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How the other half holiday
Relax at Emerald Bay, Pangkor Laut. Supplied picture

It's so private it's not even marked on maps on the island. Yet somehow the celebrities and well-to-do manage to find their way there.

Tony Blair's visited. So, too, have showbiz A-listers Sting and Keira Knightley.

Joan Collins had her honeymoon there in 2002 when she wed husband number five, Percy Gibson.

"We had our own private island . . . our own beach, our own swimming pool, three people to wait on us hand and foot and the most incredible water - completely unpolluted, completely blue and warm - and just utter heaven," the new Mrs Gibson enthused at the time.

Whereabouts? It's off the west coast of Malaysia, roughly 250km north of the capital Kuala Lumpur, and it's a tropical island called Pangkor Laut.

This 120ha island is privately owned and has only one tourist resort - the Pangkor Laut Resort.

Joan's slice of heaven is an elite outpost of this resort called the Estates, a secluded enclave you'd find only if you were in the know.

But, once inside, you enter a pampered world where you can emulate La Collins and be indulged like a Hollywood star. Dine whenever it takes your fancy on delicious gourmet food cooked by your personal chef in your own dining room. Stroll along a pretty half-moon of your own beach after it's been swept clean.

Should you desire a change of scenery, why not call for a car and get driven to the other parts of Pangkor Laut Resort where you might indulge in a deluxe spa treatment, a game of tennis or squash, or enjoy a change of dining scenery.

Or take an evening cruise and watch the sun set over Emerald Bay, a picture-postcard beach where dense rainforest jumps vertically into the sky and towers over the sand like Manhattan's skyline dwarfs New York City's streets.

With maximum temperatures about 31-32C year-round, falling to the low 20s at night, the weather's not bad, either, though the humidity can be high.

Rain normally comes in short, sharp bursts but our visit coincides with atypical conditions in that it doesn't rain for three days. It seems there is a mini drought of more than a week.

Our party drives up from Kuala Lumpur and then hops on the resort's yacht for a leisurely 45-minute sail to Pangkor Laut. (Time-poor VIPs might prefer the speedboat or to land their chopper on the island's helipad.)

Then we wind our way to the island's north where we encounter the Estates' recipe of exclusivity and luxury without the bling, the buildings' dark timbers blending seamlessly into the surrounding dense vegetation.

The design combines Malay and Balinese architecture - lots of dark timbers and the indoor based on the outdoor - and it's one that suits the climatic conditions.

At capacity, the Estates can house 48 adults and 24 children. It is divided into nine individual estates, each boasting its own living quarters, dining quarters and lounging-around-on-day-beds quarters.

Sea Villa at dusk. Supplied picture

When it comes to relaxing, you don't do things by halves at the Estates.

Its manager is a delightful young American with a delightful name - Kenny Knickerbocker.

"This is the ultimate in privacy," he says.

"We set the highest standards for all of our products here at the Estates - the cuisine, the ambience, the room set-up are all part of the experience. Privacy and luxury and personalised service are the three major components that make up the guest's stay."

And staff members don't wear name tags at the Estates.

"You wouldn't find somebody wearing a name tag at your home and this is a home away from home for a lot of our guests," Mr Knickerbocker explains.

No two Estates are exactly alike. Some dot the hillsides, others line the beachfront and they vary in size to cater for different-sized parties.

There are two four-bedroom Estates, two two-bedroom Estates and four three-bedroom Estates.

That means there's still one missing. That's Estate Number 3, the preserve of the family which owns YTL and its offshoot, YTL Hotels - the resort's owners.

Somewhat confusingly, perhaps, the sleeping accommodation is not called chalets or villas but sleeping pavilions.

To my mind, this term conjures up an image of somewhere where you'd throw down a swag rather than the luxury villas complete with lounge and bathroom facilities that they are.

Plus, they boast all the mod cons you'd expect at such a joint, such as wi-fi, satellite television, quality furnishings and fittings, etc.

My home is Estate Number 2, with its three sleeping pavilions, a bar pavilion, a sitting pavilion, a living pavilion and a dining pavilion.

Outside my sliding doors is my own freeform pool (maybe I had Joan's honeymoon suite) while the other two members of my party have jacuzzis outside their rooms.

Some 30 metres away, trees drape Marina Bay like curtains, offering welcome natural shade to those lolling on the beach lounges.

If you're lucky, we are told, you might spot wild monkeys. If you're unlucky, they might rifle your room in search of fruit, so lock your doors.

The clever things have learnt to pull back the wooden bolts, so simply closing them doesn't suffice.

On one day we take a walk with a naturalist who points out the various species of flora, including fern-like trees, palms and gymnosperms which date back 200 million years - the type dinosaurs ate.

We emerge at Emerald Bay, reputedly one of the most picturesque beaches in the world. Cocktails, dinner and a fabulous tropical sunset help to confirm that reputation.

So how much does paradise cost?

At Estate No 2, a three-night stay (the minimum) will set you back $US10,000 ($9500).

Say it quickly and it doesn't sound a lot, right? But for that you get the accommodation, all meals and non-alcoholic beverages, the services of two dedicated attendants plus a chef, laundry services and yacht transfer from the mainland.

Shared among the maximum number of occupants (six adults and three children), the price of exclusive luxury becomes more affordable.

