Saturday, September 3, 2016

Bikinis and Burqas

Well Niqabs not Burqas to be technically correct - niqabs allow you to see the eyes of the people who wear them as opposed to Burqas, but I will come to this a bit later.  We had a somewhat anxious 90 minute trip to Langkawi (which is actually a cluster of 99 islands) from Singapore given our eldest son doesn't like flying and we were in a smaller aircraft on a local Malindo Airways flight, where you feel every bump.  Luckily, we found ourselves touching down just as his anxiety reached its peak.  My favourite part when travelling anywhere is arriving and our driver from The Westin found us after we picked up our luggage from the carousel.

My first impression of Langkawi was that it reminded me of Vietnam in many ways.  It was a good hour from the airport to The Westin Langkawi Resort and Spa so we took the highway in our car and made a leisurely trip to the hotel.  It feels a bit like Far North Queensland in terms of climate but the dilapidated low rise buildings and roadside cafes with coloured plastic chairs definitely place you in a developing Asian country.

We got to the very exclusive feeling Westin resort through a guarded barrier gate that takes you past the relatively new conference centre and round into The Westin itself.  I have to say that The Westin had the wow factor right from the start from the amazing views from the level 3 lobby where you look out and see the main infinity pool that backs on to the Strait of Malacca (overlooking the Andaman sea), to being greeted by the Managing Director himself with refresher hand towels and cold drinks on arrival, to the seamless, professional service by front desk - it was all pretty outstanding.
We checked our luggage in and because our flight was slightly early, we were taken to an adjoining air conditioned lounge area across from the lobby to help ourselves to a light lunch in front of a movie until our rooms were ready.  Once again we found ourselves in an all in one garden room (where we did later upgrade to a separate suite from our children) on the fourth level but they are beautifully appointed and we were very happy to be there!

We spent our first night enjoying the complimentary happy hour drinks in the level 3 Breezes bar near the lobby, having dinner downstairs in the restaurant and watching the start of the house band perform before all going to bed.
In many ways, Langkawi (and Malaysia itself) was a revelation and definite cultural experience - something that had been missing in Singapore.  I say this because one of the most arresting sights that will stay with me for a while, was when the boys and I first left our hotel room to check out the hotel grounds and were waiting for the elevator doors to open, whereby the doors then opened and we were greeted by three Arabic women dressed head to toe in black niquabs along with two accompanying men - it was like something out of a movie.  We waited to catch the next elevator but it really did set the scene for Langkawi and the rest of Malaysia, which is a Muslim country.
I remember one of my neighbours, who went to Malaysia a couple of years ago, telling me she felt uncomfortable being at a resort surrounded by women in niqabs and later on the streets of Kuala Lumpur, but I have to say it didn't bother me at all and added to the decidedly exotic feel at both places.  Malaysia is about the same distance from Saudi Arabia (and the middle east) as we are from Australia to Malaysia and there were lots of people from the middle east holidaying and honeymooning at The Westin because of the food and culture.  I'd say 50% of the guests there were Arabic and the resort caters to them in many ways from Arabic menu and shisha pipe on offer in the Breezes lounge (and a fantastic weekly Arabic dinner downstairs in the restaurant which I loved amongst other international cuisines), to the many mocktails on offer in all bars to 'beef' (not pork) bacon in all the lunch and dinner menu items.  Like all the other guests at the resort, they were polite and friendly people who I enjoyed being around.

The resort was pretty multicultural in that the other guests were mainly from Singapore and Malaysia as well as Europe, UK and Australia.  Given I've only ever done the resort thing for 3 days while on honeymoon over 10 years ago, Mr Rosanna and I felt like we were on our second honeymoon, despite the kids!  The lush, tropical feel at the resort looking out onto the islands in the Strait also reminded me of being at Ha Long Bay in Vietnam where we spent one night on a Chinese junk, which felt like being on the set of a James Bond movie.  There's no way you can manufacture that kind of atmosphere or environment which felt other-worldly - like something out of a dream.  It's a view I never got tired of looking at.

The resort and outlying grounds are simply beautiful as well as the three different pools - besides the infinity pool, there's also a toddler pool for young children and the more organic rock pool, which my kids loved.  From our sun lounges, we would order food and drink to eat or saunter to the nearby outdoor cafe by the sea where we also had dinner one night.

Mr R and my boys also loved the international breakfast buffet until 11.30am every morning in the restaurant where you could choose from western, Asian, Indian, Arabic and European/continental dishes ranging from Chinese congee to pancakes and waffles, to dim sum and freshly baked croissants and pastries by the French chef to the fresh juices and bircher muesli in mason glasses.  You could also order customised omelettes and the whole restaurant area buzzed each morning and was beautifully decorated from the fresh floral displays to the native fruit in glass bowls.  It was definitely something else and I also appreciated the kindness and personalities of the different chefs and waiting staff who were so patient with my children and clearly delighted in being around them.
I also used to look at what some of the Arabic women in niqabs were wearing on their feet - often thongs or sneakers!  Some of them also carried beautiful handbags and jewellery and I think many were there as newly wed couples, which was lovely to see.
After doing so much sightseeing in Singapore I thought we might do some day trips from the hotel to the nearby shops or to the local cable car but given how relaxed we felt at The Westin, we stayed the entire 6 nights there at the resort chilling out and enjoying all it had to offer.  Both Mr R and I had treatments at the Heavenly day spa which was a walk past the self-contained villas.  You can use the private pool at the spa if you're booked in for a treatment.
We also used the gym a number of times and The Westin has a partnership with New Balance where you can hire gym gear and runners if you've not packed these, which is a great idea if you're wanting to stay fit while away from home.  Given the heat outside, it was great to go running on the treadmill and do some yoga in the gym while Mr R enjoyed the cycling, rowing and other gym equipment and weights.
It was all very idyllic from the swaying coconut trees to the hornbill birds and big butterflies flittering about the fruit trees to the two different types of monkeys I spied both times (but was wary of approaching) when leaving the Heavenly day spa on my way back to the main part of the resort.
We upgraded to an Ocean View room the last few nights that we were there for some privacy and space from our kids, and the only downer was that we weren't told the room was subject to noise from the house band.  After complaining to front desk, the volume was turned 50% down at 11pm but the band were allowed to continue to perform until midnight.  I have left a review and a warning on the hotel's Facebook page to be mindful about which room you are placed in and the fact that we were not informed prior to upgrading.

We didn't let it spoil an otherwise perfect tropical island paradise experience including hiring sea kayaks and spending time by the pool on our last day to a spectacular Brazilian BBQ dinner poolside complete with Malaysian performers on our last night.  Again, it looked like something out of a movie with white clothed tables and fire-lit torches lighting up the whole area.  It was simply magic and The Westin do the whole resort thing incredibly well.  I can only imagine how amazing the nearby brother hotel - the newly opened St Regis must be.

Would I go there again?  In a heart beat yes -  but I would just be more discerning about which room and noise issues next time.  The Managing Director did apologise for this in the form of free entry to The Westin Lounge at the airport on our way to our last days spent in Kuala Lumpur, which I will post about next.  The Luxury Escapes deal was also well worth it given we only paid for our room upgrade, drinks, some food and entertainment with our dollar being at least three times that of the Malaysian ringgit.  Langkawi Island really was an unforgettable experience and I'm so glad we went.

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