The Datai Langkawi: leafy Malay playground


The Datai Langkawi: leafy Malay playground

Just ahead of the Lunar New Year, travel writer and photographer Gina Jackson spends a few nights amid The Datai's verdant splendour

Gina Jackson

BY Gina Jackson24 January 2024

My last time here was as a sulky teenager: back then, The Datai Langkawi, easily Langkawi’s crowning hotel jewel, was firmly out of reach as an adults-only retreat. Nowadays, The Datai accepts guests of all ages, but is still equally as enchanting as the child-free playground it was originally created to be.

I’ve visited Malaysia, my mother’s homeland, every year since I was a child. In fact, I used to dread dragging out sticky summers in Kuala Lumpur, bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t spending the holidays with my friends back home in the UK. Brattish, I know.

Nowadays, I cherish any time that I can spend reconnecting with my roots. Trips back to Malaysia came to a grinding halt during the pandemic, but as soon as the borders reopened, I found myself on the first flight back to the motherland.

After a pit stop in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Smith and I decided to tag on a beach holiday to Langkawi. One of Malaysia’s prime islands, situated on the cusp of neighbouring Thailand, Langkawi has beckoned discerning travellers for years with its alluringly tropical tangle and sandy beaches.

As soon as we land, the sticky heat envelopes us like a clammy embrace. We hurtle off towards The Datai, our driver expertly dodging the monkeys that slink across the highway. The hotel sits perched on the cliffside, encased by thick rainforest, with various outbuildings scattered across the craggy coastline towards the ocean.

We disembark at the open-air lobby, and are plied with local treats and homemade tea before it’s time to check into our bedroom. The hotel went through an extensive renovation in 2019, so is surprisingly slick despite celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Expect a melange of glossy wooden surfaces, and creamy fabrics in each room: our soaring four poster is clouded in swathes of linen, and a tub large enough to swim laps in presides over the bathroom. Homemade chocolates, exotic fruit, and local kuih are waiting for us – and we’re encouraged to raid the free minibar during our stay. I certainly don’t need to be told twice.

Our rainforest villa is hidden deep in the thicket, meaning we’re lulled to sleep by the never-ending coo of wildlife around us. For guests that prefer to attack the breakfast buffet first thing in the morning, a room in the hotel’s central building might be better suited, and for families or large groups – or those that prefer waking up by the water – I’d recommend bedding down in one of the spacious beach villas.

Mr Smith and I head straight to the beach to work on our tanlines. An unsullied stretch of sand disappears into the distance, the bay entirely private to hotel guests. A peppy member of the team seemingly appears out of nowhere with ice water and fresh towels. Several hours later, when I’m still spread-eagled on my lounger, he makes the rounds again – this time, with freshly churned ice cream cones.

While it’s tempting to spend the entirety of our holiday horizontal, there are plenty of other avenues to explore when we’re not sun-worshipping. A fleet of buggies whiz around the estate, peddling guests through the rainforest, from the beach to the lobby, and back again – or simply sashay through the fauna along the hotel’s famous Butterfly Walk, where you can spy monkeys, centuries-old mangroves, and – of course – hundreds of butterflies. If you can tear yourself away from the manicured enclaves of the resort, zip-lining through the jungle, teeing off at the nearby golf club, or exploring the island’s bewitching coves can all be arranged – although it’s hard to leave the paradise that The Datai has created when there’s really everything at your fingertips. Separate kid-friendly and adults-only pools? Tick. Fully equipped gym? Tick. Soothing spa? Tick. Watersports, nature walks, and adventure excursions? Tick, tick, tick. I’m beginning to understand why some guests stay for weeks on end.

Oh, and of course, I need to mention the food. Gourmands will be pleased to hear that there are four excellent restaurants to line your belly. Mornings begin by hoovering up freshly baked pastries and local delights at the breakfast buffet (ask the chef to whip up a flakey roti canai for you) before segwaying into leisurely lunches at the beach club. Come evening, guests can sample Indian and Malay dishes at the Gulai House or feast on Thai cuisine while perched among the treetops at the Pavilion – and there’s even a French twist on a tasting menu at the hotel’s signature fine dining restaurant. There’s almost too many good things to eat and do in between all of the sand, sea, and swim – so much so, that I’ve already started plotting my return visit for next year.

Find out more about The Datai Langkawi or explore our complete collection of hotels in Malaysia

Gina Jackson is a London-based travel writer, photographer and the author of British Boutique Hotels and An Opinionated Guide to London Hotels. Though based in the Big Smoke, she can more often be found zipping off to far-flung destinations to review luxury properties in the most exciting locations around the world.