WORLD: Exit to exotica - leisure travel.

WORLD: Exit to exotica - leisure travel. - Business travel and leisure might as well exist on different planets, for all that they have in common. The former is associated with lengthy meetings, the occasional restaurant, and the familiar lament, "I coul

by Karen Winton.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Business travel and leisure might as well exist on different planets, for all that they have in common. The former is associated with lengthy meetings, the occasional restaurant, and the familiar lament, "I could have been anywhere - all I saw was the inside of the hotel." While the latter occupies the realm of brochure fantasy - white sand, palm trees, clear blue seas and cocktails by the pool.

It is a fine art combining these two forms of travel. Obviously it makes good sense, once you have flown halfway round the globe, to do something more than a business deal. The logistics of extending a work trip to include a few days in another city or on a beach are simply enough. The problem lies more in the mind. Once in business mode with the adrenalin rushing it can be hard to change down a gear and relax for a while or even to plan to relax, though it is certainly healthier to do so.

Increasingly, successful business people are realising the simply truth that their mental and physical well-being affects their work. A well-timed break can help in putting things into perspective. Nowadays no self-respecting business traveller should be caught boarding a plane without a swimming costume, some sun-screen and a good novel in his/her luggage. Here, Management Today looks at the best ways of taking time out in the Far East, whether by exploring a busy capital or escaping to an exotic island.

THE PHILIPPINES

The fame of the Philippines' white sand beaches is somewhat obscured by the headline-hitting political situation, but any well-travelled beach-lover will swear that they are among the best in the world. Populated by an exotic mix of Malay, Spanish and Chinese, the Philippines consists of over 7,000 islands. One of the most popular island resorts is Cebu in the central Visayan islands, about an hour's flight from Manila. The Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan was slaughtered here in 1521 (a rather dubious claim to fame) and the tall, black cross he planted when he first landed still stands.

Today Cebu is known for its watersports, particularly its diving. The Malaysian-based hotel group, Shangri-La, is constructing two hotels - one on Cebu itself and another on nearby Mactan; meanwhile there is the Plaza and the Argao Beach Club. About 400 miles due west of Cebu, on the island of Palawan, a resort called El Nido is gaining recognition. It consists of luxury accommodation set in tropical gardens close to the beach, with superb watersports and recreational facilities. In Manila itself sights worth seeing include the ruins of the old walled city and the Spanish Fort Santiago, and (not in ruins, but open to the public) the Malacanang Palace which was the official residence of past Spanish and American governors. The choice of where to stay is extensive, as you would expect from a capital city: the Century Park Sheraton, the Mandarin, the Inter-Continental, the Hilton or the restored and magnificent Manila Hotel.

MALAYSIA

Malaysia has a spectacular range of beaches to offer the jaded business traveller, from the northern island of Penang on the developed west coats of the peninsula, through Kota Bahru and Tioman island on the relatively deserted east coast, to Sabah, even further east on the northern tip of Borneo island.

Sabah is mountainous, so holidays here tend to involve more than just sitting on a beach. From the capital, Kota Kinabalu, those who like to relax by taking exercise can shin up Mount Kinabalu - at 4,101 metres reputed to be the highest peak in South-east Asia.

The ascent takes two days including an overnight stop before the climb to the summit. Accommodation at Kota Kinabalu ranges from international class to budget hotel. Top of the league is Shangri-La's Tanjung Aru Beach Hotel, set in 23 acres of tropical gardens overlooking a marine reserve. The beaches on peninsular Malaysia's east coast have been called featureless but if you like palm trees and long stretches of sand interrupted only by the occasional fishing village on stilts, then it has much to offer.

This coast and its islands are good for diving, and visitors staying at the Pantai Primula in Terengganu can go on a diving package to the nearby island resort of Pulau Kapas. There is also good, easy diving off Tioman island, the setting for Bali Hai in South Pacific, where the Tioman Island resort hires out equipment and offers day trips to reefs and neighbouring islands.

Guide books and brochures never tire of telling you about the giant leather-back turtles which, between May and September, crawl ashore at Rantau Abang to lay their eggs. This is one of only six remaining sites in the world where these endangered amphibians, measuring 1.5 metres long, can be seen, so to speak, in the delivery room. If you are a wildlife watcher this is a must; if you are a turtle the crush of onlookers must seem a bit de trop.

Penang is not exactly a get-away-from-it-all island, as you might deduce from the fact that it is joined to Malaysia's developed west coast by a bridge (Asia's longest at seven miles). Its capital, Georgetown, is a curious mix of narrow streets lined with cluttered Chinese shops, flanked by imposing white-washed colonial buildings.

