Travel Story The Datai: an architectural gem in touch with nature

The Datai Langkawi exterior view
Photo of Brad Thompson

This luxurious hideaway nestled amid the rainforests of Langkawi was designed by the architect behind some of Perth's best buildings.

It started as a jungle daydream and became a reality, thanks to the architect behind some of Perth’s best buildings.

In creating The Datai resort, architect Kerry Hill blended a luxurious hideaway cascading down to the Andaman Sea into a 10 million-year-old rainforest.

More than 20 years later, his stone and wood structures are so entwined in the natural beauty of Langkawi that it’s hard to tell resort from rainforest.

Visitors are as close to the wildlife as you can get without being bitten and, at the same time, are in the lap of luxury.

We pondered this after a dusky leaf monkey woke me up. 

I had been dozing in a deck chair on the private beach. The monkey was feeding less than 2m away in a tree shading my lounge. Along the beach, a waiter was serving cocktails and a couple of honeymooners were launching the resort’s catamaran.

On the way down from my villa, I’d come face-to-face with a monitor lizard. It was well over a metre long and was climbing a tree.

My deck-chair neighbours said they had disturbed a wild pig on their short walk to the beach.

They were raving about the butterflies and birdlife. Close encounters with an orange albatross (butterfly, not bird) and greater flameback (bird, not butterfly) made their day. 

The Datai has a resident naturalist and a marine biologist to help guests put a name to all kinds of wildlife. 

They’ll also take you trekking into the forest, out on the water or to the edge of the mangroves to watch macaques fishing for crabs.

A troop of these omnivorous monkeys does the rounds of the Datai every day, rattling doors and windows. The warning from management is lock up or lose any food inside.

This is a legacy from the early days of The Datai, when guests thought the best way to photograph the macaques was to leave food on balcony railings.

The don’t-feed-the-animals message has been well understood for years, but nothing can stop the macaques and their monkey business.

Once it was pirates who ran amok and then hid on this stretch of coast. Datai Bay looks out on the Strait of Malacca to the Thai island of Tarutao five nautical miles away.

The bay is hidden from the rest of Langkawi at the end of a road snaking through the forest. From the water or from either end of the beach, you have to look hard to spot the resort through the trees.

The villas are built on stilts along a rainforest stream that starts at the top of a limestone mountain range. For every tree that was knocked down during construction, another was planted.

The Datai is treasured by couples such as my deck-chair neighbours, who keep coming back to walk the jungle trails and snorkel in the bay. They’re also here for the food and five-star pampering, which seem so unlikely in a place where there are occasional sightings of the rare clouded leopard.

Fancy foie gras? It’s on the menu. A bloody mary or champagne with breakfast? Complimentary and coming up. A romantic dinner with lightning show and forest night-life symphony? Try one of the four restaurants, the most spectacular perched high in the treetops.

Hill had all these contradictions in mind when he sat down to design the Datai.

He had fallen in love with the pristine setting and was inspired by the construction challenge.

Hill limited the size of the main building and pulled it back from the beach front — where most thought it should sit — into the forest. He let nature guide him in adding the villas, a grand staircase and shale retaining walls.

Elephants, not heavy machinery, were used to fell trees and the wood used in construction.

The resort eventually earned the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, an honour bestowed every three years on projects that set new standards in excellence.

Hill, who now works out of an office in Fremantle, continues to win awards.

Last year marked the first time judges couldn’t split two projects for top prize in the WA Architecture Awards. The City of Perth Library and the State Buildings were both designed by Hill (the latter with Palassis Architects as heritage architects).

The architect responsible for the State Theatre Centre also won a competition to design what some believe will be the defining structure of Elizabeth Quay.

The design features two towers with a public art museum and viewing area at the top of the southern tower. 

The museum sits at a height of 170m above apartments, a hotel, retail outlets and restaurants.

Meanwhile, The Datai is preparing for its first major overhaul since opening in 1993. The resort will close for 10 months from September for extensive renovations.

The owners have promised to retain the Datai DNA and honour Hill’s original vision.

Fact File

Disclaimer

Brad Thompson travelled as a guest of the Datai.

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