Twenty-six years is a long time to wait for a cup of tea.
You see it is exactly that long since we last visited the Cameron Highlands. Back then, Ian and I had travelled to Singapore and Malaysia for a two-week fly-drive holiday. It was a long time ago, before children and only one thing stayed in my memory from our trip to the highlands:
- That the roads were slow, monotonous and boring, particularly the trip up the Cameron Highlands.
In search of the perfect cuppa
So now, here we are living in Malaysia and I was in no rush to venture back to that long and winding road that would lead, apparently, to tea plantations. I didn’t remember any tea plantations from last time anyway. Really, tea? Well, I thought, if there had been any up there they must have been off the beaten track. And anyway, the only tea worth drinking, to my mind was what is commonly known as English Tea. I like it strong, with a drop of milk, making it the colour of caramel. Of course, I’d seen the tea on sale in the supermarkets down in KL and recognized the Boh brand. Not that I’d ever considered buying any. No. I buy my favourite Clipper organic brand on each trip back to the UK.
But then I read a superb book, called The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twang Eng. Engrossed in the story of a Chinese Malaysian judge, who spent time building a Japanese garden up near the hill station of Tanah Rata, I was enraptured by the protagonist’s descriptions of the scenery and the glorious walks she took through the plantations. Perhaps I had been wrong?
Lured then, partly by the book and partly by the promise of cool weather, we took my parents up to stay at The Lakehouse near Ringlet the weekend before last. We decided to visit the Boh plantation that very first afternoon, which is just a few kilometres from the hotel. We had to hurry. It closed at 4.30pm.
Immediately we started on the narrow, winding route up to the plantation we were enchanted by the landscape. Craggy dark rocks burst up from out of the undulating stepped hillsides. Though the tea bushes are squat with grey woody stems their leafy crowns sprout in cornrows between waist-high furrows that, from the road, appear to be as soft as chenille. There are clear streams that giggle past, jostling over pebbles alongside scattered poinsettia trees, scarlet hibiscus and clusters of burnt orange and lollipop red canna lilies. How could I have missed all this?
We looked on enviously as we watched tourists cycling through this stunning landscape, experiencing the sounds and smells at much closer range than we could from behind our car windows. Cyclists would benefit from being able to absorb the beauty and serenity so much more acutely than we could.
And so, after a quick tour of the factory, dusty and hot with the tang of stewed tealeaves we headed to the tea room to try a pot of loose leaf Cameron Gold tea accompanied by a strawberry tart made from the strawberries for which this area is now well-known.
Deliciously caramel in colour, we discovered, to our delight, that this tea is delightful whether drunk with or without milk. With undertones of Earl Grey smokiness and Orange Pekoe freshness, that afternoon cuppa had hidden depths and was, quite simply, worth the trip.
And then it hit me… how come we Brits can be so stubborn about our tea, and so pig-headed as to call it ‘English Tea’, when we do not grow tea in England? What’s that all about then?
The mist was already filling the valley and the rich greens were slowly draining from the landscape, replacing them with the monochrome of dusk. I spotted a climb to a viewpoint high on the hill and belligerently headed off towards it. I wasn’t going to come this far and miss the best bit. However, a few hundred steps in and all hope of seeing the view evaporated. Defeated, I came back down. There was nothing for it but to retreat to The Lakehouse for a happy hour glass of wine in front of the fire and to take advantage of the free five-minute head and neck massages that were on offer to all guests.
In search of the perfect plantation
We slept that night with the windows wide open to the highlands breeze that kept us beautifully cool and headed the next day for what is reputed to be the most beautiful plantation – Sungai Palas. Supposedly, this plantation, which also belongs to Boh, makes the most delicious of all the teas too.
The hotel provided us with a map of sorts that showed Sungai Pallas, quite clearly between Brinchang and Tringkap. We drove to Brinchang, kept our eyes peeled for signs and 40 minutes later found ourselves in Tringkap. We’d missed it! So we turned round and drove back to Brinchang again, once more with no sign of a sign to Sungai Pallas. Then it dawned on me… the hotel map had spelled it with two LLs when there was only one! Up and down the road we went, asking stall holders, scouring the roadside for signs and then, eventually, we saw a sign that was invisible from the road itself but clearly headed up a pale rocky path (it’s just about opposite the Bee Farm by the way, everyone, and almost opposite a small mall. Here’s a good map.).
The road was windier and narrower than ever and though the view was splendid, we all agreed that our little Boh plantation the day before had provided more charm and rustic simplicity than this supposedly extra-special one. The tea room was heaving with people too so we couldn’t face the queue for the cuppa we craved and headed back down the hillside. I’d spotted a sign near the entrance for an organic farm with a café and so we decided to head there instead. Again the view improved to a more natural beauty. The trouble was, the road was almost impassable, the organic farm mysteriously did not appear and we got the car stuck in a ditch and needed a passing motorist to help push us out.
In search of a return trip?
My memory had served me well in one respect: the roads were slow, but the views were stupendous and the tea plantations cool and glorious. Next time, we are going to bring our bicycles and return to Boh. We won’t be taking our own teabags.