The 104 jungle-clad islets that make up Malaysia’s Langkawi archipelago are home to some of Asia’s most sumptuous resorts, offering grand infinity pools, fine-dining restaurants, and the most fashionable spa treatments. But Temple Tree stands apart. Spread over two tropical acres, it is part open-air architectural museum, part quirky luxury hotel.
I am greeted by Narelle McMurtrie, its Australian owner, at the Straits Club House, a 1920s colonial villa that serves as the hotel’s reception as well as housing a cool cocktail bar, pool room, library and restaurant that spreads out on to an airy wooden terrace.
The resort’s other eight houses are between 70 and 110 years old and come from all over the country’s ethnically diverse regions. Most were derelict or abandoned when McMurtrie saved them, painstakingly dismantling them and shipping them here to be rebuilt, renovated and decorated with her signature mix of period antiques, primary colours and eclectic furnishings. Guests can rent a whole villa or just a suite, and each property has its own character and history.
The Penang House, built in the 1930s by a wealthy Chinese businessman, resembles a tropical art deco bungalow, furnished with turquoise shutters, antique birdcages, gilded mirrors and a wooden bathtub. The Black and White House is traditional Malay design, with distinctive coloured glass windows, its own mini-gym and a perfect verandah for relaxing on a rattan recliner with a gin and tonic, imagining the days of British planters evoked in the tales of Somerset Maugham. The sumptuous Colonial House, once owned by Arab goldsmiths, is Temple Tree’s party house, with five rooms and a long dining table that seats 10.
I am staying in the top floor suite of the Chinese House, a magnificent century-old wooden farmhouse, built in Johor, near to Singapore. Inside there is a Mahjong room, ancient family portraits and four-poster bed with mosquito netting – but also funky 1960s furniture, state-of-the-art music centre and wide-screen TV (though there is no actual television coverage, there is free access to a vast library of DVDs). Outside, a shady terrace has views on to an enticing 110ft swimming pool, perfect for early morning laps. Then there are bird-filled wetlands and paddy fields, and, in the distance, mountains surrounded by a tropical mist.
Temple Tree, which is now in its third year, is close to McMurtrie’s first Langkawi resort, Bon Ton, which opened in 1994 and followed the same principle of heritage conservation in recreating a traditional Malay kampong village with ancient wooden stilt houses. Bon Ton boasts one of Langkawi’s top restaurants, serving a mix of Malaysian Nyonya and modern Pacific Rim cuisines. But rather than stop for dinner there, McMurtrie drags me off to the airport, where we arrive 10 minutes before our twin-propeller plane is due to take off for the nearby island of Penang, home to her latest project.
Penang is booming, with its capital Georgetown invigorated by recognition as an Unesco World Heritage site. It seems as though in every street, crumbling Chinese shophouses are being converted into hotels, galleries, bars and restaurants.
McMurtrie has moved into Georgetown in a big way, opening Straits Collection, a series of 1850s houses that have been transformed into stunning holiday rentals, as well as a showroom of exquisite Asian home accessories, an exhibition space and coffeehouse. “Maybe I was lucky,” says McMurtrie, telling me that although the Straits Collection opened in 2011, she bought the properties five years ago, before Unesco recognition prompted prices to soar.
Her latest venture is Chinahouse – three heritage buildings linked by a courtyard that together house a range of cafés and exhibition spaces. Catering ranges from the casual Kopi C café to the BTB restaurant, where Dutch chef Mathijs Nanne serves dishes such as prawn-crusted sea bass with braised coconut. On the ground floor a wine bar segues into a reading room, while upstairs young Penang photographers exhibit in one gallery, and another is occupied by a German video installation. The atmosphere changes completely in the Canteen, a performance space that is heaving with people dancing to a Malaysian reggae band blasting out Bob Marley standards.
It’s a stark contrast with laid-back Langkawi, but the combination of destinations makes for an invigorating, unusual tropical holiday a world away from the bland beach clubs of the international chains.
Firefly links Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi and Penang, and flies between the two islands