Desaru was much hyped in the 80s with quite a few mega projects aimed at attracting foreign investment and visitors, which have since been abandoned. Today, it's strictly a local affair with the occasional Singaporeans thrown in: there are no chic boutique, fancy restaurants or hip nightlife spots, just 22 kilometers of beach and a few aging resorts.
After a period of neglect, recently Desaru has become popular with tourists wishing to see a true Malay resort without for-tourists frills, and it's likely to get a major fillip in 2010 once the much-delayed expressway from Johor Bahru is completed.
Like all of Malaysia's east coast, Desaru is highly seasonal, with monsoon winds and rains lashing the coast between November and February. There is still plenty of sunshine even during the winter, but waves are high and it rains more. The "good" season is thus April to October, with June to August being the busiest months, when the waters are inviting and the sand fine.
There are direct Mara Liner  bus services around three times a day from Johor Bahru's Larkin Terminal to Bandar Penawar. Alternatively, you can take a bus service from Larkin to Kota Tinggi (1h, 3.8 RM, there are a lot of buses, on average one leaving every 30 minutes), then from Kota Tinggi to Bandar Penawar (max. 1h, 3.6 RM, on average one bus leaving every 1h30min).
From Bandar Penawar, you can either take a cab (teksi) for about 10 RM, or wait the minibus that will take you directly to Desaru Resort (the minibus is 1 RM, comes every 30 min). You can also take a cab from Kota Tinggi directly to Desaru Resort, this will cost you approximately 35 RM.
It currently takes 1 hour and 30 minutes to drive the nearly 100 km from Johor Bahru to Desaru. The federal government is building an expressway from Senai cutting across Ulu Tiram and Pasir Gudang directly to Desaru, which when completed, possibly by late 2009, will cut travelling time by half.
Approximate traveling time and distance when driving to Desaru :
Cruise Ferries (tel. +65-65468518, 65468675) operates three to five services daily between Changi Ferry Terminal in Singapore and Tanjong Belungkor Ferry Terminal. Car ferries no longer run, so the service is operated with a passenger ferry with a capacity of about 200 passengers, which charges S$22 return. Aside from a tasty little cafe (see #Eat) and a lethargic tourism information office, there are no facilities at all at Tanjung Belungkor, so it's best to prearrange transport with the resorts.
There are also scheduled direct ferries from Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal to the Sebana Cove Resort in Desaru, as well as on-demand bumboat services from Changi Point Ferry Terminal to the fishing village of Pengerang, from where you can catch a cab towards Desaru. See Singapore#By boat for details.
There is no public transport in Desaru. If you find yourself stuck with no bus to take you to Bandar Penawar, try asking the staff at the restaurant to call you a taxi. They know a lot of taxi drivers and most likely will love to help both you and their driver friend. The price should be around 10 RM to Bandar Penawar or 35 RM to Kota Tinggi.
There is little to see in Desaru itself, but Kota Tinggi is a fairly accessible daytrip destination.
Desaru is not a well developed resort, but there are a lot of things to do while you are there. Take advantage of the nice wide beach, and of the shallow and clear water. All 22 km of it is open to all, even the stretches in front of the hotels, but most locals congregate at the public beach, which provides a carpark, a few barbeque pits and grotty toilets.
Snorkeling is a good option, but don't expect banks of colorful fishes and wonderful sea creatures. Scuba diving here is out of the question, although some of the resorts do arrange trips out to Johor's northern islands.
One thing you can definitely try is surfing. If wind is good, the waves are quite OK, and especially the lack of jellyfish and sharks makes it an attractive location. During December, January and first half of February (monsoon season), the waves are almost constantly high, but do expect the water to be a little cold. There is a company that rents surf boards for 20 RM/h and provides surf lessons for 100 RM. The same company rents jetskis.
Excursions to see the fireflies (api-api) in the Sungei Lebam river are very popular. While theoretically possible to arrange yourself, this would require bumping about dirt roads to find the dock and then cruising around a pitch-black jungle river, so it's much easier to join one of the hotel excursions. The best time to go is after rain on a new moon.
Other options mostly of interest to families with young kids to entertain are:
The Tanjung Belungkor ferry terminal has no exchange facilities, but the hotels will change money in a pinch, and most shops and restaurants will accept Singapore dollars at a 1:2 ratio. You can find an ATM at the Petronas gas station at the highway 90 turnoff to Desaru. However if you mainly stay in your hotel and only go for the hotel excursions, you can basically bill everything to your room and pay by credit card.
At the public beach, there are a couple of stores selling soft drinks, beer and the sort, but you can find a store that sells branded t-shirts, Malay batiks and souvenirs.
You're pretty much stuck eating at your resort restaurants, which may have limited choices and are expensive. Even if you want to try the restaurant of the next resort, it can be a long distance to walk there.
However, if you have your own wheels or join one of the hotel-arranged "excursions", the fishing village of Sungai Rengit, some 30 km away, has a few seafood restaurants. (Oddly, the much closer Tanjung Balau does not have any.) There are also a few basic restaurants in Bandar Penawar.
Nightlife is limited to the hotel bars and even they're quiet, since most visitors are Muslim.
All hotel accommodation in Desaru dates from the early 1990s and looks like it; however, most hotels are (finally) undergoing renovations to meet the expected rush in 2010 when the highway opens.
Desaru is a beach popular mostly with the locals. As such, you will see a lot of Malays bathing with long pants and t-shirts on them, a good way to bith fend the sun and to keep their modesty. It is recommended that you do not wear a topless attire or an over-revealing swimming suit, as it may offend the locals. They most likely will not tell you anything against this, but they will not enjoy it. A normal bikini for girls and shorts for guys is ok.
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