The Datai Langkawi is an eco-gem cater­ing for those seek­ing nat­u­ral highs

The Datai Langkawi is an eco-gem for those ea­ger to dis­cover the best of Malaysia’s nat­u­ral charms, writes STEPHANIE IP

#Legend - - Contents -

THERE ARE MANY leg­ends about Langkawi. One is about the quar­rel be­tween two giants that gave rise to the ar­chi­pel­ago's two high­est peaks, Gu­nung Mach­in­chang and Gu­nung Raya. Another we par­tic­u­larly en­joyed was the tale of Mah­suri's Curse, which told of a beau­ti­ful young woman in the 1800s who was sen­tenced to death af­ter be­ing falsely accused of adul­tery; with her dy­ing breath, she cursed the land of Langkawi for seven gen­er­a­tions – and it was thought that 1987 was the year the curse ended. In­deed, duty-free sta­tus was awarded to Langkawi that year; in sub­se­quent years, devel­op­ment boomed and in­ter­na­tional tourism thrived.

These days, the land has be­come even more pro­tected. In 2007, the en­tirety of the Langkawi ar­chi­pel­ago was recog­nised as a UNESCO Global Geop­ark, giv­ing the lo­cals much pride in pre­serv­ing their unique nat­u­ral her­itage, and in­ter­na­tional vis­i­tors a chance to learn about the eco­log­i­cal and ge­o­log­i­cal re­sources there, gain­ing a deeper un­der­stand­ing of na­ture and evo­lu­tion.

The Datai Langkawi re­sort sits in the mid­dle of 5,000 hectares of rain­for­est, set against a back­drop of 550-mil­lion-year-old rock for­ma­tions, and with a host of wildlife that in­cludes 236 species of birds and 530 species of but­ter­flies. To put that in per­spec­tive, Aus­tralia has about 450 species of but­ter­flies. With its rich nat­u­ral her­itage, The Datai Langkawi puts as much ef­fort into na­ture ed­u­ca­tion and con­ser­va­tion as it does into its brand of un­der­stated lux­ury, im­pec­ca­ble ser­vice and max­i­mum com­fort. The very first lux­ury re­sort to open on the is­land, The Datai Langkawi en­joys a prime lo­ca­tion on the fine yel­low-sand beach­front over­look­ing the An­daman Sea and across the waters to­wards Thai­land. It took us two short flights and a 40-minute car ride to reach the re­sort, but the jour­ney is well worth it – and the knowl­edge you'll gain here will last you a life­time.

We check in over chilled cups of car­damom tea and pineap­ple-pre­serve cakes, as we give si­lent thanks to the bril­liantly clear weather. Rain was pre­dicted all week­end, but we're as­sured that if there's one thing that can never be de­pended on, it's the weather fore­cast. With that in mind, we're whisked away on a buggy to­wards our beach home for the next few days.

Our beach villa comes with sep­a­rate bed­room and liv­ing room quar­ters with high, raked tim­ber ceil­ings and an open plan fea­tur­ing a pri­vate swim­ming pool and sun deck.

A mere step out the back door leads you down to the beach and its invit­ing, pris­tine waters. The rain­for­est vil­las of­fer a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence; un­like the beach vil­las, which line up uni­formly along the Datai Bay beach, they're hid­den from view and are com­pletely sur­rounded by trees, of­fer­ing the ut­most in pri­vacy. The Datai Langkawi is a mas­sive prop­erty span­ning 53 hectares, but one never feels it, as most of the vil­las are se­cluded and hid­den from view un­der the large canopy trees of the rain­for­est.

The rain­for­est is never still. We fall asleep each night to the mat­ing calls of the beau­ti­ful orange-spot­ted tokay gecko and wake up ev­ery morn­ing to the high-pitched love song of the ci­cada – one that, we were told, can reach up to 90 deci­bels. Mon­keys and squir­rels are a reg­u­lar sight­ing, so we're told to keep our doors locked so they don't steal fruit and choco­late bars from our rooms. Even then, mind­ful of shut­ter­ing all the slid­ing doors, a squir­rel man­aged to

snag a few grapes, leav­ing seeds and the grape skins as ev­i­dence on our floor.

All the beach vil­las are pro­vided with full but­ler ser­vice and guests can eas­ily call for a buggy to take them around the sprawl­ing prop­erty. But at The Datai Langkawi, deep in the rain­for­est, you'll want to get out and walk. For one, take the com­pli­men­tary guided tours early in your stay, as they're a real eye-opener.

Res­i­dent nat­u­ral­ist Ir­shad Mo­barak, known as “the Malaysian David At­ten­bor­ough”, has stud­ied the is­land's wildlife for more than 20 years. He de­liv­ers his im­mense knowl­edge with punchy sto­ry­telling and great wit.

With Mo­barak, we not only spot dusky leaf mon­keys and crab-eat­ing macaques swing­ing from the trees, but also white-bel­lied sea ea­gles and great horn­bills fly­ing over­head. We learn about their be­havioural pat­terns, their pref­er­ences and their mat­ing habits. We learn that fe­male horn­bills seal them­selves up in tree cav­i­ties for up to three months to care for their young, wholly de­pen­dent on their part­ners to feed them through a small open­ing that's only large enough for their beaks to pass through. We learn about the wed­ding cer­e­mony of the white-bel­lied sea ea­gles and watch, en­rap­tured, as Mo­barak re-en­acts their mat­ing dance with his hands. We learn that the swiftlets never stop fly­ing, and have evolved in a way so that the right and left brains func­tion in­de­pen­dently from each other.

