Desaru, set on the southern tip of Johor’s east coast, has always largely relied upon neighbouring Singapore to fill up its hotel rooms and make the most of the sleepy town’s reputation as a seaside destination par excellence. A shiny newcomer, however, has quietly begun to shake things up.
The opening of One&Only Desaru Coast last year marked the realisation of the final component in the 3,900-acre Desaru Coast master plan, a premium integrated destination offering a total of four world-class resorts, an adventure waterpark and a top-notch 45-hole course designed by golfing great Ernie Els, not to mention 17km of pristine beachfront facing the South China Sea.
Those unfamiliar with the One&Only brand need not be blamed as it was established just in 2002 by the late South African magnate and casino king Sol Kerzner (who founded Sun City). Few brands have impacted the global travel consciousness as quickly as it did but with still only a dozen properties worldwide, Malaysians could well be forgiven for not having experienced it. The closest One&Only resorts to Malaysia at present would be in the Maldives at Reethi Rah, and Australia’s Wolgan Valley, about an hour-plus out of Sydney.
A successful start
For One&Only Desaru Coast, it has been a year to remember indeed, as its general manager Jerome Colson remarks. “This is the first One&Only resort this side of Asia. So, opening in Malaysia also entailed an education process for the local market. Many have not stayed with us or our sister properties before.”
Things are changing though, and fast. It opened for business in September 2020, just as pandemic-weary Malaysians were eager to cast off the shackles of lockdown. And flock to the resort, they did. Those worried about health protocols and safety issues would be greatly relieved upon arriving at the resort. Crowds and congestion are not part of the One&Only Desaru Coast equation, as it has a total of just 45 keys spread over 128 acres.
It is a brand fans and industry-watchers alike already describe as “ultra luxe”. As such, it comes as no surprise that once a guest experiences One&Only, they immediately show an interest to return. “The resort gives a good feeling,” Colson agrees. “You are safe here, surrounded by nature. What makes me happy is that Desaru Coast is an oasis unknown by many Malaysians still. The pandemic proved to be the unlikely catalyst for Malaysians to rediscover their country and it evokes a lot of pride.”
Certainly, national pride is in the air. Besides glowing editorials in publications like Conde Nast Traveller and Travel+Leisure, One&Only Desaru Coast also made TIME’s World’s Greatest Places of 2021 list. “The TIME magazine recognition was great for the destination,” notes Colson, “and the fact all these accolades were given to us when much of the world’s borders remain closed brings us more pride. I can’t tell you the number of times guests have told me how proud they are to be Johorean, to be Malaysian, and to have a place as beautiful as this in their country. Already, all our guests are so well-travelled, staying only at the most beautiful and luxurious hotels in the world. To see them wowed by our resort is wonderful, watching them realise what they search for overseas is right on their doorstep.”
Building bonds, forging ties
Living up to its name, everything can be unique and tailor-made at One&Only. “Each experience can be privatised,” Colson assures. “Even our beautiful Chenot Spa, once it is closed for the day, is perfect for private dinners or cocktails. There is also a lovely little place, by a cove, where we can set up a picnic. You will feel enveloped by the jungle, with every conceivable luxury still within a stone’s throw. It is all about seeing space differently and there are just so many possibilities.”
One of Colson’s suggestions is particularly tantalising: a resort takeover. “We have done it before; most recently, in fact,” he states, referring to a special celebration for which the entire resort was booked out. “This is a trend we will see continuing. People haven’t connected for so long and are hungry to make up for lost time. And yet, safety remains paramount. So it helps that One&Only Desaru Coast is not oversized, making it very possible to take up all 45 keys, which then gives you almost free rein over our wonderful restaurants, facilities and spaces. The beauty of buyouts is that the possibilities truly become endless.”
Some memorable events that have been executed by Colson’s team of late include wedding ceremonies at Villa One, themed parties at Ember Beach Club and luxury launches. “The chefs love it as they can get really creative. We can set up a gin bar on the lawn, organise movie nights, even for as few as two pax, with bean bags, popcorn … the works!”
