Things went a little awry on our maiden family trip to Langkawi two years ago. It was our first experience travelling with two small children, and a sudden bout of teething in one child and an ear infection in the other put paid to any hope of a blissful escape.
Having said that, what we saw of the destination itself, we loved. So we vowed to return – especially as it’s a cinch from Singapore, with a cheap, daily Air Asia flight that only takes 90 minutes.
The good news is that our second stab at Langkawi proved to be a complete success, thanks not only to a clean bill of health but also to our accommodation; two extremely different but equally enjoyable resorts on opposite ends of the island.
What’s the definition of a great family holiday? An absence of ear infections and teething pains is a good start. Still, even if the kids are in full health, you need plenty of ways to keep them entertained.
At the Four Seasons in Langkawi, a huge luxury resort on the island’s north coast, this is sorted. Kids For All Seasons is the resort’s complimentary supervised children’s club programme that runs daily from 9am to 5pm, for ages four to 12. It’s a complete winner. Each day features a specific schedule that might include kite-making, using a traditional blow pipe, dune buggy racing, batik painting or sea-shell craft. Our girls arrived a bit late on the first morning, so they missed the Zumba session, but making friendship bracelets and having their hands painted with henna more than made up for it. Even lunch was taken care of, with mini-pizzas ordered from one the resort’s many restaurants.
In fact, so impressed were our girls that the elder of the two stated breathlessly when we met up in the late afternoon that it had been “the best day in the whole world!”
My wife and I weren’t going to disagree. With the children gloriously occupied, she’d spent most of the time reading magazines beside the luxurious “adult quiet pool”, while I’d gone for an interesting bike ride through nearby villages and rice fields.
When they weren’t in the kids’ club, our girls found plenty to keep them occupied in our enormous Family Beach House (2,400 sq. ft): a swing in the hammock, a swim in the pool, or a crack at the PS3 game console in their bedroom, for instance.
It’s a case of the best of both worlds for the Four Seasons as far as location is concerned. The resort sits astride a 2.5km white-sand beach but is also just five minutes by boat from the mouth of the Kilim River, and the start of a Unesco-recognised Geoforest Park teeming with limestone cliffs, mangrove forests and wildlife.
The resort’s resident naturalist, Aidi Abdullah, is the perfect guide for the three-hour Mangroves & Eagles Safari. His enthusiasm is infectious: there aren’t too many people on the planet who could make “reverse osmosis”, the procedure by which mangroves expel salt from water, sound interesting. Aidi did it so well that even our three- and five-year-old girls listened to what he was saying, something they’ll only do with us if we’re holding chocolate.
On one part of the tour, we pulled up beside a muddy bank to watch macaque monkeys hunting turquoise-shelled fiddler crabs; the next minute, the boat was being driven straight through a pitch-dark cave lined with bats. We also spied eagles, kingfishers, snakes and mudskippers (fish that use their pectoral fins to walk on land).
It’s obvious the Four Seasons is serious about food from the first bite. Local ingredients are a highlight; my first lunch at the relaxed Kelapa Grill beside the main pool included a Caprese salad featuring mozzarella from Langkawi buffalos, followed by fish tacos made with grilled local sea bass. There’s plenty of home-grown produce on offer at Ikan-Ikan (“fish”) restaurant, too, where Malay favourite sare prepared on an outside deck.
Taking the cake, though, was our family dinner in front of our Beach House. A table for four was set up on the sand while a couple of chefs threw lobsters and steaks onto a barbecue. Afterwards, the chefs lit a fire for us closer to the shore and taught the girls how to make s’mores (toasted marshmallow and chocolate sandwiched between biscuits).
When listing a resort’s highlights, I’d normally choose bar over spa, but the new Geo Spa at the Four Seasons is pretty special. With our children still engrossed in their bracelet-making, my wife and I shuffled off for an elaborate Raja & Ratu Couples’ Ritual. (I was a bit surprised she didn’t push me in the direction of the Masculine Vigour and Vitality Ritual.)
The spa design mirrors the Moorish feel of the resort’s main lobby and reception area, with natural earth tones, oversized pavilions, mirror pools and all kinds of exotic screens, stones and fabrics.
As for the treatment, it began with a body scrub featuring hefty handfuls of Himalayan crystal salt. The large grains of salt are minerally and crunchy, resulting in my first serious exfoliation since a visit to an Istanbul hammam as a backpacker in my early 20s.
Suitably sloughed, we were then cleansed in an array of fragrant and exotic liquids, including a hot drizzle of virgin coconut oil applied directly to our foreheads. I’m not sure who thinks these things up, but they deserve a medal.
