- Introduction: Constructing — and Re-constructing — the Award Trip
- American Eagle DC – New York and the New Nicest JFK Airport Hotel, the Hilton
- Cathay Pacific First Class, JFK – Hong Kong
- The Wing lounge in Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Kuala Lumpur
- Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur
- Malaysia Airlines Business Class, Kuala Lumpur – Langkawi
- The Andaman Langkawi
- Malaysia Airlines Business Class, Langkawi – Kuala Lumpur
- Intercontinental Kuala Lumpur
- Things to See and Do in Kuala Lumpur
- Korean Airlines First Class, Kuala Lumpur – Seoul and the Korean Airlines First Class Lounge Seoul
- Korean Airlines First Class, Seoul – Washington Dulles
When Starwood first took over The Andaman in Langkawi, Malaysia I was intrigued. I’d heard of the property, seen it on several ‘best’ lists (for best beaches, spa, etc). But early reports were that it had really gone downhill, that it needed significant investment.
Then I heard that Anne Scott had taken over as General Manager and I figured the place had a shot. She was the general manager that opened the Le Meridien Chiang Rai, which I found to be a really special place when I went there a few months after opening (I’ve heard that things have slipped a bit since she left).
One of the best pieces of advice in travel — not on the scale of usefulness of “hang up, call back” whenever you don’t get the answer you want — is to get to know your hotel general managers. Anne was very hands on during our stay in Chiang Rai, she greeted each guest on arrival whenever she was on property, and she was there to see us off when we checked out. I kept up a correspondence with her, I shared my feedback on the hotel, what I thought it did well but most especially where I thought they could make little tweaks to improve things. She was genuinely receptive. I even noticed when she won an award (“Asia’s Leading Woman in Hospitality”), dropped her a note of congratulations.
When I considered staying at the Andaman a couple of years ago, I emailed her. I asked for her advice and she told me candidly that I shouldn’t come for a visit yet, that there was a lot of work to be done and that I’d enjoy it much more if I waited. So when I was planning a trip for Thanksgiving 2012 I e-mailed her again, and this time she told me it was worth coming. She later explained that she was better than halfway through her original list of projects (though she had since added many more) and much of the heavy lifting was complete. That was enough for me.
And this is admittedly key: I am not a Starwood Platinum these days. The hotel doesn’t have a lot of suites, and while Platinum members definitely get upgrades a suite isn’t something to consistently expect here as an elite upgrade. I told Ms. Scott that the room would be a fairly key ingredient of enjoying my stay, I wanted to use points for the stay but there wasn’t an option to book a suite for double points. She told me just to book the base-level award and she’d ensure an upgrade. Get to know your general managers. Even if they’re at a hotel you don’t plan to return to, because they wind up at other properties down the line.
When we arrived at the Langkawi airport there was a hotel representative waiting for us, he pointed out several things along the half hour drive to the property. When we checked in they knew to expect us, again as in Kuala Lumpur we didn’t have to identify ourselves.
We were brought to the check-in desk, then were escorted to a couch to finish formalities, and Ms. Scott came out to greet us. She recommended the complimentary morning rainforest walk, and told me we’d most like the open air Malay restaurant down by the water (one of three restaurants on property — open only weather-permitting — the other two are the main all-day dining room and the Japanese restaurant, though they are building a seafood restaurant by the beach).
She’s one of the most thoughtful hotel general managers I’ve met, and by that I don’t mean “considerate” but rather “insightful.” I still recall the conversation we had about breakfast, it was the first project she undertook with the chef at the Le Meridien before they opened, her view is that people don’t take time to linger over breakfast in their daily routines so investing in thinking through how to make that meal special will go a long way towards separating a vacation from daily life.
After check-in we were escorted to our room which was at the very far end of the property and on the third of four floors. Reception is on the top floor, and the property is built into the side of a hill so the rest of the hotel descends down to beach level. Thus we were one level below reception.
There was fruit in the room, and also macarons and a bottle of wine.
Shortly after arrival a knock came to the door and a plate of appetizers was delivered.
In the evening there was turndown service, and then perhaps half an hour later a delivery of chocolates.
The evening dessert deliveries was a real highlight of my stay at the Le Meridien Chiang Rai, every night a different chocolate dessert, so I hoped it would be one of the special touches that Anne Scott brought to the property, but there wasn’t any sort of evening delivery the rest of the stay.
When we arrived in Malaysia the night before it was late at night, I had no problem falling asleep and slept normal local hours. But on this second day jetlag was catching up to me, largely because I slept very little on the flights across the Pacific (a function of the 9am departure time from New York). And come 6pm I was exhausted so ordered some Nasi Goreng from room service and retired early. I figured it was vacation, I’d have 5 nights here, so why not just sleep when I was tired and get up whenever I awoke?
Naturally asleep around 7pm I woke up early and needed some coffee. The Nespresso machine in the room wasn’t working, so I decided to call room service to have them deliver a pot. But the phone just rang and rang. So I called the front desk, and that just rang and rang. Tried again half an hour later, same thing. Half an hour after that and room service picked up. I told them what I wanted, they said someone would call me back to confirm. About 20 minutes later I got a call back and was told that it would take 20 minutes for coffee to be delivered. They brought coffee, and packaged creamer. I asked for fresh cream, the employee delivering the coffee went away and I got a phone call. I explained I wanted fresh cream, she said she would call back, and a few minutes later I had a call explaining that room service had only packaged creamers. It took me two hours, but I had coffee, and I had packaged creamer. Fortunately the coffee routine would get smoother from there.
In-room internet was excruciatingly slow. I couldn’t get a consistent signal at all in the bedroom, but it was workable from the living room (although in-room internet went down for about 24 hours during the stay and was available only in the business center).
