Liz Porter chooses the Malaysian island for a swim-spa-slumber holiday.
My teenage daughter and I were desperate for an exotic break. We weren't looking for an "eat, pray, love" quest to Bali. Or a place with bars so hip you might be in some barely-on-the-map Melbourne laneway. Part of the charm of being somewhere foreign is that they do things differently. We just wanted somewhere reliably hot and sunny for a spa, swim, room service, book-reading kind of holiday.
I remembered Langkawi from a visit to its main island of Pulau Langkawi in 1976, when there was no tourist development on this archipelago of 99 islands off the west coast of Malaysia and the only access was a 30-kilometre ferry trip from the little port town of Kuala Perlis.
I could recall only the stock tropical-paradise images: palm trees lining long, sandy beaches; jungle; a scenic hilly interior. I remember wading in clear warm water - and someone suggesting that at certain low tides, one could walk to the next island.
Thirty-five years later, I had difficulty finding new and reliable information. The Lonely Planet guide to Malaysia devotes only three pages to Langkawi. But some recent visitors there had described it as "like Bali 30 years ago". As someone lucky enough to first visit Bali when Sanur's Bali Hyatt was the only major resort and Legian had no electricity, I liked that idea.
Trawling the internet, Ms 19 picked out a place on the beach at Langkawi's Pantai Cenang but it was booked out. Bewildered by the array of accommodation available, I phoned a travel agent friend, who warned me that the island was a haven for honeymooners and so quiet that Ms 19 might want to escape to Penang where there are hip bars and, for me, colonial history to explore.
Nevertheless, we decide to stick with Langkawi and when we arrive I'm relieved to find it exactly as I expected. Most of the once-empty beaches are now flanked by luxury spa resorts with infinity pools, beachside bars and yoga classes. And there are now backpacker hot spots, such as the town of Pantai Cenang, lined with restaurants and shops selling cheap clothes and second-hand books and looking very much like Kuta in the 1970s, but with a better road.
We arrive at the hotel my travel agent friend has recommended - the Sheraton Langkawi, set on 15 hectares of tropical gardens above a series of isolated beach coves and featuring Malaysian-style dark wood chalets, many with balconies overlooking the sea.
Within moments of checking in, we meet a family of dark-grey spectacled langurs (also known as dusky leaf monkeys or spectacled monkeys), named for the thick ring of white around their eyes. One is carrying a tiny orange baby - a special sight, we're told, because an infant monkey's fur holds this vibrant colour for only the first few months of its life. (Orange baby monkeys are such a big deal Taronga Zoo called a press conference in March to herald the birth of one in its primate enclosure.)
Being here involves all the fun of visiting an animal sanctuary without leaving the resort, which is also home to long-tailed macaques, opportunists who stage raids on sachets of sugar left unattended on room-service trolleys. On one occasion we have to close our balcony door on a macaque apparently keen to watch Desperate Housewives with us (or maybe he spotted our bananas and rambutans).
The breakfast buffet every morning is a multicultural experience - and not just because of a spread including roti canai and dhal, omelets and French pastries. My friend was right; at least a third of the guests are honeymooners but not Kylies and Jasons with braided hair and new tattoos. They're Saudi Arabians; the grooms in fashionable boardshorts and T-shirts hold hands with their new brides in long black abayas. Some wear headscarves but many wear the niqab, leaving visible only their beautifully made-up eyes. They sit on the edge of the pool, robes dangling in the water, as their husbands swim.
We eat spicy noodles on the hotel's beachside pool deck and listen to the waves of the Andaman Sea crashing beneath us. Most guests swim in the pool but I swim daily in the warm green sea, in an area netted against the jellyfish that can appear in the November-March dry season.
Should I be ashamed to admit our only excursion is a snorkelling trip to the Pulau Payar Marine Park? We don't join the highly acclaimed "wetlands" boat tour, or visit the nearby Seven Wells waterfalls or take the cable-car scenic trip - in our defence, the final two days are too overcast.
But we do take a nightly cab ride to the restaurants in the nearby Telaga Harbour precinct, home to a chic little upstairs "modern Malay" eatery called Privilege, which serves exquisitely plated laksas and curries and a dish called Liqueur, a Malaysian-accented creme brulee.
We also visit the extraordinary Ishan Spa, in a traditional old Malay house on a hill above Pantai Tengah beach. A three-hour spa session involves a scrub with coffee, a coating of yoghurt, a banana-leaf wrap, a coconut-oil head massage, a lime hair treatment, massage and facial.
We do embark on one intrepid activity, however. The hotel has many satellite TV stations but not the Australian one carrying AFL, so we set out to watch an AFL game. We take a half-hour cab ride into the main town of Kuah, where the Langkawi yacht club's office manager had confirmed by email that she could show the game on the bar's television. Evidently she's one of the few locals who don't know that the St Kilda versus West Coast Eagles game clashes with live coverage of Malaysia versus Liverpool in Kuala Lumpur. Undeterred, we head for Pantai Cenang, only to find that all the tourist bars are also tuned to the soccer.
Clearly this place isn't anything like Bali. And, footy disappointment aside, we decide that's a good thing.
Getting there Malaysia Airlines has a fare to Langkawi from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1088 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Kuala Lumpur (about 8hr), then to Langkawi (55 min). The best time to visit is the dry season, from November to March. October is the wettest month.
Staying there Sheraton Langkawi has 238 rooms. The pick are the sea view rooms, costing $272 a night. See starwoodhotels.com.
Eating there Restaurants at the Perdana Quay at nearby Telaga Harbour (a $6 taxi ride away) include the modern Malay Privilege Restaurant and Bar. Try the five-spice duck breast, the gula melaka creme brulee or the smoked banana ice-cream. See privilegerestaurant.com.
Things to do Visit the Ishan Spa; a three-hour treatment costs $123.Visit the Seven Wells waterfall and the cable car near Telaga Harbour. Mangrove tours can be booked at resorts or in shops at beachside spots such as Pantai Cenang. Anyone who has been snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef will find the day snorkelling/dive trips to Pulau Payar overcrowded and perhaps too much like swimming in a giant fish pond, although they offer swimming with baby reef sharks and a cruise past outlying islands. Boats leave from the township of Kuah but avoid weekends if possible.
More information See tourism.gov.my