Worth a visit are the Penang Museum and, for the non-squeamish, the Snake Temple, where venomous pit vipers, intoxicated by the incense fumes, are draped, dozing, over branches by the altar. Hotels on Penang include three belonging to the Shangri-La group - two of which rejoice in the none-too-Asian names of Golden Sands and Palm Beach, the other called the Rasa Sayang. But the Eastern and Oriental, built in 1885 and an institution in its own right, demands to be visited if only for tea. The site of formal dances and tea-taking in the 1920s, the E and O today - with its huge rooms full of mahogany furniture and plush velvet sofas - still oozes the old colonial grandeur and calls the novels of Somerset Maugham irresistibly to mind.

Anyone interested in an even more concentrated dose of colonial nostalgia should head for the Cameron Highlands, 90 miles north if Kuala Lumpur. This area is Malaysia's biggest hill station, and temperatures here are, of course, much cooler than on the coast because of the altitude.

It is not just the temperature change that reminds one of Britain, though: originally built by British plantation workers, the hotels are mock-Tudor manors, with wingback leather chairs and blazing log fires. Probably the best-known is Ye Olde Smokehouse, but the Lakehouse is equally good.

Ten minutes outside Kuala Lumpur, but light years away in mood, lies a spectacular hotel. The Carcosa Seri Negara is set in two turn-of-the-century houses standing in 16 hectares of lawns, flowerbeds and lush vegetation, and has an impressive list of guests including the Queen. It belongs to Aman Resorts, whose hotels in Thailand and Bali are justly world famous, and a tab of £1,000 a day is not exceptional. As they say about owning a yacht: if you have to ask the price, you can't afford one.

THAILAND

People may complain about what the tourist boom has done to bits of Thailand, but the spirit of the country rarely fails to win travellers' hearts. The so-called "Land of Smiles" remains profoundly Buddhist and the Buddhist pursuit of the Middle Way, and the national ideal of jai yen (cool heart), make it on the whole an extremely relaxing place to visit.

Manners are extremely important in Thailand, which is no bad thing, and it is worth doing some homework in advance of a visit so that, for example, when visiting a temple you do not commit the faux pas of pointing your feet at the image of the Buddha.

It is hard to believe that Bangkok, with its traffic-clogged streets, is rather fetid-looking canals and its sleazy sex industry, was named City of Angels when it was founded in 1782 by King Rama I. Still, it is a perfect place for anyone interested in Thai culture (there are museums, a wealth of temples and colourful markets) or for those wanting to be pampered in the luxury of the legendary Oriental Hotel.

This hotel, set right on the Chao Phraya river, consistently wins awards, and deservedly so. It not only boasts 116 years of history and a guest list that has included Joseph Conrad, but good modern facilities and immaculate service. The colonial part of the hotel, known as the Author's Wing, in defence of Conrad, has superb suites ideal for anyone on a literary pilgrimage - who also has a deep pocket.

From Bangkok you can take a cruise up-river, to the ancient ruined capital of Ayutthaya, or fly to Chiang Mai in the north of the country, where trekking, on foot or on elephants, is the order of the day. Keen golfers should note that Thailand has more than 50 courses, some of which are of championship standard. The country's most infamous beach resort is Pattaya, south of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand.

In the 1970s, when it was discovered only by a few weekending ex-pats living in Bangkok, it must have been pleasant, but today it is suburbia-by-the-sea. Visitors in search of the sea now head to the island of Koh Samui, to Phi-Phi island where tourism is still young, and, of course, to Phuket, Thailand's largest island.

Phuket is known for its excellent seafood and also has some Indo-Portuguese and Chinese-influenced architecture which is worth viewing, should you tire of the beach or finish that novel. But you are unlikely to meet any tourists who have not been drawn here by the secluded bays and beaches.

Overdeveloped Patong Beach is far from being the "Thai village" that brochures like to call it, but elsewhere there are more isolated hotels such as Meridien which is set in 40 acres of tropical gardens and the Phuket Yacht Club. The most glamorous hotel on the island, however, is without question the Amanpuri, where each of the 40 Thai-style pavilions has its own sun-deck overlooking coconut plantations and the sea.

INDONESIA

For most people Bali conjures up beaches and ethnic art, a combination of the hedonism and culture of the exotic East. The reality is very different, as the island is, in parts, very developed for tourism and overrun with Australian surfers. Its villages deserve their reputation for arts and crafts (though this too is often exploited by the tourism industry): Batubulan is the home of the stone-carvers, Celuk of gold and silver filigree craftsmen, Mas of the woodcarvers and Ubud of painters.

