A short flight from Kuala Lumpur, the island of Langkawiis a wise choice for anyone seeking to shake off the woes of city life. The odd bit of tourist tackiness on roadside advertising signs aside, there’s no escaping the sheer, virtually unspoiled natural beauty of the place.
Even my hotel, The Datai — which recently underwent a year-long $60 million refurbishment — feels like a traditional rainforest villa. When I step out on to the veranda, I revel in the ancient jungle just beyond the sun loungers.
I’d heard before arriving that Langkawi was teeming with wildlife but that’s nothing to prepare for actually being there and experiencing nature in its full. Give or take, that is, some air-conditioning, room service and other modern conveniences.
‘It’s safe to leave the door to the terrace open when you are in your room but close it when you go out,’ the hotel manager warns me. To keep the snakes out, or perhaps the insects I wonder. ‘No’, he says. ‘The monkeys.’
The monkeys have apparently become experts not only at stealing fruit from rooms but even plundering the minibars. I can already see a family of what I later discover are long-tailed macaques playfully lurking outside, eyeing up this newcomer to their territory.
It’s this intriguing mix of modern sophistication and raw jungle, unchanged for perhaps millions of years, which makes Langkawi so attractive. Add some excellent beaches, near-perfect weather and friendly locals and you can see why the island is revered by those who know Asia well.
Langkawi, or Pulau Langkawi to give it its correct name, is just 30km off the coast from Kuala Perlis at the very northwestern tip of the Malaysian peninsula; only an hour’s ferry trip away from the border with Thailand. From its north coast you can see both Thai and Malaysian islands. They were once the haunt of pirates, probably the first people to discover the charm of this part of the world.
It’s possible to believe they are still out there somewhere, hiding in the mysterious caves on the smaller islands. Walk the jungle trail to one of the near-deserted beaches — even those close to the major hotels are rarely busy — look up towards the two main mountains which dominate the interior.
Kuah in the south-east of the island, in spite of having no proper beaches, has experienced a hotel-building frenzy in recent years. This is the place to seek out (if you really must) shops, banks, markets, even internet cafés and fast-food outlets — all of them prepared for the day when, or perhaps if, the tourist floodgates open wide.
Back at The Datai and the facilities are among the best you will find at any five-star hotel, including some excellent restaurants. Breakfast is served in the poolside dining room which then becomes a fine-dining restaurant for the evening serving French cuisine. For more local flavours try The Gulai House, which stands rather impressively on stilts and is decorated in the Malay kampung house style.
Much of the daytime action centres around the Beach Club — accessible by golf buggies — which boasts a child-friendly pool and a state-of-the-art spa.
This is also where guests congregate for late-morning drinks and casual lunches. The daily specials are always worth sampling. I had some superb giant prawns with chilli and then, on the waiter’s suggestion, a local chicken curry the next day.
There’s also a fully equipped gym and yoga pavilion, and a nature centre where resident naturalists take guests on treks into the rainforest to see the wildlife at close quarters.
And there’s plenty to see and do elsewhere on Langkawi should you fancy a change of scene. The SkyCab cable car in the west of the island provides spectacular views — although there’s something surreal about boarding an alpine-style cable car in tropical temperatures.
Other attractions including some very impressive marinas; the Langkawi Yacht Club (where you can charter a luxury boat for a private cruise); and the Underwater World theme park at Pantai Cenang. The latter houses some 6,000 species of fish in the impressive Galleria Perdana, built to house the former prime minister of Malaysia’s diplomatic gifts.
Langkawi will certainly remain on the backpackers’ list of places to visit. Round-the-world yachtsmen will still arrive to enjoy its deserted coves. But it’s sophisticated travellers looking for a pinch of luxury in the peaceful rainforest who will ensure this treasure of an island joins the growing list of must-see destinations.