I HAD BEEN TO MALAYSIA TWICE BEFORE, once to dive there and once on honeymoon. It was a place that had been kind to me and mine.
I remembered the most amazing diving I had ever done pre-1995 when I had visited the island of Sipadan.
I recalled sun-drenched beaches, impromptu volley-ball games and, three years later, walking barefoot with the now Mrs Macaulay in a romantic heat-haze.
So while I viewed the idea of a third trip to Malaysia with a solid sense of well-being, with so many emotional plus-points already in the bank, could I be objective about the country
My temporary home this time round would be on Pulau Perhentian Besar (Big Perhentian), an island an hour or so out from Malaysias north-eastern coast by speed-boat from Kuala Besut.
This is part of the state of Terrengganu, and only 40 miles from Thailands south-eastern border.
The speed-boats, locally built from wood, have outboards that race you along at bag-clutching pace.
The Arwana Beach Resort is a comfortable place with roomy apartments and all amenities present and correct, overlooking a Tracy Island-type swimming pool. It has a large communal dining area overlooking the sea. Staff are very attentive, polite and helpful. The food served was variable depending on numbers of guests, and the resort seemed to be dry, though if you get desperate (as people were most evenings) you can always get a beer after supper from one of the many beach-side bars a few hundred metres down the beach.
This was an official press trip with a packed schedule and every minute valuable. So when, early on in our stay, a snorkelling expedition was proffered, I looked on this with the same suspicion any red-blooded diver would give it.
We were taken to a shallow site called the Lighthouse, and once in the water could immediately see that the coral was spectacular, and the fish life prolific.
A large shoal of chevron barracuda were on patrol for their late-afternoon meal, waltzing around the most spectacular hard and soft corals. Then, on a second snorkel foray, a short distance away, two blacktip reef sharks cruised by.
But what we wanted was diving, and our first full day took us to Batu Layer (Rock Sail) and Tiger Rock off the east coast of Big Island.
Shoals of batfish, barracuda and angelfish were everywhere. Small anemonefish and damselfish crammed the corals that to me are the jewels in the crown on Big Perhentian.
Hard corals of all types grow off each other, with vast tube sponges resembling the chimneys from a Victorian factory.
I saw a spotted porcupinefish darting around the most incredible red whip coral to which black and white featherstars clung. One gorgonian fan coral in bright orange must have been 1.5m across. The underwater vista was all chocolate-box presentation, demanding to be photographed.
The landing-craft-type dive-boat then took us south-east to Redang. This island is about 28 miles offshore from Terengganu, in an archipelago of nine islands. At 16sq miles, it is one of the largest islands in the marine park.
Tanjung Tok Kong, Terumbu Kili and Terumbu Kuning provided the second days diving, and it was only five minutes before a large loggerhead turtle ambled by, speeding up as it saw the small wave of divers approaching it.
A huge shoal of yellow snappers led us into the next coral garden. It featured massive bushy soft corals for which I couldnt find a name, even in a regional coral-reef field guide, again with large tube sponges flanking them like sentries.
One of the most beautiful purple fan corals I have ever seen clung to the side of a rock.
Competition for space is fierce here, and the lifeforms just cram in on each other. A sizeable potato grouper ambled by, though if you do like the bigger stuff youre unlikely to find too many pelagics in the Perhentians.
Moreover, visibility, as we were discovering, could vary from day to day, so tempering all this natural beauty. Sometimes we enjoyed 15m, sometimes less, so you have to manage your expectations.
On our final dive of the day, at Terumbu Kuning, the vis reminded me of Poole harbour in February, and we had to abandon the dive. Fortunately this proved to be the exception rather than the norm that week.
A 90-minute ride over some very choppy seas took us further south-east to another selection of islands: Karah, Tenkorak and the fascinating Bidong.
Underwater at Karah we saw pretty pepperpots all in a row and in different colours, all with anemones peeping out of them. The table corals supported vast communities of damsel and angelfish.
Turn a corner and you would bump into a vast shoal of glassfish sweeping back and forth over staghorn coral, as gold-banded fusiliers hunted for a meal.

A STOPOVER FOR LUNCH gave rise to a fascinating human-interest story. The dive crew came to an unscheduled stop on the island of Bidong, where an array of temporary buildings could be seen clinging to the side of the hill from the shoreline.
Setting aside the dubious packed lunch in favour of a scout around, it became apparent this had been a town once used by Vietnamese boat people. Set up in 1978 and abandoned in 1991, we were able to make out temples, hospitals and sleeping quarters, all in the process of being reclaimed by the jungle.
At Tenkorak I saw little to fire the imagination, other than one remarkable pure white fan coral, as big as that orange coral had been at Big Perhentian. Out of place, it still had a rare beauty.
Our final diving day took us north-west of Big Perhentian, to a little site called Tokong Laut. Normal service was resumed, and I was allowed to pick the pocket of a hawksbill turtle as it tried to crack open a tasty meal.
Yellowback fusiliers crowded down just as my attention on the turtle was waning, and I filled my flashcard and boots in true wide-angle fashion.
Our final dive was the rounding off of what had added up to a great experience. The Sugar Wreck is a 90m freighter sunk in 2000, and lies at 18m on its starboard side with plenty of coral and other reef life on display. Big schools of snappers, jacks and trevallies circled the hull, and I saw a leopard shark resting on the superstructure, near a stonefish glued to a piece of metal.
Just as I was surfacing, two pipefish ambled by as if they had nothing better to do, and our dive guide blew a couple of contented bubble rings.
For divers the Perhentians are the equivalent of a visit to the Hampton Court Flower Show for gardening enthusiasts. Its all very beautiful and well laid-out, but watch out for the weather. And if you want big beefy scenery and big animals, best look elsewhere. All the surrounding islands provide the diver, especially the photographer, with plenty of choice, and the Malaysians are among the friendliest people youll ever meet.
One final treat lay on our way home. If you have time before flying, visit Lake Kenyir, a couple of hours by bus from Kuala Besut and the biggest man-made lake in South-east Asia.
Born from the need for an electricity generating plant in 1985, it has more than 340 islands and 14 waterfalls.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Malaysia Airlines from London Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur, a connecting flight to Kota Bharu, a bus to Kuala Besut jetty and a speed-boat to Big Perhentian.
DIVING: East Marine Dive Club, www.eastmarine.com.my
ACCOMMODATION: Arwana Perhentian Resort, www.arwanaperhentian.com.my
WHEN TO GO:Its hot all year round. Peninsular Malaysia has a monsoon climate and is wettest from September to December, though it can rain at any time. The official dry season, from April to October, is considered best for diving.
MONEY: Malaysian ringgit, credit cards.
MONEY: Malaysian ringgit, credit cards.
LANGUAGE: Malay, but most people speak English.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.tourism.gov.my or www.visitmalaysia.com