Primordial forests, deserted beaches and spectacular wildlife – could Langkawi become the next great playground for superyacht owners? Mike MacEacheran discovers why the Malaysian archipelago is gearing up for a big boat boom
We know they are somewhere in the mangroves long before we can see them. There is a frenzied cry from the floating forest, as branches shake and leaves shiver, sending a pair of juvenile kites skywards in alarm. A chatter from the rustling canopy drowns out the putter of our four-stroke outboard motor and then, as we venture deeper into the tangle of trees, dozens of long-tailed macaques appear on the shoreline, pausing to scratch their bellies. One blows past us at speed, a circus leap from an overhanging tree on to the roof of our vessel, before bouncing, cannonball-style, into the water. It is a moment for nervous giggles, worthy of a David Attenborough blooper reel.
This is my first encounter with the 550-million-year-old Kilim Karst Geoforest Park that defines the north-eastern coast of Langkawi, Malaysia’s spectacular archipelago in the Andaman Sea. It is a couple of hours after sunrise and I’m with Aidi Abdullah, chief naturalist at Four Seasons Resort Langkawi, whooshing through the UNESCO-listed park’s maze of waterways, scanning the foliage for signs of monitor lizard, viper and the elusive clouded leopard. Above us, jagged limestone karsts rocket out of the tree line, dwarfing a forgotten-by-time landscape where fish eagles hunt for breakfast.
“Welcome to my kingdom,” says Abdullah, gently manoeuvring the boat to a standstill. It is King Kong meets Jurassic Park; a National Geographic centrefold meets a Joseph Conrad backdrop. “There’s such an explosion of biodiversity here; it’s hard not to feel in awe. And don’t think of it as geology. Think of it as geo-heritage. It’s back-to-your-roots travel,” he adds.
As this philosophy suggests, Langkawi’s mangroves require vessels with more than a hint of adventurous spirit. Legally, no boats bigger than 10 metres are allowed into the 70-kilometre network of waterways and a strict maximum speed of 10 knots must be adhered to at all times to prevent erosion of the fragile forest ecosystem. Yachts, once tied up in the outer reaches of the park, are swapped for battered long-tail fishing boats. At high tide the maximum depth reaches little more than three metres. And when the tide turns, water flushes back into the Andaman Sea, leaving a web of barely navigable channels behind – a code only clued-up locals can break. But that doesn’t mean there is a lack of superyacht traffic charting Langkawi’s deeper coastal waters. Far from it.
Finding the island’s up-and-coming yachting infrastructure involves crossing to its south-east coast, a journey that leads from Tanjung Rhu, a mesmerising stretch of sand, down through its jungle interior to the resort of Kuah. The archipelago’s yachting scene centres around the three-storey Royal Langkawi Yacht Club, the largest marina in Malaysia. When I stop by, 65.7-metre Amels Sea Rhapsody is in port, much to the delight of gawking locals and holidaymakers. Outside the club, I meet New Yorker Scott Walker, director of Asia Pacific Superyachts, one of three agents on the island, who takes me on a tour of the south coast. Based between Langkawi and Singapore for the past 33 years, he has watched Kuah Bay grow into what he describes as Asia’s most perfect natural harbour. “Langkawi could be the Monaco of the Far East,” enthuses Walker, as we whip west along the waterfront highway. “Boats come and go all the time. Next week we have a 63-metre superyacht arriving, and a 96-metre one the week after that. Then there are regular arrivals from China and Hong Kong.”
We’re on our way to Pantai Cenang, a golden strip of beach that has become ground zero for hang-it-all hedonism. It’s in the heat of mid-afternoon when we stop to check out the bars, restaurants and outfitters offering outdoor pursuits such as horse riding and mountain-bike tours. Pleasure cruisers zip to riviera-meets-rainforest properties and nearby five-star hotels. Cenang Beach has a reputation as Langkawi’s most developed strip of sand but it has practical benefits: boatyards where you can stop for repairs – and Asia Pacific Superyachts’ clients are beginning to bring in bigger vessels. As if to set the tone, a helicopter buzzes overhead, shuttling VIPs to a private plane at Langkawi International Airport.
But it is the diversity of landscapes that is the main lure for yachts visiting this region. From incredible rock formations, karsts and coral reefs, to its rainforests, tidal flats, beaches and caves, the variety is almost unfathomable. Just over 100 nautical miles to the north, Phuket also offers stunning landscapes but its popularity as a mainstream holiday hotspot – with dayboats nipping to famous locations such as James Bond Island – can make it challenging to find peaceful waters. In contrast, there are 99 islands within the Langkawi archipelago, many of them uninhabited satellites with patches of gloriously private sand to plant a flag on. Back at the yacht club, general manager Tayfun Koksal is as enthusiastic as Walker, pointing offshore to Lady Azul, a 39-metre classic charter permanently based at the club. “You can anchor somewhere different every day and there are so many opportunities for sailors, it’s always a new discovery,” he says. The yacht club is also the end destination for the annual Raja Muda Selangor International Regatta (15 to 23 November) which has previously attracted superyachts including 37.5-metre Escapade.
In the evening, I retreat to the Four Seasons, which is only too ready to welcome superyacht guests. Standalone beach villas, complete with private plunge pools, are strung out along an enviable stretch of private beach. And dotted beneath towering palms and a stark, weathered landscape there are jungle-cloaked Malay pavilions, some tucked away like secret lovebird havens. The resort recently underwent a revamp under hotel design wizard Bill Bensley, embracing a new bold midnight-blue colour scheme. It brings a sense of theatre to the rainforest setting, and on closer inspection the arches and hanging lanterns framing the lotus ponds lend a Moorish chic.
The property has also recently extended its pioneering Geopark Discovery Centre, which helps educate guests on Langkawi’s fragile biodiversity – Langkawi as a whole is setting itself apart as a leader for Southeast Asian conservation. As well as exploring the Kilim Karst Geoforest, visitors can also take part in an eco-bike tour. It weaves through a local village of stilted wooden houses before meandering from rice paddies to a black sand beach, the quiet pathways interrupted only by mud-splashed water buffalo and puddles created by the afternoon rain.
If you are tired from your eco adventures, head for the resort’s Geo Spa. Set around a lotus pool, guests journey into the past for indigenous shaman-inspired rituals, bamboo massages and Ayurveda therapies using oil from rainforest-foraged flowers. It all feels elemental. Afterwards head for the newly opened Ikan-Ikan restaurant, where rural recipes, such as wok-fried tiger prawns and steamed Andaman sea bass, are served in a traditional Malaysian home setting.
The final bonus for superyacht visitors is the ability to easily book-end a Langkawi cruise with a city break in Kuala Lumpur before flying home. Sister establishment Four Seasons Hotel Kuala Lumpur has just opened, and while Langkawi offers a glimpse into a traditional land before time and tenders, the Malaysian capital is fearlessly full of drive, with a frenetic urgency everywhere.
Near the very end of the trip, while I am still to shake the sand from my shoes and jungle reverie from my head, I contemplate the city from the comfort of a private cabana by the hotel’s outdoor pool. It is a wide-angle farewell to Malaysia, and in quick succession introduces the urban jungle of the KLCC Park, the antennae-like KL Tower and the big duo – the unmistakable Petronas Twin Towers. The view is as electrifying as one from the prow of a boat while cruising million-year-old mangroves. Malaysia really does know how to work its magic.