Rolling hills, mist settling in, strawberry fields, tea plantations and cooling temperatures below the 20 degree mark. Sounds like Southeast Asia? Probably not, yet it is. Cameron Highlands Resort in the place where you can enjoy refreshing nature away from the suffocating heat of the lowlands.
This plateau 200km North of Kuala Lumpur was a hilltop station during the time of British colonialism. It was discovered at the beginning of the 20th century and the area developed with the arrival of winding roads and farming. Today, Cameron Highlands is a place of pilgrimage for strawberries, flowers, tea and respite.
Despite tourism is booming, especially with local Malays, there is only one luxury resort to stay at: Cameron Highlands Resort. Part of YTL Hotels group, Cameron Highlands Resort is a beautiful heritage building reminiscent of a time gone by. Large veranda windows open into a driveway and onto the golf course. The fireplace is lit in the evenings and high tea is served in fine china and local Boh Tea bags, Malaysia’s oldest and largest tea producer.
I visited Cameron Highlands for a second time with occasion of their Christmas Tree lighting celebrations.
Arrival and check in at Cameron Highlands Resort
The road slowly and painfully climbed up the hills to the 1,500 above sea level mark, through thick forests and low clouds. From Ipoh, where the closest airport is, we drove for about two and a half hours before we arrived at the resort. The ride was as comfortable as it could be given the snaking single lane road and the heavy Friday evening traffic. Our driver patiently drove, swinging right and left, all the way up as we relaxed, looking through the window into a landscape that was closer to Europe’s mountains than to Malaysia. The van had an internet hot spot, but the signal was almost non existent in this part of the country.
When we pulled out by the resort’s entrance we were relived to have arrived and the red carpet on the regal stairs was a welcoming sight. The resort’s reception was a mood boosting area. Bright and airy with a Christmas tree, gold and red decorations and a piano that preluded our evening serenades. The staff was friendly and used to welcoming guests after a long journey. Our drink and cold towels were enough to take us away from the road traffic. And after a short registration, we were given our keys.
The rooms were lined along the main facade on two floors. The ground floor could be accessed through a long arched corridor facing a lush tropical jungle. The red tiled floors and the musty grounds made me think of Autumn in the UK.
Inside, the space was spartan and steeped in history. High ceilings, four poster beds and intricate bathroom appliques. The white walls were in contrast with the dark wood of the furniture and the flooring. A warm British legacy feeling embalmed everything. It was not a modern room, but a romantic and spacious place to unwind and to stare at the hills below with a classic book in hand. Walking into the rooms felt like going back in history, a certain air of nostalgia lingering in the air. “Tales, trails and traditions”, was the resort’s motto, and the feeling started as soon as you walked in.
Malaysian specialties and British food favorites co-existed in the resort’s main Dining room. You could enjoy a warming Sunday roast or a light soup. The Dining Room was on the ground floor and had the same high ceilings and facade views as the rest of the resort. Breakfast here could bring you the joys of a British fry-up or the fluffiness of a pancake stack. It felt homey and friendly.
Afternoon tea was not to be missed. In the peacefulness of Jim Thomson’s Tearoom, with comfortable bamboo armchairs and the sun piercing through the windows, the tea and the finger sandwiches tasted much better. It felt right to be enjoying a clotted cream and jam scone in a cool afternoon. Peace was restored.
Paying homage to Asian flavors, hot-pot was being served at Gonbel Restaurant. Set on the first floor and surrounded by greenery, the open space was more of a buzzing sharing-style affair. I enjoyed the great variety of hot pot ingredients from yummy vegetables of all kinds to meat, seafood and fish. The desserts, especially the chocolate dipped strawberries and the creme brule, were extraordinary. Nothing can beat the flavors of freshly picked strawberries.
The bar and lounge area, with the burning fireplace, were the perfect place to read or enjoy a glass of whiskey. Sitting on the leather high chairs or the old fashioned sofas it felt like winter had arrived, even if temperatures had only dropped to 17 degrees.
Cameron Highlands Spa Village
YTL Hotels is well know for their Spa Villages across several of their properties. I have had the pleasure of enjoying their hospitality and the treatments in their Spa Village Tembok, in the North of Bali, as well as at Gaya Island Resort, in Borneo, and they were both up there with the best spa treatments I have ever had. Cameron Highlands Resort had much to live up to as my expectations were very high.
I always praised YTL Hotels for their use of local ingredients, free from chemicals and potions, and for designing their spa journeys to discover local traditions. Cameron Highlands Resort was no different.
Since the area is known for tea and strawberries, several of their spa treatments leveraged the properties of these two ingredients. It also borrowed from the heritage and history of the area. A blend of British colonial influences, in their focus on growing tea, a prized good, and the Orang Asli or ‘original people’, who were the first settlers of the highlands. The Orang Asli had acummulated historical knowledge about local plants, herbs and flowers with healing powers. The Spa uses these age old traditions and knowledge to create therapies and journeys that use local ingredients.
