Malaysia Travel: Lush, Luxe Langkawi

  • Poolside at the Bon Ton resort on Langkawi Island in Malaysia.

    Poolside at the Bon Ton resort on Langkawi Island in Malaysia.

  • The pool terrace at The Datai looks out across forest and sea.

    The pool terrace at The Datai looks out across forest and sea.

  • Cycling through the lush grounds of the Four Seasons.

    Cycling through the lush grounds of the Four Seasons.

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Above: Poolside at Bon Ton Resort.

Untamed natural beauty? Check. Seaside luxury? Check again. In fact, the only thing you’re not likely to find on Langkawi, a holiday island located off peninsular Malaysia’s northwest coast, is time enough to explore it all

Photographs by Lauryn Ishak

“Take a good look at that island. By the time we come back this way, it will be covered in water,” Aidi Abdullah tells us as the motorboat forges slowly and cautiously into the ever-morphing mangroves. Aidi, the resident naturalist at the Four Seasons Resort Langkawi, is legendary for being able to recognize each of the island’s 500 butterfly species and to spot the rare white slipper orchid in the densest of forest. He’s equally adept at explaining Mother Nature’s wonders to neophytes like me and my younger sister Betsy, whom I’ve brought all the way from the material jungle of Beverly Hills for a pre-wedding wander through a place where real wilderness brushes up against some of Malaysia’s most captivating resorts.

Assigned Global Geopark status by UNESCO in 2007 for its “outstanding geological landscape,” Langkawi–the name refers both to the main holiday island where we’re based and to the little archipelago that it anchors–has more than its share of natural marvels. As we cruise past towering limestone outcroppings en route to the mangroves, Aidi informs us that Langkawi is home to the most complete Paleozoic sedimentary sequence in Malaysia, meaning that its rock formations and fossil beds lay bare half a billion years’ worth of the Earth’s history. Two of the geopark’s three key conservation areas, conveniently, are on Langkawi’s main island: Mount Mat Cincang, whose ancient for-ests give on to scenic waterfalls and beautiful beaches; and Kilim Park, where we are now, a 24-square-kilometer preserve of limestone hills and coastal waters watched over by slowly circling Brahminy kites, Langkawi’s official bird.

The third area is on the neighboring island of Dayang Bunting and harbors some of the world’s finest marble formations. These surround Tasik Dayang Bunting (“Lake of the Pregnant Maiden”), a freshwater expanse said to enhance the fertility of those who dive in. Like a good maid of honor, I threw Betsy into the lake the day before, so she’s understandably wary of getting dumped in the mud by her big sister on today’s mangrove tour. When we set off earlier this morning at a relatively cool eight a.m., she secured a seat in the middle of the boat, and hasn’t budged since.

Aidi calls these mangroves a “spectacular swamp.” He’s a loquacious and engaging lecturer. “Mangroves,” he explains, “are simply forests that sit between land and sea. We find them on every continent, in tropical and subtropical areas.” Seeing that he’s mystified a pair of women who grew up without this word in their vocabulary, he adds, “Think about the Louisiana bayou and the Florida Everglades,” to which we “aaah” in sisterly unison. He goes on to tell us how certain plants live among the mangroves where nothing else could survive. There is less competition for food here but no rain for half the year, only saltwater, so that in every root sunk into the mud, a thin, dense membrane filters out the salt through pores in the leaves–a sort of reverse osmosis. This complex system of roots pushes the tree trunks up against one another, allowing them to share oxygen, water, and nutrients.

Just as we’re reflecting on this awesome organic harmony, an overcrowded tour boat whips past. Waves crash into the mangroves in its wake. Betsy and I have already grown protective of this delicate ecosystem and are about to shout something rude after the interlopers, but Aidi just shrugs. “To a certain extent, nature is designed to be abused by humankind. It’s resilient,” he says. “Still, we have to find a balance and manage access. Otherwise, how can we ask people to protect what they don’t understand?”

Later, cruising close to shore, Aidi calls out, “Look at these!” with such enthusiasm that even Betsy abandons her safe perch to join me at the side of the boat. What we see are a pair of blue-spotted mudskippers. These antediluvian-looking creatures are actually amphibious fish that can use their pectoral fins to “walk” on the muddy ground. “The fun really begins in breeding season,” says our naturalist, “when the male uses his fins to jump as high as seven inches, and the female tries to reach the same height.” For now, though, they’re content to drag themselves over the mud, so we turn our attention instead to a gang of fiddler crabs, which live in tight clusters along the water’s edge. As we watch, one of the crabs comes home, cuts a door into the mud with its oversize claw, and then, once inside, turns around to seal it up. It’s a fascinating performance.

As we weave across now choppier waters to exit the mangroves, Aidi takes us on a detour through a cave filled with bats. Despite our newfound appreciation for the animal kingdom, Betsy and I both cringe reflexively. Thankfully, we’re soon back in the equatorial sunlight, and within moments, the skipper has turned the boat toward a group of pinkish-gray dots–Indo-Pacific dolphins on a seasonal migration to the Pacific Ocean. Now we’re squealing little girls, clapping and pointing as we head toward the undulating pod.

