Christmas in the Cameron Highlands

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It’s a cool November evening in the Cameron Highlands and Christmas has come early. We are gathered around the piano in the festive warmth of the Jim Thompson Tea Room, at the luxury Cameron Highlands Resort in Malaysia, cradling glass mugs of mulled wine and singing about bells on bobtails and Bethlehem. The scene is worthy of Dickens: we have the distinct sense that, were the Ghost of Christmas Present looking for a tableau to turn a modern-day Scrooge, the spirit could do a lot worse than this.

Despite all appearances – the mock Tudor cottages on nearby hillsides; the Norfolk pines wreathed in fairy lights outside the window; the fireplace and gingerbread houses in the wood-panelled library next door – we are in tropical, peninsular Malaysia.

The Cameron Highlands is a former British hill station 1,500 metres above sea level, which was “discovered” (legend has it, on elephant-back) by Scottish surveyor William Cameron in 1885. Its relatively cool temperatures made this patch of earth an ideal retreat from the humid lowlands. By the early 20th century, colonial residents had established a version of England here, complete with churches, boarding schools and inns – some of which live on as charming, if worn, guesthouses.

Today, the Cameron Highlands is best known for its lush tea plantations and strawberry fields. The region’s elevation is good for the cultivation of all kinds of produce and flowers, such as roses, lavender and orchids. It remains a popular holiday destination in Malaysia, particularly for those living in the capital, Kuala Lumpur (about a three-hour drive away).

The Cameron Highlands Resort is the only truly five-star offering in the area, and a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World consortium. Its 56 rooms and suites are beautifully designed, with tall French doors, timber-beamed ceilings, plantation shutters and soft, four-poster beds. Our balcony overlooks the golf course opposite, and is a  lovely place to sit on starlit evenings. The Japanese bar and restaurant Gonbei departs from the hotel’s nostalgic atmosphere, where high ceilings and bamboo blinds create a chic, open-air setting for cocktails and canapés

We are here for the hotel’s annual Murder Mystery in the Misty Mountains dinner party and Christmas tree lighting ceremony, held over consecutive evenings on a weekend in late November and attended by a selection of Malaysia’s great and good. The guests of honour this year are one-time Miss Universe Malaysia Deborah Henry, now co-founder and eloquent spokeswoman of the Fugee School, as well as the droll and approachable Princess Azizah Iskandar of Pahang (the Malaysian state of which the Cameron Highlands is part).

During the 1960s-themed murder mystery dinner, a former European ambassador turns in an impressive performance as Jim Thompson, the American mogul known as the Thai silk king who vanished from his Cameron Highlands bungalow on Easter Sunday, 1967, during an afternoon stroll.

Thompson’s disappearance is one of Southeast Asia’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Despite a historic manhunt, which involved military personnel, aboriginal trackers and even a psychic investigator, the tycoon’s body was never found. His legacy is an important part of the Cameron Highlands Resort: Guests can buy silks and other souvenirs at the Jim Thompson boutique or walk through the jungle on the Jim Thompson Mystery Trail, while the library abounds with books and coffee table tomes about the man, his business and what may have happened on that fateful spring day.

At the Spa Village, in a sunlit chalet at one end of the resort, signature therapies draw from the healing traditions of the region’s indigenous people or orang asli, as well as the restorative properties of tea and other local ingredients such as rose petals, mint and chrysanthemum. A two-hour treatment (tea bath, scrub and massage) is a wonderfully indulgent remedy for the previous evening’s excitement.

A weekend of costumes, carolling and whisky nightcaps at the Highlands Bar ends, early Sunday morning, with a private tour of the well-known BOH tea plantation. Our guide is Parthi, whose family have lived and worked there for three generations.

BOH was started in 1929 by British entrepreneur JA “Archie” Russell, who saw the potential for tea as a crop in Malaya. With the help of A B Milne, a veteran planter from Ceylon, a single steamroller and a pack of mules, Russell transformed steep virgin jungle slopes into the country’s first highland tea garden. Today BOH is helmed by Russell’s granddaughter, Caroline, and produces several thousand tons of tea each year. The company is actively involved in local wildlife conservation efforts and supports the arts in Malaysia through the BOH Cameronian Arts Award.

The Cameron Highlands Resort works with BOH to offer guests a Signature Picnic Experience and, after a tour of the factory and a visit to the sampling room, we make our way into the plantation proper. In a secluded spot, overlooking the majestic green valleys of tea, picnic mats and pillows have been laid down in the grass, along with a bottle of white wine on ice.

Lunch is served on ceramic plates, and we stay until the midday sun ridicules our decision to bring jumpers and scarves. Back at the resort, a car is waiting for us to begin our journey home.

by Samantha Kuok Leese