Langkawi, Malaysia

By Brian Spencer

Langkawi, Malaysia — say it out loud, slowly, savoring the sum of syllables like a long sip of velvety shiraz. It rolls off one’s tongue like ocean waves lapping to shore, feminine, a linguistic exercise of tai chi. It sounds almost fantastical, like the pleasuredome of a dystopian sci-fi planet. Few places in the world conjure such phantasmagoric visions in name alone, but such is the magic of Langkawi, a cluster of 99 islands in northwestern Malaysia, that Abdul Halim, sultan of the Malaysian state of Kadah, deemed it worthy of additional beatitude, expanding its official moniker in 2008 to Langkawi Permata Kedah, or “Langkawi, Jewel of Kadah.”

The reality of this sleepy island does not belie its grand supposition.

As far as Southeast Asian beach getaways go, a recent long weekend in Langkawi certainly ranks amongst one of the most relaxing I’ve taken. Granted, April falls squarely in the island’s low season, a time when unpredictable rainfall scares away many potential visitors within short and long travel radiuses. High season can reputedly be feverish, particularly on Pantai Cenang, the most developed beach on Pulau Langkawi, the largest island in the chain and one of only two that are inhabited. Still, in comparison to, say, the western beaches of Phuket — otherwise known as Paradise Squandered — the eastern beaches of Koh Samui, or the southern beaches of Bali, “developed” only loosely applies to low-key Langkawi.

Considering Cenang’s reputation as the most built-up beach in Malaysia, I was thrilled to find it world’s away from the sad overdevelopment that plagues so many of the region’s once idyllic destinations. On Cenang, beach resorts don’t rise much higher than the tops of palm trees fringing the coast. The two-lane road that runs through town, while lined with restaurants, bars, spas, shops, and boutiques, has a mellow vibe: no booming techno beats, pushy touts, scads of drunk backpackers, or armies of trashy Russians in wife-beaters and see-through white-linen pants. The friendly, laid-back locals–I’m speaking in generalities here–seem not to be worn down and jaded by the crush of tourism, as those in neighboring countries sometimes do. The beach, a gorgeous two-kilometer stretch of white sand, fluffy like powdered sugar, is completely clean, sullied only by the occasional clutch of jet skis, banana boats, and other modes of distraction.

The beach was as deserted in the early morning as it was in the evening, when the division between sky, sand, and sea was blurred in fading daylight that colored the area in kaleidoscopic shades of lavender. In the afternoon, swimming in the azure waters of the Andaman Sea was like a warm bath in saltwater.

When you spot great hornbills while kayaking around tiny Pulau Rebak Kechil, and scores of crabs scuttling along the island’s rocky shoreline; when you dig your feet into the sand at a beachside seafood restaurant lit by candles and moonlight; when you zip into the island’s lush jungle interior on a rented motorbike, macaque monkeys lounging roadside like picnickers, a deserted black sand beach around the bend over here, winding mountain road over there;  when you look back on everything that filled a weekend in Langkawi, remembering, still, that much of your time was spent doing nothing at all, save for starting and finishing an Ishiguro novel on the beach; that’s when you know you’ve come to a place worth returning to.

Three places to keep in mind should you find yourself with a ticket to Langkawi, Jewel of Kadah:

Spicy Thai Mojito

Spicy Thai mojito at Casa del Mar’s La Sal Cocktail Bar

Casa del Mar, which offers 34 well-appointed rooms facing the Andaman Sea, is by far the top resort on Pantai Cenang. The pool is on the small side, but the beach is just steps away, and one thing greatly appreciated was the lack of children. It only takes one obnoxious family to ruin the peaceful, couples-only ambience my wife and I enjoyed, but Casa del Mar, managed by an amiable French couple who came to Langkawi after a decade in the Maldives, does have a reputation as a resort that’s generally free of young kids.

Rooms are spacious and comfortable, a variety of day trips are available if you’re into that kind of thing, there’s a full-service spa that was fully booked each day of our stay, and the beach bar has an exceptional, reasonably priced cocktail list (though, unfortunately, only Carlsberg on draft).

There are no happy hour specials, but 5 pm – 7pm is “lucky hour”. Every purchased drink is good for three spins of a small, color-coded wheel–guess the right color it lands on and you score a second round on the house and another bonus spin with the free drink. Whether they guessed correctly or not, everybody walked away from the wheel smiling and laughing — who doesn’t love spinning a wheel of chance?

Three Amigos, Langkawi, Malaysia

One of the few cuisines I miss in Southeast Asia is Mexican, which with the exception of Bangkok’s La Monita is usually on the dreary or overpriced side; usually both. In Langkawi, Three Amigos, located on Cenang’s main strip, serves only a close approximation of the real thing, but it’s close enough — plus there’s something satisfying about digging into a red snapper quesadilla, in a Mexican restaurant located on a Malaysian island, your waitstaff a mix of Malays and Indians. Try the shrimp or fish tacos, though if you have a taste for, say, brick-oven pizza, they have that too. Of course.

Four Seasons Langkawi

Beach chairs at Four Seasons Langkawi’s private beach

Three Amigos’ fish tacos weren’t the tastiest I had in Langkawi, however — that credit goes to those served at Kelapa Grill, the breezy open-air restaurant at secluded Four Seasons Langkawi, a place where funny money is blown at a clip that can only depress if you think about it long enough. The fish tacos (about US$20), made with fresh, juicy chunks of snapper, weren’t outrageous given the magnificent setting and quality ingredients, but actually staying at this palatial resort is something else entirely.

Rates start at around US$800/night, not including tax and service, which means it’s pushing $1,000 a night, not including meals, drinks, etc — during off season. It’s a stunning resort, in a remote location, on a tropical island, and the beach is one of the more magnificent expanses of white sand I’ve ever seen. $1,000/night is chump change compared to many of the world’s elite hotels and resorts, but… but… it just kind of makes you sick to think about. We couldn’t help but smile when a whining brat somewhat derailed the otherwise quiet lunch guests were enjoying here, the pound of maintenance hammers mingling with the sound of birds chirping and waves crashing to shore.

As they say, money can’t buy everything.

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Brian Spencer

Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance writer. He has written for BBC Travel, CNN Travel, DestinAsian, Fodor's Travel, Lonely Planet, and Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, among other publications.