If you’ve never visited Langkawi, here’s why you should. Firstly, daily flights get you there and back easily and relatively cheaply. Secondly, naturally beautiful white-sand beaches with none of the sleaze and tat of, say, Phuket. Thirdly, vast expanses of virgin rainforest, mangroves and other pristine ecosystems to uplift your soul. Fourthly, great food. And one more for luck: the stunning Four Seasons Langkawi.
It’s a 25-minute ride in cold-towelled, air-conditioned, chauffeured comfort from Langkawi airport to the sprawling beauty of the Four Seasons on beautiful Tanjong Rhu beach. Who knew Malaysia provided such blindingly white-powder sand, calm clean waters and picturesque rocky outcrops? Were it not for the ubiquitous mosques and headscarves in villages along the route, you might think you were in Thailand.
What first strikes us is the sheer scale of this Four Seasons resort, sprawled across 48 acres of immaculately landscaped grounds; so enormous that it’s divided into a southern section for couples, with a glorious “Adult Quiet Pool”, and a northern section with a family pool.
Evidently inspired by the elegance of Moorish architecture, Thai architect Lek Bunnag’s vision is spectacularly realised in the reception area; a series of exquisite courtyards with arch-framed vistas, dramatically illuminated after dark by flame torches and pit fires. Australian landscape architect Bill Bensley’s work completes this Alhambra.
We can see the sea from our large upper-level Melaleuca Pavilion room. On its wrap-around verandah, a shivering wretch like me can lounge and chat to passing squirrels, while her more hot-blooded husband sips his cappuccino, intermittently waving in regal manner through the floor-to-ceiling glass. And to cool this room is no mean feat; the wickerwork ceiling must be at least 10 metres from the floor.
But we’re really blown away by the scale of the Ocean Villa, one of 20 in the northern part of the resort. At 220 square metres, it’s bigger than our Singapore condo. Dark polished floorboards seem to stretch for acres; towering heights of wall meet cavernously pitched ceilings; an exquisite glass desk stretches the length of an “inspiration area” with a view through glass onto a serenely enclosed pool. A double spa room is easily converted into a kids’ room; they have to put in a TV, marketing director Liza Quddoos tells me with a wondering yet resigned look.
And it’s beautifully furnished with big, bold pieces in understated, almost masculine style; we spend our third and last night there and love it. Floor-to-ceiling doors slide back onto a huge verandah and private plunge pool; just beyond that is a white, shell-sprinkled beach dotted with shady palms and the odd hammock, with a view of limestone outcrops rising from a deep, greeny-blue sea. No wonder so many European and British honeymooners come here; it’s simply perfect.
I didn’t make it to the well-equipped gym, I must confess. We didn’t even hop on the free bicycles that are provided in case calling a buggy makes you feel guilty. But – surprise, surprise! – I did make it to the spa for the 60-minute signature Urut Melayu, a traditional Malay massage. It goes without saying that the spa is beautifully designed, a haven of tranquillity, and its six private suites gratuitously enormous.
Resort restaurants can add a whopping amount to your bill, so it pays to enquire about the half-board option that includes breakfast and dinner. The Seria restaurant serves an amazing international breakfast spread until 11.30am, ideal for those like me who can’t stomach a big meal early in the morning. At night it becomes a genuinely excellent Italian restaurant. In between the antipasto station and the dessert buffet, our à la carte selections included fresh braised-beef tortelloni and scrumptious rack of lamb.
This is Executive Chef Billy Akunna’s sixth Four Seasons posting, so he brings with him a wealth of experience. It was he who proposed that the resort’s Ikan Ikan restaurant serve purely Malay food, rather than the Chinese-Indian-Malay hodge-podge that is Malaysian cuisine. We enjoy the hot and sour soup – a definite Thai influence here; and the elegant starter of barbecued otak otak (fish cakes) with a crispy prawn and salad. Roy’s delicious mee goreng comes wrapped in an omelette like a Malay version of Thai chilli padi, our beaming waiter agrees; and my beef rendang with steamed rice is pretty good.
