This surely has to be the ultimate hotel check-in.
Instead of heading to reception, we are seated in the elegant colonial foyer of The Danna. A line of uniformed masseurs arrive, stand behind the newly arrived guests and deliver a deep neck massage as you simply sign the register presented on a tray.
This welcome is typical of the level of service and attention to detail we are to experience in Malaysia – and it all really began back at Heathrow.
After spending 24 hours in the air and crossing a quarter of the planet, plus eight time zones in two aircraft, you can imagine why a massage would be welcome. But having relaxed in beautifully-designed departure lounges with complimentary catering and showers, slept on flat beds aboard aircraft with streaming entertainment and chefs on-call, the pampering has literally been constant since check-in with Malaysia Airlines.
If the length of our journey hardly registered it’s obvious we’ve travelled a world away on the descent into Langkawi. It’s the largest of only four inhabited islands in a clustered archipelago of more than a hundred off the coast of Malaysia. Two-thirds covered with primary rainforest – jungle, in other words – it’s the very definition of exotic.
Nestled on the white sweep of a secluded bay is the imposing architecture of The Danna. Inside, the hushed elegance is a welcome escape from the outside humidity. Imposing halls are stirred by ceiling fans and lead to tastefully-appointed lounges with grand pianos. French windows open onto shaded garden terraces. There’s a lush inner courtyard, a library and even a billiard room. It’s as if a billionaire socialite built a mansion escape in the tropics during the Roaring 20s.
Having cooled off, the lure of the nature outdoors is overwhelming. It almost seems excessive that in between the hotel and the beach is the island’s largest infinity pool. It’s a masterpiece of design, with endless secluded areas in which to laze away the days, but – as the sun begins to sink and the air turns golden – we have to be elsewhere.
The only place to be during sunset is on a yacht, out on the Andaman Sea among the islands of the archipelago. Far from land, with the dozens of palm-covered islands slowly turning to silhouette, the sunset out here is an affecting experience. If it were CGI in a movie, it would be described as too over-the-top to be real and becomes even more epic as a distant tropical storm splits the horizon with violet lightning.
Although a day in a swamp may not sound as alluring as the yacht-and-sunset spectacular the night before, exploring the on-water maze of mangroves native to Langkawi is a gritty adventure well worth undertaking. The right guide will negotiate the forbidding primal tangle and point out the rich wildlife before letting loose on the engine and roaring you out to sea to explore the islands only seen in silhouette the night before. We sunbathe for a while on an Instagram-moment sandbar that emerges between two of them for just a short period each day.
On the way back, the spectacle of wild eagles – the emblem of Langkawi – is an especially moving sight. Dozens circle above us before diving down into the surrounding waters to feed. A lunch stop for us humans on a floating restaurant gives an authentic taste of local food and working life, eating among the fisherman that work these waters. It’s worth it alone for the hottest of fresh chilli sauces we still crave today.
Feeling quite intrepid now, despite crippling vertigo, back at The Danna it’s time to brave the island’s famed cable car. Just a white speck above distant hills when viewed from the pool, it’s an exhilarating ride being the steepest cable car in the world. The views it affords are worth the initial trepidation as it glides over an emerald carpet of solid rainforest that stretches to the horizon. Waterfalls slice the foliage and tumble in slow motion over half a kilometre below. It’s an inspiring sight and makes us yearn to get closer to the rainforest itself. So it’s time to move on to what has to be one the most unusual properties in Malaysia.
A local plane hop to the mainland brings us to the Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat. If viewed from the air, all you would really see is a dense jungle valley cradled by soaring cliffs. Which is exactly what the Banjaran is – a private valley.
Hidden within the exotic foliage are secluded water villas; essentially houses with their own garden pools. Illuminated walkways are cut through the jungle – and this is real jungle, although it’s enclosed, secure and constantly swept of unwanted wildlife by an on-site team of ex-military. The number of guests is limited, so it feels like you have a slice of eden all to yourselves.
An ancient geothermal spring rises here, feeding a wide lake shrouded by clouds of steam that blur into the trees. It’s fringed by natural jacuzzis that are testingly hot but meltingly relaxing. Exploring further uncovers a stunning main swimming pool and a world-class spa with an extensive menu of treatments. An open-sided restaurant rests on stilts over the water if you wish to eat al fresco, but the real jewel is hidden in the towering cliffs that edge the valley.
Modestly called Jeff’s Cellar, nothing can quite prepare you for the underground cathedral of stalactites and stalagmites that adorn this vast 280 million-year-old cave. It’s an astounding place to dine, and the ‘Cellar’ part is special too, stocked with rare organic wines. Afterwards, thankfully, it’s raining…
It might be unusual to be on a trip and wish for rain but here it’s just another natural wonder to enjoy. As billions of hot raindrops bounce over the billions of exotic leaves across the jungle valley, the sound and fragrance created is an overwhelming sensory experience – a phrase that justly sums up Malaysia itself. It can only be added to by slipping into a hotspring jacuzzi, cradling a nightcap and looking up to the stars with eyes closed to the rain. l
Gay Times flew with Malaysia Airlines from London Heathrow to Langkawi via Kuala Lumpur, malaysiaairlines.com.
Gay Times stayed in Langkawi at The Danna, thedanna.com and on the mainland at The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, thebanjaran.com. The sunset cruise was with Naam Cruises, naam.bz and mangrove swamp tour by Devs Adventure Tours, langkawi-nature.com. The mangrove restaurant was the Hole in the Wall, floatingrestaurant.com.my and Langkawi cable car ride was with Skycab, panoramalangkawi.com