We spot wood­peck­ers and flow­er­peck­ers flit­ting around and knock­ing on the tree trunks with their sharp bills. There are giant mon­i­tor lizards and tiny speck­led frogs, un­mov­ing, as they stake out their po­ten­tial prey.

And on the night walks, we wit­ness the colu­gos, a fly­ing lemur, glid­ing qui­etly and ghost-like through the air as they leap from one high perch to another. There's so much wildlife to see, that dur­ing our short stay we missed the fly­ing snakes (the colour­ful par­adise tree snakes), fly­ing foxes, herons, king­fish­ers, black giant squir­rels, civet cats, retic­u­lated pythons, wild boars and king co­bras.

At low tide, there's a beach walk, where ma­rine bi­ol­o­gist Ni­cole Lim takes you along the coast at sun­set to spot the dif­fer­ent feed­ing habits of crabs, snails and sev­eral types of sea worms. We see sol­dier crabs for­ag­ing and dig up an in­tact moulted skele­ton of a three-spot swim­ming crab.

The Datai Langkawi also helps book cruises and other na­ture ex­cur­sions. Our man­grove cruise was yet another eye-opener to the re­silience of the man­groves and the vi­tal part they play in main­tain­ing the ecosys­tem. We're con­stantly re­minded of how lit­tle we know about na­ture – and how much there is still to learn. Only re­cently, af­ter a tsunami hit Langkawi in 2004, the vil­lagers re­alised the great im­por­tance of the man­grove forests; with their muddy banks and 45 species of man­groves, they man­aged to ab­sorb 90 per cent of the shock waves and pre­vented the vil­lage from be­ing com­pletely flooded. The vil­lagers im­me­di­ately aban­doned the mak­ing of char­coal from the man­grove trees – since then, the man­grove for­est has con­tin­ued to ex­pand and thrive.

Na­ture ac­tiv­i­ties aside, there's also plenty to do around the ho­tel, from culi­nary classes on Thai and Malaysian cui­sine to a va­ri­ety of non­mo­tor wa­ter sports such as kayak­ing, pad­dle­board­ing and wind­surf­ing. The Datai Langkawi also op­er­ates an 18-hole golf course and ten­nis courts. Com­pli­men­tary pi­lates and yoga classes, which take place on a shaded bal­cony over­look­ing the jun­gle canopy, are also of­fered. There's noth­ing more ex­hil­a­rat­ing and re­liev­ing than chant­ing “om” deep down from your gut, let­ting it res­onate through the trees all around you af­ter an hour of sun salu­ta­tions in the swel­ter­ing heat.

If you tire from walk­ing the trails and ex­ert­ing your­self in the trop­i­cal heat, then it's time to head to the spa for an hour or two of re­ju­ve­nat­ing bliss. The open-air spa wel­comes in the jun­gle aro­mas and views. Forgo the usual spa mu­sic and in­stead open up your ears for the sound of the jun­gle and its gur­gling creek. The Datai Spa utilises the an­cient heal­ing and beauty rit­u­als of Ra­muan, with medic­i­nal plants tra­di­tion­ally used in in­dige­nous Malay rit­u­als leav­ing you com­pletely re­ju­ve­nated.

For those all-im­por­tant meals, there are four din­ing ar­eas to choose from at The Datai Langkawi. In­dulge in a buf­fet break­fast at The Din­ing Room, where we doused fresh bread in lo­cal raw honey and gorged our­selves on spe­cial­ity omelettes made with sam­bal, chicken tikka or deca­dent lob­ster. At lunch and din­ner, The Din­ing Room serves head chef Richard Miller's sig­na­ture dishes, in­clud­ing a scrump­tious 48-hour oys­ter blade steak that sim­ply melts in your mouth and a rich choco­late sphere made from Val­rhona choco­late. The Pavil­ion serves au­then­tic Thai, The Beach Club serves more ca­sual bites by the beach, and the award-win­ning The Gu­lai House serves tra­di­tional Malaysian and In­dian cui­sine along with the fresh catch, grilled over an open fire.

Four days spent at The Datai Langkawi is but a mere taste of what Langkawi has to of­fer. Af­ter this sum­mer, The Datai Langkawi has plans to un­dergo ma­jor ren­o­va­tions to its in­te­rior de­sign, and will be closed for 10 months from Septem­ber. Ini­tial plans in­clude updates to the rain­for­est vil­las and the rooms in the main build­ing, as well as the ex­cit­ing ad­di­tion of a new na­ture cen­tre to han­dle even more rain­for­est re­search and con­ser­va­tion work, as well as a state-of-theart gym. We're al­ready plan­ning our stay for next July.

Langkawi has us by the heart­strings, so much so we've added one more thing to our bucket list: we'll be back one day to see those fly­ing snakes in ac­tion.

“The Datai sits in the mid­dle of 5,000 hectares of rain­for­est, set against a back­drop of 550-mil­lion-yearold rock for­ma­tions, and with a host of wildlife in­clud­ing 236 species of birds and 530 species of but­ter­flies”

Above: one-bed­room beach villa Right: the beach club

Twin views of The Datai

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