I’ve always valued Singapore’s close proximity to a smorgasbord of island getaways, each with its own unique culture and charm. High on the list is Langkawi, which, just an hour’s flight away, is one of the closest. It’s also the polar extreme to Singapore: sparsely populated and largely undeveloped. What’s more, the island has enough resorts and accommodation styles to keep people on every budget happy. On a recent weekend break I stayed at Temple Tree Resort, checked out its sister resort Bon Ton next door, and caught up with the entrepreneurial Australian behind these inimitable properties.
Bordered by an enormous wetland and lotus-filled lagoon, with Mount Mat Cincang towering in the background, the setting for Bon Ton and Temple Tree, which sit side-by-side, is spectacular – sunrise and sunset are particularly special. After the manicured surroundings of Singapore, it feels very rustic, natural and laidback.
While Bon Ton and Temple Tree are distinct properties, guests can easily move between the two for dining and swimming. The spacious grounds, with shady trees and beautiful gardens, have a community feel.
Bon Ton consists of eight refurbished Malay kampung village houses, relocated to Langkawi from various parts of Malaysia. Ranging from 60 to over 100 years old, these wooden houses are equipped with modern facilities, and comfortably and stylishly appointed with antiques, gorgeous furniture and textiles from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. All have wooden bathtubs – some outdoors, perfect for soaking under the stars.
Next door, Temple Tree is made up of eight antique houses with Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian provenance, some relocated from Penang, others from mainland Malaysia. Each has a fascinating history, often restored from a derelict state without losing the original characteristics such as wooden floors, coloured glass windows, shutters and wide verandahs. They are furnished with gorgeous antiques and modern pieces in an eclectic mix of colour and style. All the houses are ideal for families and groups to share, or they can be split into individual rooms to suit couples.
We stayed in the 1930s Penang House, which is perfect for a family or group as it has three separate bedrooms, three bathrooms and two living spaces. This grand old dame was much bigger than our Singapore condo, and an absolute treat to stay in. In fact, we were so comfortable that it felt a bit like staying with friends.
Food and Drinks
Bon Ton Restaurant is one of the highlights; indeed, people travel from across the island to have lunch or dinner here. Start with a sundowner cocktail – the lychee caipiroska is fantastic, and there are equally tasty mocktails too. On the menu is Western food with spice and authentic Nonya food (Peranakan, or Chinese and Malay fusion) that’s a treat; there’s a great kids’ menu too. Dessert is a must; don’t miss the homemade ice cream. It’s all well-priced, and I’d recommend you try the set menu dinner one evening. Over at Temple Tree, Straits Club House is an excellent alternative for dinner or drinks in a gorgeously historic setting.
Come morning, don’t go looking for the full-blown buffet; instead, stay in your PJs, as breakfast is provided in each of the houses daily. Along with the traditional tea, yoghurts, fruit, jam and fresh baked bread was a decadent slab of cake. It was different every day – flourless chocolate cake, chocolate pistachio, honey joys and Mars Bar slice – and a naughty indulgence we could get used to. The food is so good here that it’s entirely possible to eat every meal on site, although there are plenty of options in nearby Pantai Cenang.
The Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary (LASSie) is an integral part of Bon Ton and Temple Tree, and has been going for 18 years. A percentage of resort profits go to LASSie, which has sterilised 3,000 cats in recent years. A snipped ear – the international sign for a sterilised stray animal – denotes their condition. While there are many cats and a couple of dogs at the resort, they are laidback rather than intrusive. For our children the animals were an entertaining novelty, and we didn’t hear any catfights!
We didn’t miss the beach, because the two pools at Temple Tree and one at Bon Ton were perfect for a dip. (Having said that, the golden sands of Pantai Cenang are just a five-minute drive away.) While we read, the kids were content to move from playing with the cats to jumping in the pool, or roaming in the spacious grounds. They befriended and named two cats: “Postman Pat”, the black-and-white cat, and “Nick Furry”, a one-eyed feline who had seen better days but seemed to take a shine to us.
Straits Club House has a library, board games and a pool table for rainy days or quiet evenings. Another diversion is the well-stocked gift shop located near the entrance to Bon Ton Restaurant; it’s crammed with a diverse and intriguing selection of homeware, clothes, jewellery, textiles, books and souvenirs, much of it sourced locally from Malaysian designers and artisans.
My only complaint? We didn’t stay long enough. Extending our stay from two to four nights would have been perfect.
How to move a house
Australian Narelle McMurtrie has been in Malaysia for 29 years; Bon Ton Restaurant was established 21 years ago on a former coconut plantation, followed by Bon Ton Resort, and Temple Tree Resort opened next door in 2009. All have received rave reviews across the globe, from Condé Nast to Tatler.
The process of moving a house is complicated. “Most of them are purchased from developers who want to get them off their land. A lot are just sold for wood,” she explains. “After we’ve taken photos and drawn a floor plan, the house is dismantled, each piece of the house being numbered. We have to get the same people to pull it down and put it together. The houses arrive as a flat pack on a truck by barge, and they’re put together like a jigsaw puzzle according to the original plan.”
Things to do on Langkawi
Langkawi is all about nature. In 2007, it was listed by UNESCO as Southeast Asia’s first geopark, for its abundance of rock formations, caves, mangroves, waterfalls and wildlife stretching across three national parks, and 99 mostly uninhabited islands. It’s very straightforward (and cheap) to hire a car and check out the island on mostly quiet roads. You can also book a mangrove boat tour, climb to the top of Mount Mat Cincang (the easy way) on the cable car, or take a sailing trip through Langkawi’s southern islands. We had a fabulous full day out on 40-foot catamaran Rampant, run by Carl, a South African skipper; it takes a maximum of 10 guests, stops for lunch, swimming and a nature walk, and provides non-stop beers – good value at about $110 per person. 10am departure from Resorts World Marina; book ahead online. rampantsailing.com
Make it happen
- Langkawi’s dry season is November to March. The wet season is loosely defined as Easter to October, although, as in most of Asia, the rain falls in sporadic showers and it’s still a perfectly fine time to visit.
- Numerous airlines fly to Langkawi in just an hour, and there’s no time difference.
- The sleepy airport is a 10-minute taxi-ride from Bon Ton, if the taxi uncle is a slow coach.
- Room rates start from 1,070 ringgit (S$365) in Penang House at Temple Tree, including breakfast.
Like Langkawi? Other quiet island getaways:
- Koh Phangan (Thailand)
- Lombok (Indonesia)
- Gaya Island (Malaysia)
This article was first featured in the October 2015 issue of the magazine.