Why Langkawi?" repeats the girl incredulously. "Mister, we couldn't have picked a better spot for our honeymoon. I don't know why you're going to Langkawi, but if you haven't heard, it's the most romantic place on the planet!" she says, with an adoring glance at her mate. He responds by clenching her hand tighter in implicit agreement.
This recently hitched pair, bound for Malaysia's famed isles of idyll, is hardly an exception. More honeymooning couples head for this archipelago for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation, than anywhere else in South East Asia.
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Let's get this out of the way right at the start: yes, Langkawi is better with your better half. But even if romance is not on top of the agenda, the islands abound with wildlife and tropical jungles; the waters are perfect for diving and water sports; and there are enough sites and sights to dazzle eyes not shaded by love's rose-tinted glasses.
At the centre of action in Langkawi, the half-crescent Tengah beach is perfect for watersports or a late-afternoon swim
Malaysian Airlines Flight 141 only takes about 45 minutes from the bustling capital of Kuala Lumpur. You can tell you're in a vacation haven by the airport. The only other plane on the runway is an aging turbo-prop and you've got to walk across the tarmac to get to the lounge where your luggage appears on the only belt in the terminal. Gone are the businesssuited gentlemen and wi-fi zones. All you see are couples murmuring sweet endearments to each other, holding hands, looking decidedly in love. You know the kind, eyes only for each other, the ones who lean that extra inch into each other as they whisper and giggle, sharing what must be a very funny, private joke.
I'm quickly ushered into a waiting cab and driven 20 minutes to my pad for the stay-the plush Four Seasons resort on the Northwest coast of Palau Langkawi. If you are spending top dollar to stay here then go the whole hog and book the beach villa.
The ceiling-to-floor, glass, sliding door opens to a deck with an enormous sun lounge filled with cushions and a few footsteps away is your very own, personal stretch of beach.
There's absolutely no chance, and in fact no reason, to muster up the gumption to leave the resort for the first day or two. Dip into the adult pools, lounge in a hammock and catch up with your reading. Sit in a love seat and swing at the Rhu Bar as the sun drops past the strip of golden sand into the shifting colours of the horizon. It's a postcard rendered in reality. Tear yourself away from the melting pools of your significant other's eyes and soak in the sunset.
When I do finally gather the resolve to head out, then it's in a kayak moving to the mangrove forests in the Kilim geo-forest park. After a few hours snaking through narrow inlets that are home to an astonishing amount of marine life and getting a ringside view of the erne (sea eagle) swooping down, we head for lunch to 'Hole in the wall', a floating restaurant serving Thai cuisine. Thailand's coast is visible from Langkawi, and here you'll find probably the most authentic Thai cuisine, outside the country. Also, if a holiday begins to feel like work when you can't get in a round of golf, there are three excellent layouts on Palau Langkawi, the biggest, most bustling of the three inhabited islands.
Another little gem is the Langun trip into the tropical jungle. The trip culminates with a swim in an isolated lagoon in the middle of the forest. You do need sturdy shoes and some stamina to do this. While Langkawi makes no pretensions of being anything but a languorous vacation town, you have the option, if you are so inclined, to amp up your holiday with as much adrenaline as you can handle. There are water sports, snorkelling, diving, cruising and fishing on easy access. Somewhere or the other (depending on time and location), its possible to see a pod of Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins swimming, Brahminy Kites swooping down in a lagoon to catch anchovies, the majestic Oriental Pied Hornbills whooshing through the rainforest, or water cascading on ancient limestone formations.
I run into Alice Jaffe, an American student studying in Bangkok who is biding time in Langkawi till the flood situation in Thailand gets better. "You're trying to do too much. Doing practically nothing is a perfectly respectable way to spend your time in Langkawi," she proffers. I take her advice to heart. The next few days are spent with wine and sunshine.
Bird's eye view of yachts anchored at the harbour on the way up to Mt. Machinchang on the cable car.
Still, I'm drawn to that other big attraction that pulls in the 2.7 million tourists who visit the isles every year. I just have to go up the popular cablecar. I'm glad I did. The cable-car ascends 700 metres to the top of Machinchang mountain, the second highest peak in Langkawi. It offers a stunning bird's eye view of the islands, flecks of green in shifting seas, as well as the adjoining isle of Ko Tarutao, where the Survivor TV series was shot, for good reason.
On the last day here, I try and spend some time in solitude, introspecting, which had been the plan all along. After all, what better place than your own private beach on a tropical island to take stock of your life, contemplate the larger questions, seek oneness with nature's many bounties? "That's absurd!" exclaims Alice, "Langkawi is no place to spend time alone!" I mutter my protestations but she isn't listening anymore. "C'mon now," Alice calls out, running recklessly to the impossibly, brilliantly blue waters. "This is probably the most romantic place on the planet…"
Langkawi is a small island and you can rent a car, motorbike or even better, a bicycle, to explore. Taxis are readily available and small cars are fairly cheap to rent during the low season (ranging from MYR50 to MYR120 per day). During the high season expect to pay substantially more. Stick to a licensed operator as illegal rentals do not provide insurance.
Envomarine Travel and Tours: EnvoMarine.com, +604-9552988
Discovery: LangkawiDiscovery.com +6012-5752020
For authentic Thai food head to Restoran Wan Thai (+6012-4308014) in the central part of Kuah town. The restaurant does not serve alcohol and a meal for two is an inexpensive MYR30-100. And if it's Indian food you prefer then look no further than Tulsi Garden (+604-9553011). Indian food in Langkawi (and in Malaysia for that matter) is embellished by the use of local condiments.
Make sure you take the cable car trip. A single trip costs MYR 30 and is well worth the money. Langkawi Cable Car (+604-9594225) Oriental Village, Burau Bay. The Kilim Karst Geopark, on the eastern part of the main island has sea inlets in which it's possible to see the magnificent limestone landscape and marine life. For hiking and trekking head to the Langkawi Geopark. For kayaking, jungle walks and treks get in touch with Anne-Marie at Dev's Adventure Tours (Langkawi-Nature.com, +6019-4949193). The archipelago has various diving locations with the preferred one being on Palau Payar Island. Expect teal waters and astonishing coral formations. For beach bumming there's no better place than the central Cenang beach /Tengah Beach. The nightlife is surprisingly upbeat: Eagle Rock Café in Tengah has live music and dancing most nights.
If you're here for the long haul, then consider renting an apartment. Long term vacationers can rent a fully equipped independent cottage for just MYR 2000 (monthly) onwards. The Four Seasons Resort is the premium hotel(FourSeasons.com/Langkawi, +604 9508700). Rooms start from MYR 2,065. The Beach Villa costs MYR 5,860. The Geopark hotel (GeoPark-Hotel.com) is a favourite with those interested in exploring the Geopark and the jungles.