When the British were running roughshod over the Malay peninsula back in first half of the 20th century, they found a few high-elevation bastions of relief from the heat and humidity of the lowlands. The highest of these was called Cameron Highlands. To the delight of the colonial overlords, they discovered that not only could they cool off, but also that tea grew exceptionally well at 1,500 meters above sea level. This was no doubt a welcome discovery because really, there’s no better way to end a hard day of colonizing and plundering than to have a civilized spot of tea.
Today, Cameron Highlands remains a welcome relief from KL’s heat and urban chaos. Reaching the hill stations of the Highlands takes about three hours, but over half of that is on a tortuously winding road that creeps along for 60 km. Sixty!! I don’t think I ever made it past third gear. Look at the route on the GPS. That’s not a misrepresentation. I’m from Colorado, so I’ve seen some twisty mountain roads, but this one was just crazy. The good thing, I suppose, is that the elevation gain is done over such a long distance, you’re really not aware of it until you realize that, hey, that air conditioner really isn’t necessary any longer.
Early along the winding road, not too far past the town of Tapah, there was a breathtaking multi-tiered waterfall called Lata Iskandar. The pictures really don’t do it justice… plenty of people were wandering around, some were swimming in the clear waters pooled at the base of the each of the fall’s cascades, and naturally, plenty of little shops have sprung up alongside the road, making it sort of an ad-hoc tourist attraction of sorts. We lingered for a short while, then continued on our way.
Cameron Highlands comprises three small villages, Ringlet, Tanah Rata, and Brinchang. We stayed at the elegant Cameron Highlands Resort, which is situated across from the golf course past Tanah Rata, but not yet to Brinchang. The entrance was suitably impressive… dark woods, period furnishings, and colonial touches everywhere. The library near the reception desk was particularly beautiful. The room itself was really quite nice, with a separate sitting area, a writing desk, a large flat-screen TV (not a flat-panel LCD, just a flat screen standard TV), dark hardwood floors, and a very fancy, well-appointed bathroom that was quite the opposite of the gargantuan one at Pangkor Laut based just on the size. This one could have used a few more square feet, but the shower was at least suitably large.
I’m not sure what the legal definition of a “resort” is, but this place felt an awful lot like just a nice hotel to me. I think there was a spa somewhere, but I’m not 100% sure. There was one restaurant (another Japanese-themed one was closed the whole time), a bar, a gift shop, and that was pretty much all. It was all fairly upscale, but the exterior entryways to the rooms lent a sort of “motel” feel to things, and I can only echo the number one complaint I saw on all the reviews of the place: Since the hotel is situated right on the main road and every room faces this road, the traffic noise is incredible. It would carry on late into the night, usually until well past midnight, and was easily the biggest blight on the hotel as a whole. For a supposed 5-star property, subjecting guests who paid a lot of money to stay there to that level of ceaseless noise is just unacceptable. Nobody asked me for my advice, but if they had, I’d have suggested investing in white noise-generating machines for each room (there aren’t that many rooms there), or even sampling the typical frequencies of the traffic noise, then having a machine in each room that could generate the inverse sound waves of those frequencies, just like active noise-cancelling headphones. It would be much cheaper than retrofitting all the windows with double-pane or sound-resistant glass, and much more practical than relocating the entire hotel. The constant drone of cars, trucks, and motorbikes at all hours of the day and night was really the only major complaint I could come up with. The restaurant was on the pricey side, but unlike Pangkor Laut, at least guests here have the option of going into town, where there are many other dining choices. That said, the chef at the hotel restaurant did prepare a truly fantastic four-course meal for us on our last night, and it was all complimentary because he knew my friend Ryan. The first course, and possibly my favoite, was a nontraditional Caesar-style salad (pictured here), adding crispy flash-fried spinach leaves to the normal romaine lettuce with massive grilled tiger prawns and fresh dill, a rich lobster bisque for the soup course, a delicious "surf-n-turf" sort of main course with Australian beef tenderloin medallions and pan-seared Chilean sea bass, and dessert of jumbo long-stemmed strawberries with three different dips. It was a fantastic meal made even better by the fact it was all served gratis. What a treat!
Naturally, we toured a huge tea plantation and a strawberry farm after that. I had never seen actual tea plants (tea bushes?) but the way they hug the contours of the land, oftentimes all the way to the top of the hills, just makes for some amazingly scenic vistas. I bought fresh strawberries and we drank so much tea over the weekend there, I may have gone slightly British by the end. One new thing I learned was that green tea and black tea are the same thing, just processed differently. Green tea is dried with minimal processing, pretty much just as it is when it is plucked from the bush, but black tea is made by bruising the leaves and allowing them to fully oxidize, thus turning black, before drying them. Going through the tea factory was an interesting experience, and it smelled wonderful.
One really vexing thing was the exorbitant price of scones everywhere we went. Clearly driven by the tourist demand for “English tea and scones,” shops have taken to charging a mint for the scones, completely overlooking the fact that they’re just simple biscuits. We went to one place where tea and scones for two was an eye-popping RM25 per person! Another annoyance was places advertising “high tea” and serving nothing but tea and biscuits. That’s not high tea by either traditional British convention, which would include meats, savory snacks, pastries, and fruits, or the more commercialized American usage, which indicates a formal setting with a wide-ranging offering of sandwiches, cakes, etc. Nevertheless, we did find a place with a reasonably priced afternoon phony high tea. It was at a new place called Hotel de la Ferns, and afterwards, we asked if we could see the rooms, and wound up being taken on a tour of every class of room on the property, even seeing both of the top-floor penthouse suites, shown here. Wow. The rooms were amazing, really smartly furnished, clean, and comfortable. During the low season, discounts of up to 40% off the rack rate are available for the asking. I will definitely stay there on my next visit (since I won’t be getting the amazing employee-only rate at Cameron Highlands Resort).
All in all, it was just a truly enjoyable and relaxing time in the hills of Cameron Highlands. I even found what proved to be a really nice Late Harvest 2004 Chilean Gewürztraminer wine at one of the shops there for the relatively low price of RM52 (not a bad price in Malaysia for a decent bottle of regular wine, let alone a late harvest wine), so I bought three bottles.
So that concludes my recap and review of the two fantastic vacations that sandwiched my trip home for Christmas. I’ve led a rather spoiled life these past two months with all the travel and commencement of a terrific new job, which I’ll talk about in the next entry, along with a two-week trip to Singapore and the celebration of Chinese New Year on the island of Langkawi. So there's still a lot to catch up on. Until then… :)