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Nadia Louw (back left) and Nicholas Smith (front right) and their children Liam and Mila on Kapas Island, Malaysia. In 2019, Louw bought a tiny resort on the island. Photo: Christophe Wauters

From South Africa to Malaysia and the island resort of their dreams, then came the pandemic. Now family-owned dive destination is thriving

  • Nadia Louw dreamed of running a small resort on a tropical island. After a family holiday on an island off peninsular Malaysia, she made it a reality
  • Louw and her husband bought a resort on Kapas Island in 2019. When the pandemic closed borders, they had to look for ways to survive and remain positive

The sea has always held Nadia Louw spellbound, whether it was when she was snorkelling in the Atlantic Ocean or swimming in the tropical reefs of the South China Sea.

“I knew I would only be happy if I lived closer to the ocean and could incorporate my love for the sea into my day-to-day life,” she says.

For 18 years, Louw worked as an executive chef and restaurant manager in her native Cape Town, South Africa. Although she was passionate about cooking and customer service, the long hours and her missing out on family time was taking its toll.

“I mentioned to my husband that I had a dream of running a small resort on a tropical island – he entertained the idea, but didn’t take me seriously,” says Louw.

The beach at Kapas Turtle Valley, Malaysia, where the family stayed in 2018. Photo: Nadia Louw
With that dream in mind, Louw and her family – husband Nicholas Smith and children Mila, 13, and Liam, 16 – took every opportunity to explore islands where they might potentially run a resort, travelling to Mauritius, the Seychelles, Thailand and Indonesia. In 2018, they visited Malaysia, and the tiny Kapas Turtle Valley resort.

“A [website] for best snorkelling spots in the world suggested Kapas Island off the Malaysian east coast,” Louw says.

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For Louw, it was love at first sight. The eight-room resort would not require many staff, it was close to the mainland – 15 minutes by boat – and, with monsoon season stretching from October until March, work would be seasonal and free up time for the family to travel.

A few months later, the resort came on the market at an asking price beyond the family’s reach, and Louw started emailing the Dutch owner, whom she had met.

“In September 2018, [owner] Peter asked me to come to Malaysia. He said if Sylvia [his wife, who was battling cancer and died in 2019] liked me and felt that I was a suitable buyer, we could draw up a contract.”

She did, and so they did; the Louw family packed up their belongings and arrived on Kapas Island in February 2019 as the new owners of Kapas Turtle Valley.

The chalets at Kapas Turtle Valley. Photo: Nadia Louw

The exciting new beginning for the family, however, came with its obstacles.

“The kids were missing their friends and family and were still getting used to online schooling,” says Louw. “This was probably the hardest part for me – coping with running the resort while supporting my kids.”

Still, Louw’s knowledge of hospitality was the perfect foundation to build upon for their island resort to become successful, and her husband – who had worked in IT – had a good understanding of customer service.

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“The guests loved my food,” says Louw. “It was not the same fine dining I cooked in South Africa, but it was full of flavour and cooked from the heart.” That first season, guests said they felt as if they were part of the family at Kapas Turtle Valley.

“This was the greatest compliment and it was exactly what I had envisioned, so at the end of 2019, we thought we made it. We not only coped, we did well,” says Louw.

As the second season at Kapas Turtle Valley started in March 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic began and Malaysia was hit with lockdowns and social distancing restrictions. “We knew that financially, it could destroy us before we had even properly started, but we had to find ways of turning it into a positive situation,” recalls Louw.
The family arrived on Kapas Island in February 2019 as the new owners of Kapas Turtle Valley. Photo: Christophe Wauters
Mila and Liam were used to online schooling and, as it became the norm around the world, they took pride in motivating their friends and helping them cope. From that March until July 2020, the family remained entirely on Kapas Island, receiving fresh meat and vegetables twice a week from the mainland. Everything else, they had to make themselves – or simply did without.

“My daughter has a sweet tooth and dreams of becoming a pastry chef, so she put all her extra time into baking and got so good that she now makes all the desserts on the menu for our guests,” says Louw.

While people in cities around mainland Malaysia were confined to their homes, the family had much more freedom on Kapas and they could go out and enjoy the ocean every day.

The family had time to do an open water diving course during the pandemic. Photo: Nadia Louw

“We would make species lists of all the fish and we were able to witness how, with the absence of boats and tourists, birds started nesting closer to our bungalows,” Louw says. “Bigger schools of fish started gathering in front of the resort, and seven new baby blacktip sharks swam by the resort every morning.”

The family also did an open water diving course and joined a volunteer programme helping protect green turtles. They started a hatchery on Kapas and relocated and saved over 6,000 eggs from poachers and natural predators in 2021.

Louw had always known that living in a paradise like Kapas Island would come with a price. “However, I never thought there would be a pandemic,” she says. “By the grace of God, we are still surviving and, with travel restrictions lifted, life and business at Kapas Turtle Valley have almost [returned to] normal.”
Nadia Louw in her element in the water off Kapas Island. Photo: Nadia Louw

With the ocean on her doorstep, Louw was able to indulge her love of swimming. In 2021, she signed up for a 6.5km (4-mile) swim from Kapas to Merang on the mainland.

This event helped Louw become comfortable with open water swimming, and she swam 8km as part of a duo at the 16km Perhentian Island Challenge in October 2022.

For Louw, swimming “serves as a kind of meditation or an escape from noise and always being service minded, chatting to guests and servicing guests”.

Liam has inherited his mum’s passion for the sea, and he loves to scuba dive and paddle board. Despite the ups and downs of his unconventional island life, he considers himself lucky.

“There’s a sense of freedom that I otherwise wouldn’t have known,” he says. “I get to meet new people from all over and learn about different cultures without even going anywhere.”

Mila and Liam ready to scuba dive. Photo: Nadia Louw

With few inhabitants on Kapas, most of Liam and Mila’s local friends are the children of guests. When they are not working at the resort after school, they take part in after-school activities off the beach – or even off the island and sometimes on their own. Mila is taking piano lessons once a week on the mainland in Kuala Terengganu.

“It is not your typical teenage life and it can get lonely at times, but we visit our friends on the mainland often and meet new friends at the resort,” says Mila.

Smith, who stood by his wife’s desire to move, has treasured the opportunity to slow down and connect with nature. The biggest adjustment for him has been having to always have a smile on his face for guests and to have the same sunrise and sunset times every day.

Still, he has never regretted a single moment.

“My wife’s dream became my dream,” he says. “The biggest advantage is the chance to be with our kids more and to have something that’s ours.”

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