The room was kept up well but far from modern. Some of the furniture in the room didn’t match. The couch was too small for two people to sit on, so there should definitely have been a larger couch or couch and a comfy chair, as it was a second person in the living room needed to use a dining chair.
My other room complaint was that there was a family with two young daughters in the room above me for part of the stay, and I could hear a banging noise from above as the children ran around. If noise is an issue to you, it’s advisable to ask for a room on the fourth floor so that no one is above.
The staff, though, are much friendlier and far superior to the physical plant and furnishings. The waitress we had each morning in the restaurant tried hard to figure out my coffee preferences on the first day and she had everything organized for me starting on second visit. The coffee in the restaurant wasn’t very good — it tasted burned, though perhaps it’s the coffee they use since even the cappuccino and espresso had remnants of that flavoring (maybe they overheat the shots of espresso?). But cappuccinos each morning worked. And that was always after coffee from the Nespresso machine (which we had them replace on the second day).
I spent a good bit of time sitting out on the balcony reading, looking out over the beach and the sea. No one ever bothered me while I was out there but it’s important not to leave the balcony door open. As you’re advised by a decal on the sliding glass door, always leave the balcony doors locked or else the monkeys will come in in search of food. I didn’t see monkeys for the first two days on property and started to think it was all a ruse, but afterwards it seemed as though they were everywhere.
Spa treatments really were outstanding. I did two 2.5 hour treatments, the second of which was one of the very best spa experiences I’ve had. In fact I think the last one that was as good was four years ago in Bali. There are beautiful views from the spa bungalows. But the bungalow itself used for that second treatment wasn’t relaxing. Towards the top of one of the columns of the open air bungalow was a wide ring of mold. Bugs were scurrying around all over that mold ring. Another thing that they could work on is staff decorum in the reception area, several were gossiping loudly in the back which were a bit of a buzzkill on the way out after my treatment. Similarly, staff do things for their own convenience like empty the tub during the end of a massage, and the sound of water going down the drain drowns out the sounds of the ocean (defeating the purpose of the open air bungalow). So while it’s a good spa, and I did get one outstanding treatment, there’s a little work to do here as well.
I really came to enjoy Malaysian cuisine during this trip, something I’ll write much more about in the coming chapter on activities in Kuala Lumpur. Here I’ll just say that I was surprised (though shouldn’t have been) by the South Indian influence and the curries. Those were some of my favorite pieces of breakfast, and also dinner.
Breakfast is served in the all-day dining restaurant in the main hotel. There’s an outdoor seating area the butts up to the pool but you cannot see the water from there as that’s obscured by trees. The choices are varied with curries, vegetarian choices (including some good roti), Japanese options, and Western choices. There’s an egg station and an area of freshly baked breads. Certainly good but there’s little variation day-to-day and it was a little less extensive than I would have imagined considering everything I’ve heard about top end Malaysian breakfast buffets.
I tried each of the restaurants at dinner. The beach bar transforms into an open air Malay restaurant at night and the food was outstanding (as were the cocktails, the Andaman martini was my favorite).
The main dining room was fine but I don’t really like returning to the same space for dinner as breakfast and the food was unmemorable. It was pouring rain the night that I was there, and the best outside tables required a reservation. They had ‘closed off’ one table they thought was too close to the edge, I took that and never got wet and actually enjoyed being a bit closer to the end of the weather and having a cool evening breeze, watching the rain pour down. The Japanese restaurant was adjacent to the main dining room and had outside seating, but it’s comprised of tables along a main walkway so people do walk by during dinner.
The food I enjoyed the most was actually at the Malaysian cooking class I participated in at lunch my last full day on property. The staff and chef were friendly, the ingredients were fresh. I always try to take cooking classes in new destinations and then bring a little bit of my trip back home. Most of the cooking I do at home is Thai, I love making Thai soups and curries the most.
This hotel is in a very special place. It’s on the beach, on the edge of a 10 million year old rainforest. I could have stayed in the more modern Westin, but that experience could have been in any vaguely Asian location. And the location of the Andaman is unquestionably beautiful.
I could have stayed at the Datai or the Four Seasons for <substantially more money. The hotel was a fantastic value when I booked it as a Starwood Preferred Guest category 4 hotel (it has since been raised to category 5). The staff are fantastic, a few slips notwithstanding. But it is an older physical plant. It can get busy, with most beach chairs taken. It’s not a place for seclusion and the ultimate in privacy,, the way I’ve experienced on recent stays at the Park Hyatt Maldives (overwater villa at the far end of the pier), Conrad Koh Samui (all rooms are standalone ocean villas with private pools), or Westin Siray Bay (lucking into a standalone villa with private pool and then pressing for one that couldn’t be seen from the all-day dining restaurant).
As they’re only halfway through their original list of capital projects, and they continue to add more, the place will only get better. I would return. But I think I’d give it fewer than 5 nights, at least for a stay where I intend to remain mostly on property. The breakfast options were fine but I was bored of them by the 4th morning. I didn’t love the main dining restaurant or Japanese restaurant for dinner, and I wouldn’t want to rely on the open air Malay restaurant (or the soon-to-open seafood restaurant) for so many nights.
After five nights it was time to leave, we rang up to have our bags picked up from our room and went to the front desk to settle our account. Again the General Manager came out to see us off and wish us well. We chatted briefly about our plans for the rest of our stay in the country. She relayed that she often struggles to make good recommendations for Kuala Lumpur, and that her best one was for a company that does food tours — which happened to be the very company I had contacted for assistance in finding the best eating for the very next day.
A hotel car was ready to take us on to the airport and we bid adieu to the Andaman, for the next step of our adventure.