Malaysia travel: Langkawi resort Four Seasons

Cycling through the lush grounds of the Four Seasons.

The upside to the inevitable conclusion of our time with Aidi is that we’re deposited once again at the Four Seasons, a Moorish-inspired retreat overlooking the silvery sand and cerulean waters of Tanjung Rhu Cove, on Langkawi’s northeast shore. We splash in the surf before returning to our massive beach villa. The size of a small house, it comes with vaulted ceilings, a private plunge pool, and an outdoor garden shower that Betsy declares “as awe-inspiring as our natural surroundings.” She also casts a covetous eye on the villa’s en suite massage room, but I convince her that forgoing the resort’s spa would be a mistake, as its six timber-and-glass treatment pavilions, nestled at the base of a limestone cliff, are among Asia’s most indulgent. So she heads off for a 150-minute session involving a coconut body polish and traditional urut melayu oil massage, while I walk down to the beach in search of seashells. Joining up later, we bicycle through the property on garden-fringed paths to take our sundowners at Rhu Bar, an Arabian Nights-themed lounge right on the sand. There, ensconced in a hanging swing like Mughal princesses, we toast the day’s adventure–and are rewarded by the sight of two meter-long monitor lizards sprinting across the sand.

Despite her attachment to our knockout beachfront abode and the Four Seasons’ addictive lobster mac and cheese, Betsy is as eager as I am to check in to our next digs. Opened in 1993, The Datai has a cultlike following, most of whom return regularly to this northwest tip of Langkawi. It’s easy to see why. Crouched on a hillside between centuries-old virgin rain forest and a cove edged by a long crescent of white sand, the resort puts you quite literally on nature’s doorstep, without sacrificing an iota of comfort.

At the main building, a fortress-like structure of stone and indigenous woods that somehow manages to meld with the wild landscape, we’re met by The Datai’s Scottish general manager, Eleanor Hardy. She leads us through the absurdly lush property to one of 40 elegant guest villas. We enter a room filled with sunlight streaming over raw silk and polished mahogany. Floor-to-ceiling windows face trees filled with frisky macaques. Even before Hardy has a chance to caution us not to leave anything on the balcony lest the animals steal it, we see the branches outside shake as one of our furry neighbors swings past. She also tells us to keep an eye out for a baby dusky leaf monkey that was born a month earlier. His fur is still golden. Seeing him becomes our mission as we settle in and attune our ears to a symphony of birdcalls–the screech of white-bellied eagles, the kek-kek-kek of collared kingfishers, the eerie whoops of hornbills.

We rise with the sun to meet Irshad Mobarak, the brother of Malaysian athletics legend Ishtiaq Mobarak. Clad in jungle camouflage, Irshad, who runs an outfit called JungleWalla Tours, regularly leads complimentary bird-watching treks for guests of The Datai. When I grouse about having to get up so early, he explains that eight in the morning is already midday in the rain forest. Before I can seriously consider sneaking off back to bed, guttural hoots reverberate around me. Irshad is calling out to the forest in one breath, and explaining to us in the next that the April-June dry season is also the beginning of the flowering season, when seed-bearing fruits are at their ripest. When the rains finally come, he says, the seeds will germinate and a new cycle of life “at least as old as the Cretaceous period” will begin.

My eyes flit from an Asian fairy bluebird to a racket-tailed drongo and a sinuous egret, all seemingly lured by our guide’s expert calls. As we go deeper into the jungle, Irshad points first to an Indian ironwood tree and then upward to where four long-tailed macaques are lounging among the branches. These monkeys, he warns, can be “rather confrontational, but if you’re ever lost in the forest, follow them and eat what they eat.” Betsy and I vow to stick close to him.

Later, we here a cacophony overhead that turns out to be a great hornbill chasing off a drongo–a relatively easy task, I imagine, for a bird armed with a huge scythe-like beak. We watch as the hornbill alights at his nest, regurgitates his family’s next meal, and then swooshes away on enormous wings. I’m awed by the spectacle, but already our guide is surging ahead through the undergrowth toward the shrill chirping of what he calls “the most beautiful bird on Langkawi.” Irshad calls back to her with a rhythmic whistle that sounds almost flirtatious to my untrained ears. Soon enough, we see a brilliant orange-breasted trogon perched on a high branch. “You’re lucky,” Irshad says. “This is the bird that everyone dreams of seeing here.” And with a final glance aloft, we follow him back toward the beckoning beach.

That night, Betsy and I make one last set of tracks through the trees to dine under the thatched roof of The Datai’s kampong-inspired Gulai House, which sits on stilts above the sand at the forest’s edge. As plates piled high with fluffy pakoras, steamed snapper in lemongrass and garlic, and daging lada hitam (wok-fried beef dressed with black pepper and kaffir lime) arrive at our seaside table, we hear monkeys shake the branches overhead. They clearly know what they’re missing.

Malaysia travel: Langkawi resort The Datai, poolside

The pool terrace at The Datai looks out across forest and sea.

