One&Only Desaru Coast Review: Applaudable In Paradise
— 26 April 2024

One&Only Desaru Coast Review: Applaudable In Paradise

— 26 April 2024
James Want
James Want

For the last decade, the island of Langkawi has, almost single-handedly, showcased the very best of Malaysian oceanfront hospitality. However, the more accessible southern region is quietly emerging as a formidable bucket-list contender following the opening of One&Only Desaru Coast in 2019. 

It was the last project Australian architect Kerry Hill – whose practice still designs AMAN properties – worked on before his passing, and in typical KHA style features minimalist structures with high ceilings, clad in dark timbers, that play with natural light. With just 45 suites, the hotel presents as a premium, private and seriously well-equipped resort for travellers looking to rip into the wide range of activities on offer or relax and recharge by the pool. 

Located a short drive from Singapore (depending on the traffic at the border), One&Only Desaru Coast is a favourite among the expat community, however, I was intrigued to understand if this was purely due to proximity and lack of options. After being generously hosted by the brand and experiencing it myself, I’m pleased to confirm that the hotel deserves much of the praise lauded upon it, although it’s not without a hiccup or two.  

Where is One&Only Desaru Coast?

One&Only Desaru Coast is located in the southeastern region of Malaysia, on 128 acres of white-powder sands between lush jungle flora and the South China Sea. It is best accessed from Singapore given the frequency and quality of carriers servicing Changi. The property is also accessible from Kuala Lumpur, but it is a 4-5 hour drive (as opposed to 1.5-2 hours on a good run from Singapore). 

We were collected in a plush One&Only Mercedes Benz van, with reclining seating and a basket of snacks for the journey. Guests are not required to leave the van to pass through customs, which makes the process painless, however, there can be lengthy waits at the border.

How’s the vibe?

If you haven’t visited a property designed by Kerry Hill Architects before – AMAN Tokyo or Kyoto, or The Datai, Langkawi to name a few – it’s hard to explain the sense of calm they emanate. One&Only Desaru Coast makes a great first impression, showcasing its most ‘grammable asset as soon as you reach the reception – gun barrel views of a fifty-metre infinity pool, nestled into the beachfront forest. 

The property is best enjoyed poolside, where you can look back at the structures and admire the cascading stairs and restrained design, fusing effortlessly into the natural landscape. Glimpses of Dior slides, Loewe totes, and the unmistakable texture of Patek’s ‘tropical’ rubber strap all provide valuable insight into the clientele, who travel mostly in couples and value privacy as much as you do.

Amble from the pool and through the grounds to the spa where you’ll find a zen oasis. Featuring a Monet-esque central pond, the word paradise comes to mind post-treatment as you recline on an ergonomic lounge overlooking a seaside golf course.

What are the rooms like? 

The hotel was designed to showcase the region’s architectural heritage, and the result is a modern interpretation of the traditional Malaysian ‘kampung’ or village. Each standalone suite reflects these design principles with an interior courtyard – and private plunge pool – separating the bedroom and bathroom, with an enclosed verandah facing the ocean off the bedroom. 

It’s a palatial and private space, but I think overall convenience and comfort pays a price – especially at night when you need to navigate your way through the courtyard and to the bathroom half asleep. Interestingly, the rooms feel older than the public buildings, although that could be due to tired soft furnishings made from kitsch fabrics. There is fruit on arrival and a well-appointed mini-bar, although none of it is complimentary. The plunge pool, while a nice touch, feels cramped by the central courtyard’s daybed and the towering stone wall that surrounds it. 

In theory, the bedroom and bathroom sliding doors would open to improve the flow between the separate structures but effective cooling requires them to stay shut, along with the regular doors, so despite being in the privacy of your suite you’re constantly opening and closing heavy doors to move from the bedroom to the bathroom. In reality, it’s rather frustrating. 

Tell us about the activities then!

With a kaleidoscope of venues and activities on offer, it’s unlikely that you’ll spend much time in your room. We spent the majority of ours at three locations: Ember Beach Club, the One&Only Spa & Fitness Centre, and Club One, the resort’s sports and activity hub. 

The author sipping Piña colada number twelve in the Ember Beach Club pool.

Located a short buggy ride from the main property, Ember Beach Club is a striking venue with an open-plan dining and kitchen area overlooking two pools, pristine golden sands, and the ocean beyond. At least one day of your stay should be dedicated to making the most of Ember’s food and beverage offerings, followed by lazy poolside cocktails, book in hand. If you’re keen on stand-up paddle boarding or feel like taking a jetski out, you can indulge from the club, but I bet you’ll just order another drink and sink into your lounge for an afternoon kip. 

Another short buggy ride from the main property is Club One, a modern sports hub with an exceptional kids club – fortunately, we left ours at home. The sports side of the club caters to pool, ping pong, foosball, basketball and even viral sensation, Teqball. However, the real highlight is tennis and its new cousin, padel. One&Only has built the first dedicated padel courts in Malaysia and offers an excellent introductory lesson to the game for couples. We enjoyed it so much that we went back for more the following day. 

Your first hour of padel will do unthinkable things to your feet, thus a massage is mandatory. The One&Only Spa & Fitness Centre is the jewel in the One&Only Desaru Coast crown, and the treatments price list is reasonable for a hotel of this calibre – especially given the alignment with Augustinus Bader products. We opted for a couples Malay Serene Fusion massage, focusing on rhythmic strokes with deep pressure to “rejuvenate essence”, which began with a foot bath and ended with tea, in a robe and slippers, overlooking the championship Els Club golf course (also on offer to guests). It was a real highlight of our stay, made even more special by the serene setting. 

