We keep ourselves occupied on the drive from the ferry terminal by scouting for macaque monkeys knocking about in the greenery beside the road, and trialling all the settings on the electronic massager embedded in the back seat of the resort's limo. Upper Back is great; Pelvic Activation is anticlimactic. Even so, the time can't pass quickly enough.
The Datai – a luxury resort on the island of Langkawi in Malaysia's far north – is legendary so I'm very keen to see it for myself. I'm also aware it has recently undergone a $US60 million renovation. That's a mighty investment and I'm concerned its acclaimed architecture and character may have been overwritten by something glossier yet somehow lesser – like, say, Meryl Streep getting a facelift. No. Just no.
When I finally step out of the car into the open-air lobby and lounge, however, I barely register the warm greetings of the staff and the muted gong that announces the arrival of new guests. The surroundings have captured my full and smitten attention: a tropical breeze, a glimpse of the Andaman Sea and the sense of standing on an artfully made platform suspended in jungle. A pond laden with magenta lilies and populated by dozens of tiny frogs also catches my eye. I think I could spend a lot of time here.
The Datai was designed by the late Australian architect Kerry Hill and completed in 1993. Hill made an unusual decision for a beach resort: to place its buildings well back from the shoreline, in the surrounding forest. The design was unorthodox but it was also timelessly beautiful and respectful of the natural environment. It won Hill an Aga Khan Award for Architecture and the Datai – one of the Leading Hotels of the World collective – has gone on to attract an extremely devoted international clientele, many of whom return yearly. The record for repeat visits goes to the legendary Mr Smith from Britain who arrived for his 44th Datai sojourn in January.
When we check into our room – a deluxe canopy suite, complete with separate living/dining room, two bathrooms and an enormous bedroom – I'm delighted to discover it gazes out towards the Datai's signature view: its main pavilion, idyllic adults-only swimming pool and the trees beyond.
I'm also delighted to learn the renovation has not overwritten the resort's original structure or spirit – "the Datai DNA" as the staff refers to it. The reno has been focused, in large part, on overhauling the interiors of the 121 rooms, suites and villas, under the guidance of interior designer Didier Lefort, who worked on the Datai with Hill back in '93. The new bathrooms, with their white marble floors, luxe teak joinery and stone tubs, are particularly beautiful.
There have also been a few new additions, including the Datai Estate, an ultra-luxe five-bedroom villa with a private pool, 24-hour butler service and private chef; an onsite water bottling facility; permaculture and butterfly gardens; an elegant beachside gym and, tucked into the trees behind the beach, an open-air nature centre, the design of which was inspired by a Malaysian bamboo longhouse.
We spend three nights at the Datai and envy burns me whenever I overhear other guests talking about their 10-day or month-long stays. The Datai is an idyllic place to relax, recharge and reconnect with the natural world. It's a place to lounge on a beach declared among the best in the world by National Geographic, to catch up on unread books and the neglected arts of daydreaming and idling. It's a place to splurge on spa treatments and indulgent meals, to stroll along rainforest paths and bob about in gentle Datai Bay – all of this punctuated by winning wildlife encounters.
You don't have to make much effort for those encounters, either. Just beyond the nature centre's steps, I come face-to-face with a black giant squirrel scurrying down the trunk of a tree. It's hard to say which of us is more startled but I'm definitely the one keener to prolong the encounter. I had wondered just how giant a giant squirrel might be. Now I know (see box). At another time, in the same location, I'm scrutinised at close range by a pair of pied hornbills who roll their remarkable heads like marionettes on lax strings. I could almost reach out and touch them.
During some of the resort's guided nature walks, but also while wandering around on our own, we spot pythons coiled in trees like loosely-made Chinese buttons; macaques, indolent and mischievous, large and tiny; gazillions of crabs; gleaming magenta sunbirds and fabulous drongos; a mysterious colugo (see box), a family of dusky langurs, oodles of butterflies and more.
The spa at the Datai is an award-winning oasis of pampering tucked into the trees by the side of a stream. There, Laurine, a France-trained podiatrist, grasps my twitchy toes with gentle assurance and, a blissful hour or so later, sends me back out into the world with extraordinarily glossy toenails without a skerrick of polish on them. Pedicures at the Datai come under the Bastien Gonzalez brand, which eschews varnish in favour of bare nails buffed to a high lustre, and emphasises foot health and function. Celebrity podiatrist Gonzalez is referred to in certain circles as "the foot virtuoso". I'd dearly love to scoff at that except my pedicure at the Datai was, hands down, the best I've ever had and I'd devote myself to the brand if it weren't for the fact that its only studio in Australia is on Hayman Island. Mind you, that does present an interesting new excuse to book a luxury island holiday …
The following day, I'm treated to a two-hour spa treatment that includes a ritual blessing with warm water and flowers, a massage and a facial during which I lose count of the number of potions – warm and chilly, tingly, abrasive and soothing – applied to my face. At one point, a mysterious suction device that makes occasional slurping noises is deployed on my cheeks. Being subject to the attentions of an ardent sucker fish, I imagine, would feel just like this. I want to laugh but I can't be bothered. Way. Too. Relaxed.
By the end of the treatment I'm so unwound I can hardly hold myself upright and I slump in an armchair in the style of a drunk on a late-night train. Fortunately, cake and fruit tea are served, and I find the strength to drag myself down to the beach and flop onto a lounge in the shade.
An ice-cold drinking coconut with the Datai's logo branded into its side arrives at my side, two hornbills glide overhead, Datai Bay sparkles and ripples gently in the breeze … I think I could spend a lot of time here.
FIVE CRITTERS TO SPOT AT THE DATAI
Also known as spectacled langurs and dusky leaf monkeys, these adorable primates are easy to find around the Datai. Their fur is orange when they're born and blackens as they mature.
These birds are big, colourful and long-lived, with intriguing breeding habits. They have a distinctive helmet-like structure (a casque) on their bills, which is hollow and serves no known purpose.
Also known as flying lemurs, these arboreal gliders look a bit like a cross between a possum and a bat. Look for them after dark, gliding between trees.
BLACK GIANT SQUIRRELS
These mammals have glorious dark bushy tails and light-coloured chests, and can measure up to 118 centimetres from tip of nose to tip of tail.
Both smooth-coated and small-clawed otters visit Datai Beach. They typically travel in romps – the collective noun for otters – of two to six but a romp of nine visited last year.
Lissa Christopher stayed as a guest of the Datai.
Malaysia Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Kuala Lumper daily, with domestic connections to Langkawi. See malaysiaairlines.com
Canopy deluxe rooms at the Datai start from RM2500 a night. See thedatai.com