Only 500 miles north of the Equator, anchored on the edge of Malaysia looking towards Thailand, but without Thailand’s bustle, the air is keener, the perception sharper here - climb to any height on Langkawi and you'll be overwhelmed by a sense of intoxication, set off by views that reach down over jewel-bright green jungle slopes to voluptuous sands looking like icing powder, and stretching out from the main island is an archipelago of islands whose head count changes by the state of the tide. When the tide is up, there’s 99, when it’s down, there’s 104. The kaleidoscopic shoals of the Andaman Sea beckon as you swoop low into the small airport on Malaysia Airline’s new direct MH7 flight from Heathrow, dispensing with the 2-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur.
It takes thirty minutes to be whisked from the airport to my hotel and I’m happily crunching along the beach, trying to recall the British winter I left behind. I asked my guide to plan a busy week to take in everything Langkawi has to offer.
A massage helps to relieve jet-lag and my first afternoon rotates around trying to find imperfections in the wonderful view – but there’s none. An early night helps prepare for the adventure ahead.
Mornings arrive suddenly here in the tropics, and by 9.00am the sky turns egg-shell blue and the temperature heads for 32?c. An ideal breakfast is a piece of dragon-fruit, a lurid pink curve of thirst-quenching fruit.
Driving around the island, I see the padi fields, grazed at the edges by giant water buffalo who cause traffic chaos when they lurch across the country lanes at night-time. It seems they have right of way in paradise.
For a morning of exploration, we take a mangrove swamp tour along the north-eastern ‘claw’ of the big island with the island’s resident naturalist, Dev. The wildlife is obligingly on display: sea monitor-lizards, techni-coloured birds and the Brahminy kite eagle. Out at sea, if you dangle your fingers into the clear waters, hundreds of angelfish, coloured like bees, swarm harmlessly to the surface. I ended up walking through a half-flooded cave full of chattering bats (where a huge slimy sea cucumber lives on the rock floor) which opened out into a secret canyon.
If you’re more of an adventurer than a beach bum, one of the most challenging activities is the Flying Fox expedition into the depths of the jungle with J?rgen Zimmerer. Dressed in mountaineering gear, I traverse several unnerving heights, connected only to a wire, or cross the ‘postman’s walk’ high above the jungle floor. The finale is a 40 foot climb up a strangled fig tree to an old eagle’s nest where everything below looks a very long way away. From up here, I can see the wildlife of the treeline, before abseiling backwards down to the forest floor, amidst hundreds of colourful butterflies. The adrenaline rush was priceless.
One of the most intriguing legends is the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden, thirty minutes boat-ride to the south. A colossus of rock rises out of the glassy, green ocean, and the boat stops for a swim in a beautiful fjord off Pulau Gabang Darat (it’s not just Norway that has fjords). Later, we land on Pulau Dayang Bunting and a steep jungle path deposits us at a suspended freshwater lake cupped between the limestone heights, where you can bathe whilst cat-fish playfully nibble your toes. Legend has it that any female bathing in the invigorating waters will bear a child. It’s a very remote spot, shrouded in silence and has a very special quality. The legend also says that a big, white crocodile lived in the lake a long time ago. Pack your swimming kit!
Swimming works up an enormous appetite. Back on the main island, for heaven-on-earth food, the Bon Ton serves Nyonya specialities in a mesmerising open-air setting surrounded by Balinese artefacts. You can stay there too in individually-painted, antique kampung houses-on-stilts. Or the Gulai, a beautiful restaurant in the jungle adjoining the Andaman Hotel, has been voted Malaysia’s best restaurant - the food is truly wonderful.
After such frenetic exploits, after a few days it’s high time to chill out. I take the opportunity to visit my very own tropical island for the day, Pulau Gubang Kecil. As you sail by, some of the islands are shaped like hands and feet or punctuation…here an apostrophe, there a curved exclamation mark, or a small hand, or further afield a perfect full-stop. The island we stop at, the apostrophe, measures just 97 paces across. I’m greeted by a strand of silky, silvery sands scoured by pig-tailed macaques hunting a crunchy meal of hermit crabs. One popular day trip is a champagne lunch on your own island.
Virtually all the islands are uninhabited and if you take along your own hammock to string between two obliging palm trees, you can swim, eat, read and relax to your heart’s content without the intrusion of a single soul. Eat your heart out, Robinson Crusoe!
Owing to an archaic British law from the 1800s, it’s illegal to own an Ordnance Survey map of any island in the Langkawi archipelago, so your boatman’s local knowledge of remote islands is invaluable.
Accommodation on Langkawi is of excellent quality. There are no high-rises. I highly recommend the Casa del Mar on beautiful Pantai Cenang beach, for friendliness of staff, a great all-round, high-quality hotel in a convenient location.
With its palatial Malay lobby, the ultra-luxurious Andaman Hotel is set in seclusion on a white beach amidst jungle, and those who want to truly unwind after a day of sea and sun and jungle antics, can have a traditional Tongkat Ali massage at the Jamu Spa, using ginger and other herbs, finished by a lengthy soak in a spice bath strategically located so you watch the sun go down over the beautiful bay.
Casa del Mar Hotel A superb hotel
00 60 4 955 2388, www.casadelmar-langkawi.com
The Andaman Hotel, the Jamu Spa and the award-winning Gulai Restaurant Live in the lap of luxury in the rainforest
00 60 4 959 1088, www.theandaman.com
Beautiful, entrancing place to stay and eat
00 60 4 955 6787
Coastal Wildlife Boat Trip with resident Naturalist, Dev
See the island’s huge array of wildlife on this enjoyable day out
00 60 4 959 1088
Flying Fox Canopy Adventure
Rambo style adventures in the tree tops
00 60 4 955 4744
Malaysia Airlines UK
Fly to paradise direct from London Heathrow
0870 607 9090, www.uk.malaysiaairlines.com
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