The Spa Village offered four journeys based on key local ingredients. The Rose Garden is the most romantic one and uses essential rose oil as its base. The avocado and chrysanthemums treatment mixed in the vitamins and richness of the avocado with the medicinal value of the chrysanthemums. No Cameron Highlands spa menu could get away without strawberries so the Strawberries Escapade had me soaked in a tea bathtub filled with strawberries I wanted to eat. I was then wrapped in a yogurt and strawberry smoothie body polish. It was delicious and softening, my skin was radiant afterwards, if it was all a bit eeky. Lastly, the Cameron Mint treatment uses mint’s properties in improving circulation and boosting the immune system. It was hard to make a choice.
The team at the Spa is fabulous. They are friendly and are professionally trained. They were even good at taking photos!
Cameron Highlands is the perfect place to enjoy hiking and trekking in the jungle. The resort can organize treks of any duration and level of difficulty and it can even take you out at night to explore nocturnal animals. The Resort prides itself in providing the best local guide, Madhi, an expert in the forest, the trails and the tales surrounding Jim Thomson’s disappearance. Going on a walk with Madhi is a treat. Not least because of his wealth of knowledge of the area but also because he has been in Cameron Highlands long enough to remember what it was like before the tourists arrived, in the 60s.
Cameron Highlands Resort offers several jungle trails but the most fascinating one is the Jim Thomson’s Mystery Trail which follows the disappearance of the army captain turned silk trader and rumored double-spy. He was last seen in Cameron Highlands where he was visiting friends on Easter Friday 1967, and Madhi knows a few of his family members and friends as well as several of the people who interacted with him. He even built the trail you can walk on himself. Hearing him share the legend and the hearsay was like watching a soap opera unravel in suspense. At every turn in the story, he generated enough questions in the audience to keep us all entertained and engaged. When the rain started to pour, as we reached the point where Jim Thomson got into a car to disappear forever, he handed us plastic ponchos and carried on. We had one ear glued to his stories, another one on the rain. Madhi also shared his concerns for the area’s future. Over development is hitting Cameron Highlands hard and the forest are shrinking in favor of real estate developments.
Apart from hearing passionate tales of spies and unresolved disappearances, the jungle exploration is equally interesting. The Titiwangsa Mountain range, where Cameron Highlands is located, is a unique jungle eco-system where wild orchids, several species of which are endemic, and pitcher plants give as much to talk about as tales of WWII. Madhi educated us on the beauty of a sustainable and balanced eco-system and dispensed survival tips. “Don’t ever drink the water of a stream, because it is surely contaminated”. The best way to find water, he advised, is from the leaves and the plants. At over 65 years old, Madhi has been walking these forests for 30 years. He gave us edible leaves, pointed at wild skinny bananas and scared us about panthers and tigers he spotted a couple of times. “How did you learn all of this, Madhi”, I inquired, “My passion”. The wealth of his knowledge seemed to never end.
You know what the best part was of the trekking? Madhi kept repeating that we needn’t worry about our shoes, that he would make sure they were cleaned. After walking on muddy terrain and slippery slopes with mud almost up to my ankle, we certainly got back to the hotel to get a pair of slippers and a trash bag to place our dirty shoes. They were returned the nest day squeaky clean. Quite impressive.
Cameron Highlands Resort offers several other excursions in the area. A visit to Boh Tea Plantation is a must for the cafeteria hangs on a platform jotting out from the Visitor’s center and suspended over the rolling tea bushes. A quick self-guided tour through the various chambers where the leaves are dried, processed and bagged is interesting. The smell of fermenting leaves is firmly in the air as your attention follows the tea belts. Gunung Brinchang is a great place to see the sun set or rise. Get up early if you can, the sun rays over the series of hills and tea bushes in the early morning mist is stunning.
Picking up your own strawberries, although more expensive than buying a box of pre-picked ones, is a romantic and bucolic way to get your fresh fruits. Wander around the local markets to spot unusual fruits like water coconuts, strange looking flowers and plants. Many visitors also venture into the hydroponic farms, the butterfly farm, although Madhi advised butterflies are not endemic to the area, and honeybee farms. Again, Madhi warned us agains the tourist trap honeybee farms are. Charging a premium, bees are not local to Cameron Highlands but rather brought in from Thailand.
YTL Hotels are without a doubt the peak of service levels. The staff is non-intrusive, friendly and committed and they are always there to make sure your stay is memorable. Cameron Highlands Resort was no exception. From the shoe cleaning to the spa ladies to the service at the bar and the tea lounge, it all felt like visiting old friends. Their commitment to the resort’s success and the happiness of the guests goes beyond just a job.
As I visited at the end of November, the resort had been dressed with lovely Christmas lights and decorations that made it evident a lot of love and thoughtfulness had gone into it. Because I was there to celebrate Christmas, the resort left a stocking filled with Cameron Highland goodies on my bed. There was strawberry and pineapple jam, a gingerbread, a candy stick and a handmade soap. The stocking had been hand sewn by a local lady. This level of service is what keeps me coming back. It is effortless and it is genuine, two words that are harder and harder to come by in the hospitality business.
Cameron Highlands Resort has midweek rates starting at $125 per room inclusive of breakfast and the famous Jim Thomson Trail with Madhi. Check latest rates here.
Once in a Lifetime Journey was a guest of Cameron Highlands Resort as part of their Christmas celebrations. As with all my other posts, my opinions remain my own.
Photo credit for Madhi and me and for the bedroom goes to Alice, from Teacake Travels, a Kick-ass solo female travel blog.