The largest of a 100-strong archipelago that shares its name, the Malaysian island of Langkawi is referred to by locals as the jewel of the surrounding state of Kedah. From my resort’s poolside perch on its southwest coast, I’m soaking up a view of weathered rocks, towering forest and the Andaman Sea made all the more memorable by a passing pod of dolphins. I can see why it’s considered one of south-east Asia’s loveliest isles. It’s got unspoiled scenery, extensive rainforests and (as of late 2017) this place: the country’s first Ritz-Carlton.
In terms of exclusive, exotic escapes, Ritz-Carlton Langkawi impresses. Thanks to being carefully built in harmony with its forest setting, the resort took seven years to create — and for the island as a whole, its arrival is game-changing. It has been the most hotly anticipated of several recent, high-end new developments that have pushed Langkawi back into the spotlight and seen the destination as a whole undergo something of a revival. It’s no coincidence that the newcomer’s arrival has coincided with massive top-to-toe updates at the Four Seasons and Datai, until now Langkawi’s most feted hotels.
Look out for langur monkeys: wildlife encounters await over breakfast at Langkawi Kitchen
They’re wise to be upping their game, because the Ritz-Carlton is a scene-stealer. The resort introduces an elevated level of style and design to a rainforest setting, along with destination dining and a truly one-of-a-kind spa. It’s set on a private promontory with that mesmerising view: all wave-worn boulders and a sandy cove backed by mountains and unbroken forest. Matching its gorgeous location is an architectural mix that borrows Malay, Siamese and indigenous design traits to create a unique sense of place.
My room is a case in point. One of 29 free-standing villas with pools, it’s set within its own patch of jungle surrounded by towering trees. Its vertical lines and pitched roof are typical of old Malay houses, while elegant, carved Baba Nyonya screens (a style from Malaysia’s Malacca region) ensure privacy without blocking out daylight.
Complementing these colonial touches are modern furniture, a spacious deck and a giant bathroom with green-veined marble details. Local artworks, handmade pottery and fabrics inspired by indigenous prints provide the finishing touches to make this an urban escape in the rainforest.
One of the resort’s beach villas
That same metropolitan vibe is even more prevalent in the Rainforest Suites, of which there are 90 located in nine mid-rise blocks tucked into the trees. Each block (Kenanga, Alamanda) is named after tropical flowers, and the multi-aspect suites they contain have similar décor to the villas. Generous proportions, distinct living/dining areas and moveable partitions make the rooms both stylish and versatile, while curtains of trees outside do their best to screen each block from the next.
As well as providing a level of privacy, the vegetation merges the resort into the forest, making it feel more established and very much smaller than its 49 acres. Such considerate design is in keeping with a welcome new ethos in luxury developments, with hoteliers making more of an effort to embrace the natural environment, rather than tame it. It makes particularly good sense here: Langkawi is renowned for its geopark, a UNESCO-designated area that protects huge swathes of its mountains and forests, so guests come expecting a jungle experience — albeit one featuring five-star facilities.
The resort’s spa
To preserve forest cover, buildings and walkways were constructed around mature trees and stand on concrete stilts to minimise damage to the understory or shoreline. The overall result is a thrilling sense of jungle escapism that’s enhanced by plenty of wildlife encounters. I see brahminy kites (the «brown eagles», or «helang kawi», that give the island its name) most afternoons, soaring high above the pool; and my morning swim is interrupted by pied hornbills squabbling outside my villa. Whining cicadas emerge later on. I soon establish a pre-dinner routine of watching bizarre-looking colugos (or «flying lemurs») gliding between the trunks before disappearing into the darkness.
Wildlife also features at breakfast, when langur monkeys drop by Langkawi Kitchen to liven up everyone’s morning. The restaurant occupies the resort’s most distinctive structure: styled on a traditional longhouse dwelling and built into the forest canopy, it has trees incorporated in its design (with trunks piercing the deck) and Chinese-, Indian- and Malay-influenced cuisine to reflect modern Malaysia’s multifaceted origins. An excellent breakfast buffet is presented in the style of a hawker market; noodle soups, dim sum and nasi lemak offer regional flavours alongside omelettes, pastries and charcuterie for less adventurous palates.
The interior of Langkawi Kitchen
The Malaysian dishes served here for dinner, however, are disappointingly bland and forgettable and feel a poor match for the setting. The dull, generic Western menu at Beach Grill is more forgettable still but Horizon’s Thai dishes and cocktails (with spirits infused with pandan and star anise) are more up to scratch. Located alongside the sunset-facing, adults-only infinity pool, it’s the perfect spot for admiring that spectacular coastal view. Along with the show-stopping, overwater spa (whose cluster of conical treatment pavilions resemble «bubu» fish traps) it’s hands-down the resort’s most singular feature.
Almost as striking is Hai Yan, an overwater fine-dining restaurant dressed in black lacquer and red accents (to symbolise good fortune). Intricate, hand-carved screens and the strains of a guzheng (Chinese harp) set the scene for high-end Chinese dishes from a Michelin-starred chef. Despite that pedigree, however, my meal here disappointed: I couldn’t finish the over-battered salt-and-pepper squid, though the clay-pot chicken and honey-fried lobster fared better.
Service, too, had a few question marks: although staff are unfailingly eager, certain phrases («How may I address you?»; «Enjoy your lovely breakfast!») sound rather robotic after a few days, no matter how earnest their delivery. But this and the hit-and-miss catering are the Ritz-Carlton’s only real downsides, and both will most likely improve as the resort gets fully into its stride. Otherwise this high-end retreat ticks all the boxes for an exotic escape on an island fast becoming a regional leader in luxury travel.
Double rooms at Ritz-Carlton Langkawi cost from MYR1,800 (£327) per night, including breakfast. A seven-night stay with flights, transfers and breakfast costs from £1,829pp (two sharing) through Destinology.