Insider Guide: Best of Langkawi
Long a sleepy, near-deserted backwater, Langkawi's fortunes took a major upturn in the mid-1980s when Malaysia's then prime minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad laid out a blueprint of the island as a tropical tourist paradise.
Today, it's a fine example of how to satisfy the needs of travelers while still protecting the very environment that attracted them in the first place.
But Langkawi -- "red eagle" in Bahasa Malaysia -- ain't no tiny, run-of-the-mill slice of idyll.
The Andaman Sea island has plenty to offer besides beach bumming. Here's a quick guide to the best of Langkawi.
Four Seasons Resort
If you've got money to burn, book into the Four Seasons Resort. Regularly rated as a best of Langkawi luxury accommodation, the property doesn't even bother with "standard" rooms.
Instead, visitors can choose between the 68 Malay-style private pavilions or 23 residential-style villas, all of which serve up amazing views of the Andaman Sea.
Families will like the space around the main pool; couples seeking alone time can retreat to the oceanfront "Quiet Pool for Adults."
There are four eateries on the property, though Ikan-Ikan (which means "fish") serves the best local food.
The spa comes to you in the form of in-room treatments –- a 60-minute urut Melayu treatment (traditional Malaysian massage) goes for just 355 ringgit.
Jalan Tanjung Rhu; +60 4 950 8888; from 2,250 ringgit (US$745) per night; fourseasons.com/langkawi
Owned by Narelle Mcmurtrie, the Australian behind the wonderful Straits Collection in Penang, Temple Tree is an octet of historic Malaysian homes that were bought and moved to this former coconut plantation.
Each building enjoys its own distinctive character.
For instance, the Malay-style Black & White House, built in the southern state of Negri Sembilan in the 1940s, features a large outdoor porch, bedroom with wooden bathtub and colored glass windows.
The 1920s Colonial House was originally the property of wealthy Arab gold traders in Georgetown, Penang. With five bedrooms and a dining table for 10, it's popular with groups of friends.
Temple Tree delivers true cultural immersion, with the added benefit that it's only 10 minutes' drive from the airport, and five minutes' walk from the beach.
Pantai Cenang; +60 4955 1688; from 550 ringgit per night; templetree.com.my
It doesn't get much closer to nature than this charming little guesthouse set in a quiet patch of jungle some 20 minutes' walk from the beach at Pantai Cenang.
The emphasis here is on a communal experience, so breakfast (included in the room rate) is taken at shared tables where you can exchange stories with other travelers.
The hippie vibe doesn't mean you have to sacrifice creature comforts.
The six rooms are decked out with air conditioning, ceiling fans, hot showers, free Wi-Fi, towels and mini-fridges stocked with two complimentary beers upon arrival.
Lot 1011, Kampung Padang Putih, Jalan Pantai Tengah; +60 12 536 9216; from 100 ringgit per night; pondok-keladi.com
La Sal @ Casa del Mar
Even if you're not staying at this Langkawi resort, La Sal is a destination in itself.
Regularly rated as one of the best restaurants on Pantai Cenang, it takes something to stand out on Langkawi's busiest strip of beach.
Its west coast location, overlooking white sands and turquoise waters, makes it popular with couples enjoying sunset views, but the star here is undoubtedly the fine food and excellent service.
The menu has a mix of Western and Asian dishes, but the standout is the Malaysian tapas platter.
The cocktails are fantastic, too.
Jalan Pantai Cenang; +60 4 955 2388; expensive; casadelmar-langkawi.com
The Cliff Restaurant & Bar
Although not exactly set on a cliff, this west coast best of Langkawi restaurant perched on stilts does offer great views of the water below.
At the end of Pantai Cenang, it's one of the top places to catch the sunset and sit back with a drink, before ordering dinner as night falls.
The menu features a nice fusion of European and Malay flavors with prices that match its upscale location.
One warning: if you don't want to pay for imported water, advise the waiter that the local bottled stuff will do.
Reservations recommended if you want to secure a table with a view.
Lot 63 and 40, Jalan Pantai Chenang; +60 4 953 3228; expensive; theclifflangkawi.com
Mangoes Bar and Grill
This relaxed restaurant is a home away from home for many expatriates living on the island.
Run by Michele from Australia and Lutz from Germany, the menu is full of reasonably priced European comfort food such as lamb shank, schnitzel Cordon Bleu, lasagna and shepherd's pie.
Michele's chocolate mud cake and frangipani pear tart defy borders.
Jalan Kuala Teriang; +60 17 589 8117; moderate; mangoeslangkawi.webs.com
Nasi Kandar Tomato
Nasi kandar is essentially rice served with your choice of toppings, which commonly include curry, fish, egg and okra.
Everything is laid out buffet style, though you can also order à la carte.
Found all over Malaysia, nasi kandar eateries are extremely popular, mostly open 24 hours and run by ethnic Indian Muslims (so don't expect to find pork on the menu).
Langkawi's most popular is arguably Nasi Kandar Tomato, which does a great braised mutton and a decent teh tarik (sweet pulled tea).
Jalan Pantai Cenang (opposite Langkawi Boutique Hotel); +60 4 955 5853; budget
Langkawi isn't known for its wild nightlife.
You're not going to find the same level of debauchery that takes place over the border in some of Thailand's hottest islands. (Which suits most Langkawi visitors just fine.)
