Essential Escapes organise the kind of holidays I love. This creative travel company was founded by Emma Barnett Spitzer (Masterchef finalist and travel fanatic) 16 years ago and originally had a focus on spa focussed travels. In recent years the company has begun to concentrate more on culinary trips that showcase the very best authentic food in some of the world’s most delicious destinations.
I was lucky to be one of a few foodies invited to sample the new ‘Malaysia on a plate’ Essential Escapes itinerary. This exciting exploration of Malay cuisine starts on the island of Langkawi at the beautiful Datai Hotel, before a final couple of days in chaotic Kuala Lumpur (you can also opt to reverse the order if you fancy ending the holiday on the beach!)
After a lengthy transatlantic flight, and a much shorter internal flight, we arrived at The Datai Langkawi. Refreshed with cold flannels and iced tea, we spent a few minutes taking in the breathtaking surroundings.
The Datai is found on the edge of Langkawi island, surrounded by a 10 million year old rainforest, overlooking the idyllic and tranquil Datai Bay. The independent resort has recently undergone a transformative renovation, and I was thrilled to be experiencing one of the spacious Rainforest villas on the edge of the tropical rainforest.
The rooms were designed in a practical format, with timeless features in natural materials. The grand four poster bed was the ultimate indulgence to climb into every night, and I slept so well while here. The bathroom was very generous in size with a big bathtub, dual sinks and separate shower and toilet cubicles. Sustainable practices are present throughout the hotel and in the rooms this was also noticeable, in the recycled glass bottles of filtered water and refillable vessels of house made toiletries.
There are plenty of extras to enjoy while in the villas, from the complimentary minibar to the IPTV and multipurpose charging ports.
I quickly realised how special the Datai Langkawi was, the type of hotel people return to again and again… one reason for this is the unrivalled food experiences available on site. During our three days we managed to tick off meals in each of the four restaurants: The Gulai House for authentic Malaysian cuisine, The Pavillion for award-winning Thai food, The Dining Room for fine dining French food and The Beach Club for lazy seaside lunches. Each meal was exceptional with thoughtfully prepared and expertly cooked recipes from all over the globe.
Of the restaurants, my favourite was the Gulai, where the talented chefs whipped up an array of specialities like Beef Rendang curry and Tandoor chicken. The flavours were intense and decadent and the service friendly and charming. I was also incredibly impressed by The Dining Room, where the chefs use flair and imagination to create immaculate French haute cuisine, often with flavours from the island.
A highlight of my stay at The Datai was the Private Cooking Class at the Gulai House. This new cooking school is decked out with state of the art facilities and a class here is a real insight into the authentic food of the region. We began our class in the resort’s permaculture garden, where we picked herbs and ingredients for our dishes, and learnt about the crops that grow well in this unique part of the world. Then we returned to the kitchen to make Kerabu Sook Hoon (a light cold noodle salad) and Gulai Udang (a creamy sweet prawn and vegetable curry).
While at The Datai we also had the pleasure of experiencing the Datai Spa. Here you can totally relax with a treatment in an open air villa, listening to the sounds of the rainforest while enjoying a traditional Malay massage.
I would have been completely content staying in The Datai for the whole duration of our time on Langkawi, but was also glad to see some of the island. We ventured out for a serene mangrove tour through the Kubang Badak River and learnt about the fascinating mangrove ecology and wildlife that lives here, before settling for lunch at a local Malay family house. Here we feasted on Fried Pomfret Fish with spicy sambal, Sticky Soy Chicken and the most tender and addictively tasty Turmeric Fried Aubergine, all cooked by the lovely, and terribly humble, Mrs Raijah.
Our final night at The Datai was perhaps the most memorable, a sunset cruise on the Naga Pelangi boat. This 97-foot traditional wooden schooner-replica was hand built by the Captain and is the last remaining boat of its kind in Malaysia. We sipped champagne as we floated gently on the waves and watched the sun slowly fall behind the sea.
Kuala Lumpur (KL) is Malaysia’s capital, a modern city with a bustling business district. Though it was once known for its charming colonial style architecture the skyline is now dominated by towering skyscrapers, shopping malls and office blocks. And with a tropical climate which rarely dips below 30 degrees, walking around outside can be a hard work. In the daytime locals stay indoors where the air-conditioning is a relief, and at night the streets come to life with food markets and outdoor bars.
Our home for a couple of days in KL was Samadhi Retreats, a boutique hotel on the outskirts of town. The hotel was a calm oasis to rest while exploring the city. It is a converted traditional Malay house with 21 Asia-inspired rooms set around a exotic lagoon pool.
The hotel owns four eateries outside of the city, including Tamarind Springs, a destination restaurant set amongst the dense rainforest serving refined Thai-Malaysian cuisine. We enjoyed an atmospheric meal here under the stars, while monkeys bounced about in the nearby trees.
Our time in KL was limited and the food on offer is endless so we had to be selective about where we spent our mealtimes. Essential Escapes had organised a vibrant evening tour of the Jalan Alor night market, a fragrant street filled with local specialities. Among other things we tried lok lok (sticks of fresh ingredients dusted in flour and deep fried) and beef and chicken satay (fired over an open flame and served with plenty of rich satay sauce) all washed down with fresh coconut water.
The next day we ventured further into Kuala Lumpur to check out some of the historic sites and heritage areas of town. Chinatown was a favourite area for us all, and we settled on Madras Lane for a local breakfast… Egg Noodle Laksa, a rich curry broth filled with green beans, mini aubergine, bean curd and clams. It was a bowl of heaven and a must while in Malaysia.
After exhausting ourselves sightseeing in the stifling heat, we stumbled into PULP by Papa Palheta, a speciality coffee gem, serving Rocket Espresso alongside an array of delicious sweet baked treats.
Our trip ended on a high, as we toasted to Malaysian adventures with great cocktails at PS150, a prohibition-style speakeasy recommended to us by Malaysian food writer and chef Guan Chua.
Six days is not enough to see and eat it all in Malaysia, but this brilliant Essential Escapes trip was a great way to get an insight into the magic of Malaysia and the irresistible food culture.
For more information on the wonderful Essential Escapes itineraries, visit the website here.