When it comes to providing a world-class hotel and food while blending subtly into spectacular natural surroundings, there’s nowhere quite like the Datai, says William Sitwell.
It’s 8am. The light streams through the tops of two vastly tall trees that appear to be in an eternal embrace. ‘That is the strangling fig,’ goes a sonorous voice; a melodic, calming tone and an Indian accent. ‘And the strangling fig endures something of a PR nightmare,’ he continues. This is the voice of ponytailed Irshad Mobarak. Dressed in khaki shirt and trousers, he has a pair of binoculars around his neck and a chunky bird book in his beige bag.
‘The seed of the strangling fig is deposited into the cavity of a branch of a host tree via the droppings of a bird. The seed will germinate and then its roots will extend and reach the ground. The tree will then grow and eventually it will overwhelm the original tree and kill it. But remember that first tree had a cavity. So it was going to die anyway. So the strangling fig remains. It will be a home to flying squirrels, primates and all kinds of birds; deer and pigs will eat the figs that drop to the forest floor. In fact this tree is a keystone of the rainforest. So do not think of this as a company takeover, think of it as a sound business restructure.’
All this information delivered with earnest wit, and it’s not even breakfast time. The Datai, on the Malaysian island of Langkawi, is just like this. It’s full of surprises. The hotel, built in the rainforest 25 years ago, blends sympathetically into its surroundings. The main hotel building is set against a hill that leads down to the jungle floor and then a few hundred yards to the beach — a perfect arc of white sand. From the beach you walk along a raised jetty until you reach gardens, before dark and heavy stone steps lead you up to the hotel — like the entrance to some mysterious Indiana Jones-style temple. Accommodation is off the main hotel, or there are little wooden houses on stilts dotted about the jungle, as well as the luxurious beach villas, which come with an adjoining sitting room, sun deck and private pool.
Mobarak isn’t just here for a morning’s talk; he’s employed by the Datai as its resident naturalist. He takes morning and evening tours of the gardens and surrounding rainforest, and there’s so much to see and listen to that you don’t even leave the confines of the hotel. He shows us swallows’ nests in the wooden eaves of the reception roof, and we spot frogs on the lobby’s lily pond. ‘At one point there were so many green paddy-field frogs colonising the pond that we had to introduce a predator fish to lower the numbers,’ he explains. ‘They would troop across the floor and get squished under the feet of guests. And they don’t go quickly, they cry out like little kittens.’
All of which makes for excellent conversation at breakfast in the main dining room overlooking the largest hotel pool. Or non-talkers can pick up a page of dissected news — which is translated into four different languages and carries stories from the US, UK, France and Germany. So you can get up to date with UK political shenanigans while eating an incredible breakfast. There are exquisite pastries, made by the Indian-born but European-trained head baker Syed. There’s also gorgeous fruit of every exotic kind (I had a mango so good it made me sad at what one gets in the UK), bircher muesli, yoghurts, cheeses, breads, an egg station and a roti man. He’ll turn out a fresh roti for your morning dahl.
The breakfast, like all the food, is overseen by Australian chef Richard Millar. He is a master at securing supplies as, in his own words, ‘Langkawi doesn’t really produce anything.’ So all the bread and pastry is made on site, while lamb, beef and lettuce come from Australia, mangoes from Thailand, berries from Mexico, salmon trout from Norway, and oysters from New Zealand. ‘One of my projects is to create a garden, so I can grow vegetables, herbs and flowers.’
He cooks his own food at the hotel dining room, where you can dine on the likes of the freshest pea soup, melt-in-the-mouth black cod and crispy-skinned sea bass, as well as a perfect gooey-centred chocolate fondant.
Other restaurants at the Datai include the Gulai House, where you can eat extraordinarily good Indian and Malaysian food in a building constructed in the traditional Malay kampong style. (My appetite had been whetted for this while devouring wonderful satay, Malaya kebabs, on board my Malaysian Airlines flight.) Staff indulge you with the traditional at-table washing of hands before you get the opportunity to eat the world’s finest (pink but charred) tandoori lamb chops.
Then there’s the Pavilion, a Thai restaurant built on 100ft stilts, a beach restaurant (serving the likes of grilled tuna, daily local specials such as wok-fried prawns, or simple pasta dishes and steaks), and the Beach Bar. The last of these is the hub of chat and gossip come lunchtime. The staff encourage one to sip on chilled rosé while those in the know — wishing for a lighter food offering — order lunch from the kids’ menu (not that there seemed to be many kids on my trip).
In addition to these restaurants, there are special events that add to the culinary joy. There’s a seafood feast once a week offering everything from oysters to sashimi, from grilled prawns to paella, and on three of the days I was there the French chef Michel Roux Sr was in residence to cook dinner inspired by the restaurant he co-founded with his brother Albert, the Waterside Inn.
If none of that perks your appetite, you could just organise a special four-course lobster menu dining privately by candlelight on the beach. Or you could take friends for an early evening cocktails and canapés jaunt on ‘HMS Datai’. For nestling in the harbour, in the warm Andaman Sea, is the Naga Pelangi, a traditional schooner built of Malaysian Chengal wood and available only for Datai guests. You can take it out for a day of exploring nearby coves, or cruise out to sea as the sun sets and the master captain, a German sailor called Christoph, puts up the boat’s magnificent orange sails.
To cope with this impeccable imbibing, you can jog along the beach, or do yoga or a cooking class, a pilates class, some meditation or some official postural assessment and corrective exercise. Or there’s the spa. Unlike any other I’ve come across, the individual spa rooms are open to the jungle elements. It’s quite something to have real rainforest noises and warm air wafting over you as you have your feet tickled.
Then, if you’re lucky (as I was), you can lurk in the evening by the lobby and bump into the King of Malaysia. I was waiting to chat to the Datai’s manager, a great Frenchman called Arnaud Girodon — who endured eight interviews before he secured the position of guardian of this paradise — when Almu’tasimu Billahi Muhibbuddin Tuanku Alhaj Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah Ibni Almarhum Sultan Badlishah swung by unannounced with an entourage of 30 for a swift fruit juice.
The Datai is a wonderful slice of heaven on earth with graceful service, and it’s almost impossible to conceive that anyone could create a more luxurious hotel. And I shan’t forget one other little Datai surprise: an early evening visit by a family of dusky langur monkeys to our beach villa. A mother cradling her little ginger baby, her male partner and two other kids hopped down on to the roof, then paraded along the perimeter fence before taking to the sand. The little monkeys played while the parents watched, the ginger baby clinging to its mother. Just a little family unit enjoying a sunset promenade on the beach — I was, as regulars will affirm, well and truly Datai’d.