‘Malaysia on a Plate’ with Essential Escapes

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.

Malaysia

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!)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

I was a guest of Essential Escapes, The Datai Langkawi and Samadhi Retreats. We flew as guests of Malaysian Airlines.

For more information on the wonderful Essential Escapes itineraries, visit the website here.

The Fife Arms, Braemar

When Hauser & Wirth announced they would be opening a hotel, everyone knew it would be momentous, exciting and imaginative, but The Fife Arms has exceeded all of our expectations. The illustrious Swiss art dealers Iwan and Manuela Wirth have had a house in the Scottish Highlands since 2011, after falling for the region’s beauty and local culture.

The area of Braemar, right in the middle of the Cairngorms National Park, has a long and rich history, and is just a few miles from the Royal Family’s Balmoral residence. Four years ago the powerhouse Wirth couple bought a mid 19th-century coaching inn with a vision of transforming it into a bold and beautiful luxury hotel paying tribute to the motifs and crafts of the area.

After a three year multi-million pound renovation the hotel has opened as a tremendous addition to the area for locals and reason alone for tourists to visit the Scottish Highlands.

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It was my first time in Aberdeenshire, but after spending a few days in Edinburgh it was an easy and quick journey to make by car. The landscape I witnessed from my car window was magnificent; rolling rugged hills, herds of Highland sheep and a bright rainbow in the distance. After a few hours of countryside, we reached the quaint town of Braemar, and its new focal point, The Fife Arms.

Though Scottish heritage is very much the theme of the hotel, art takes centre stage as you would expect. Many of the most prestigious Hauser and Wirth artists feature – you’ll find a Louise Bourgeois spider in a courtyard and a striking Richard Jackson chandelier.

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The interior designer of The Fife Arms, Russell Sage, has give the rooms an outrageous Victorian opulence… think lavish decorative wallpapers and antique furniture, four poster beds and unusual taxidermy. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I loved it, perhaps because I grew up in a Victorian House in London with eccentric artist parents who’s style is not dissimilar to the Fife fabulousness.

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I instantly fell in love with my ‘Zoology’ room, a charming and spacious bedroom on the third floor. I was wholly impressed to learn of the variety of rooms on offer, starting from the (extremely) reasonable £130 Croft Rooms, going up to the top ‘Royal’ suites which will set you back around £800.

My room was dedicated to birds with charming little artworks on the walls paying homage to this lovely creature. The giant bed was very comfortable and obviously kitted out to the highest spec, topped with a wonderful (specifically designed) Araminta Campbell tartan, which is also available to purchase in the hotel’s boutique.

The bathroom was less flamboyant, prioritising an efficiently working bath and shower over styling. Toiletries are by 100 Acres, a natural beauty range of products made in the English countryside using natural botanicals and essential oils.

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After settling into my room, I had a few hours to explore the rest of the hotel. Each space I stumbled across had a new theme or artwork to marvel at, and I can see why so many events and celebrations are already being booked in at The Fife Arms.

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The Flying Stag pub is part of the hotel and is sure to be a hit with locals and guests. The well-priced menu features comforting classics like Fish and Chips and Aberdeen Angus Beef Burger. And despite the Flying Stag being the cheaper dining option it is certainly not an afterthought – care and attention has gone into making every dish a hit, and I was really impressed by the flavours and refinement that the pub kitchen had already established here.

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Breakfast was an indulgent affair served in The Clunie Dining Room, where I also enjoyed dinner the night before. This elaborate dining room has a stunning mural by artist Guillermo Kuitca on the walls and deep green marble tables. In the evening the short menu showcases fine local produce and Scottish delicacies, I loved the slow cooked deer and almost-savoury almond cake for dessert.

Next door to the Clunie Dining Room is Elsa’s, the hotel’s cocktail bar inspired by fashionista Elsa Schiaparelli, who has a connection to the history of the area. The thoughtfully created menu has some brilliant concoctions, I highly recommend trying the ‘Buried Gold’ or the Scottish whisky based ‘The Fairy and the Fiann’.

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During my 24 hour stay at The Fife Arms I had just enough time to quickly explore the local area. It is well worth making a visit to nearby Braemar Castle to understand a bit about the local history and also stop by the newly opened Braemar Highland Games Centre, which documents the details of the Highland Games and exhibits many of the precious old outfits, medals and photographs from the past.

