Penang is considered by many to be the most gastronomic destination in Malaysia. Street food is undoubtedly Penang's main attraction for KL urbanites and international visitors alike, and with Air Asia flights costing as little as £20 for a one way flight from KL, it should feature in any gourmet Malaysian itinerary.
A relatively large island, Penang was home to fewer than one hundred fishermen until it was settled and developed by the British in 1786. Its capital is Georgetown, a UNESCO world heritage site, which boasts the largest concentration of pre-war houses in all of southeast Asia. Most visitors stay either in Georgetown (see "What to Do" below), or on the northern beach at Batu Ferringhi where the resort hotels are.
Where to Stay
Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa
I stayed at the five-star Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa, located on Batu Ferringhi Beach in the northwest of Penang, around 20 minutes drive from Georgetown. Opened in 1973 as Malaysia's first deluxe hotel, it was closed for 21 months and given a £20m refit to re-open in 2006 as a luxury resort, with a 30 acre landscaped garden overlooking the sea. It is part of the Shangri-La hotel group, which owns hotels throughout Asia and the Middle East.
The hotel has two different grades of accommodation - the original building, known as the Garden Wing, and since 2003, the Rasa Wing with some additional exclusive features. These include larger rooms, a separate private swimming pool for those aged over 16 with a free soft drink waiter service, and complimentary afternoon high-tea, pre-dinner cocktails and canapés.
I stayed in a Rasa Wing Premier room, which had an oversized balcony bathtub and private veranda, as well as a massive interior bathroom, wet room, living area and bedroom.
We had breakfast in two areas - a la carte at the Ferringhi Grill within the Rasa Wing, and in the Spice Market Cafe in the Garden Wing. Both were good, with the Ferringhi rather quieter and more formal, the Spice Garden offering a wider variety and a more relaxed feel.
I had the feeling that whichever part of the hotel I had stayed at, I would have had a great time. However, I felt that the upgrade to the Rasa Wing was well worth the extra if only for the fantastic Negronis and glasses of sparkling wine we had during the cocktail hour of 6 to 7pm, with accompanying Asian tapas.
Golden Sands Resort
Next door to the Rasa Sayang, and also owned by the Shangri-La group of hotels, is the Golden Sands Resort. It has been a favourite family holiday destination in Malaysia for locals and visitors for many years. Surrounded by tropical gardens, it has one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in Batu Ferringhi.
|View from my room at Golden Sands Resort|
The hotel caters for young children with a Kids Club offering educational programmes for children aged 4 to 12. There is also an indoor entertainment complex equipped with drop slides, multiple sections of modular play equipment, and a game zone.
These areas are supervised, freeing up the parents who can relax by the two lagoon-shaped pools, or enjoy some of the activities available at the hotel including paragliding and canoeing, golf, three tennis courts and cookery lessons.
The Garden Cafe is the hotel's all day dining option, serving local as well as international dishes, while Sigi's Bar and Grill on the Beach offers child friendly options such as burgers, fish and chips, wood-fired pizza, and other dishes to munch on by the pool or beach.
Where to Eat
Famous for its street food, Penang's hawker specialties are endless, and if this more casual style of eating is your thing, Penang is bound to tick all the boxes.
Some of Penang's specialties include Assam Laksa (a hot and sour fish soup), Hokkien Mee (prawns in chilli noodle soup) and Inche Kabin (chicken marinated in spices and then fried). Penang as well as Malacca are the culinary centres of Nyonya cuisine in Malaysia.
Whether staying at the Golden Sands or the Rasa Sayang, the hotels have two restaurants each, catering for different styles of eating and budgets. Golden Sands has casual, family oriented dining options in the Garden Cafe (set price for a buffet style dinner) and Sigi's Bar and Grill (a la carte menu). Rasa Sayang has an upmarket buffet at the Spice Market, and a western fine-dining option at the Ferringhi Grill which is said to be one of the best restaurant in Penang.
|Spice Market Cafe at Rasa Sayang Resort|
While staying at the Rasa Sayang, one of our most memorable dinners was at the Spice Market Cafe. Fixed-price buffets change daily, but on the night we were there, there was an excellent fish and seafood themed evening, with plenty of freshly shucked oysters on ice, crab, lobster and a sushi and sashimi counter.
|Sushi Counter at Spice Market Cafe, Rasa Sayang Resort|
On another night, after an overly boozy cocktail hour at Rasa Sayang (which ran to three), and several Negronis later, we stumbled across a collection of hawker stalls at the nearby Long Beach Food Court. We made for the Chinese Cuisine stall, where I had one of the best (and cheapest) meals of my trip.