Dedicated to Dessert
“Confectionery is simple,” says Belgian celebrity chef Roger van Damme to the row of attentive wannabes in the Four Seasons kitchen. “But you have to follow the rules: work slowly and deliberately, step by step; follow the instructions absolutely; and weigh every ingredient. Guesswork is fatal.”
He’s gently telling me off for asking how many eggs are needed to make up the 280g of egg white that his sponge cake recipe calls for. At least half of my fellow-pupils today are experienced pastry chefs from other five-star Langkawi hotels; too polite, of course, to snigger at my faux pas.
Food-themed travel is a big thing; in recent years, I’ve enjoyed a sushi-making class in Tokyo and a Thai cookery course at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai. This time, Roy and I have made sure our trip to Langkawi coincides with Roger’s three-day series of master classes at the Four Seasons resort.
One of Europe’s top patissiers, Gault Millau’s Pastry Chef of the Year in 2010, and awarded a Michelin star for his Lunch Lounge Het Gebaar restaurant in Antwerp earlier this year, Roger is a friendly, approachable kind of guy who seems genuinely keen to share the techniques he’s famous for.
Today, pandan leaves and vanilla seeds are infused in milk to transform jasmine rice into rice pudding; sweet stock is made by simmering spices in dessert wine, then reduced to enhance fresh peaches. Sugar syrup is improbably blown into bubbles to make a clear, crackling “sugar paper” that adds a festive touch to just about any dessert. Anyone can have a go; everyone is enchanted.
In between flipping a succession of perfect pancakes that will be stuffed with caramelised bananas and tied into parcels, Roger tells us that diners come from far and wide to his restaurant to feast on them.
A couple of nights later, we bump into him and his camera crew at the local night market. He’s tasting various local pancake varieties at one stall – they’re all delectable, straight off the griddle – and doing his best to prise the recipe out of the smiling but adamantly uncooperative vendor. Now that’s what I call a passion for pancakes.
Chef van Damme is the first in Four Seasons Langkawi’s planned series of guest chef encounters. Keep a lookout for the next one at www.fourseasons.com.
Shells and Mangroves
When did you last pick up shells on the beach? Slipping out of our incomparably comfy Four Seasons bed for a dawn swim in the sea, I’m distracted by the variety of shells just above the spring-tide waterline. Armed with a paper bag, I’m ten years old again. In clear shallows at the water’s edge, I triumphantly scoop up three or four bigger, better shells, but have to drop them in panic when their aggrieved inhabitants emerge brandishing tiny claws.
The abundance and diversity of the marine life here – and much of the seafood served in the resort restaurants is caught locally, we’re told – depends on the nearby mangrove swamps. It’s a breezy ten-minute ride from the resort across the open sea. Once there resort naturalist Aidi Abdullah, our guide on a three-hour boat trip, explains the interconnection between the sea and the mangroves, demonstrates their variety of adaptations to living in seawater and points out a number of species on the way.
Eleven species of male fiddler crabs wave their disproportionately large single claw in absurd foreplay; a dozen or more Brahminy kites swoop for fish just metres from us; a thick viper snoozes on a flimsy branch overhead; troops of our close cousins, the impossibly cute macaques, nip aboard a nearby boat to snatch a bag of crisps.
Langkawi lies off the northwestern coast of Peninsular Malaysia, near to where Malaysia ends and Thailand begins. Our 11.10am Malaysian Airways flight stopped first in Penang, where we disembarked and went through immigration, then touched down at Langkawi airport at 1.45pm. On the way back, you clear immigration at Langkawi and sit on the plane for 40 minutes at Penang.
Langkawi is roughly the same size as Singapore and has only 80,000 inhabitants to our five million. Good, though winding, roads with little traffic and generally cautious drivers make it easy to get around in a hired car, the best way to appreciate the island’s unspoilt rainforest, dense rubber plantations and laid-back village life. Through the hotel, we arranged a little Proton Myvi at MYR175 for a day, but you’d probably pay less booking it online yourself, or picking one up at the ferry terminal in Kuah Town or at the airport.