During a recent trip to Malaysia, my beau David and I were searching for a relaxing retreat to book-end the journey to this part of the world. We settled on the Four Seasons Langkawi (Jalan Tanjung Rhu, Kedah; 60 04 950 8888), on the main island of the expansive Langkawi archipelago, off Malaysia’s northwest coast in spitting distance from southern Thailand. Surrounded by the azures of the Adaman Sea, the island is a true sanctuary and the Four Seasons itself the kind of resort that makes you wonder where all the other guests are even when the property is full.
En route from the small airport to the resort, I was struck by how undeveloped the place is, like Bali twenty years ago or like the set of Jurassic Park. The two-lane road was bordered by groves of rubber, coconut and palm trees, rice paddies and small wooden Malay houses often standing on stilts to protect against flooding and wandering animals.
We were welcomed with lemongrass-scented towels and shown around the beautifully landscaped, fifty-acre property. The architecture is dramatic, with an Islamic-inspired courtyard and Moorish lobby, but the vegetation is pure Southeast Asia, with flowering frangipani, hibiscus, white jasmine, mango, palm and a lotus pond. The resort has 42 varieties of flora and fauna, and seemingly everything flourishes here (no wonder the state of Kedah, in which Langkawi resides, is called the rice bowl of Malaysia).
We stayed at one of the beach villas at the southern tip of the resort. I can’t exaggerate the feeling of space at this Four Seasons: not only is the resort itself huge and quiet but our one-bedroom measured 2,000-plus square feet and had 20-foot ceilings. Even the standard rooms (Melaleuca Pavilions) are a generous 1,000 square feet. One thing to note is that the upper ones have prettier views but the lower ones are better for families with small kids and older people who don’t like stairs. Due to the resort’s size, it is best explored on a bike (which are available to guests). During the entirety of our stay, we only called for a golf cart during the occasional, short-lived tropical storms. Predictably, my first bike excursion took me directly to the excellent spa where my masseur told me stories about growing up in Borneo, while he worked out the kinks in my back left by the long flight.
Langkawi is long on natural wonders but short on cultural highlights, making relaxing even easier. During my seven-day stay, I received a crash course on intriguing mangroves, ancient rainforests, exuberant jungles and the wildlife that populates it. I watched eagles swoop, hornbills preen, monkeys swing, monitor lizards scurry and dolphins dive. We hiked through rocky currents to swim in rushing cool waterfalls. We climbed a deserted hill path opening onto a completely enclosed lagoon, filled with clusters of mangrove trees, their thick, gnarly roots sunk into the water.
Langkawi has one of the oldest rock formations to have risen from the seabed some 550 million years ago and was Asia’s first UNESCO Geopark. We explored this side of the island with Aidi Arbullah, a naturalist who has worked with the Four Seasons since its inception eight years ago and who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Langkawi’s natural world. Neither David nor I are science lovers and yet were fascinated during our mangrove safari. My head was swimming with factoids—in a good way—when I disembarked Aidi’s boat at the end of the day. I don’t doubt that even five-year-olds will be entertained by Aidi’s tours, let alone birders, budding geologists and nature lovers.
There are plenty of other on-island activities, including abseiling down one of Langkawi’s waterfalls, scuba diving at nearby Koh Lipe Island or exploring Langkawi’s picturesque countryside by cycling past rice paddies and streams. One evening, we heard the call to prayer in the distance, as a guide took us to a bustling market where everything from fresh fish and live chicks to succulent meat on skewers and mouth-watering doughnut-like snacks were on sale.
Otherwise, I was happy to lounge at the massive swimming pool or on the edge of property’s lovely beach (neither was ever even close to crowded). One night we had dinner at the Datai (Jalan Datai, Langkawi; 60 04 959 2500), another luxury hotel that has a magical and romantic setting at night. The food at the Four Seasons was also very good, especially the seafood at Ikan Ikan. Smaller kids could get bored here (the resort plans on introducing a kid’s club soon) but anyone looking for off-the-grid relaxation will be very happy here. Back in London, I still dream of the swimming pool’s private cabanas overlooking the endless blues of the Adaman Sea.
Getting There: From Kuala Lumpur, it’s a 45-minute flight, plus a 25-minute transfer to the resort.
Who It’s Right For: This not a resort for those who like a scene and people-watching (monkey watching is a different story). It’s a place to relax, get away from the world, recharge and experience nature in a profound way
How to Go: Langkawi is best combined with Borneo, both Sabah and Sarawak make for interesting nature discoveries. While Borneo isn’t known for its hotels, it is known for its fabulous diving and seawater like melted glass. You can also tie in a trip with an Eastern & Oriental train ride through Southeast Asia from Singapore to Bangkok.
What to Know: The seawater is not transparent like in the Maldives (because it’s so shallow, that the sea current blows up the sand). It is possible to swim in clear water but it involves a boat ride. Also there’s a nearby cement factory which guests either love or hate (it looks a bit like Gotham City). We didn’t mind it.
Indagare Tip: Don’t miss Panorama Langkawi, a cable-car ride with breathtaking views of Langkawi and beyond.
What to Read: The Casuarina Tree, Somerset Maugham’s collection of short stories and Didier Millet’s quirky Malaysia, At Random.
Read Elena Bowes’ postcard on visiting the Maldives with her family.
Read an Indagare member’s impressions about the Eastern & Orient Express Train.
Read about another romantic destination, closer to home for Americans.