EIGHTEEN years ago while backpacking my way around South East Asia I visited the Malay island of Langkawi. Back then you arrived by ferry and tourism was dawdling at just 16,000 visitors a year.
So it was with some apprehension that I stepped off the plane with my family and became one of three million tourists who now visit annually.
It was a secret that couldn’t be kept. After all it was the talk of palm-fringed beaches and virgin rainforest that had lured me here all those years ago. Of the 99 islands, which range from little more than rocky outcrops to the 478 sq km of Pulau Langkawi, it’s only the latter that has any real settlement. Sandwiched between the Thai island of Phuket to the north and Malaysia’s Penang to the south, these mystical atolls, known as the “Islands of Legends,” steeped in myth and magic, were a favourite retreat for pirates.
I wasn’t convinced that The Four Seasons could hold any more charm than the basic backpackers’ chalet I checked in to in 1994 with its intermittent power cuts and an air-conditioning hole in the roof. I’d been blissfully happy there and life was very lazy: days spent watching the white-bellied sea eagles plunge in and out of the water and nights spent drinking beer in The Monkey Bar. But then we arrived at The Four Seasons on a private stretch of Tanjung Aru beach and I soon changed my mind.
Built on the site of a former coconut plantation it is truly tropical with macaques lounging in the cashew trees and monitor lizards moving with stealth through the rattan and traveller’s palms. It is sumptuously designed, reflecting both Malaysia’s Islamic roots and Asian heritage. The Rhu Bar is like a set from Arabian Nights, the reception akin to a Turkish hamman, and our enormous family villa, an Asian oasis. Decadence aside, it is making an impressive effort to engage guests in the ecology of the island with its own Geoforest centre and a full-time naturalist on the staff.
Langkawi’s tourist boom has prompted Unesco to give the islands a Geopark status, to preserve its maze of mangrove forest and 400-million-year-old limestone karst hills. We set off with Aidi Abdullah, resident naturalist, to explore and were soon peering in to a spider web of black roots searching for vipers, lizards, monkeys and a menagerie of other surprises.
“Want to see a walking fish?” Aidi asked my sons aged six, ten and 11, who looked dubious but nodded. Aidi pointed to where the mudskippers were out of the water gliding over the glossy sludge with their top fins hoisted up like sails.
“That is so weird,” was the unanimous verdict.
We soon learned that the word “weird” just doesn’t cover it as Aidi showed us Fiddler crabs with one huge red claw that they brandish like a boxing glove; studious-looking monkeys apparently wearing glasses (the endearing Spectacled Langurs); and crabs that climb trees. But our interest peaked when we came across a tiny white flower on the rock face and learned that it was the rare White Slipper orchid. A sapling can reach up to £30,000 on the black market. My sons went quiet, calculating no doubt how many X-Box games that would buy and if they could shin up the rock without Aidi noticing, until he pointed out the prison term you could be facing if you picked one.
Back at the resort the boys happily debated their next move. Among the options were kayaking, beach football, table tennis, cycling or a craft activity at the Kids for All Seasons club. My husband Neil had his eye on a catamaran while I headed off to the spa to try their signature massage, the Urut Malayu, a reviving treatment using a blend of sweet almond, lemongrass and ylang-ylang; perfect for jet-lagged mums.
The Langkawi cable car is a must-do experience and it is a jaw-dropping 2km ride to Mount Mat Chincang’s summit at 713m with bird’s-eye views of the rainforest and across the sea to Southern Thailand. The cable car transports you to the thrilling 125m Sky Bridge, built over a gorge. If you can bear to look down the views are incredible, but it is a somewhat disorientating experience and I passed more than one tourist clinging to the railings for dear life. Looking out on virgin rainforest gives a good perspective on tourist development. It was a relief to discover that the vast majority has taken place in the main town of Kuah, leaving the rest of the island as stunning as I had remembered it.
Just a short drive from the cable car is Seven Wells, natural pools formed by a tumbling waterfall. My adrenalin-junkie sons and husband slid down the mossy rocks to whirlpools of rushing mountain water shouting: “This is awesome!” while I filmed the action in anticipation of a You’ve Been Framed moment. I preferred to save my swim for the adult-only infinity pool, reminiscent of a Roman temple, back at the resort. I managed to sneak off every day for dip in this blissful bath, free from the call of “Let’s dive-bomb Mum!”
The mornings were just too beautiful to waste lying in bed. We drove up above the clouds to the top of Gunrung Raya, the island’s highest mountain, in search of hornbills, and Neil spotted the rare Wreathed hornbill, one of Malaysia’s most elusive birds. Another day we rented a boat from Tanjung Aru jetty to see the white-bellied sea eagles, which soar above the boats hoping to be thrown morsels of chicken. And on a trip to a coral island we put biscuits between our toes to feed the swarming zebra fish.
The remainder of our days were wonderfully lazy with walks along the beach in search of shells, games of “man hunt” in the family pool or simply lounging at our elegant villa. One evening we wandered down to the local night market where we watched tobacco being cut and weighed; bartered over Angry Bird T-shirts; dared each other to smell a durian, Asia’s rankest fruit; and giggled at the stall selling potions to make your hair and other parts of your anatomy grow (cue schoolboy guffawing). But most evenings were spent watching the sunset from the terrace of the Rhu Bar and looking forward to dinner.
The traditional Malay food served at Ikan Ikan is divine (just don’t mistake a chilli for a pepper! Ouch!) but I couldn’t tempt my unadventurous sons to try much. We tucked in to seafood pandan leaf wraps, spicy beef randang and seabass in a sticky ginger and tamarind sauce, while the boys wolfed down beef skewers and steamed rice. But our culinary highlight came on our final evening with a barbecue on the beach. Not even my fussy sons could turn up their sun-kissed noses at Green Spiny lobster, king prawns and steak. We toasted marshmallows over the fire, played Top Trumps, enjoyed the feel of sand between our toes and searched for my star sign Gemini in the twinkling sky, finding Orion and his dog Sirius instead. It was a rare, harmonious and perfect family evening – proof that the Island of Legends can still cast spells.
Malaysia Airlines flies from London Heathrow to Langkawi via Kuala Lumpur. Prices per person start at around £600 including taxes, www.malaysiaairlines.com
Other routes include Edinburgh to Langkawi via Amsterdam and KL with KLM or Glasgow to Langkawi via Dubai and KL with Emirates.
Rates at The Four Seasons start at £437 per room per night on a room-only basis, based on two people sharing, including taxes, www.fourseasons.com/langkawi
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east