A cramped dormitory room and a spluttering air conditioning system was my first introduction to Kuala Lumpur. Admittedly it was twenty-odd years ago during my ‘backpacker’ years, but the difference between then and now is nonetheless eye-popping.
When I landed back in the Malaysian capital last month, change could even be detected from just a couple of years previously when I last touched down to catch up with an expat friend who lives in the city. Her residence had been surrounded by building sites and scaffolding at the time – it seems all those construction projects have now reached completion. The city is positively gleaming with glinting ‘scrapers and gleaming five-star hotels.
I had been invited to stay at The Four Seasons Kuala Lumpur, which opened over the summer and is located slap bang in the city centre next to the famous Petronas Towers and with views over KLCC (Kuala Lumpur City Centre) Park. The enormous development comprises a retail mall – Shoppes at Four Seasons – at ground level, plus 209 hotel rooms and serviced apartments. At 65 floors, it’s the second tallest building in Malaysia as well as the world’s second tallest hotel building. The ambitious project began in 2013, developed by Ipoh-born Singapore tycoon Ong Beng partnering with the Sultan of Selangor. It has irrevocably altered the city’s skyline.
“It’s an absolutely stunning building in the best possible location in the city,” says general manager Tom Roelens, who has spent the last 12 months assembling a crack team to front the hotel. Built so close to the Petronas Towers, the hotel has irrevocably altered Kuala Lumpur’s cityscape.
The impressive building was enjoying its soft opening phase when I visited. My huge room overlooked the hotel pool and was among the best I’ve stayed in. Mod cons included a supremely useful laptop on the nightstand from which you could micro-manage your stay. Within half-an-hour of arrival I’d booked a massage, reserved a table for dinner in the hotel’s Curate restaurant and ordered tickets for the Petronas Towers. Other useful drop-down menus included baby gear selection (from cots to baths to kid-friendly robes, pretty much every eventuality is catered for) and a suggested sightseeing itinerary. You can even choose your style of pillow – I refrained, the bed was pretty dreamy as it was.
The hotel has gone out of its way to recognise younger guests, with a goodie bag containing a macaroon, photo frame and tiger plush toy on arrival, as well as a special kids check in experience featuring a low counter and child-friendly check-in forms.
Dining options include show-kitchen Curate, with a suitably laden buffet table and dishes from around the world. This is also where breakfast is served, unless you have access to the pleasant executive lounge – the experienced chef here has been flown in from Four Seasons Resort Maldives and seems to be making his mark on the fledgling Malaysian staff. I was lucky enough to enjoy both breakfast and afternoon tea offerings.
Also worth a look is the glitzy Bar Trigona with killer views over the capital. I checked in for a post Saturday-night dinner cocktail at midnight and the place was rocking – the bartender was hard-pushed to find me a seat. Of course once I was settled at my window-view table that first cocktail quickly became a second…
The restaurants are beautifully decorated – think colourful pink hibiscus petals floating from the ceiling in Curate and an ambitious mosaic tiled bar in Trigona – but Yun House, the modern Cantonese restaurant, was my favourite. Elegant velvet chairs perch around circular tables and beside floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the park, while one wall is dominated by an enormous and impressive sculpture-come-painting of wind rushing over a paddy field. It was quite mesmerising. As you would expect from a five-star brand, there has been no skimping on the detail.
There is also a bar and casual dining by the hotel pool, an area which is dominated in a rather instagrammable-way by the surrounding skyscrapers. Again, pinch yourself that you’re not in Singapore.
Yet more high-end hotel openings are planned for the city – this year saw the unveiling of no less than eight properties, including Pavilion Banyan Tree Residence, W Kuala Lumpur, Hyatt House Kuala Lumpur and an Alila Hotel & Resorts property.
However, despite the new swankiness, the city retains much of its soul through its food and street markets, with countless street stalls, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and markets hawking a delicious messy mix of food cultures representing Malaysia’s Malay, Chinese and Indian residents. Jalan Alor Street Food Night Market is a particular favourite. However, prices are starting to rise and a pint of beer will these days set you back upwards of MYR30.00, or $50. Those heady backpacker days are now just a distant memory.
And as the (higher-end) tourist dollar continues to be wooed, shopping malls have sprung up on every corner. At 10pm the designer-label heavy Suria KLCC was heaving with shoppers. In so many ways, Kuala Lumpur is no longer the country cousin to neighbouring Singapore.
Sadly, my Sunday night flight back to Hong Kong came around all too soon. fourseasons.com
Make 2018 your best holiday year yet. Carolynne Dear finds out where the travel experts will be hanging their beach towels this summer
Living in Hong Kong and thus reasonably central to most destinations, the exciting prospect of family adventures overseas often turns into an overwhelming wishlist of potential destinations. So where to start?
For some, the lure of ‘home’ will outweigh many other considerations. But what if you want a ‘proper’ holiday once the relatives have been visited and old friends caught up with?
