Langkawi: South-east Asia's lesser-known jewel
Take a trip around Malaysia's beautiful island of Langkawi with Nina Karnikowski. This tropical paradise is where nature and luxury live in harmony. The reporter travelled courtesy of Naturally Langkawi and Four Seasons Langkawi.
Our tour of Langkawi's mangrove forest begins to unfold like a Gerald Durrell novel. No sooner do we enter than a pair of rhesus macaque monkeys hurl their little brown bodies out of a mangrove tree and paddle to the small boat beside ours, clambering up to the yelping tourists to grab bread straight from their hands.
"You see, giving monkeys food is not a good idea," says Aidi Abdullah, our jolly naturalist guide from the Four Seasons Langkawi. "They start to look at us as a food source. Not me, though, they see me and go, 'stand down, no lunch!'."
Indeed, the group of mischievous macaques lining the glassy green waters of Langkawi's Kilim River ignore our boat completely as we slip past them and ease further into the forest. We pass the dramatic 550 million-year-old limestone karst formations that, along with this tangled mangrove forest, have gained Langkawi Southeast Asia's first UNESCO Geopark listing, signifying its global geological significance.
Minutes later we're surrounded by two dozen brahminy kites, swooping down to the water to snatch chicken skins from the surface. We exhale a few ''wows'' as the rusty red birds with their feather-tipped wings and snow-white bellies plunge from the sky. And a few more when Abdullah unearths poisonous vipers curled in the nearby mangrove branches, then guides us into the mouth of a cave filled with sleeping bats. Our loudest ''wows'', though, are reserved for the mangroves themselves. Abdullah explains how they work as a team to filter salt from the water using their conjoined roots, and points out the freshly sewn mangrove spears (their babies, if you will) sticking out of the mud.
"These are trees that live in community, share, protect each other, give live birth and nurture their young," says Abdullah. "So my question is this: philosophically speaking, other than mobility, how much difference is there really between them and us?"
It seems like a funny question at first. But the longer I spend in Langkawi, the more I notice the line between me and the natural world starting to fade.
The line is faded, quite literally, the following morning as I'm carried through thick mists up Mount Mat Cincang in the Langkawi SkyCab cable car. At the top we're 708 metres above sea level, and are treated to 360-degree panoramic views of Langkawi's 103 outlying islands and southern Thailand, as well as the deep jungle-clad chasms below. The mist swirls around us, mountain hawk-eagles swoop overhead, and it almost feels as though we've been transported back to a prehistoric age.
The nature immersion continues back at the ultra-luxurious Four Seasons Langkawi, which is set on 48 acres of beachfront gardens and backed by those soaring karst cliffs. I leave the door to my beachfront villa (which is so palatial it even has its own spa room) ajar while I take an outdoor shower, and return to find a spectacled langur helping himself to my fruit plate. I'm tempted to keep the adorable monkey with his white-rimmed eyes inside, but shoo him outside instead. At which point he jumps into my private plunge pool for a swim.
With the pool otherwise occupied I take a dip in the bath-warm waters of the Andaman Sea out the front of my villa, then visit the Geo Spa for an ''urut melayu'', or traditional Malay massage. Long, rhythmic strokes and grounding oils lull me into an almost catatonic state. Happily, all that's then left to do is float to the seaside lounge for a sunset drink, then to the Ikan-Ikan Malaysian restaurant for a decadent meal of hot and sour prawn soup with lemongrass and galangal, and a spicy mee goreng.
After a gentle sunrise yoga session the next morning I visit the Sevens Wells Waterfall. I walk along jungle paths lined with birds and butterflies and emerge at the falls, an impressive and almost deserted series of seven connected pools fed by seven waterfalls on Mount Mat Cincang. It's beautiful, as is the nearby Sandy Skulls Beach, a pristine and again almost deserted arc of white sand. Despite its eerie name, which some say comes from a local legend about a sea demon that swallowed ships and deposited their victim's skulls here, its glittering waters and gentle waves make it the perfect afternoon retreat.
When the sun starts to dip low in the sky, it's time for a sunset dinner cruise with local water sports company Naam. As we weave through Langkawi's outlying forest-encrusted islands, like little green, furry hats dropped carelessly on the ocean's surface, a light rain starts to sift down. A few of the dozen or so other passengers express disappointment that we'll be missing both the sunset and a swim, but it doesn't bother me. I leap into the warm water, then lay on my back and let the rain patter onto my face until that line between me and nature completely fades away.
AirAsia flies from Sydney and to Langkawi via Kuala Lumpur from about $500 return. See airasia.com.
Four Seasons Langkawi offers 91 rooms, including 10 beach villas, set right on the shores of the Andaman Sea. It's set out like a traditional Malay village, with a design that borrows from the surrounding Indian and Middle Eastern cultures. Resort highlights include the infinity lap pool with cabanas framed by stone walls, the Moroccan tent set up for private beachside dinners, and the huge range of activities including archery, rock climbing, cycling to local villages, sailing, stand-up paddle boarding and Malaysia's only X-Jetblades. Rooms from $1100 a night, including taxes and breakfast. Fourseasons.com/langkawi.
The Four Seasons Mangrove and Eagle Safari can be booked directly through the resort, at $100 per person including taxes. See fourseasons.com/langkawi; +60 4 950 8888.
GC Butler Travel provides private drivers to get you around Langkawi, and can help arrange private sightseeing tours. See gcbutlertravel.com.
Nina Karnikowski travelled courtesy of Naturally Langkawi and Four Seasons Langkawi.