‘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.

Paul Edmonds Salon, Battersea Power Station

I’ve often heard stylish friends mention Paul Edmonds as a hairdresser worth visiting, but it wasn’t until a few months ago when I was treated to a pre-Bafta party blow dry, that I noticed the care and attention the Paul Edmonds staff pay towards their clients.

Paul Edmonds salon

Last week I went to check out the newest branch of the Paul Edmonds empire, a super slick salon in Battersea Power Station. With a lot of building work still going on, the salon – though just a short walk from the main road – wasn’t easy to find. Eventually I reached it, and the staff were quick to welcome me, taking my heavy bags and offering me a drink.

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The salon is spacious and luxurious, with big mirrors and geometric windows. I particularly loved the fully reclining leather chairs in the hairwashing area, they were so comfortable I nearly fell asleep while having my hair washed!

Paul Edmonds salon

I was lucky to get Taylor as my colourist for the day. Taylor, though only 21, is known for her balayage skills, and won the L’Oreal Professional Star Award in 2018. Needless to say, I was in very safe hands so I let Taylor decide on a tactic to make my hair look more summery. We chatted away while Taylor painted sections of my hair with a half head of balayage.

Paul Edmonds at Battersea Power Station is the UK’s first exclusive Shu Uemura hair and beauty salon, a beauty brand I have always admired for their brilliant haircare and beauty products. After my colour, my hair was washed with the new Shu Uemura Ultimate Reset Shampoo (made of Japanese rice, and containing both proteins and moisture) – ideal for post colour washing. I also loved the Urban Moisture Conditioner which contains Moringa Oil for hydration and was indulgently massaged into my hair and scalp.

After washing, Lizzie cut and styled my hair. We decided on a minimal trim to bluntly level out the ends. Then she added a tousled wave with tongs and added texture and shine with a variety of products, including Shu Uemura Ample angora which gives volume (to prep the hair) and Shu Uemura Color Lustre dry cleaner which gives the grit you need for the beach wave effect. For additional shine I was taught that adding the Shu Uemura Essence Absolue on the mid lengths to ends of the hair, while drying the hair, is perfect.

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I left the salon feeling proud to show off my hair, and in the last week have had three unprompted compliments on my hair colour and shine.

This is a hairdressing brand which more than deserves its reputation as one of London’s leading hairdressers, and the new Battersea branch is a lovely location in South London to be pampered and preened at.

I was a guest of Paul Edmonds salon.

Book an appointment or buy any of the products 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.