Of course travel with children throws up its own set of challenges. Most of us want to see or to do something a bit different on holiday, but how do you marry that with the demands of smaller globetrotters?
Lucy Jackson, co-founder of luxury tour operator Lightfoot Travel, is a mother herself and well versed in the needs of families.
“People like to get off the beaten track, but with littlies in tow it’s important to be practical as well,” she says. “Is there a decent chemist or doctor within reasonable reach, for example?”
Lightfoot is a luxury tour operator with offices in Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong (and one more about to open in Sydney), specialising in tailored holidays to countries all over the world. A staff of forty works across the offices and are sub-divided into teams of experts. These specialists visit ‘their’ area at least twice a year to keep up to date with new openings and developments and there are also teams of people ‘on the ground’ that Lightfoot works with. From being able to recommend the hottest chef in town, to just being aware of nitty gritty infrastructure information, it’s these sorts of detail that can ‘lift’ a holiday from fun to fabulous.
“One example is the new expressway between holiday hotspot Galle on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka and the capital city Colombo,” says Jackson. “It’s nuts and bolts detail, but it knocks an hour off the 120km journey time and makes things much more comfortable. It’s this sort of information that makes a whole host of resorts much more ‘do-able’.”
Of course Lightfoot team members are on-hand to make recommendations for the more exciting side of travel and basically ‘pimp up’ your holiday. “We recently hosted a family 70th birthday party in Sri Lanka,” explains Jackson. “We were asked to recommend a restaurant, but I knew of a fantastic local chef who could be brought in to create a memorable dinner. We decorated canopies with flowers by the rice paddies and it was a very special evening.”
According to Jackson, multi-generational travel is becoming increasingly popular, particularly in expat territory like Hong Kong. “Families often request best ‘meet-up’ destinations. I would say if you’re hooking up with European-based family, Sri Lanka is a great option. It’s pretty much halfway, the villas are gorgeous – think Bawa-style charm, lots of space, large rooms and of course they are fully serviced. With small children in tow, villas are always preferable to hotels. When you’re up at sunrise with tiny tots, you don’t want to be told the hotel breakfast doesn’t open until 8am. With a villa holiday, you can completely tailor your holiday to match your needs.”
If you’re Europe-bound, Italy is still on many wish lists, with a bit of everything for everyone. Croatia is enjoying a lot of interest, as is Montenegro. “I do think people are trying to find something a bit different in Europe and Montenegro ticks that box,” says Jackson. “And of course interest has risen since Aman Resorts opened on the Adriatic.
Tour agent Flight Centre (flightcentre.com.hk) agrees. “If you want to get off the beaten path and visit a destination before it’s overrun with tour groups, Montenegro certainly fits the bill,” said a company spokesperson. “With pink sand beaches, soaring mountains and lush forests, there are plenty of breath-taking natural sites to take in, juxtaposed with a treasure trove of medieval architecture.” The tour company recommends trying the Aman Sveti Stefan for a Balkan seaside getaway, or taking a sailboat along the Adriatic coast. “The ancient town of Budva is an interesting stopping off point.”
Portugal is also enjoying a bit of a resurgence – it’s affordable, there are lots of boutique hotels opening at the moment and it’s a great family destination.
“Often overlooked, Portugal is currently perceived as ‘safer’ than other European destinations due to recent terrorist events,” said Mark Thomson, a director at Minor Hotels which is owner of the Anantara resort group (anantara.com). “It’s loaded with culture and also has some great coastline and beaches.” The group has recently acquired a property on the Algarve, its first step into Portugal. The Anantara Vilamoura Algarve Resort overlooks the Victoria golf course and boasts 280 rooms and suites, five swimming pools – including a children’s pool and Palms outdoor pool, both of which are heated from October to May – kids and teens clubs, family activities, babysitting, and is just a few minutes drive to the beach, bars and restaurants of Vilamoura.
Hawaii is also rising in the popularity stakes, especially with more flights opening up the Pacific islands to Hong Kongers. Scoot is planning a flight to Honolulu by the end of this year. With beaches, shopping and heaps of activities, it’s a destination that suits all ages and budgets. “Catch a helicopter flight to Haleakala National Park, Haleakala Crater and Hana Rainforest Preserve, the largest rainforest in the United States,” says Jackson.
And what of the ‘shoulder season’, in March and April and again in October when most school half-term holidays pop up but there’s not so much time to travel long-haul?
“Oman is bucking the mass tourism trend and offers a ‘rarefied’ experience due to the relatively few travellers who visit,” says Jackson. “It’s a decent mid-haul destination and has got that exploratory feel – going out in dune buggies and so forth. But you can also pair it with a beach holiday around Muscat or Six Senses Zighy Bay on the Gulf of Oman – on arrival you’re taken up the mountain and invited to paraglide into the reception area – and with a heap of other activities it’s great for teens looking for a bit of adventure. March and April is also a good time of year weather-wise for the Middle East, mid-summer is too hot.
