Can Malaysia’s contemporary luxury hotels live up to perfect memories of the nation’s historic hospitality?
Our writer joins YTL Hotels for a trip of rediscovery across Malaysia
Malaysia is a place I have always held close to my heart; the fond memories I have of a month spent in the country many moons ago are ones I have romanticised endlessly, that have shaped my life significantly – and for the better. It is a special place with the ability to restore and renew mind, body and soul. Until now, I have resisted venturing back, worried the reality might pale compared to my golden-hued memories. Will Malaysia have changed beyond my recognition?
Thankfully, I chose to take the leap of faith and return to this magical place, this time flying with Malaysia Airlines to Kuala Lumpur to explore the country with YTL Hotels – which holds in its portfolio some of the world’s most esteemed resorts and hotels – and recreate some of my original, cherished visit.
Malaysia is home to some of the planet’s most beautiful coastal destinations, complex jungles, dynamic cities and hospitable people. For me, it is the exotic Malay cuisine and luxury spas that stand out as some of the finest in the world and seemingly, shockingly, some of the most under-celebrated of all Asia.
Thanks to its vast coastlines and tropical climates, there is an abundance of fresh seafood, coconuts, flowers and spices that thrive here, providing the base to the most sublime, vibrant dishes and experiences – namely curries and exotic spa treatments – all bursting with cultural heritage born from the bountiful land and sea.
Malaysian spas are otherworldly, unlike anything imaginable in even the best five-star UK establishments, and YTL puts this same attention to detail into each of its treatments, suites and every plate of food. It’s a fully immersive experience from start to finish, for every aspect of your being.
Making my way across Malaysia, YTL’s three magnificent properties provided contrast in all aspects but one: their traditional Malay hospitality. With this foundation, the same care and conviviality was a balm to the soul whether travelling in the city or coast, proving hospitality a gentle Malay art form. >>
TANJONG JARA RESORT
This ‘unmistakably Malay’ resort, located on the East Coast Peninsula of Malaysia, is designed to reflect the elegance of 17th century palaces of the region. It adorns a crescent-shaped bay of golden sand, calm turquoise sea and coconut palms flickering shade across South-facing sun loungers as the sea breeze rolls in from the shore – it also, for the more adventurous hiker, backs on to a heady jungle ripe for exploration.
Tanjong Jara Resort is steeped in local heritage, offering insight into the region’s traditional way of life experiences, including ‘Secrets of a Malay Kitchen’ – offering guests the chance to visit the local morning food market, shopping for fresh products and spices before heading back to cook up a storm with a native culinary master from the resort’s restaurant Nelayan. Similarly, Kampong Sucimurni lifestyle is open to guests every Saturday in the seafront gardens, providing music, local delicacies and entertainment to encourage community and well-being among the resort’s guests.
No stay would be complete without a starlight dining experience on the beach; our private chef whipped up a meal using the traditional method of sand cooking, known as Bakar Ikan Bawah Pasir. This showcase of the culinary style of Terrengganu Fishermen involves wrapping fresh seafood in banana leaves before burying it in sand and coconut husks over a charcoal fire. While waiting for dinner, we can allow the resort’s resident historian to regal us with stories by candlelight, or indulge in a fresh flower bath in the stunning architecture of the beachside spa. The beach is also celebrating a record year of wild turtle numbers increasing – guests can take part in releasing baby turtles back into the sea from the resort’s sanctuary. This secluded, soothing coastal gem invigorates and rejuvenates the body and spirit, leaves a delicious taste on the tongue and smell on your skin.
THE RITZ-CARLTON KUALA LUMPUR
Timeless, opulent and palatial; lavish yet welcoming. Somehow The Ritz-Carlton nails this unlikely combination, creating a cool marble haven amid the bustling, humid city of Kuala Lumpur. With a two-bedroom suite to rival a Belgravia apartment and a personal butler just the press of a button away, the Ritz-Carlton certainly gives you quite the spring in your step. Dinner could be enjoyed in The Library, surrounded by an array a stunning area of books and elegant interior design with fine dining creations by Chef Wai – who interprets traditional Malay classics into world-class haute cuisine in collaboration with Austrian Michelin-starred chef Johann Lafer.
But the real culinary highlights for me lay in Kuala Lumpur itself, with a visit to Lot 10 Hutong, a gourmet must-visit that pays tribute to good food and the art of local delicacies. Each of the 33 eateries is distinguishable for a different all-time favourite signature dish, offering the chance to taste the best dim sum, durian, beef noodles, roast duck and much more all in one place. >>
Back in the hotel bar, we are offered an enviable selection of wines, cognacs and cocktails before a cheeky cigar could be enjoyed in the Smoke Room. On my final day, I visited the hotel Spa Village for a Campur-Campur treatment, combining the best techniques from both Malay and Thai massage, using tone, touch and aromatherapy. The scent of lemongrass and pandan lingering in the treatment room and across your skin as steamed herbs are pressed into areas of the body. The Ritz-Carlton Kuala Lumpur is an urban sanctuary in a concrete jungle, bringing elegance and serenity to your city break.
THE MAJESTIC MALACCA
No words can quite describe the sheer beauty of The Majestic Malacca. It is, for me, interior design heaven – I admit to an involuntary exclamation of delight as I step across the veranda into the Colonial style entryway.
The visual and sensual experience is one of full joyous exuberance. Situated on its namesake river, the veins of Malacca – which was once jewelled with wooden spice-laden vessels, their sails billowing in the wind – the hotel began its life in 1929 as a private mansion of tycoon Leong Long Man and boasts impressive heritage architecture.
Leong Long Man adorned the 1920s Straits Settlement mansion with sumptuous décor, such as imported Victorian porcelain tiles, stained glass windows, expensive furniture, teakwood fittings and ornate lamps galore. The mansion went through some ups and downs over the decades that followed, changing ownership and lacking care, before a public outcry inspired YTL to renovate the property with no expense spared. It finally reopened in 2008.
The hotel is a prominent landmark of the 600-year old coastal port of Malacca and offers complimentary guided walks to its guests – which prove fascinating, telling the local legacy of the Malay Sultanate, Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, Dutch and British. Again, this town’s local Kristang cuisine comes most alive at the nearby market, which we visit with the hotel chef. Of course, once in town, it is only natural to learn more about Kristang culture with a stop for lunch at The Mansion. Don’t be deceived by the casual dining vibes: this restaurant offers truly excellent fare.
And it would be remiss of us not to visit Malacca’s Spa Village, the world’s first therapeutic venue to base its treatments on the healing traditions of the Baba-Nyonya or Peranakan culture, who share a unique combination of Chinese and Malay influences.
From stunning historic architecture to a vibrant contrast of cultures, Malacca is the perfect place to end my return to Malaysia, which has proven to be even more inspiring than those long-cherished memories could imagine.
Direct flights available from London Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur via malaysiaairlines.com