Best-kept Secret

Wrought iron gates at the entrance to Jeff's Cellar
I was in the middle of interviewing someone when my sister, Ruby, phoned.  I gave her a brief reply, saying I will speak to her later.  When I spoke to her again, she asked me what my schedule was for the next week and I answered her with a question: “Why?”

Then she told me about the prize she won from entering a contest last year, describing the 3-Day 2-Night stay inclusive of meals and spa treatments for two at The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat in Tambun, near Ipoh.  Since the deal will expire at the end of the month, I agreed to go with her but I was so tied up with work that I did not give much thought to our destination. 

Quaint little well close to the cave entrance
With this travel plan ahead, I organized my work and appointments to free myself up for the final week of the month.  In fact, I was busy writing till late and only managed to throw a few things into my travel bag at about 10.30pm before leaving the next morning.  Our stay at The Banjaran turned out to be such an extraordinary experience not only because of how this spa retreat lives up to its 5-star award-winning standards but because of its unique attractions in hot-springs, tropical jungles, waterfalls and limestone caves.

Special Touches

Check-in time is 3pm so while Ruby and I were eating lunch in Ipoh – a visit to Ipoh is not complete without a taste of sar hor fun or local rice noodles – the resort called to get our car registration number.  Later when we drove down a tree-lined road into the resort, we hardly stopped at the barrier next to the guardhouse when the guard recognized our car and ushered us in.  By the time we reached the porch, Kamal our butler was there to welcome my sister by name while another staff unloaded our luggage and parked the car!

Main bar inside Jeff's Cellar
It is interesting for me because for a change, Ruby is the resort’s guest while I’m just there to twin-share.  While Ruby did all the “work” to check-in and ask or answer questions, I can soak in the charming atmosphere lush with greenery in the water gardens, natural wood furniture and striking stalagmite showpieces.  

We are given waterproof wristbands to wear instead of keys or cards to our villa and I thought it is a clever use of technology and a comfortable convenience both as keys and guest identification!

Water cascading into terraced pools in the cave
Riding a buggy to our villa, Kamal gave us a quick tour for the location of the spa, waterfalls and various caves before he introduced in-room facilities like remote controls for the whirring leaf-bladed fans above, the sound system cleverly concealed in the ceiling and a mobile phone for use in the resort.  

As he showed us the twin vanity counters in the dressing room and piped-in hot-springs outdoor jacuzzi in the rear, I cannot wait for him to exit so that I can let out my held-back gasps of wonder.  This is sheer indulgence as there is already a beautiful plunge pool in our villa’s front yard!

Banquet table elegantly laid out for
a private party in the cave
All this excitement is making me thirsty so I pour a drink from the labu sayong, the gourd-shaped ceramic carafe that is native to Perak, to quench my curiosity about how this naturally cooled water tastes.  As I lounge on the comfortable divan to savour the tasty sips of cool water, I’m glad to see how local icons like the juicy-sweet pomelo fruit in the welcome basket, the hot-springs water in the jacuzzi and those towering limestone cliffs around the villa, all combine to make this resort so special.  And this was before I discovered the best-kept secret of The Banjaran – Jeff’s Cellar!

Jeff’s Cellar

I do not have to lean back for the waiter to serve each course of our dinner at The Pomelo because they are trained to provide service that is attentive and yet unobtrusive.  Seated in a pavilion built over the hot-springs pond, the atmosphere is absolutely surreal as we watch the fascinating sight of swirls of steam gently shifting in the breeze.  The waiting staff who served and cleared away each course, helpfully answered our queries about the resort and one of them suggested that we pop over to Jeff’s Cellar later.

A peek into Tan Sri Jeffrey's private collection
“Who’s Jeff?” I promptly asked and he told us an incredible tale of how Tan Sri Dr Jeffrey Cheah, founder and chairman of the Sunway Group, discovered the cave while he was taking a walk.  Born in Pusing, a small town near Ipoh, Tan Sri Jeffrey is familiar with this area because he used to visit the hot-springs as a youth.  

So while the Sunway Group was developing the nearby resort township in 2002, he stumbled upon several interesting caves here including those dubbed the Balcony Cave, the Meditation Cave and this cave which he initially wanted to turn into his private wine cellar. 

Earlier on while Ruby and I were exploring, we spotted the crest and wrought iron gate overgrown with greenery at its entrance built into a limestone wall.  Now that it is open, we do not need much persuasion to go in for a first-hand experience.  As soon as dinner is over, a waiter is ready to escort us across a woody grove into the cavernous depths of a limestone cave that is Jeff’s Cellar.

Spectacular Sight

Even with my experience of limestone caves, nothing prepared me for the spectacular sight inside Jeff’s Cellar.  Ruby and I pause at the top of the short flight of stairs at its foyer, just to take it in slowly.  As my eyes adjust to the golden glow from subtle lighting reflecting on the limestone rocks, I consciously try to keep my mouth closed because so mesmerized was I that I can’t keep my jaws from dropping!

I know we are stepping on a firm boardwalk as I crane my neck to look up and admire the spacious chamber hemmed in by towering walls of uneven limestone.  I hear the rush of trickling water and my eyes are riveted to a gigantic stalactite that has streams cascading down its sides into a series of terraced pools below.  Wide canvas canopies span the ceiling in some parts of the cave and when I stand under it, I hear a firm “thud, thud” sound of water dripping from stalactites way, way above from the top of the cave!

View of Jeff's Cellar with terraced pools [Left] and elevated lounge [Right]
As I was gawking away at the sights, I suddenly realize that a staff is standing politely nearby, ready to take our drink orders.  Butler, Thaya introduced himself as the caretaker of the Cellar since it opened some 10 years ago, so I think he must be used to guests who are absolutely blown away by the unbelievable experience in this unique place.  He graciously showed us around, sharing interesting anecdotes along the way and even gave us a peek into another cellar that housed Tan Sri Jeffrey’s private collection!

Peggy enjoying a drink at the elevated lounge
in Jeff's Cellar
For a moment it was difficult to reconcile the stark contrast between the height of sophistication in a full bar, lavishly laid out banquet table and plush lounge seats furnished in air-conditioned comfort within such a primitive setting.  Yet this sheer disparity is probably the charm that attracts people to host their special events here.  

Seated at the elevated lounge – the best seats in the house, according to Thaya – and sipping our drinks, Ruby and I thrill to a panoramic view of the rough and rocky beauty of Jeff’s Cellar, agreeing that it is indeed the best-kept secret of The Banjaran!

Fast Facts

Jeff’s Cellar is an ideal destination for private parties like product launches and special events.  On 15 May 2012, The Banjaran was recognized as the World’s Best Resort accorded by Fiabci Prix d’Excellence at a ceremony held in St Petersburg, Russia.  For appointments and reservations: Email or Tel: 605 – 210 7777, Fax: 605 – 210 7778.  The Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat is located just a 15-minute drive away from Ipoh along Jalan Tambun.  Visit website:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 10 January 2013

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