If ultra-luxury hotels are your thing, chances are you would already have booked your stay at Southeast Asia’s first One&Only. The brand is, of course, the pride and joy of the late magnate Sol Kerzner — better known as the Sun King, who passed away on March 20 this year at the age of 84. The moniker stuck, courtesy of Kerzner’s flashy Sun City resort in South Africa, which also made history in the 70s as it allowed black and white people to mingle and holiday freely in an era still gripped by apartheid.
Kerzner International Holdings, incorporated in 1993 as Sun International Hotels Ltd, has since developed a string of resort pearls around the world, including the Royal Atlantis and The Palm in Dubai. It was in 2002 that the company launched its One&Only Resorts brand, along with the adoption of the Kerzner International name, opening resorts only in the most exotic of locations such as Nyungwe House and Gorilla’s Nest in Rwanda and Le Saint Géran in Mauritius. New properties scheduled to open shortly include the Mandarina, close to Punta Mita in Mexico, Portonovi in Montenegro and on Kéa Island, Greece.
The opening of the One&Only Desaru Coast on Sept 6, however, means that Malaysians can now avail themselves of the brand’s famous hospitality without having to take a flight; unless, of course, you live in Sabah and Sarawak. The closest One&Only to the country right now would be the Reethi Rah in the Maldives, followed by Wolgan Valley in Australia.
Perched on the southeastern tip of the Malay peninsula, One&Only Desaru Coast is an easy four-hour drive on the highway from Kuala Lumpur, but if you wish to fly, it is just 55 minutes and then an hour’s drive from Senai to the coast. For fans of Elon Musk, we definitely advocate the latter as your transfer to the resort could well be in the über-cool, all-electric Tesla Model X, the greenest and one of the fastest SUVs, with impressive falcon wing doors.
Upon arrival, you will notice a few things. First, the stunning, clean lines of the resort — all sharp angles and muted hues cutting a jaunty contrast against the deep green of rainforest and, peeking just beyond, the sapphire blue of the South China Sea. To architectural enthusiasts, the resort is also classic Kerry Hill in essence and counts itself among the final projects to have had the eminent Australian architect’s personal input before his passing in 2018.
Second, the perfect melding of nature and luxury. In the early mornings and if you are lucky, you will hear the whoop of the endangered white-handed gibbon as you sip your coffee or perhaps be entertained by the antics of the more mischievous and infinitely bold long-tailed macaques. Third, the innate graciousness and warmth of Asian, or dare we say Malaysian, hospitality. Icy cold towels are proffered as salve for the tropical humidity alongside cold pandan-longan coolers, all of which are served with genuine smiles from the moment you arrive till the day you leave.
The location encapsulates all the allure of Malaysia in one venue. And while Desaru, which takes its name from desa (village) and ru (casuarina tree), has long been the preferred playground of Singaporeans, many Malaysians — unable to venture abroad due to movement control restrictions — have begun to discover the comfort the southern region affords. Desaru Coast, however, is its own stunning little enclave. Surrounded by beauty — gorgeous tranches of dense jungle juxtaposed with the deep blues of sky and sea — it also accommodates a swathe of other resorts, including the Anantara and Westin as well as a championship golf course designed by former world No 1 Ernie Els.
A vast golden stretch of sand separates the Desaru Coast development from the sea, stretching for about 17km, with One&Only claiming 2km for its exclusive beachfront. Developed jointly by subsidiary companies under Khazanah Nasional and Anil Thadani’s Symphony International Holdings, plans are underway to make the area even more attractive — and accessible — with a ferry terminal just minutes away scheduled to open in mid-2021, bringing holidaymakers directly from Tanah Merah in Singapore.
The entire One&Only development sits on a staggering 128 acres of land, of which only 30% has been developed. Besides the 42 junior suites and two grand suites, 60 leasehold villas are also in the master plan. If you are planning a getaway with friends or have a huge brood, you would want the rather magnificent four-bedroom Villa One — set slightly apart from the main resort and spread out over 1,500 sq m of ocean-facing views — that comes with its own private 27m pool.
But back to the present: Although the resort is expansive, it is wonderful enough being ensconced in the tastefully appointed suites, all with private plunge pools, or simply parked on a sunlounger for the better part of a day. The air around the iconic 50m infinity pool, which has you feeling as if you are swimming through a jungle stream, is scented with frangipani. The pool is the most obvious place to retreat to after a languid breakfast at the Malaysian-Mediterranean dining room, Ambara, or the hip Ember Beach Club, where a DJ spins as you nibble on beachside fare such as lobster buns and crispy squid with curry aioli that taste even better after a long swim.
Days at One&Only Desaru Coast start fresh and clean (think smoothie bowls or fresh pastries with kedondong jam) although if you boast a proclivity for sin, you may do so the Malaysian way — with a heaped serving of nasi lemak. After that, burn off calories in style at the superbly appointed gym with its own Pilates studio and kickboxing classes or, better yet, head to Club One for every activity imaginable, including classes in the Malay martial art of silat.
The country’s first padel courts (by Adidas, no less) may be found here while the PBI-certified tennis coach is only too happy to guide you on perfecting your serve and volley. Teens would love the ping pong, Teqball, foosball and pool tables while those who fancy themselves a budding Azizulhusni Awang may head to the bike shop to grab their two-wheeler of choice. There are also eco-chic bamboo bikes by Singaporean label Bamboobee, a tandem bike for those who prefer to do things à deux and even little Strider balance bikes for children.
Speaking of children, the Kids Only centre is pint-sized chic personified, with two separate playgrounds and even a specially built pier from which children may fish for tilapia. All staff are trained by Worldwide Kids, the world’s leading provider of childcare services to the luxury hospitality and leisure sector. If you do not believe what we said earlier about chic, just know that some of the playthings include Charles and Ray Eames’ iconic toy elephants by Vitra.
The resort is also home to the first Chenot Spa in Asia, so any muscular aches or tension post-Club One activity can be remedied most effectively under the hands of its trained therapists. Gentlemen need not fear as the spa is tastefully ungirly and its main decorative points are nature-inspired artworks by Penang-based Fuan Wong and a 300-year-old banyan tree. It would also serve you well to linger and luxuriate in your massage afterglow as the relaxation lounge affords a view of Hole 3 of the Els Club, which looks out onto the beach and is said to be the course’s signature hole.
Pre- and post-prandial hours are best spent at the Dusky Monkey bar, so named for a particularly fearless spectacled langur that caught the attention of general manager Jerome Colson during the resort’s conceptualisation. Here, the bartender’s creativity shines via signature cocktails such as Negronis jazzed up with Shiraz and Pinot Grigio or the Kitchai Peng, a melange of rum, sour plum, gula melaka, coconut and fresh lime.
And exciting as every offering may be at the One&Only Desaru Coast, foodies would concur that a dinner at Hoshi, the resort’s fine Japanese restaurant whose name means “star”, is well worth the journey alone. There is infinitely more to discover, explore and experience, of course, but all that only adds to the expectation and appeal of your return visits. The use of the noun in plural was fully intended, mind you. We are sure you will agree with us in due course.
This article first appeared on Sept 14, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.