My quibble is not so much with the cost but the composition of the Estates and the fact that there is only one bona fide (king size) bed in each of the 24 sleeping pavilions. Families with children will either have to make do with day beds in those pavilions, or house them in another sleeping pavilion on the estate - which, depending on their age, may or may not be practical.

Moreover, the Estates can't be subdivided. With the smallest estate boasting two sleeping pavilions, one is likely to remain unused if a couple are on their honeymoon.

Mr Knickerbocker assures me the resort could work with families to ensure the arrangements work for them. "The whole Estate is the package so it gives them a bit more privacy and flexibility," he says.

But I can still foresee occasions when sleeping pavilions would lie unused or mothers-in-law might be enrolled to make up numbers.

Perhaps the answer is for those couples and families with a number of children who all want to sleep under the same roof to find other accommodation in other parts of the Pangkor Laut Resort - and fortunately there's a variety of options, including beach villas, garden and hill villas, suites, and spa villas on stilts offering accommodation for up to 280 adults plus kids.

Or maybe the Pavarotti Suite, named after the tenor who twice visited the island.

The resort's origins date back to 1982 when the Sultan of Perak approached Malaysia's YTL Corporation with the idea of building a resort on Pangkor Laut. The proposal was adopted and the resort opened in a modest form (called Pansy Resort) in 1985. Since then, it has been renamed and developed into an award- winning resort, mirroring the growth of YTL, which is now a multinational conglomerate with a worldwide asset list that includes the David Jones building in Perth's CBD.

But while the resort is an award-winning five-star, its showcase is undoubtedly the Estates - a late-90s addition.

It's a hub of pampered exclusivity that all of us should experience at least once in our lives, if only to see how the other half holiday.

Living in luxury in a Sea Villa. Supplied picture

MASSAGE TIME


It starts with my feet being pummelled by a wooden mallet and finishes with being zipped up in a body bag on a chair for a 10-minute steaming of pandan leaf, betel leaf and henna.

In between, I have more food groups thrown at me than could be found at the Albany farmers’ market.

Kaffir lime and rice powder; honey, yoghurt and rice powder. Egg yolk and aloe vera, milk, clove and turmeric.

More spa travel:
JAPANESE BATHING RITUALS
SPAS AT SEA
ALL-INCLUSIVE TREATS AT TOP RESORT
TOP SPA DESTINATIONS
GET THE RIGHT BALANCE
BOOK IN FOR TRANQUILLITY
YELVERTON BROOK RETREAT
FISH PEDICURE

Pandan oil and coconut oil. Olive oil, citrus oil and eucalyptus oil are all massaged into torso and scalp, or as ingredients for baths.
Welcome to the Spa Village at Pangkor Laut — a venue that’s won numerous awards, including world’s best spa.

It begins with what is officially called Chinese Foot Pounding and is ideal for those who’ve often wondered how concubines in the Imperial Court relieved the stress of having their feet tightly bound so they became unnaturally small.

Apparently their mothers would unwrap the bindings, wash the feet and beat them with a wooden mallet.

This would improve circulation problems.

Then comes a traditional Malay bath (walking through a cold shower into a cold bath) to emulate the old Malay practice of bathing in streams, followed by a goshi-goshi cloth rub-down in another shower and then a dip into a very hot Japanese bath. An exfoliating Shanghai scrub, a sip of tea and a sniff of steam from four different herbs ... and by the end of this 45-minute warm-up, the treatment proper can start.

First, the 80-minute “warrior massage” involving various oils plus clove.
On the form I’ve pencilled in “medium” pressure from the masseuse, but soon request a scaling back. Some warrior, huh?

Apparently these warrior massages are given to a bloke a week before his wedding.

Then I have a scalp massage, a hair wrap, a body scrub involving such Asian cooking staples as galangal and turmeric and rice powder, a facial (ditto), and next a herbal bath of milk, lime, henna and betel leaf.
Finally, the body steaming.

After three hours-plus of scrubbing and pressing, showering and soaking, I feel strangely invigorated rather than exhausted.
Mellow, rather than battered.

Seems like they know what they are doing after all. And for some reason, I feel extremely peckish. Thai green curry, anyone?

Talking of which, we also sample a cooking course at the resort, donning aprons to try to follow the chef’s instructions on how to make delectable local dishes.

At least that was the theory. I can’t handle the soup we make, even though the chilli is toned down by about three-quarters what chef says she’d normally use.

On another day we visit a fish farm which supplies the resort with snapper and sea bass.

Located in shallow waters off another island, the farm comprises a series of pens teeming with growing fish, a couple of which throw themselves on to our lines in record time.

Pangkor Laut Island. Supplie picture

FACT FILE


• At Pangkor Laut Resort, rooms start from about $275 for a Garden Villa and breakfast.
• The jungle trek is complimentary while the Chef's Kitchen Experience costs about $163 per person and the sunset cruise $62 per person.
• A stay in the Estates starts at $US8000 (approx $7955) for a two-bedroom Estate for three nights. This includes all meals and snacks, non-alcoholic beverages, return luxury boat transfers, chef, driver and butler.
• Visit www.ytlhotels.com , www.pangkorlautresort.com and www.pangkorlautestates.com .

Mark Irving travelled courtesy of YTL Hotels and AirAsia X.