design and location of water feature and lighting.

Recreational facilities are good as long as you are not expecting six-star luxury. I would rate this resort as a four-star place that meets general requirements of everyday middle-class families. They have their Tupai Kids' Club and Games room that offer various activities to keep kids occupied in a fun way. And there's the beach where you and your kids can spend hours playing in the sand or sea.

For mommies who need some pampering, do check out their Samsara Spa. Their treatments are totally relaxing and rejuvenating! Unless you're the type who can afford the time and money to visit a spa regularly, the couple of hundred bucks you cough up here is a worthwhile once-in-a-blue-moon treat.

Getting to Swiss Garden at Balok Beach from Kuantan is not difficult as the hotel website offers directions (about 9 km distance). The carpark is not covered so you'd need to drive up to the lobby to drop off your passengers and baggage especially if it rains.

If you wish to dine outside your hotel, there are quite a number of options in nearby places. Kuantan is known for its seafood and you can pick and choose from various restaurants lining the main roads leading to popular hotels and the town center. To name a few, they are Pak Su, Alor Akar and Muhibbah Seafood Restaurant. I'm not able to comment on these restaurants as I didn't get the opportunity to eat at any of these places. But judging from the crowd and some with tour buses parked outside when we passed by these places at night, I would think they would be reasonably good.

One place we did eat at was a western food restaurant called East Grill Steakhouse. The skinny on this place: good service, good food, reasonable price, comfortable, air-conditioned, fairly good menu. May be a bit hard to locate if you're not familiar with Kuantan but a GPS or a phone call to them for directions(we did both) would get you there.

Steak at East Grill

If spending your time at the resort is not enough, there are a few things you could do venturing out. Here's what we did:

Drive up north towards Cherating and Kemaman (about half to one hour's drive). You could visit the turtle sanctuary located beside Club Med Cherating. The turtle sanctuary is a simple, functional place although it is open to visitors. Admission is free (they welcome donations). They have a small exhibition room detailing info about turtles and conservation, and a small pond with some turtles swimming in it. You'd be done within half an hour there. Good initial exposure for kids on turtles, the danger they're in and how to help, although I spotted some bad English on their posters and brochure.

Driving along the coastal road towards Cherating and Kemaman gives you sights of 'kampungs' and cottage industries. You can stop by the roadside at one of the many stalls selling dried 'keropok' which you need to deep fry. You can buy them loose by weight or pre-packed in sealed plastic bags. They come in various flavours such as fish (various types), prawn, and lobster. They also have a 'wet' version that is dough-like called 'keropok lekor'. They have a fishier taste and you can dip it in chilly sauce. You might also want to try 'satar', a local delicacy made from fish paste, spices and coconut, wrapped in banana leaf, skewered and grilled over fire.

After Cherating, you'll come to a town called Chukai in Kemaman. You'ved basically crossed over to the neighbouring state of Trengganu. There's nothing much to see in Chukai (it's a small town) but if you're a foodie like me, there's food to check out there! Holidays and weekends will require you to queue outside Kedai Kopi (Coffeeshop) Hai Peng for its much-touted tasty Kemaman coffee and Hainanese coffeeshop fare. Then you can try Chukai's famous stuffed crabs and other local seafood dishes at one of the restaurants on Jalan Sulaimani. To name a few: Restoran Malaysia and Restoran Tong Juan.

Stuffed crab at Tong Juan

What's good about going to Kuantan:
- relatively short journey, can self-drive if you're going from Singapore or Malaysia
- convenient, numerous comfortable resorts to choose from
- see, learn, experience: local sights and culture, turtle conservation, local food
- relaxing and fun time with family by the beach and in the resort, away from hustle and bustle of the city
- relatively affordable short holiday compared to overseas trips
- Kuantan is within easy driving distance to other places of interest in the east coast of Malaysia, good place for halfway stop if you're driving further up north to Kuala Trengganu

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