VIVANTA BY TAJ
REBAK ISLAND 

Feature Story by Kamila Delart

Read also the SHORT PORTRAIT

Situated on a private secluded island, Vivanta by Taj is enveloped in a veil of mystery. So although reaching this hideaway doesn’t take any longer than if I were heading to any other resort in Langkawi, when boarding a boat at the tiny Port Langkasuka, I feel as though I am embarking on a voyage to another world…

... with a lot more text and 15 more pictures:

Marking the emerald green sea with a foamy wake, we glide across the Senari Straits, watching the tiny dot of the Rebak Island on the horizon become larger and larger… Until we spot some fifteen minutes later the majestic masts of luxury yachts peacefully docking in the dreamy Rebak Marina.
Passing a building that resembles an ancient water palace and crossing a small bridge, my buggy reaches the resort and the friendly driver points to the various outlets, sharing with me their operating hours. So when I arrive at the reception, I feel as though I can immediately slip into my holiday experience, without struggling to find my way around.

I’m about to sit down to enjoy a signature Guava welcome drink, when I see a girl rushing to welcome me - her smiley face radiating such a joy as if I was a long-lost relative of hers. As she comes close, I recognize Norina, the Reception Manager I met more than a year ago when visiting the resort’s Spa for a few hours. I imagine how many guests she must have met since and it makes me feel warm inside that she still remembers...

Escorted to my garden-view suite, I enter the traditional two-storey chalet built from cengal timber, taking in the rustic feel reminiscent of days gone by. Freshly refurbished, the suite marries contemporary ambiance with lovely traditional touches such as hand-made wall hangings and an antique Malay gong placed over the bed. I love how spacious and at the same time cozy the suite feels, and wish my home had such beautiful polished wooden floors.


Once I unpack, I sprawl out with a cup of coffee on the organically shaped wicker lounger on my balcony and enjoy a moment of quiet when I hear a friendly greeting. There is a gentleman passing on the pathway, asking me whether I feel comfortable in my suite. A little surprised that he would even notice me behind the balustrade, I affirm - and see his face light up in delight. Shahbul introduces himself as my room attendant, and insists that I let him know should I need anything at all during my entire stay. Since we are chatting, I ask about one of the unusual palms in front of my chalet. And although I try to stop Shahbul, he hurries to find a colleague from a landscaping team to share with me only a few minutes later the name of the tree. I feel as if I was escorted hundreds of years back, talking to a majordomo of my residence. In my mind, I silently congratulate the General Manager for finding such a dedicated team member - not realizing at this point in time that this unusual encounter is only the first of many more to come.

It’s time for lunch and so I head to the resort’s main restaurant. Facing the bay of Senari, a famous seafarer passage that connects the Andaman Sea with the Malacca Straits, the Senari Restaurant relives the memory of adventurers in search of spices, serving a variety of Malay, Indian, Chinese and European dishes, flavored with indigenous local seasonings. I decide to indulge in some Indian delicacies first, planning to spoil my palate with a different cuisine at each meal.

Being a woman, making up my mind can be somewhat of a challenge. So I choose a sampler platter, and enjoy a variety of flavors and textures as I taste lamb cooked in gram masala, braised chicken in spicy onion-tomato sauce, black lentils in butter cream and marinated paneer cottage cheese accompanied by pickled vegetable, rice, papad and phulka bread. A delicious meal!

After a short siesta, I set out to explore the premises of the resort: Just in front of the Senari Restaurant is a free-form swimming pool with classical beach loungers and canopied love seats with upholstery and baldachin in a peach hue, mirroring the color of the Bougainvillea flowers that grow all around. As I follow the coastline, approaching the newly built sea-view villas, I spot between the coconut trees colorful hammocks - luring with the promise of sweet idleness. There is a beach volleyball field and a little further tennis and squash court. Surprisingly broad choice of recreational facilities for a resort with only 94 rooms!

But I am mostly fascinated by the extensive gardens! Beautifully landscaped with manicured lawns, they boast such a variety of tropical trees and exotic plant species, I feel as if I were walking through a botanical garden.

Following a slightly hidden path, I reach what I believe is a nursery. With a newly found passion for gardening since I settled in the tropics, my heart jumps with joy. But then I figure, I may be intruding since the grounds are not necessarily a ‘guest area’. Just when I’m about to walk away, I hear a friendly voice, and before I know it, I find myself in the middle of an animated conversation with the gardening team.

I ask about the wooden name plates I spotted next to some plants in the garden, and learn that guests staying at the Rebak Island Resort for two weeks get to plant their favorite tree and receive once a year a picture to see how it is thriving. What a lovely idea!