“Take an eight-day tour from Muscat, discover the Harjar Mountains and take a 4WD tour under the craggy peaks of Jebel Akhdar, stop at picturesque fishing village Sur which is famous for its traditional Dhow boat building, and finally enjoy a luxury safari-style tent and candlelit dinner,” says Jackson.
Anantara resorts recently opened Al Baleed Resort Salalah along the south coast of Dhofar. The hotel includes kids and teens clubs and is minutes away from UNESCO World Heritage Site Al Baleed Archaeological Park with grand mosque ruins and the Museum of Frankincense. The resort offers a 250 metre beach, outdoor infinity pool, spa, sports courts, watersports, dive centre, cocktail classes and Thai and Arabian cooking workshops.
“Personally, I like Vietnam and Cambodia for those in-between holidays,” admits Jackson. “My picks would be the Four Seasons Nam Hai and The Victoria in Hoi An. In Siem Reap the Belmond is lovely and I have heard good things about Phum Baitang Hotel, which is a sort of ‘green village’ made up of Cambodian architect-designed villas and was of course where Angelina Jolie stayed during the filming of First They Killed My Father. Siem Reap is great for families, we can set up picnics amongst the temples, bike tours, boat trips on the lake – it’s very affordable and you can do it in just four days or so.”
And for Jackson herself? An extended family holiday in Noosa is on the cards for Chinese New Year, then she’s hoping for a trip to either Sri Lanka (“my favourite Asian destination”) or Sira Beach House in northern Lombok – overlooking the Gili Islands and a watersports lover’s paradise.
“The only issue with Lombok is the non-direct flight, but just take that extra leg and you will get so much more out of your holiday. As a company we pride ourselves on making these transfers as seamless as possible so clients are ushered from one flight to another without complications. We check that car seats and baby seats are in situ and everything has been thought through.
“Lombok is great, it’s super safe and a bit of an antidote to bustling Bali. There’s golf, diving and you can cycle around the villages. To be honest, we don’t recommend guests stay overnight on the Gili’s anymore as they’re getting a bit of a party reputation, but Sira Beach House is gorgeous. And the locals are so friendly, you go out to a restaurant in Lombok and the staff will literally take my baby boy out of my arms and start cooing over him.”
Another family favourite for Jackson is Dedon Island Resort in the Philippines. Again, it’s an add-on flight – you fly to Cebu and then on to Siargau – but worth the extra effort. The tear-drop shaped island is reef-fringed and the resort all-inclusive.
For more information or to ‘pimp up’ your own holiday, contact lightfoottravel.com 2018 openings…
Bali – next month sees the opening of COMO Uma Canggu, a 53-bedroom resort on the south coast. Boasting a further 66 one-, two- and three-bed apartments and 12 penthouses with private pools, the resort is sure to prove a popular addition to the holiday island. It will also offer an in-house surf school and a beach club, comohotels.com
Laos and Cambodia – fancy getting back to nature but don’t want to rough it? Luxury tented accommodation will be hitting Luang Prabang in Laos and southern Cambodia this year. Rosewood Luang Prabang is a top notch tent and villa encampment located in a forest setting by a meandering river and waterfall. The five 100sqm tents feature Laotian and French colonial furnishings, private dining areas, wrap-around decks and a spa, rosewoodhotels.com
Shinta Mani Wild straddles Bokor and Kirirom National Parks in Cambodia with 16 sophisticated tents along a 1.5km stretch of riverbank. Opening mid-year, enjoy wildlife excursions and private boat expeditions,shintamani.com
Montenegro – Europe’s current ‘hot spot’ sees the opening of five-star The Chedi in Lustica Bay this year. With views over the Adriatic, this new development comprises 110 rooms, two restaurants, a bar, outdoor pool, heated indoor pool, spa and fitness area, ghmhotels.com
Chile – the South American destination is top of many bucket lists this year, so the capital city is no doubt happy to welcome the arrival of the five-star Mandarin Hotel Santiago. The hotel is located in the popular Las Condes district and boasts 310 rooms, 23 suites with views over the city and the Andes, a large outdoor pool and five restaurants, mandarin.com
Family friendly-hotel openings this year include Six Senses Fiji, Malolo Island and Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain, China
Six Senses Fiji will be offering villa accommodation, each with their own private plunge pools positioned on the western side of the island. The property will also have two gourmet restaurants, an outdoor pizzeria, three bars, a gourmet food market and walk-in wine cellar and tasting room. A customised wellness and spa experience as well as treetop yoga, a state-of-the-art fitness gym, tennis club, a kid’s recreation club, water sports and two full-service marinas for yacht mooring and chartering completes the picture.
Six Senses Qing Cheng Mountain in Chengdu, China is located at the gateway of the picturesque Qing Cheng Mountains. Fun family activities include panda tours, movie afternoons, river rafting, tennis, cycling, tai chi and yoga classes, an indoor pool, night-time photography tours, Sichuan cooking classes and historical tours to nearby ancient towns and heritage sites.