Have you ever done a road trip to Johor Bahru? No? Well, you must!
I just did it, and had a ball. Think Thelma and Louise, but with a Toyota Wish in place of the Ford Thunderbird, a double shot in your latte instead of your bourbon and a pair of comfy flats slung into the glove box rather than a loaded revolver. It’s a whole load more fun than a road trip with your hubby (or kids) which, if you are like me, will end in a fall out.
Johor Bahru is a cracker of a place to eat, spa and explore. It’s a bit grubby, yes, but I liked the fact it feels a thousand miles from Singapore (and yet it actually took us under an hour to get there). There are loads of places to pick up everything from colourful tat to cough cough, a Mulberry handbag. So, it’s the perfect place to head to for a girls day out, or even better, 24 hours away from the nippers. JB and its exciting shops and eateries was rather unchartered territory for me. But ever since my son started weekly boarding at Marlborough School and I’ve been crossing the border at Tuas with ease I’ve been doing a bit of research via the school gates chit-chat. My eyes have been opened to the fun that you can have and how easy it is to pop over. Here’s where to stay, spa, eat and shop in JB!
How to get there by car
There are two ways of getting over the border. One option is via Tuas and the other via Woodlands. The latter is closer to JB but I highly recommend that you look at the App ‘Beat The Jam’ as it tells you if there are any hold ups – and sometimes there can be. Best avoid rush hour if you want a smooth journey. You will need a Touch and Go card for the Malaysian Tolls. Don’t forget to have your car filled up (illegal to cross without ¾ full tank), your passport and your ID card. As well as having some money on your Singapore ERP card, you will also need a Malaysian Touch-n-Go card with approximately RM40 on it to go through the tolls. You can purchase and top up a Touch-n-Go card at a manned toll booth after crossing the Malaysian customs. The easiest way to find your way around is using a Sat Nav, as I have found google maps or similar to be a bit problematic. Don’t forget also to turn your phone data roaming OFF once through the Singapore border crossing, or you will get charged.
Where to stay
There are a few fun options for hotels and Bed and Breakfasts in JB. We stayed at the Doubletree Hilton 12. It’s perfectly located, just where you want to be, the rooms are good value and really comfortable, the breakfast choice was great and we found the hotel staff to be amazingly helpful. I would suggest that you make the most of their executive floors. Though designed with business travel in mind, and a little more expensive, they have a quieter dining option for breakfast and a splendid cosy bar/restaurant where you can enjoy free drinks (wine, beer, spirits and softs) and nibbles for free for a couple of hours in the early evening. Rooms are perfect with extra large twin beds (seriously comfortable), and newly refurbed bathrooms.
Alternatively, you can stay at Hotel Jen Persiaran Puteri Selatan, 79100 Nusajaya (similar to the above but located at Puteri Harbour which is about 20 minutes from central JB/nearer to Legoland).
Or, if you really want to go local, why not enjoy a fun (and cheaper) night going for an Airbnb at the snazzy looking rooms owned by Replacement Lodge café (see below for their cafe too) perfectly located in historical Dhoby Street. Just bear in mind that it does have a curfew, so it’s not for those seeking a late night out on the town!
Where to Spa
Urban Escape is a total find and I highly recommend you try it out! Situated on the second floor of the Granada hotel, in Bukit Indah, (No 55, Jalan Indah 15/2,Taman Bukit Indah), you can park below in their secure car park (highly recommended if you are leaving anything in the boot). We were greeted by a wall of smiling staff and a cup of ginger tea on arrival. Spa menus offered, what I liked most about the time we spent was the emphasis to take your time, not rush and enjoy the whole experience. Both massages/facials and pedicures are really expertly done and I exited the building about four times more relaxed than I entered with a healthy looking, polished face to boot!