Mr. Azizi and Mr. Marzuki who are in charge of the landscaping give me a tour of the nursery, explaining how they multiply and take care for the plants. I wish my Frangipani tree was looking as strong and healthy as the one here, and wonder how they get the Paper Flowers to bloom while my poor Bougainvillea is struggling to keep her leaves on. Mentioning my concerns, I get great gardening tips. And as we continue to talk - while sharing a sweet juicy papaya freshly picked from one of the trees - Mr. Azizi suggests that they pay me a visit when in Langkawi to give me a proper advice upon having a close look at my garden. It must be my lucky day!

About to leave, I catch a glimpse of this beautiful flower I fell in love with nearly a year ago and never came across since. Thrilled to find out the name of the plant so I can look for it in Langkawi’s nurseries, I excitedly ask - and walk away with a pot of young shoots of the enchanting Malay Crepe Ginger, blinking away a few tears…

Eager to make the most of my stay, I signed up for a cooking class in the afternoon - feeling a little out of place as I actually stand in front of a stove. To prevent my home from going up in flames, I usually play it safe - ‘specializing’ in salads... Laughing my jitters away, the Executive Sous Chef, Mr. Ong, walks me through the recipe, teaching me how to let the unfolding aroma guide me as to when to add the next ingredient and when to turn the flame on low. As I finally get to sample the braised Nyonya chicken spiced with coriander, garlic and ginger, I have to admit it’s not only delicious but even for a culinary novice quite simple to prepare. If that’s not encouraging! Noticing my growing interest, and probably concerned about my mainly raw diet, Mr. Ong suggests that I write down a few other ingredients that will allow me to alter the recipe, explaining even where in Langkawi I can get the special seasonings. How thoughtful…

Taking the rest of the day slowly, I relax at the pool, enjoy a lovely Chinese dinner and treat myself to a signature cocktail at the Minum Minum bar - listening in a rocking chair to live soul music. When returning to my suite, there is a lovely note from the housekeeping – along with a pillow I requested. Filled with Lemon Grass that is supposed to act as a natural tranquilizer, I look forward to a restful sleep. - Planning to select from the wide choice of therapeutic cushions the Gingko alternative for tomorrow. A living fossil, unaltered since the time of dinosaurs, the plant is meant to enhance mental clarity. I’m really curious whether I will notice the difference.

My next day is all about exploring the island. Stretching over 390 acres, there is so much to see! I’m a little disappointed when I learn that the morning walk with a local Naturalist, available on two days in a week, took place just before I arrived and is schedule again only after my departure. But then - I’m at the Rebak Island Resort where nothing seems impossible! And so the Front Office Manager, Dave, spontaneously offers to show me around.

Reaching a small bridge that spans over a mangrove stream, we lean over the wooden balustrade. The dense foliage casts shadows on the entangled roots, letting in barely any daylight. But once our eyes get used to the twilight, we notice a motion. And there he is! A huge Monitor Lizard, sticking out his forked tongue to detect the scent of his prey. With the stream teeming with crabs and fish, it should not be a difficult task.

Following a jungle trail flanked by primordial ferns and giant trees as old as 10 million years, I learn about rainforest plants used by Malay medicine men for healing purposes. And as Dave, familiar with the interesting spots, pushes aside some branches, I even get to see the flesh-eating Pitcher Plant!

Resembling a jug, the rim of the plant is tinted in red, luring with the bright color unsuspecting insects. We only wait for a few moments, and watch a fly land on the slippery edge - gliding down into the pitfall trap before she can even attempt to indulge in the sweet nectar. What a cunning mechanism...

But it’s not just the amazing variety of plants that captures one’s attention. A mischievous laugh announces the arrival of the Oriental Hornbill. And as we look up towards the sky, we spot in one of the treetops a huge nest with reddish eaglets that hungrily await the return of their mother.

A little tired after the long jungle walk, I head towards the Ulik Mayang Spa. What could be more invigorating than a proper reflexology massage! When enjoying a ginger tea after my wonderful treatment, I find myself sitting next to a gentleman who keeps shaking his head in disbelief - sharing with me that he came over only to borrow nail clippers and received instead a complimentary manicure. It’s hard not to feel touched by all the genuine care one encounters across the entire resort…

Getting a little hungry, I decide to have my lunch at the Seafood Shack today. With just a few tables set directly on the beach underneath a shade giving canopy of leafy trees, the setting is enchanting. And the fresh seafood, served with beautifully carved vegetable, simply delicious: sea bass with Malaysian marinade, tiger prawns cooked with Chinese herbs and garlic, sautéed mussels and scallops accompanied by a spicy chili cream and lemon - butter sauce… Poetry for the taste buds!

