Set in the febrile lushness of the Langkawi island rainforest, this sprawling 121-room northern Malay resort sits snug between the knife-edge peaks of jungle hills and the white-sand crescent of Datai Bay, just an hour's flight from Kuala Lumpur - and a ferry ride from Koh Lipe's screensaver-worthy shorelines in Thailand.
Coddled by the thick, ever-rustling foliage of a 10-million-year-old virgin rainforest, villas, suites and rooms offer seductive, sophisticated interiors that invite the captivating ambience of the region's wilderness inside (including the melodic peals of ample birdlife each morning). Encircled by 500 hectares of private grounds tucked within the 13,000 hectares of island rainforest, the luxurious retreat is the perfect playground for nature nurturers - not just because of its wild location but thanks to its era-defining and pioneering approach to protecting the environment, with help from the team of naturalists, biologists and conservationists that roam its expansive grounds.
In a word, epic. Pick between a rainforest villa, a beach-gazing suite or a canopy room tucked into the main building. We were in a tree-hugged villa, a stilted, 123sq m property with soaring ceilings, a vast bathroom - the kind you can dance around in in the luxurious bathrobes provided (some of the plushest we've ever encountered) - and, in some villas, a private pool. If it rains, there's nowhere better to curl up with a book than on the jungle-dappled terrace, listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops on waxy leaves.
The resort was originally designed by visionary Australian architect Kerry Hill, and a 2019 update saw the property's original interior designer Didier Lefort return to refresh the look, adding a quiet, luxurious confidence to the mix. Expect minimalist, sexy hues, with lots of wood, marble and rattan touches.
What's for breakfast?
A buffet with some seriously good regional offerings - hot, traditional Malay breakfast (including fresh dosas and roti); cakes and pastries baked by Lebanese chef Said Hazar; luxurious lassi to go, plus watermelon, guava and other tropical juices. Breakfast runs until 11am but we'd recommend heading down between seven and eight to grab a front-seat table overlooking the pool. Bring your bins to spy the birdlife: hornbills and drongos are early-morning visitors, too.
How about lunch and dinner?
The Pavilion offers authentic Thai food from a treetop perch; The Dining Room is a fine dining restaurant that serves up an exemplary nine-course meal that borrows flavours from across the Asian continent; and thatch-roofed The Gulai House (build in the traditional kampung style) plates Malay favourites like kerabu betik muda dada puyuh salai (papaya salad with smoked quail breast), as well as boat-fresh seafood and tandoor-cooked meat.
Our favourite, though, is The Beach Club, an all-day dining offering that overlooks the waves. We'd recommend ordering a whole grilled grouper from the lunch menu, plus a fresh coconut (served with a bamboo straw).
Is there a bar?
The ceiling fan-cooled lounge bar, open every day and occupying an elevated position above the pool, offers stunning views both of the rainforest canopy and the paradisiacal vision of Thailand's Koh Tarutao island out across the bay. It has a sophisticated vibe: think live piano performances, cigars come sunset, and a craft cocktail menu that borrows flavours from the Malay kitchen. Try the signature "the butterfly" cocktail, which features Datai's house gin, or a refreshing lychee ice tea mocktail.
There's an almost overwhelming offering, so we'd make use of the handy app prior to arrival to plan your weekly schedule around pit stops at the three hotel pools. We loved the upcycling workshop at The Lab, where you can make your own soaps and candles, as well as The Dapur cookery school, where a class gave us the foundations to start whipping up our own Malay creations.
Elsewhere, there's yoga, kayaking, paddingboarding and sailing, and excursions into the rainforest led by Dev Dass and Irshad Mobarak at The Nature Centre (think butterfly walks, mangrove trails and six-hour jungle hikes).
Don't miss The Spa, either, which utilises indigenous ingredients and ancient Malay herbal rituals. We'd switch to a typical oil treatment for a tungku massage, which uses a heated cotton pouch containing a riverstone that's wrapped in lemongrass, galangal, pepper and other healing herbal ingredients to reduce pain and increase circulation.
What are the hotel's eco-credentials like?
Impressive - just ask the GM. The Datai Pledge promises to protect marine life, conserve and regenerate rainforest wildlife, nurture local communities via environmental education and make the hotel's business operations entirely sustainable. No mean feat given that the island is home to more than 520 tree species, and 80 per cent of the biodiversity of Malay mangroves.
Photo credit: Eric Martin
But it's not just lofty ideals; there are extensive recycling systems in use, a plastic-free mentality and a serious investment in data-capture tools to monitor - and cut down - the hotel's carbon footprint (including guest air miles). They've rebuilt coral reefs in the bay, worked on habitat restoration and reforestation of native forest, and supported NGOs in empowering and educating local communities.
What about accessibility?
It's a big property, but if you're not fully mobile then there's a fleet of buggies on hand to get around. Villas are spacious, and mobility ramps are available on request.
What's the crowd like?
A mix of young and older couples, solo travellers and families with older children. We met a fair few returning visitors (always a good sign) and a number of binocular-wearing nature enthusiasts (prepare to feel like your iPhone is a toy when you spy one of their impressive cameras taking a snap).
Things I should know
Don't leave your doors or windows open at night unless you're keen to have an early-hours wake-up call from some overconfident monkeys and flying squirrels.
Within a short walk I can find…
The resort. It's huge - you won't need to leave
A seven-night stay at The Datai costs from £3,695pp when booked with Red Savannah. The rate includes bed and breakfast, return economy flights from London Heathrow to Langkawi and private airport transfers.
Since it opened 30 years ago, the resort has been committed to responsible stewardship of its incredible surroundings, and in 2019 this commitment was formalised through The Datai Pledge. It has achieved significant measurable successes across all four 'pillars' of the Pledge, which aim to support marine life, terrestrial wildlife, and local youth, as well as leading the way in sustainable business practices. Highlights include achieving zero-waste-to-landfill, saving 146,704kg of waste; collecting 4,361 seedlings, including critically endangered species, to be germinated in the resort's Native Tree Nursery; beginning work on a possibly world-first, trans-island wildlife corridor; and creating an in-situ hatchery and conducive turtle environment in Datai Bay, prompting its first turtle landing in over 10 years; setting up 'green schools' in partnership with Green Growth Asia Foundation, to educate the younger generation on a sustainable future and much more.