A fascinating element of memorable travel is the juxtaposition of the five senses, the collision of the old and the new. Kuala Lumpur delivers in all respects. We paid a visit to KL after living there 16 years earlier. When we lived in Malaysia, it was a country valiantly looking to leap from third world to first world status. In the late 1990s there was deeper cellphone penetration in Malaysia than in the USA; in KL everyone had a ‘handphone.’ On our recent visit, we were able to experience a slightly less frenetic pace of building construction, but still the euphemism prevailed: the national bird is the crane, as in a building crane.
The Majestic Hotel was a delightful microcosm. Here is an elegant structure, once the pinnacle of luxury in KL.
At its height, the Hotel Majestic was the largest and grandest hotel in KL, unrivalled for its prestige and luxury. Built in 1932 in a blend of neo-classical and art deco styles, the 51 room hotel sat on a commanding hilltop site facing another of KL’s famous landmarks, the Moorish style railway station. For the first time in Malayan history, modern sanitation was introduced in all rooms, with hot and cold water, showers, and long baths in 18 rooms, considered the height of luxury in its day.
Part of our delight in living in Malaysia was the lingering effect of the country’s British colonial stature. Granted independence in 1957, the country adopted a flag somewhat evocative of America’s. But the cars drive on the left, and many British traditions continue. At the Hotel Majestic one could still find Sunday curry tiffin lunches and tea dances.
By the 1970s, however, the hotel had lost its lustre, giving way to newer, bigger and more luxurious hotels. Saved from demolition by the government, the hotel was designated a heritage building under the Antiquities Act. At the end of 1983, the last guests checked out and the hotel became home to the National Art Gallery until 1998.
When we lived in KL, the Hotel Majestic was there no more. But YTL Hotels was entrusted with the restoration of this national treasure, and we were able to spend several fine days enjoying this gem of a hotel.
The curved driveway and covered Porte Cochere contribute to the sense of grandeur, as do the Roman columns and lush foliage.
The comfortable juxtaposition of the hotel’s regal past and modern renovation continues with Count Basie and Louis Armstrong music piped in to the Colonial Café. There we enjoyed a luxurious meal, with our daughters giggling at menu choices like spotted dick. I often wonder if the crusts cut from the small sandwiches are used for croutons. The colonial era of Malayan planters is evoked with the décor.
Our accommodations were completely luxurious, and we were able to enjoy a pampered session at the Majestic Spa. Distinctively appointed in the art deco style of Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Macintosh’s Willow Tearooms, the spa offered treatments ranging from banana honey hair masque and papaya coconut scrub to lime blossom bath and bunga rampai massage.
Perhaps the most British thing at the hotel for men is Truefitt & Hill, “having provided discerning gentlemen with the finest grooming services for over two centuries.” The haircut treatment I received was not the traditional Malaysian version (where the shampoo is applied directly to the dry hair without a sink). Indeed, my shampoo came after the haircut in British style. The meticulous barber asked for all my details and preferences before starting. He somewhat ceremoniously pulled out a hermetically sealed envelope with his instruments and began trimming. After the shampoo and blow dry he retrieved another hermetically sealed envelope and extracted a brush. The final touch was a bit of light homemade hair emollient and I was off to meet my wife and daughters for another fine meal at the Colonial Café.
The Hotel Majestic is Malaysia’s version of Singapore’s famed Raffles Hotel; both represent their nation’s preeminent luxury colonial hotel despite an influx of sleek modern alternatives.