The West

High tea in Malaysian highlands
High tea is served at Carcosa Seri Negara.

It enjoys an imposing location, as befits a luxury boutique hotel with an equally grandiose name and an imperial history. Above the madding crowds of Kuala Lumpur, yet only a short drive from the buzzing metropolis, a mansion called Carcosa Seri Negara sits on not one but two hills above Lake Gardens.


In fact it is not one but two mansions and both were built at the end of the 19th century by Malay's colonial ruler of the time - its first resident-general, Sir Frank Swettenham. Carcosa was his official home (and that of successive British representatives until 1941) while King's House, as it was called, was on an adjacent hillside and used as a guest house.


It holds a special place in Malaysian history. It was there, in August 1957, that the Malaysian declaration of independence was signed in a two-hour ceremony.

Today, King's House is called Seri Negara, which means "beautiful country" in Malay. Lush tropical vegetation features in its 16ha of grounds. Returned to the Malaysian state in 1987, and managed since February by Saujana Hotels & Resorts, it is the place to stay if you want to enjoy peaceful green surrounds without the city's humidity - and luxuriate in prestige and heritage at the same time.

Seri Negara truly is a boutique hotel because only five rooms (all suites and each named after a Malaysian state) are available. The sixth is closed for renovations while the whole of Carcosa has been closed for renovations since December 2009 and there's no word on when it might reopen.

A suite at Seri Negara costs around 1000MR (about $330) a night, which the travel budget didn't cover. But one of my tour party and I decided we could afford to indulge in some savouries and take afternoon tea in the hotel's Drawing Room.

Carcosa, I learnt, was a fictional town in a Victorian Gothic horror novel and the two buildings have suitable Gothic architectural elements, as well as Tudor influences. Fittingly, the air was thick with menace and there was the crackle of thunder amid the dark clouds as our taxi made its way up the driveway to Seri Negara. Inside it was all dark wood, leather armchairs, chandeliers and flowers in vases. I half-expected Jane Austen to saunter through with Mr Darcy on her arm.

They say fashion comes full circle and it's the same for afternoon tea, which appears to be making a bit of a comeback in Perth and other cities. The originator of this meal was the 7th Duchess of Bedford, Anna Maria Russell, back in the 19th century. Legend has it that Anna often felt hungry between luncheon and dinner (which might not be served until 8pm or later) so she began the practice of ordering bread, butter, cakes and tea around 4pm to stave off the hunger pangs.

This was called afternoon tea and the repast became fashionable in her social circles; among the working class, "afternoon tea" evolved into "high tea" and then just "tea", and was taken as the main meal of the day around 5pm or a little later. It's still called tea in parts of England today.

At Carcosa Seri Negara, in either the Drawing Room or outside on the wraparound veranda, afternoon tea can be taken from 3pm and comes in two versions: there's the traditional English variety with fine teas, fresh scones and cream, pastries and cakes; or at weekends, there is a Malay alternative with the likes of prawn fritters, spring rolls, chicken satay and traditional Malay desserts.

The uncertain weather persuaded us to stay inside, where I stuck obstinately to my English roots and went traditional. A triple-tiered cake stand was welcomed to our table and we started with a smoked Norwegian salmon croissant sandwich, followed by the inevitable cucumber sandwich.

I passed on the egg mayonnaise sandwich, instead skipping straight to the traditional English fruit cake and apple crumble. The chocolate brownies were avoided but I helped myself to the creme brulee (a favourite of mine) before clearing the palate with a raspberry sorbet and finishing with a raisin scone served with clotted cream.

As for drinks, there was a wide variety of fine tea: English favourites such as Earl Grey, herbal teas such as Moroccan Mint and Chinese teas including Lapsang Souchong and Pai Mu Tan. The bone china tea service was from Thailand, and I couldn't help but think that the traditionalist in Anna, Duchess of Bedford, would have preferred Wedgwood.

As we munched through the feast, the grandfather clock chimed every 15 minutes competing with the growling thunder outside. Then the heavens opened.

We watched the rain cascading down on the already lush vegetation outside before it stopped as suddenly as it had started and KL's colossal Petronas Towers peeked through the clearing clouds, reminding us of another Malaysia down the hill.

The cost? With taxes, the afternoon tea came to about $25 each.

The experience? Priceless. The calorie count? Don't ask, but I didn't need dinner that night.

Mark Irving travelled as a guest of Air Asia, mytravelshoppe, Tourism Malaysia and CHM.

The West Australian

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