The last stop on our Langkawi itinerary occupies a former coconut plantation inland from Cenang Beach, on the island’s southwest coast. Back home, Betsy rescues stray dogs in her spare time and has written a book about responsible pet ownership. So I know that she will adore Bon Ton Resort. Its owner, an Australian expat named Narelle McMurtrie, is a committed animal lover, and provides refuge to stray cats and dogs (of which there seem to be plenty here) on her verdant grounds. The adjacent Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary Foundation (LASSie), which she co-founded, is supported by direct guest contributions and a percentage of hotel profits.

There’s plenty else to love about Bon Ton, too, like its rustic 19th-century Malay houses that serve as guest quarters, all appointed with four-poster beds, antique bathtubs, and time-polished teakwood floors. Then there is the resort’s highly regarded Malay and Chinese cuisine, inspired by recipes dating back to the heyday of the spice trade. We indulge on arrival by digging into a scrumptious Nyonya Platter, served on a banana leaf with freshly caught prawns, fish in tamarind sauce, coconut lamb, jackfruit curry, and mango-cashew rice. Betsy only manages a few bites, though: she’s too busy chatting with McMurtrie and stroking the menagerie of cats that gravitates to our table in hope of treats.

After lunch, McMurtrie leads us, four-legged flock in tow, next door to Temple Tree, her other unique collection of heritage houses. There are nine of these, each relocated from Malaysia’s ethnically diverse regions. I settle us into the Chinese House, once the home of a Johor State merchant, before taking a seat on its wraparound veranda to watch the sun sink beyond tall swaying grass into the Andaman Sea. Betsy, meanwhile, heads off to inspect the shelter.

She returns with the energy of a puppy, words leaping off her tongue about how well cared for the animals are, about the “amazing” vet who looks after not just these “happy, healthy dogs and cats” but also others around the island who might not otherwise receive medical attention. I fall asleep listening to her talk about her new canine friends John-John, Queenie, Snowy, and Rusty through the house’s vintage wooden slats.

Hanging out with dogs does not require the early start of bird watching, so at breakfast we linger over Langkawi’s frothiest lattes and fruit platters laden with pineapple, melons, and mangos. Fortified, I follow Betsy across the grounds to the LASSie shelter, where my pooch-loving sister has signed us up for a morning of dog walking. And not just a pair of dogs, mind you, but an entire pack (the next morning, we’re holding 20 leashes between us). “This is better than hiring a personal trainer or slaving on the treadmill,” Betsy shouts, encouraging me to press ahead despite the sweat trickling down my back.

Though the dogs are walked daily by local volunteers and resort staff, Betsy says she can tell the animals appreciate these unscheduled outings. Later, over a few well-earned rounds of Bon Ton’s cooling lemon-mint slushies, she adds, “Getting out of my own head and helping these loving creatures is ultimately so much more relaxing than baking in the sun reading a glossy magazine filled with things you want to buy or be. Plus, the food is so good here, I feel like I can eat whatever I want and burn it off while helping out.” That’s my sister for you. I suspect she’d pack a puppy in her carry-on if the flight home wasn’t so long.

Before leaving the island we take one last look at its natural assets, this time from the perspective of the 125-meter-long Langkawi Sky Bridge atop Mount Mat Cincang, Lang-kawi’s second-highest peak. To get to the summit, we ride the cable car from Burau Bay, just north of Bon Ton, above a dense forest canopy, which gives us a bird’s-eye view of the treetops. The bridge itself is suspended between Mount Mat Cincang and a neighboring summit, some 700 meters above sea level. It makes for an exhilarating walk. But even as we admire this feat of engineering, our eyes silently agree that no man-made marvel can best the scenery stretching out before us–the teeming forest, the azure sea, and the infinite horizon beyond.

THE DETAILS:
LANGKAWI

Getting There
Both Malaysia Airlines (malaysiaairlines.com) and AirAsia (airasia.com) fly daily to Langkawi from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

When to Go
Malaysia’s west coast is at its coolest and driest between November and May; August and September are the wettest months.

Where to Stay
** Four Seasons Resort Langkawi: Jalan Tanjung Rhu; 60-4/950-8888; fourseasons.com; doubles from US$670.
** The Datai: Jalan Teluk Datai; 60-4/959-2500; thedatai.com.my; doubles from US$508.
** Bon Ton Resort Pantai Cenang: 60-4/955-1688; bontonresort.com.my; doubles from US$162.
** Temple Tree Pantai Cenang: 60- 4/955-1688; templetree.com.my; doubles from US$162.

What to Do
** JungleWalla Tours: For visitors not staying at The Datai, bird-watching tours with wildlife expert Irshad Mobarak can be arranged directly though his company. 60/19-225-2300; junglewalla.com.
** LASSie: Volunteer dog walkers are always welcome at the Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary Foundation. 60-4/955-7561; langkawilassie.org.my.
** Langkawi Sky Bridge: Tickets, US$10 per person; panoramalangkawi.com.
Asian Overland Services: Specializes in dive trips to Payar Marine Park or island-hopping boat tours of the Langkawi archipelago. 60-4/ 955-2002; asianoverland.com.my.

Originally appeared in the August/September 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Lure of Langkawi”)

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