The Datai, Langkawi
Langkawi consists of a group of ninety-nine tropical islands lying off the north-western peninsula of Malaysia. The main island is popularly known as Pulau Langkawi, and enjoys its intriguing heritage of ancient secrets and romantic legends of gigantic birds, fairy princesses, ogres and battles.
It has a rich geological history dating back more than 500 million years and is blessed with beautiful beaches, warm emerald waters, dense virgin rainforest, caves (with stalactites and stalagmites) and characteristically shaped islets. The stunning lime-green paddy fields strike a contrast against the cool mountain mists. Everywhere you are greeted with warm hospitality and friendly smiles from the local people.
Winding rainforest roads often encounter roaming buffalo and are dotted with a multitude of small stands selling anything from banana fritters and cashew nuts to obscure local medicines. The island is a refreshing paradox of modern times where a tightly controlled tourism policy has left a rich culture intact – the two work harmoniously and thrive.
Local people claim this to be the legacy of Mashuri, a pretty young maiden living some 200 years ago, who placed a curse on the island after being executed for a crime she did not commit. It would appear that Pulau Langkawi has risen from ‘the seven generations that shall not prosper’, and is emerging as an eminent twenty-first-century holiday setting.
Reminiscent of a modern-day Noah’s Ark, the impressive Balinese-style architecture of the Datai makes an immediate impact. The open reception is dominated by two huge Trojan horses in front of a waterlily pond surrounded by the bar, beyond which the eye is drawn to the far-reaching views across to mainland Thailand. The accommodation leads from long open-air corridors, linking the fifty-four deluxe rooms and fourteen suites housed within this ‘ark’.
Hidden by the lofty canopy of the virgin tropical rainforest on the north-west tip of Langkawi, its secret whereabouts is perfectly camouflaged from human eyes. The hotel has been skilfully located between the imposing Macincang Mountains and the Andaman Sea. To imaginative minds, the exposed buttress roots and jungle twines surrounding the property evoke a Tarzan habitat – the feel is very much of a treetop jungle safari. It was built in 1993, and its architect Kerry Hill chose sensitively, connecting a combination of Mayan walls, Malay roofs and Japanese screens.
Today the Datai still takes pride in its eco-friendly ethos, ensuring that for every tree that has to be cut down, a new one is planted – guests are even encouraged to go and plant their own seeds down by the river. The rooms have been decorated in tones and materials complementary to their forest surroundings. Polished wooden floors and furniture including a writing desk and two daybeds, cream walls and leaf-green blankets are stylish but simple.
The Datai Nature Guidebook explains the cacophony of noise courtesy of Mother Nature outside the room, replacing the sounds of the CD player. The hip reading lights each side of the king-size bed are the finest and most practical to be found anywhere. Bathrooms resonate with the natural theme, using indigenous Langkawi marble on the twin vanities, shower and bath, and the warm red balau surround is decorated with fresh orchids. Simple but chic. The small balcony gives you a simply breathtaking view overlooking the treetops, glimpsing the shadows of the mountains on mainland Thailand and the deep blue waters of Datai Bay.
Down below, a meandering path leading towards the beach links forty-four villas secluded by the dense rainforest canopy. It’s hard to believe that they are only steps away from the open sea. While much darker than the ‘ark’ rooms, the larger villas do enjoy the benefits of their own private deck with sun lounges (some with pools) and an elevated dining veranda.
‘Manadara’ is a word synonymous with excellence in the world of spas. The idyllic location of the luxurious spa villas, deep under the jungle canopy next to an ambling stream, must be a feng-shui dream. The Asian treatments have been given an innovative interpretation and the signature treatment, ‘the Manadara Massage’, is the ultimate pamper – two spa therapists working simultaneously up and down the body combining the five styles of Thai, Swedish and Balinese massage, Shiatsu, and Hawaiian Lomi Lomi. This is not only the best spa on the island but one of the best in the world. Breakfast is an elegant affair taken in the formal dining room. The colourful spread is displayed along the full length of the back wall, leaving guests to gaze out at the forest canopy and waters down below.
Service is exemplary, if a little too formal at times. There are three choices for dining; the most dramatic and authentic is the Pavilion Restaurant, specialising in delicious Thai fusion cuisine. It’s built on huge stilts, elevating the balcony so diners overlook the rainforest. Malaysian and western specialities are served in the more formal Dining Room and the best option for lunch is the alfresco Beach Club. On special occasions such as Valentine’s Day, international celebrity chefs are invited to come and serve their distinctive specialities to guests seated on chairs draped in gold around the candle-lit swimming pool.
The most popular of the array of leisure activities is golf at the adjacent eighteen-hole championship course, nominated as the third best in south-east Asia. It is particularly pleasant in late afternoon when the cool tangy breezes sweep across the fairways. An assortment of windsurfing boards and sailing boats are to be found down on the beach, or you can. simply laze languorously by one of the swimming pools. Sipping cocktails and watching the sunset from the sixty-year-old motor yacht Kanangra is a real treat. The beautiful sixty-foot yacht cruises at a steady eight knots towards the Tarutao Island in Thailand and is a spectacular way to finish any day. A small word of caution: only attempt the trip to the Pulau Payar Marine Park on a privately chartered yacht, or you’ll be caught up in a mass cattle-herding experience from which it will take the rest of the week to recover.
Maybe it is the design of the hotel, or perhaps it is because it is more like a club than a hotel experience, that the Datai has been garlanded by visitors with the weighty title of Best Hotel in theWorld! The eclectic mix of international clientele is certainly more friendly here than elsewhere, and conversation quickly germinates new friendships among strangers, many returning here on an annual basis. Oldtimers welcome new blood with smiles and friendly banter as if to congratulate them for discovering the centre of their secret maze. However, the main reason to visit this hotel is not for the pleasure of the design, the interesting clientele, unique setting, hedonistic spa, or epicurean cuisine. The Datai has to be experienced for one reason alone: Irshad, the hotel’s very own naturalist.
After years in the banking world, Irshad experienced snorkelling while on holiday and became enchanted by a whole new world. He ripped the tie from his neck, left his commercial success behind and began his life-long love affair with nature. He excels at teaching others about the fascinating and fragile ecosystem in Langkawi. He raises his audience’s awareness and maintains attention with amusing banking analogies: the Giant Fig’s strangling effect on its victim is exposed as a ‘hostile takeover bid’. Only David Attenborough matches his ability to arouse interest in the most common of species found along the roadside and normally taken for granted. He can hold a group spellbound for over half an hour looking at the abundance of life underneath one footprint. This is a man at home in an environment most find alien and a little threatening. His encyclopaedic erudition and ability to translate complicated and what could be boring detail into captivating and unforgettable stories never fail to entertain and inform.
The morning nature walks, rainforest by night and coastal mangrove or kayaking tours are all opportunities not to be missed. Returning home enriched with new knowledge about the various species of hornbills squawking overhead, abundant geckos, pink dolphins and white-bellied sea eagles is a more memorable souvenir than any meal, swim or massage. Be warned: after a trip with Irshad, you might just be ripping off your own tie!
When to Go
While temperatures and humidity are high throughout the year, January (and February too) enjoys the lowest monthly rainfall and highest number of sunshine hours, with comfortable temperatures between 22° and 33°C (73–91°F). Perfect sunbathing weather. The seas are at their calmest during this period, and golf is particularly pleasant in the afternoon breeze. If guaranteed sun and blue skies are what you’re after, this is when to go. The months of December, March and April are also very pleasant, if a little wetter. Rains are at their worst during the monsoon season between July and October, when downpours lasting several hours each day are to be expected.