Near Ubud is Bali's most talked-about hotel. Like the Amanpuri on Phuket, the Amandari belongs to the inspired Aman resorts hotel group, but rather than being by the sea it lies inland, overlooking the Ayung River Gorge, with views of terraced paddyfields and mountains. Each of the 27 walled garden suites has its own sunken bath, while the larger suites have private swimming pools. Hotels on the coast include the Sheraton's Nusa Dua Beach, and the Bali Hyatt and the Segara Village, both on Sanur beach.

Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, lies on the much larger, neighbouring island of Java. Despite the chaos of modern traffic, anyone who loves the activity and urgency of Oriental cities will want to break their journey to Bali here, taking in the colonial Dutch heritage of the old port, Sunda Kelapa, where the schooners unload at the quay. The Mandarin Oriental provides an oasis of calm in a city which assaults the senses.

JAPAN

Contrary to popular Western belief, Japan isn't one immense conurbation. Sixty per cent of the country is mountainous, so the human population is squeezed mainly onto the flat bits. As a result there are large areas of unpopulated countryside to be discovered by the visitor.

Although the main tourist axis is, undeniably, between Tokyo and Kyoto, rural Japan offers experiences as diverse as cherry blossom tours in springtime, skiing in Hokkaido, relaxing on the tropical beaches of Okinawa or diving off the Bonin or Ogasawara islands - tiny clusters of green set in the Pacific 1,000 km south of Tokyo.

Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, is a good base for exploring, and in February it plays host to the Snow Festival when giant sculptures are carved out of ice.

And at the nearby Shikotsu-Toya National Park you can cruise on caldera lakes, climb volcanic craters and then soothe your aching limbs by soaking in the hot springs.

Although there are good international hotels in major cities (notably the Imperial, the New Otani and the Okura in Tokyo) and in the more developed resorts, for a complete alternative to the kind of hotel you might use for a business trip you could sample some of the traditional Japanese accommodation. Minshuku is Japan's answer to a homely b and b complete with evening meal, whilst the ryokans are more up-market inns, complete with tatami mats and futons.

HONG KONG

Hong Kong used to be the favourite stopping place on this earth for shopaholics. Even today it is a good place to pick up a fake Rolex or Louis Vuitton bag. But with prices no longer so breathtakingly low and 1997 on the horizon, it is a country in search of a new identity. And with tourists hopping over the border into China after only a few days' stay, it is looking for ways to persuade them to linger in Hong Kong.

The Tourist Association is therefore encouraging visitors to explore the outlying islands, parks temples and monasteries that are off the normal tourist route. Anyone prepared for a 45-minute, bumpy ride or a two-hour ferry trip can visit Tai O, on the southern tip of Lantau island, which is an ancient fishing harbour of stilt houses. You can reach Macau, an old Portuguese colony, in an hour by jetfoil, then hire a moke and take yourself on a tour of the dilapidated Sino-Portuguese buildings that are such a sharp contrast to the high gloss of modern Hong Kong.

In Macau, the Mandarin-Oriental hotel group is restoring the 110-year old Bella Vista Hotel, due to open this autumn. On Hong Kong island itself the Mandarin-Oriental hotel overlooks the Pearl River estuary within walking distance of the Hong Kong-Macau ferry terminal. Meanwhile on the Kowloon side (best for shopping), the Regent hotel has several suites where you can surely take what must be the bath of a lifetime - in a jacuzzi on a terrace overlooking the harbour.

SINGAPORE

Singapore faces an image-problem similar to that of Hong Kong - people tend to think of it as a place for business or shopping. The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (which may or may not approve of Jan Morris's comment that Singapore has "a mingled allure of the repacious, the aggressive, the repellent and the extraordinary") is tackling the issue by making much of the small amount of old charm that is left. There is Chinatown, Arab Street, Little India, the Sri Mariamman Temple and the nostalgic Raffles Hotel, 105 years old and re-opened last year.

In the absence of more natural assets, Singapore has created a number of theme parks to draw visitors: there is a Chinese mythological one, Haw Par Villa and Sentosa Island's Underwater World. Sentosa is Singapore's island resort, with beaches and watersports facilities as well as an 18-hole golf course (one of 17 visitors can play on).

Singapore's bird and animal sanctuaries offer some unusual attractions: the Jurong Bird Park has the world's largest walk-in aviary, home to over 3,000 birds, while at the zoo you can have breakfast or tea with an orang-utang. If this sounds a bit tame, try the Tan Moh Hong Crocodile Farm instead. There are numerous hotels - the Shangri-La and the Oriental are both highly regarded, and the Sheraton Towers is ideally located for shopping on Orchard Road - but none, of course, is as historic as Raffles where, in the great age of cocktails, the barman is credited with inventing the Singapore Sling.

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