Attached to the spa is the hotel’s palatial fitness centre, dripping in Technogym goodies. It is a seriously impressive and well-thought-out space that has had a lot of money poured into it – a far cry from the afterthought gyms so often bundled into resorts. We didn’t work out but we did partake in a Silat lesson, a Southeast Asian martial art I’d never heard of before my visit. Admittedly, I was questioning our decision to start as our teacher (a Silat master) introduced us to an elaborate dance. However, once he began to explain the movements, and how they were used to defend oneself, I was enthralled. A must if you’re interested in combat sports. 

We’re feeling peckish: what’s for dinner?

There is an abundance of restaurants, dining experiences and bars at One&Only but all have room for improvement, which means no single meal was a standout during our stay. Michelin-starred chef Andrew Walsh heads up the menu at Ember Beach Club and with so many venues under his name, I’d be inclined to say he’s probably spread a little thin, as the menu contained some fantastic items but many others missed the mark in regards to flavour and execution. The highlight was a Malaysian wagyu ribeye with kampot pepper sauce and shallot jam that I would consider to be one of the best pieces of beef I’ve ever eaten, so good that I ordered it again the following day. Unfortunately, it was half as good, as were the accompanying dishes. 

For our first dinner, we dined privately on the beachfront, with the menu prepared on an open grill. It was an amazing location with tasty dishes but the execution lacked the finesse no doubt required to justify the price. Shortly after Billecart was served the degustation began, and we were barely capable of drawing a breath while all seven courses were served in under 90 minutes.

The amount of food was astonishing – not small bites, but full plates of food – six mains served in rapid succession, followed by dessert. I’ve never felt so rushed during a meal and by course three we were stuffed, so much so we asked the chef to stop. We were also treated to a lovely breakfast on the beach, which was a much calmer, picnic-style affair, and would be my recommendation if you’re game for an early start to watch the sunrise. 

Alternatively, breakfast (as well as lunch and dinner) is served in the Mediterranean-inspired Ambara restaurant. The selection is exceptional, with daily local specials accompanying exquisite pastries, Malaysian favourites, and Western choices. These highlights are unfortunately let down by mediocre coffee. We didn’t eat lunch or dinner in Ambara but the friendly chef cooked us his signature char kway teow for the car ride back to Singapore. It was superb. 

On Saturday evening, which also happened to be my birthday, we dined at Hoshi, the property’s omakase restaurant. Guests can select from an eleven, fourteen or seventeen-course menu, with prices ranging from ~AU$180 to ~AU$428. The flavours, creativity, and presentation were world-class, pairing delicate seafood with the region’s freshest and finest ingredients. To finish I was presented with a cake, which we shared with other guests in the restaurant – it was a lovely, personal touch. 

Applying the finishing touches at Hoshi.

Hoshi was fantastic but it could have been even better with the right wine. Unfortunately, the wine selection across the hotel is extremely limited, and the menu is the same at each of the venues. Four choices of white wine and no cellar selection are insufficient for a hotel of this calibre, especially when the one you want to drink is sold out, along with your favourite tequila, despite being presented on the back bar. Strangely, the cocktails at Ember were delicious, but the signature cocktails at flagship Dusky Bar were awful – we even heard the group next to us complaining about theirs. 

How was the service?

Always enthusiastic but requires some polish. The specialist service – from our padel coach and Silat instructor to the spa staff and chefs – was all exemplary, but there’s work to do to get the general staff to a complementary level. It’s not that the service isn’t delivered with a smile, it’s just often overzealous – removing plates from your table before you’ve finished – and also unsure, “I need to check”. I felt rushed by the waitstaff at many of the meals. 

Inside the visually striking Dusky Monkey bar.

Any other expert tips/highlights of your stay?

We stayed in an ocean-facing suite but the rainforest suites at the other end of the property seemed more private. Padel! I now understand what all the hype is about. I think approaching a stay at One&Only Desaru Coast with a wellness mindset would be hugely beneficial, to make use of the fitness centre, the sports club, the infinity pool, the spa, and the Ernie Els golf course.

The rainforest suites observed from the path leading down to the beachfront.

Final thoughts…

Whether you’re after a relaxing or action-packed getaway, One&Only Desaru Coast ticks a lot of boxes. It does, however, lack the finesse that is required to make it truly exceptional. Many of the shortfalls I’ve pointed out may be viewed as insignificant, but it’s the finer details that make a stay extraordinary. A refresh on soft furnishings and a focus on consistency and quality across the hotel’s food and beverage offering, with a refined level of service to match, would place it amongst the best hotels in Asia. Until then, it presents a pleasurable weekend escape from Singapore or a worthy alternative to Langkawi.

There are worse places to spend an afternoon.

Price: From ~AU$868 per night
Address: Darul Ta’zim, Persiaran Damai, Desaru Coast Bandar Penawar, 90, 81930, Johor, Malaysia
Contact: +60 7-878 3400

The author stayed as a guest of One&Only Desaru Coast for two nights.

If you’ve enjoyed this One&Only Desaru Coast review, please check out some of our other hotel & travel reviews from Asia. Here are several recommendations to get you started:

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James Want
James is the co-founder of Luxity Media and managing editor of Boss Hunting and B.H. Magazine. He has more than twelve years experience writing, photographing, producing, and publishing both earned and paid content in the men's lifestyle space.


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