Where to eat
If you are staying in the Double Tree you are not far from Jalan Dhobi on which you can either have a very traditional meal such as an egg, coffee and steamed bun or go to one of the many cool fusion restaurants/cafes that are popping up. The Replacement Lodge Kitchen (which has the air bnb I mentioned earlier) served us an excellent croque madame and soft-shelled crab bao. The menu is quite limited, and quite brunch focused, however everything we ate was absolutely delicious (and they serve great coffee). Flowers in the Window, is another kooky café opposite RL and has a great ambiance too. There are two ice cream shops in that street too which use dry ice to dramatic effect when making ice cream – a good cool off spot if you are hot in the afternoon after shopping. Not to be missed is a visit to Hiap Joo Bakery nearby on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, selling its famous banana cakes, which are still, one hundred years on, baked in a wood fuelled baker’s oven.
For dinner you have numerous choices. The easiest, if you are at the Doubletree, is to stay put, enjoy the executive floor free flow and then pop to Tosca, an al Fresco Italian by the pool within the hotel. Their new menu is reliable and delicious and offers a great selection from pizza through to griddled lamb chops. Alternatively, you could head to Sprout, which is fine dining Malaysia style, and highly recommended by all I spoke to. The chef is young, trying really hard and producing some very unusual clever combinations. However, please keep in mind that it is closing its doors briefly after Christmas, but plans to relocate and reopen in the new year in a new location nearby – so worth Googling before you go! There is also a Naughty Nuri’s rib shack, if you fancy something casual and fun but always delicious. If you are staying at Hotel Jen, then you can wander down to the many restaurants at Puteri Harbour, including Olive which is very popular and serves excellent Indian food, New Zealand Unlimited for fine dining or Rock Bottom for more of a diner style burgers and fries type place.
Where to shop
JB has a lot to offer. From shopping malls selling your favourite designer labels at designer prices to shopping malls selling *cough* designer labels at rather lower prices (and some funny little finds too). What it doesn’t necessary have are the clothes boutiques/gift shops or high street clothing brands that we are lucky to have huge choice of here. But when mooching about and having a wander OR heading to one specific mall for something like a handbag, I didn’t find I missed those so much.
I love delving into side streets and stumbling upon places and this is a good place for that. Dhoby Street and its surrounds have lots of fun little shops and cafes to duck into and my most popular instagram post to date was of a shop (with no name!) that we found selling beautiful coloured plates and bowls. However, I have since received a warning from a friend that the paint used by these designers has potentially got lead in it, so it has rather put me off using them!
There are massive malls like JBCC Komtar and City Square or Tebrau (a bit further out). These are the more glitzy shopping malls with known brands like Cotton on, H&M, M&S etc as well as, on the day we visited, pop ups selling Turkish towels and kaftans which are great for Christmas. For cough cough cheaper designer bags etc head to Holiday plaza or KSL. If you want Premium at a cheaper price there is also JPO (Johor Premium Outlets), which is near Senai airport. They have all the luxury brands and Cotton on Nike thrown into the mix.
About 10-15 minutes outside the centre, there is a wonderful shop called Jaro (18, Jalan Sungai Chat, Seri Gelam, 8100, JB). They hire handicapped people and teach them to make furniture. It’s worth visiting as you can pick up sweet mini rattan rocking chairs, boxes, silk bags and stationary and more importantly, do something to make a difference in the community.
There are a couple of furniture stores particularly great for imported goods from Bali. Tropical Living Asia, located at 45, 1 Persisiran Laman Setia 7, Setia Eco Gardens, 81500 Pekan Nanas Johor and Sora, 36 Jalan Indah 25/16, Taman Bukit Indah 2, 79100 Johor. Just watch out for opening times as we did find that some places closed on Mondays and some on Tuesdays!
There’s also a place that sells Spode China and other china/tableware at amazingly good prices. You can head to the showroom of Claytan at 75 Jalan Mutiara Emas 10/19, Taman Mount Austin, 81100 Johor Bahru. +6073504990
Finally, if you do choose to head over with your little angels in tow, then it might be of interest that some malls offer children entertainment such as Angry Birds (in City Square), or Fanpekka (in Tebrau) which are great babysitters while you shop. Of course there is always Legoland or Thomas World too – but maybe that is another trip!