Savoring a tropical mocktail made of lychees, guava and peaches, I enjoy the afternoon breeze and the dreamlike view of the Andaman Sea sprinkled with tiny deserted islands - wondering whether there is a way to explore them. As if reading my mind, the Recreation Manager, Sukri, happens to be passing by. And I learn that it is quite easy to go to these islands by kayak.

As tempting as the idea sounds, the elastic bandage on my foot is a painful remainder of my first and only attempt to go kayaking a couple of weeks back. With no experience, mastering the currents may be tricky, and so I decide to be reasonable this time. But when Sukri hears about my little accident, he spontaneously offers to accompany me, making sure that I am safe. - And that I am!

A gentleman through and through, Sukri not only steers the kayak in a safe distance from rocks and currents, but also holds my hand as we walk over slippery rocks on one of the islands, pushing aside branches of trees so I don’t get scratched as we explore the coastline.

First we follow the shore of Rebak Island to enjoy a walk along the pristine white Crystal Beach. Overgrown with pink Morning Glory, it’s such a romantic spot!

Then we head towards the Rebak Kecil Island and as we sit down on the beach, Sukri shares with me a mysterious story: On a stormy day few years back, a couple of local fishermen decided to stay overnight, waiting for the sea to calm down. Soundly asleep, they were woken shortly after midnight by the sound of ecstatic drums and singing resembling Malay shamanic rituals. And yet, apart from the fishermens’ dinghy, there was not a single boat docking on the coastline…

 

I guess, I should find the story unsettling but the adventurer in me feels magically drawn to the island, wishing I could witness such a shamanic ceremony first hand. Maybe one day…

On the way back to the resort, we stop at the tiny Intan Kecil Island. A spectacular rock formation rising on a steep angle from the sea, the prehistoric boulder reveals during low tide two secret caves guarded by emerald green crabs. There is one more magical spot I would love to see. But the currents are rather strong today and so the legendary Red Beach will have to wait until my next visit to the island. Something to look forward to…

After a leisurely breakfast on my last day, I go for a mountain bike ride. The morning mist above the rainforest is slowly lifting, the air is fresh, and with no cars on the island, all I hear is the joyful chirping of birds. So peaceful and beautiful, I wish I could make the time stand still…

The idea of having to leave soon makes me a little melancholic so I’m glad there is something to distract me. A batik workshop! As I reach the venue, I’m a little confused when greeted by the artist, Zaki. I could swear he introduced himself a couple of days ago as the Food & Beverage manager. Noticing my surprise, Zaki grins, and explains that he is both, a member of the executive team and passionate artist at the same time. What a wonderful idea to embrace the talents of people rather than sticking to rigid job descriptions! And how beautiful to get to know one’s team so well, one would even find out… I’m really curious to meet the General Manager!

But right now, it’s all about expressing my inner world in colors. I first draw on the canvas a silhouette of a sea shell and trace next the lines with a ‘canting’ - a traditional batik ‘pen’ with a small reservoir filled with a hot mixture of wax and pine tree sap. Once the wax-lines are in place, I take a brush, and begin to color - following my instinct when selecting hues, playing with the ‘shading technique’, adding an accent here and there It’s a lot of fun, although comparing my and Zaki’s painting, it’s unlikely that I will be discovered as an upcoming artist any time soon. But Zaki is not ready to give up on me, telling me that all it takes is practice. And when we part he gives me his own beautiful batik piece - as an inspiration to keep discovering the hidden talents deep inside me.

My luggage is packed. I’m enjoying a creamy latte, trying to absorb the atmosphere of this unusual place so I will always remember: I watch the honeymooners strolling along the beach. On one of the pool loungers is a grandma reading fairytales to her grandchildren. A woman in a white flowy dress playfully twirls in front of a camera as her husband attempts to capture forever these joyful moments. And I keep wondering about the secret recipe to creating such a happy place. How do you find such a genuinely caring team?! How do you inspire every single staff member to go beyond their duties and truly touch the guests’ hearts?!

I only met the General Manager, Mr. Sandip Mukherjee, briefly. Gentle and caring, he seemed simply proud of his team - not claiming to have discovered some revolutionary management strategy. So I’m left guessing... And although it may sound naïve, for some reason, I imagine him encouraging his people to be simply themselves. Trusting them to find their own ways to delight each and every guest - just as they would if their best friend or sister came to visit their home…