A very thorough and therapeutic massage followed, and towards the end of the two-hour treatment, we were led half-asleep to a small outdoor balcony in a private grove of jungle. There we were handed semi-precious stone bracelets designed by a local artisan and asked to exchange them with each other – rose quartz for the missus and tiger’s-eye stone for me.
My particular bracelet, I’m told by the spa’s director Livia, is said to promote balance and strength for getting me through the difficult phases of life. Leaving this place to go back to Singapore could be difficult – does that count?
If you’re a fan of Singapore’s historic black-and-white houses, you’ll be like a kid in a candy store at Temple Tree. This is no regular resort. Rather, it’s a collection of eight old buildings of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian origin, sourced from various parts of Malaysia, then relocated to Langkawi and elegantly restored.
We stayed in the Colonial House, a two-storey mansion built by Arab traders in Penang in the 1920s. The house has four separate accommodation areas; we were in “Colonial 4”, a spacious upstairs area with two bedrooms, both with en-suites, a large internal room with a huge wooden tub at one end, and a long verandah lined by French windows.
Elsewhere on the property is the stunning Chinese House, a century-old farmhouse from a town in Johor; it has a suite on each of two floors, with verandahs on three sides and dramatic red-and-black Chinese décor.
If you’re travelling in a group, you can book a whole house for yourselves. But don’t fret too much about where you stay at Temple Tree. Every room is a nostalgic and atmospheric delight.
Next door to Temple Tree (a three-minute walk away) is sister resort, Bon Ton. It also has eight historic “villas”, not in a variety of architectural styles, but rather a collection of century-old Malay-style wooden huts with thatched roofs.
On paper, Temple Tree’s location doesn’t sound like a trump card. The resort is close to the airport (not far from the flight path, in fact) and there’s no beach in sight. But the planes are no bother – there aren’t many of them, for one thing (this ain’t Changi). And since it’s only a 10-minute drive away, you get to maximise your holiday time.
As for the beach, we didn’t miss it. Temple Tree sits within the grounds of a 100-year-old coconut plantation and on the edge of a wetlands area full of waterways and migratory birds, against a backdrop of mountains. If anything, an ocean panorama seems a little dull by comparison.
Swimming is sorted, too, with three charming pools spread across the two resorts. Guests can use them interchangeably. We tended to walk to Bon Ton to use the pool there because it had the best range of toys and supplies for the kids.
If you’re desperate for sand rather than lush grass between the toes, Langkawi’s most popular beach, Pantai Cenang, is an easy five minutes in a taxi (S$4) – ask someone at reception to call one and it’ll arrive in no time.
A final note on location: Temple Tree is named after an old Taoist shrine on the premises, which sits in the shade of an even older banyan tree.
I love cats. I had a couple of pet cats when I was young. My wife is more of a dog person. It’s not that she doesn’t like cats, just that she’s mildly allergic to them. For my daughters, the jury is out. They love seeing cute cats on YouTube, but they get a bit freaked out by the feistier ones in person.
All of which I mention because Bon Ton and Temple Tree were both set up as extensions of the Langkawi Animal Shelter & Sanctuary (LASSie). This shelter, founded by Aussie expat Narelle McMurtrie, looks after stray and injured animals and is located next to the two resorts. It’s a non-profit establishment staffed partly by volunteers – a percentage of your room rate goes directly to help fund LASSie. In addition, many of the saved and rehabilitated cats from the shelter can be found strolling around the grounds of the resorts; one or two might even try to squeeze their way into your accommodation.
The place never feels overly “catty” though (not a single sneeze from my wife); if anything, it’s a happy and uplifting quirk of the resort. Our girls were a little timorous at first, but by the end of our stay they’d each chosen favourites and were demanding that I bring them back to Singapore on the plane.
Dusk is a special time at Temple Tree, with the sun setting over the wetlands and the colourful water lilies closing their petals for the day. And while the food at Temple Tree’s Straits Club House is superb, there’s a better view of the sky at Bon Ton’s Nam restaurant, so make a reservation and pop next door before it gets dark.
Nam has a reputation as one of the best eateries on Langkawi and it completely delivers. We especially loved the Nyonya platter (S$30), a combo of old-school Malay and Chinese dishes served on a banana leaf: ours included an eggplant and coconut curry, chicken with lime leaf, pickled lamb curry, beef with peanuts, pineapple acar (chutney), prawns in pandan leaf, and mango and cashew rice.
The girls had spaghetti Bolognese from the children’s menu (S$7), and then they tottered off to find their favourite cats.
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