Everyone seems to the be talking about The Fife Arms, and for good reason; this hotel is unforgettable both in style and substance.

More information and book a stay at The Fife Arms here.

Fogo Island Inn

Fogo Island Inn is a startling and exceptional feat of architecture, perched of the sea’s edge on Fogo Island, off the coast of Newfoundland. But after spending just a few days at this magical hotel, I now understand it is the story behind – and around – the building which makes this place so special.

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Fogo Island Inn is the realisation of native Newfoundlander Zita Cobb’s dream to regenerate and revitalise the business and traditions of Fogo Island. When the cod fishing industry crashed, the population of the island began to dwindle and Zita stepped in to save the island’s future, building this Inn and helping save one of Canada’s oldest rural communities. The Inn is part of a larger social enterprise, Shorefast, which aims to support the people of Fogo Island, and any profits from Fogo Island Inn are reinvested into the island.

Local architect Todd Saunders designed the structure with the history of Fogo Island in mind. The stilts mirror the construction of Newfoundland’s waterfront fishing sheds, while the stark white colour blends in with the snow in winter and reflects the abundant light in summer.

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We checked in and were welcomed immediately into the warm and friendly Fogo Island Inn family. Greeted with giant smile, we were handed a brass key – a metal cast of a rope – one of many Fogo Island motif’s. All the keys are different items found on the the island and cast in metal. Decorative and functional, they hang in order downstairs, almost an artwork in their own right.

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The bedrooms (all suites) have a light and nostalgic feel. All of the 29 rooms face the ocean and boast floor to ceiling views of the endless waves… in warmer weather guests may spot whales or seals as they migrate through the Newfoundland waters.

Every detail in the room evokes memories from the island. Handicrafts from the local community are found throughout, from the beautifully made multi-coloured quilts and specially illustrated wallpaper, to the quirky furniture that is made and sold in a nearby studio on the island. Though there is a Scandinavian slant to the design, the overall character of the rooms is quite unique and unlike anything I have seen before.

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The impressive glass-walled restaurant resembles the front of a ship and points out towards the Atlantic Sea. Meals at the Inn are wholesome and showcase the best local ingredients. The Inn’s Executive Chef Jonathan Gushue brings international experience to the Inn offering creative dishes inspired by the seasonal flavours. When we visited in March, seafood and partridgeberries featured on the menu as well as a variety of root vegetables and game.

In the mornings guests are treated to a pre-breakfast snack, the “daybreak box” includes a thermos of tea or coffee and freshly baked treats from the onsite bakery. It was such a pleasure to enjoy these snacks each morning from bed while watching the sunrise.

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The common spaces at the Inn are calming and encourage guests to unwind and reflect. In the tea room you can settle with a hot drink and a book by the fire, while upstairs there are open air hot tubs and a sauna for spa relaxation.

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On the second day of our stay we visited the Chef’s hut (next door to the Inn) for a special crab feast. An array of stunning cured and fermented ingredients were used to create colourful and tasty salads, which accompanied local Atlantic snow crab and homemade bread and butters. For dessert we were given delightful partridgeberry tarts, a baked treat I’m told is a Fogo Island favourite.

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Fogo Island has just over 2000 inhabitants, which is less than in previous years, though it seems to be beginning to rise again as Shorefast continues to create opportunities encouraging the younger generations to return home. Each of the towns on Fogo Island has its own history and heritage, different regions of this small island have varying accents dependant on where their ancestors hail from.

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A few hours of Island orientation are included in each stay and given by a knowledgable community host. It was wonderful to explore the island a bit on our tour – we visited a couple of the Shorefast Artist’s studios, beautiful contemporary studio spaces which are given to artists each summer. Built amongst the rugged landscape, I can’t imagine a more inspiring space for a creative to work.

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Fogo Island may be remote and challenging to get to, but I assure you that within minutes of arriving on the shores of this unique place you will forget all about the journey and live entirely in the moment, relishing every minute in this incredible place.

More information and book a room to stay at Fogo Island Inn here.

I was a guest of Fogo Island Inn.