Travellers with an appreciation for stunning visuals and rarely-seen creatures will be enchanted by Langkawi. The Malaysian archipelago is a tantalizing mix of vertiginous mountains, waterfalls, untouched rainforests, karstic isles, coral reefs and mangroves inhabited by eagles, monkeys and other fascinating wildlife.
The 100-or-so islands in the calm jade waters of the Andaman Sea were designated as south-east Asia's first ever UNESCO Geopark for the unique geology and tropical geoforests that account for much of their ethereal beauty. Close to the border with Thailand, they share the strange topography and silken beaches of much-photographed Thai islands like Ko Phi Phi. But Langkawi is generally less visited and offers some great opportunities to go off grid.
Far from undeveloped, the eponymous Palau Langkawi (Palau is Malay for island) has an airport and pockets of modern civilization dotted around the coast where you can find everything from free internet access and a cold beer to local eco-tour operators and an aquarium. But the island is large – about the same size as Singapore – and vast swathes of wildlife-rich jungle and mangroves remain undisturbed, life in the local kampungs continues as it has done for centuries, and there has been a marine park protecting the coral reefs around Payar for more than thirty years.
If you're wondering where to go on your next tropical break, here are seven tempting reasons to choose Langkawi...
Travellers with an appetite for discovery will be seriously tempted by the uninhabited karstic islets that speckle the ocean to the east and south of Langkawi's main island. Only two of the archipelago's 100 islands – Langkawi and Tuba – are inhabited, so there are plenty of chances to play castaway.
Local tour operators offer scheduled boat trips island-hopping in Dayang Bunting Marble Park, which is made up of untouched islands draped in foliage and embellished with platinum ribbons of sand. From the rock tower of Singa Kechil to the ship-shaped Jong, the string of islands come in all shapes and sizes with towering cliffs and rocky shelves etched out by millennia of wind and waves.
The flagstone-like platforms linking the green humped hills of Ular give the island the appearance of a beaded bracelet, while the park's central island – Dayang Bunting – is blessed with Langkawi's largest freshwater lake known as the "Lake of the Pregnant Maiden." Formed by the collapse of a limestone cavern and separated from the sea by a narrow rock wall, here you can stop to swim in the clear waters surrounded by serene emerald hills said to resemble a pregnant woman lying down.
Most of the attractions are natural in this UNESCO-protected geopark with caves, mangroves, mountains and waterfalls that are a virtual playground if you enjoy the great outdoors. The islands' ancient mix of sedimentary and granite rock formations are unique according to geologists. But you don't have to be a rock specialist or naturalist to appreciate the dramatic and distinct beauty of the islands known as the Jewel of Kedah.
A trio of protected areas – Kilim Karst Geoforest Park in the east, Machincang Cambrian Geoforest Park in the north-west and Dayang Bunting Marble Geoforest Park in the south – form the cornerstones of the UNESCO site. All the areas contain information points and can be explored on guided tours, usually by boat, but also on foot via hiking trails.
Kayaking through the coastal mangroves, tunnels and waterways is one of the best ways to see Kilim Geopark's karstic scarps, islets, lagoons and caves draped in thick rainforest. Kilim River is lined with mangroves, jutting angular rocks like hastily-stacked blocks, and melting pinnacles with the appearance of petrified candle wax.
Among its natural wonders, bat-haunted caves with weird interiors are open to visitors and tunnels cut through the cliffs such as Gua Buaya can be traversed at low tide. Another tunnel, Gua Langsir, opens into a spectacular lagoon encircled with plant-entangled cliffs, while offshore Langgun contains a beautiful hidden freshwater sinkhole. Ancient oyster and gastropod-encrusted Anak Tikus is an islet perfect for fossil hunters.
The Machincang Cambrian Geoforest Park covers the oldest part of the island, home to tall tumbling waterfalls such as "Telaga Tujuh" (Seven Wells), gentle green slopes and vertical stacks showing off the layers of sandstone and mudstone strata that are often mistaken for limestone. Visitors can venture up to its top tiers via Panorama Langkawi that includes cable cars and a sky bridge across the mountaintops.