All together now
There is a misconception that One&Only is designed for couples. “It only takes a visit to realise how inclusive and family-friendly we are,” Colson assures. “Connecting people over generations is something we are very strong at as a brand, across all the resorts. At One&Only Le St Géran where I was previously based, it is common to see families who have made vacationing there an annual tradition. I want to see those traditions being made at Desaru Coast as well.”
A visit to the resort’s superlative kids club will put paid to any worries parents might have about One&Only. The KidsOnly club ensures children between the ages of four and 11 are well looked after and kept amused with an ever-changing programme of complimentary age-appropriate activities. Teens between 12 and 17, meanwhile, are invited to One Tribe where they can enjoy their holiday in an exciting chill-out space.
“All staff at KidsOnly are also accredited by the Swiss-based Worldwide Kids GmbH,” stresses Colson. Worldwide Kids is the world’s leading provider of family and childcare facilities and services to the luxury hospitality and leisure sector. “Our minders are certified so you can drop the children and head off to the beach or the spa without any worry. In fact, parents will usually find that their kids don’t want to leave when they come to collect them.”
Glancing around, it is easy to see why. There are heaps of things to do, all revolving around the resort’s lush natural surroundings, which encompass lake, sea and forest. Butterflies flutter about the garden at certain hours of the day and children can examine their finds at The EcoLab, a little laboratory complete with microscope and other scientific toys. There is even a fishing pond and mini jetty ready for action, with rods and nets on standby at the dedicated fisherman’s hut. “There is no boat, however,” says Colson. “From a safety standpoint, you understand.”
The stay ‘n’ play concept is taken very seriously at One&Only Desaru Coast, it would seem. Adults are encouraged to make full use of the resort’s extensive facilities, particularly at Club One where tennis and the country’s first padel courts may be found, complete with the services of a resident PBI-certified coach. “I don’t know if there have been any new padel courts in Malaysia since we opened but I wouldn’t be surprised as many guests got hooked while staying with us and are always wanting to play more,” he says of the game, which is a mix of tennis and squash. “The beauty of padel is that it’s easy — anyone can play and you don’t need to be good at it to have fun.”
For those who like to explore a bit further afield, The Cycle Hub offers a wide range of two-wheelers suitable for beach or rainforest cycling while there is also world-class golfing to be had at the nearby Els Club.
The upcoming year-end festive season is set to be particularly thrilling at One&Only Desaru Coast, with seasonal activities, a tree-lighting ceremony and heaps of things to keep the little ones amused, from cookie-making to Junior Chefs classes. Once the world readies to welcome 2022, the celebration ante will be upped even further, with a gourmet safari planned throughout the resort, beginning with GM’s cocktails on the green, a walkabout to sample food and drink at different stations, and a lavish buffet at the Ambara restaurant before ending the night with a fireworks display.
The gourmet brigade will be keen to know that Chef Tyson Gee of The RuMa in Kuala Lumpur will be heading to One&Only Desaru Coast for two exclusive Four Hands Dinners on Dec 28 and 29, teaming up with the culinary teams at Hoshi, the resort’s celebrated Japanese restaurant, and Ember Beach Club.
“It is interesting to see the growth of the brand here in Malaysia,” muses Colson. “I am nine years with the company now and love hearing guests share their One&Only experience with us. The interest and support Malaysians have for the brand now is astounding. In fact, I can tell you I have become the new booker for Dubai,” he jokes, referring to the brand’s iconic resorts in the Arabian Gulf, namely The Palm and Royal Mirage.
Another game changer and huge boon for the whole of Desaru Coast will undoubtedly be the opening of the Desaru Coast Ferry Terminal in Pengerang next year, which will make it another international entry point into the country while offering connections between Singapore, Bintan and Batam.
“Despite the challenges of the pandemic, we can’t complain as it has enabled us to showcase the resort and the One&Only brand to Malaysians and residents who have never holidayed in Johor before. They book for two nights at first and then return and stay the whole week after discovering the host of things they can do,” smiles Colson. “This is the trend we are seeing. Yes, the world is opening up but people remain wary and want to minimise risk of exposure. So they want longer stays, opting for a more immersive resort experience as well.”
Given what the world has gone through the past few years, we dare say all of us more than deserve a long-stay treat. A very long-stay treat.
This article first appeared on Nov 15, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.