Wanderlust with Cynthia Rosenfeld

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Though it’s my job to test drive luxury travel experiences, what really warms my heart are the indulgences that benefit more than just me. I am always on the lookout for five star hotels that dedicate a serious percentage of profits to supporting a local school, or one like the new Park Hyatt Siem Reap, where the interiors are finished with Khmer textiles hand loomed by Weaves of Cambodia, a co-operative of artisans who are also landmine victims.

One of these hotels with heart that touches me closely is Bon Ton Resort (bontonresort.com) and the adjacent Temple Tree Resort (templetree.com.my) on the lush Malaysian island of Langkawi. Beyond the obvious charms, like its authentic 19th-century wooden stilt houses that serve as guest quarters, all appointed with four-poster beds, antique bathtubs, and time-polished teakwood floors, is a unique community outreach. Australian owner Narelle McMurtrie channels far more of the hotels’ profits than she keeps for herself into the Langkawi Animal Shelter and Sanctuary Foundation, or LASSiE (langkawilassie.org.my) which she set up to receive, rehabilitate and care for Langkawi’s neglected and abused dogs and cats. LASSie also runs an animal clinic on the Bon Ton property, to treat sick animals and to sterilise the island’s rampant stray cat and dog population. These non-profit ventures are staffed partly by volunteers and funded by hotel profits along with donations, mostly from animal friendly guests like my sister, Betsy.

Betsy, who rescues stray dogs in her spare time including my own Maltapoo mutt, Poptart, has come along on this trip with me. While I sleep in, Betsy walks Arthur, Nemo, Johnny, Queenie and other resident canines. She even manages to drag me out of bed to traipse through the tall grass just inland from the Andaman Sea, around two dozen leashes between us. “This is better than hiring a personal trainer,” Betsy shouts, encouraging me to press ahead despite the sweat I’ve worked up. Later, over Bon Ton’s scrumptious Nyonya Platter, served on a banana leaf with freshly caught prawns, fish in tamarind sauce, coconut lamb, jackfruit curry, and mango-cashew rice, my sister adds that looking after the animals has a certain side benefit: “I feel like I can eat whatever I want here and burn it off while helping out.”

Cardio benefits aside, McMurtrie’s efforts have saved the lives of hundreds of dogs and cats, not just here in Langkawi but also around her newer properties, Straits Collection and China House, in the Georgetown section of Penang. The always-chic silver-haired Aussie is ‘continually developing new businesses for the purpose of helping these animals’ since almost 20 years ago, just after Bon Ton first opened as a restaurant only, when someone anonymously dropped off a stray kitten. “Presumably,” she recalls, “they thought we would have extra food from the kitchen.” Word got around and soon McMurtrie was bringing in a veterinarian from Kuala Lumpur every month. Three years later, she set up the animal clinic and about 10 years ago, LASSie was formally registered as a foundation. While caring for the animals has always been a strategic choice, she insists, ‘I never made a conscious decision to open Bon Ton as a resort. Instead we added the old houses to support the animals, and people kept coming’. Hopefully, luxury seeking animal lovers will follow suit.

Follow Cynthia on Twitter @cynthiaroams

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