The Crispy Belacan Chicken at a mere 10 Malaysian Ringgit (£2.50) was richly flavoursome, with a pronounced umami character from the belacan, as was the Kangkong Belacan at 8 Ringgit (£2), and the seafood rice also at 8 Ringgit. It is definitely a place I would seek out if I should ever return to Batu Ferringhi.
During a visit to Georgetown, we were advised to avoid the touristic street food options at Gurney Road, and instead to try the hawker stalls at New Lane.
There we had an oyster omelette and char koay teow. I thought the oysters were disturbingly gelatinous, and the char koay teow was far from memorable, but then they cost almost nothing and I guess you get what you pay for.
We had some hawker stall recommendations in Georgetown made by my friend May, of Malaysian by May, which unfortunately we didn't have time to pursue. These are below:
The best Hokkien Mee - Penang specialty ( Prawn Mee Soup) is on Jalan Burma ( Burma Road) at Swee Kong Coffee Shop, directly opp the Pulau Tikus Police Station. Daily except Thursdays. From 6.00am to 8.30am.
The best Char Koay Teow is of course the Lady With the Red Beret on Lorong Selamat. Daily 11.30am to 5 ish.
The best Nonya Restaurant is Rumah Perut on Kelawei Road. Otherwise try E.T Restaurant on Rangoon Road. It is a steamboat restaurant but for the locals who know, they serve home cooked Nyonya Food. i.e. Joo Hu Char, Gulai Assam Fish, Lor Bak, Assam Prawns. Also - Mama's on Abu Siti Lane.
The best BBQ crabs are in a run down rustic seafood restaurant on the way down from the beach: The Sea Pearl Lagoon Cafe in Tanjong Tokong. Have the crabs, salt baked prawns, the oyster omelette from the stalls and the char kway teow.
Whatever else you may eat in Penang, one thing you should not miss is the Ice Kacang. We had a lovely example of this at the Rasa Sayang hotel. This is a sweet and refreshing dessert made from shaved ice, vanilla ice cream, sweetened red bean, creamed sweet corn, palm fruit, strips of dried nutmeg as well as colourful jellies drenched in palm sugar syrup and rose syrup.
What to Do
Visit to Georgetown
Wherever you stay, a visit to Georgetown is essential, with many colonial buildings still in existence, as well as a thriving Chinatown with it original shophouses and mansions, Little India, and the elegant Eastern & Oriental Hotel.
Relaxing on Batu Ferringhi Beach
In Batu Ferringhi, there is the beach during the day, and shopping and eating in the evening. There is a coastal road with numerous simple stalls along the way, as well as a few internet cafes, trinket stalls, tailors' shops and street food hawkers, as well as some more formal (and relatively expensive) seafood restaurants.
If you stay, like me, at the Rasa Sayang Hotel, there are two adult and one children's outdoor swimming pools, a tennis court and golf course, and a nearby water sports centre offers water-skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, windsurfing and deep-sea fishing.
There is a health club with a full range of gym equipment, a hydropool, sauna and steam room, as well as daily Tai Chi classes. Children can make use of the Adventure Zone indoor supervised playground located between Rasa Sayang and the next door Golden Sands resort.
The Rasa Sayang Spa is large, with 11 private villas, offering Himalayan barley rubs, healing stone and traditional Malay massages. The interiors are luxurious, with granite walls, timber flooring and silk furnishing. I unfortunately did not try any of the treatments at the spa during my stay so I cannot fully recommend them; although if the high standards everywhere else in the hotel are anything to go by, the treatments at the spa are also likely to be very good.
Direct flights from London to Kuala Lumpur are available with British Airways and Malaysian Airlines. Middle Eastern airlines provide indirect flights at lower cost, with a 60-120 minute stopover. For example Etihad (changing at Abu Dhabi), or Qatar Airlines (changing at Doha).
Penang can be reached most easily from Kuala Lumpur by flying with AirAsia (http://www.airasia.com) (approximately £80 return).
Package tours including flights from the UK and accommodation at Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa and Golden Sands Resort are available from Kuoni Travel (http://www.kuoni.co.uk), and Virgin Travel (http://www.virginholidays.co.uk).
Interesting sites about Malaysia: