Birthdays are best celebrated at the beach, especially if the birthday girl loves fish and to sing ‘Under the Sea as Sebastian from The Little Mermaid. We chose the Wisana Village in Pulau Redang, Terengganu, Malaysia, as our favourite sandy paradise for this birthday getaway.

This time, John joins us as a big fan of Malaysian beaches, warm weather, and turtles. Aunty Ewa, an honorary member of the Brown family, is part of the birthday plans, needing only to apply for a two-day work leave.

One thing to note: the resort exclusively accepts bookings through WhatsApp. We secured a chalet after a straightforward booking process, which was a stroke of luck considering the resort’s constant full occupancy with only 10 rooms.

Their standard booking, as listed on the resort’s website, is a 3-day-2-night full-board package with ferry transfer, priced at slightly over RM700 per person. However, we opted for an additional night on the island, increasing the package cost to just under RM1000 per person, including all expenses.

Getting to paradise

We departed from Kuala Lumpur at 2:45am on a Saturday to catch the 9:30am ferry from the Merang jetty (not to be confused with Marang). Our early arrival would ensure that we reached the beach by 10:30am, allowing time for lunch and relaxation on the resort patio.

Two jetties serve boats to Redang and the Perhentian Islands, so it was crucial to find the right one depending on our assigned ferry service. In our case, the Al-Ameen Boat Services operated from the smaller, newer jetty. We arrived at the jetty’s parking lot at 9am, unloaded our luggage, and then parked the car securely in front of Tok Mat’s house for RM20 per night. Not too bad, right?

The 40-minute boat ride, with the engine’s soothing hum, transitioned the sea from murky to deep blue, then dazzling turquoise as we neared the island. Wisana Village, a family-run beach retreat, featured a patio serving buffet-style meals.

Paradise found

Sarong-covered daybeds lined the veranda, offering stunning ocean views. The resort’s limited internet connection also led to more meaningful conversations and card games, a welcome break from city life’s hustle.

Board games and chess have always been universal child magnets, doubling as babysitters. We consistently bring them on our trips to help Aenea connect with other kids. During this trip, Aenea quickly made friends with two French children, Lina and Yasmin. Despite the language barrier, they bonded over multiple chess games.

The sisters often argued in French over who would play the next round with Aenea, with little adult interference. I even switched tables as their intense English-French chess matches became too much for my vacation mindset. I may have even dozed off for a while.

Full board holiday packages are a blessing; no thinking is required at meal times. Food magically arrived at regular intervals, and we quickly learned the service schedule. We’d stroll to the buffet and enjoy whatever was served. The first evening, doughnuts covered in powdered sugar and freshly brewed in-house tea greeted us: warm doughnuts, cool sea breeze, and hot tea––paradise found.

Under the sea

The adjacent beach, linked to Wisana Village by a bridge-cum-jetty for divers and hotel guests, harbours schools of fish. Hours of snorkelling fun awaited us with just masks and fins. Swimming beneath the jetty’s deeper waters, the fish scattered in perfect circles when snorkelers passed overhead, creating a mesmerising display visible from above.

We spent the evening in the cool, crystal-clear water chasing ‘anchovies for nasi lemak, as Aenea called them. The fresh air seemed to stimulate our appetites, and just two hours after devouring a mountain of doughnuts, we enjoyed dinner: a delightful mix of dishes, including spaghetti bolognese, spicy beef curry with rice, followed by fruit and juice.

The following day, everyone was up bright and early to feast on eggs and toast before the boat arrived to take us out for our snorkelling excursion. We would be alone on the boat with two other people, which meant we would have a semi-private tour to caves and to feed the turtles––a lovely and unexpected bonus.

We had our fins and masks ready, a last-minute Decathlon purchase, although the resort offered them for rent. We explored a cave, snorkelling through a narrow tunnel to reach a stunning skylight. Along the way, we encountered clownfish, triggerfish, stingrays, electric blue, green, and neon yellow fish, all sizes and shapes darting around the corals and sea cucumbers.

Up-close and personal with sea creatures

The day’s highlight was our turtle encounter; these gentle giants approached bobbing tourists with open mouths, eagerly awaiting food. We were close to the shore, in shallow water, where the boat docked for us to swim among the turtles.

Floating on the water’s surface, we watched these magnificent creatures move slowly while feeding them bits of fish and squid. The most magical moment was when some of them seemed to perform an underwater dance for us, with the bonus of a baby ‘shark’ hitching a ride on the largest turtle’s shell.

In the early evenings, between pisang goreng and dinner, we enjoyed the beach and the sea right before the resort. On the island, there were no deadlines, bills, chores, or laundry to attend to. No cooking or grocery shopping, just floating in the sea, completely carefree.

As a chronic over-packer who despises doing laundry while on vacation, I ensured we had enough clean clothes to last our four-day stay on the island. I preferred the inconvenience of carrying wet bathing suits and smelly clothes back to Kuala Lumpur over doing laundry during my holiday.

The birthday trip of a lifetime

Finally, the day arrived – Happy Birthday, Aenea! We awoke to her singing ‘Happy Birthday’ loudly, eagerly waiting for me to hug her and hand over the presents I had brought from home. I packed a few gifts for her to open before breakfast, and she tore into them with delight.

The night before, she had prayed for chicken nuggets, hash browns, roti canai, and hot Milo for breakfast, and to our amazement, that’s precisely what was on the buffet! It definitely set the tone for a fantastic final day on the island.

Our vacation became a test of adaptability when the dive operator we had initially booked with cancelled our discovery dive trip without any apology. Thanks to Ewa’s quick thinking, we found the Redang Bay Dive Center on Google, run by the ever-professional Mr. Anderson from Sabah. Despite the last-minute request, he accommodated us, allowing Aenea to search for her real-life Sebastian.

More underwater adventures

Andersen recommended the Discovery Dive for all of us to accommodate Aenea. This package is perfect for beginners, offering an introductory shore dive with a dive master, complete with equipment, along the resort’s house reef. After gearing up and checking our equipment, we backward-flipped into the sea.

A brief 15-minute briefing session preceded our entry into deeper water, where we were educated on safety procedures and underwater hand signals. Before this, Aenea had received introductory dive lessons in a pool in Petaling Jaya, so she was entirely untroubled by her aquatic ‘birthday present.’

The hour-long dive reached depths of about 7 meters, featuring underwater attractions like an underwater postbox and a heart sculpture made of metal for newbie divers. Anderson took photos of our underwater spins with his Go-Pro and shared them via Airdrop to our phones. A big thanks to Redang Bay Dive Center for the memorable adventure.

Ewa had also managed to secure slices of birthday cake for a surprise celebration secretly. Aenea was blown away since she did not have a clue that there were bakeries in the village on the other side of the island. All she could say repeatedly while staring at the cake in awe was, “How on earth did you get cake on the island, mama?”

Saying goodbye to paradise

Our time on the island was ending soon. I gazed at the ocean, uncertain when I’d return. Seeing Aenea’s joyful abandon made the planning, expense, and late-night drive worthwhile. Childhood is fleeting, and I realise I won’t be the ‘cool mom’ for much longer once she enters her teenage years.

The sun shone as we prepared for the 9am boat to Merang. Our bags were packed with wet clothes, beach shoes, sand, and Aenea’s impressive seashell collection. The boat ride to the mainland was brief and uneventful, and soon, we were on our way home.

That feeling at the end of a great vacation: a mix of relaxed anxiety and sadness. You’re relaxed after a stress-free getaway, anxious to return to reality, and sad that your time in paradise is over. But good things don’t last forever. Overall, we were thrilled to escape the city briefly, but responsibilities, like tending to our plants and bills, were waiting for us.

All images are courtesy of the author.