But because of its tax-free status, booze is plentiful and cheap. Here are some of the areas to hit for a nightcap in the best of Langkawi.
Pantai Cenang is a best of Langkawi nightlife destination, filled with beachside pubs and some bars offering live music.
For a true beach bar experience, hit Babylon MatLounge.
As the name suggests, guests can sprawl out on one of the mats laid out on the sand and listen to the in-house band, sipping beers well into the night.
No. 1, Babylon Garden, Cenang
Naturally, the island's busiest stretch of beach, Pantai Tengah, is also its liveliest in terms of nightlife.
For something high-end and laid-back, there's the Sunkarma Chill Out Lounge (Jalan Teluk Baru, Pantai Tengah; +60 4 953 1801), with its comfortable indoor and outdoor seating and decent cocktail selection.
For all-night blowouts, there's the nearby Sunba Retro Bar -- which shares owners and contact details with Sunkarma -- designed to look like an old Malaysian house. Entertainment varies depending on the night. Some evenings there's an in-house band, others a DJ spins music from the 1960s-1980s.
Though for the most part Pantai Kok is a quiet stretch of beach, it's also home to Chime, one of the most popular night clubs on the island for those who want to party into the wee hours of the morning.
Never mind that it's in the Sheraton Resort -- most of the bigger bars on Langkawi are in hotels -- this isn't a stale hotel club.
Depending on the night, there's a DJ or house band performing.
Teluk Nibong; +60 4 952 8000
Panorama SkyCab Langkawi
If there's one best of Langkawi attraction that visitors should leave the beach for, it's the cable car, or SkyCab.
Opened in 2003, this 2.2-kilometer-long ride carries passengers almost to the top of Machincang mountain, some 708 meters above sea level.
From these lofty heights, there's a 360-degree view of Langkawi and its surrounding islands.
At the top you'll also find the vertigo-inducing, 125-meter-long SkyBridge, a curved suspension bridge that hangs 100 meters above ground.
As of July 2012, the bridge is temporarily closed for maintenance, so if walking across is a priority call ahead before visiting as staff have yet to announce when it will reopen.
In many ways Panorama is similar to Hong Kong's Ngong Ping 360, complete with its own shopping cener, Oriental Village.
Dedicated shoppers will be happy to know that Langkawi is a mostly duty-free island, with notably cheaper prices than anywhere else in Malaysia.
Burau Bay, +60 4 959 4225; panoramalangkawi.com. Adult tickets 30 ringgit
On June 1, 2007, UNESCO declared the entire island of Langkawi a World Geopark, which is "a territory encompassing one or more sites of scientific importance, not only for geological reasons but also by virtue of its archaeological, ecological or cultural value."
In lay terms, this means Langkawi has a whack of amazing rock formations, split into three distinct areas.
There's the 400-million-year-old Machinchang mountain ranges; the rugged karst limestone formations of the Kilim Karst Geoforest Park; and the Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforestpark, best known for the body of water at its center, known as the Lake of the Pregnant Maiden. The tale goes that a lady from heaven bore a child to an earthly prince, lost the child, buried it where the lake now stands and blessed the waters with powers of fertility.
Tour with Rimbawi Geo Discovery: +60 19 59 35 338; rimbawi-langkawi.com
Nothing says "tropical escape" quite like a yoga retreat.
At least, that's what you'll hear from the thousands of people who visit Langkawi every year in search of holistic bliss.
While a number of local companies provide yogic services, Yoga Now is one pose ahead of the competition.
Accommodation is arranged elsewhere, via one of their hotel partners, but the yoga sessions themselves are held in a traditional wooden Malaysian house just a few minutes' stroll from the main beach of Pantai Cenang.
Yoga Now is run by husband and wife Marc de Faoite from Ireland, and Malaysian Lai Meng Foong, a former national aerobics champion.
Kampung Tanjung Mali, Pantai Cenang, +60 16 2715 082; yoganowmalaysia.com
Cheesy and clichéd as the locals might find it, Eagle Square, aka Dataran Lang, is very entertaining.
If you're arriving by boat, Eagle Square is where you'll disembark, welcomed by a huge, 12-meter-high statue of an eagle with its wings outstretched, perched on a star-shaped platform that juts out into the sea.
The bird is part of a 7.7-hectare site that includes the Jetty Point complex, a two-story duty-free shopping center. Indeed, Langkawi's cheap alcohol is probably one of the island's greatest attractions in otherwise expensive Malaysia.
Kuah Jetty, +60 4 966 7789; jettypoint.com. Jetty Point open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Mangrove Kayak Tour
On an island full of wildlife, you can get close to some of its largest specimens on a kayaking tour of Langkawi's mangrove forests.
On the five-hour trip through the Sungai Kilim Nature Park, which covers 100 square kilometers, it's quite likely you'll encounter snakes, monkeys, sea otters, sea eagles and even a monitor lizard or two (excellent swimmers, these relatives of the Komodo Dragon can grow up to a nerve-inducing 2.8 meters long).
Led by knowledgeable guides, the tour includes a visit to a bat cave, a former charcoal factory tucked deep into the forest and lunch at a floating restaurant.
Dev's Adventure Tours: +60 19 494 9193; langkawi-nature.com; 160-220 ringgit.