Eagles and monkeys
A rare sight elsewhere, eagles are quite common in Langkawi where lofty verdant peaks and rich mangroves make the perfect flying and feeding ground. The reddish-brown eagle known as the brahminy kite has become the islands' emblem, and larger white-bellied sea eagles are also commonplace. Almost 1,000 wild eagles are said to feed at Kilim River in Kilim Geopark and at Singa Besar just south of the main island. Local operators run specific boat excursions to witness the eagles feeding and some bait the birds by throwing chicken skins into the water. A few island-hopping tours include eagle-watching on their itineraries. There are also eco-tours with a more environmentally-sensitive approach to eagle spotting and viewing.
Kilim River is also a good place to spot monkeys perched on the banks or in the trees, but you are just as likely to see troops strolling around the island. A rainforest immersion tour or walk with a naturalist guide in the north of the island reveals all manner of primates, exotic birds such as hornbills, and lizards. Shy dusky leaf monkeys are less easy to glimpse than the local macaques, who have a reputation for making their presence known.
The word Langkawi is said to have derived from the Malay for tropical paradise, and it definitely has the beaches to back up that name. The vast swathe of floury white sand at Tanjung Rhu is the ideal spot for a swim with a picturesque backdrop of rainforest-entangled cliffs. Datai Bay is also known for its scenic beauty, though the beach facilities are exclusive to guests at the two five-star hotels that overlook the bay.
The crescent beach of Pantai Cenang in the south is the island's busiest but it's beautiful none-the-less with just a few colourful buildings visible behind the bank of palm trees. Nearby, the boundless sand of Pantai Tengah is quieter. The beach at Pantai Kok slightly further north probably wins the prize for best backdrop in the spectacular form of Machincang Cambrian Geoforest Park.
Away from the main island, the isles of Pulau Payar Marine Park are indented with some spectacularly scenic beaches that can be reached in an hour by speed boat from Kuah jetty. As a protected marine park, the islets harbour a paradise below the waves too, with colourful coral gardens ideal for snorkelling.
Spas, yoga retreats and seriously beautiful resorts
There are around 200 hotels and resorts in Langkawi ranging from basic budget places to five-star spa boutiques, with most concentrated in Pantai Cenang. Seriously luxurious spas and hotels include the Datai Langkawi with its on-site Mandara Spa and the Andaman with its ocean-facing treetop spa. Both five-star resorts are hidden between the trees above the sweeping sands of Datai Bay.
The Four Seasons Langkawi Resort boasts the gorgeous Geo Spa tucked inside the forest with pools under cliff faces and bespoke natural treatments. The resort itself has bagged one of the island's most stunning spots beside the idyllic Tanjung Rhu beach with tracts of ancient rainforest covering the surrounding hills.
But you don't have to visit a swanky resort to indulge yourself. Independent places such as Ishan Spa on a verdant hillside in Pantai Tengah offer a beautifully-relaxing and peaceful environment with expert masseurs and beauty therapists. The serene surrounds of Langkawi are also ideal for a yoga retreat. Ambong Ambong in Pantai Tengah offers short programs combining yoga and discovering Langkawi with a local naturalist guide.
Snorkellers and divers can gain access to a magical underwater world from Langkawi. Boat tours providing snorkelling gear depart from the Kuah marina to the pristine reefs and crystal-clear waters of the archipelago's marine parks. PADI-accredited dive centre Langkawi Scuba in Cenang runs trips out to dive the Pulau Payar Marine Park, the region's oldest protected area said to harbour the richest diversity of marine life and colourful soft corals on Malaysia's western seaboard.
The uninhabited jade-green islands of the park – Payar, Segantang, Lembu and Kaca – are 30km south-east of Langkawi and the top dive sites are scattered along the reef system that skirts the south, east and west of Payar island, including the Coral Garden, Lobster Garden, Porite Garden and Raaf Beach. Frequently-sighted sea creatures include fusiliers, jacks, black-tip reef sharks, barracudas, groupers, damselfish, lionfish, lobsters and moray eels.
Panorama Langkawi makes the most of Machincang mountain's wondrous views across slopes swathed in dense rainforests to the brilliant blue Andaman Sea and distant emerald-drop isles. Part of Machincang Cambrian Geoforest Park, known for its uber-ancient rock formations, the cable cars take you to the scalloped peaks sculpted over a period of 550 million years and link up with an elegant suspended sky bridge and angled viewing platforms. Go up just before dusk for an unforgettable sunset.
Langkawi's credentials as a top tropical retreat are only enhanced by the fact that it's cheap and easy to get to. Short domestic flights from Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi cost as little as £10 each way, with the added bonus that you can spend time soaking up Malaysia's richly-layered culture in Kuala Lumpur as part of your trip.