Melaka (formerly Malacca) is billed as the oldest and most historic town in Malaysia, and certainly provides a good overview of the country's Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial history. Though small and now somewhat provincial, the interesting port city is full of fusion delights, including a Babel of languages, fabulous cuisine and a Malay, Chinese and Indian meld of cultures. The old town is World Heritage-listed for its eclectic, pastel-coloured architecture.
The ruins of the Portuguese Church of St Paul and fortress gateway Porto de Santiago are trumped by the subsequent Dutch 17th-century Stadthuys (town hall) and Christ Church, painted bright red. Aptly named Harmony Street is home to a Hindu temple, Chinese temple and Malay mosque, all of which show an intriguing blend of architectural influences. Cheng Hoon Teng Temple (chenghoonteng.org.my) is the most interesting, decorated with broken porcelain used by European traders for ballast.
Melba at the Mansion (majesticmalacca.com) specialises in Kristang cuisine, which fuses Malay and Portuguese influences and is characterised by light vegetable dishes, spicy sambal and rich coconut-based curries. The chef's signature dish is baked crab stuffed with minced chicken and prawn; the sea bass baked in lime and lemongrass is also delicious. Afternoon tea in the lobby of The Majestic Malacca (majesticmalacca.com) combines British sandwiches and scones with sweet Malay nibbles, accompanied by cinnamon-flavoured tea.
Wander Melaka's old streets, which are lined with British-era shophouses with wrought iron, wooden shutters and pastel paint reminiscent of the Mediterranean. Some have art deco embellishments. Doorways are flanked by Chinese calligraphy on red banners. Occasional traditional shops remain: you might come across a sign-maker, woodcarver or tofu manufacturer. Jalan Tun Tan Cheng is lined with old Dutch trading houses, and Jalan Hang Lekir hosts a morning market.
If you're going to pay for just one thing in Melaka, make it the Baba and Nonya Heritage Museum (babanyonyamuseum.com), a brilliant showcase of wealthy Peranakan or Chinese-Malay fusion culture from the late 19th-century onwards. The family mansion is ornate with carved wood and gold leaf, and excellent guides are entertaining. Look out for the very blonde half-Aussie kids in the front row of a photograph showing a vast get-together of the seventh-generation family owners.
The Majestic Malacca (majesticmalacca.com) is fronted by the 1920s colonial-style mansion of a Chinese tycoon, although large period-style guestrooms are housed in a modern extension. The hotel deftly combines Melaka's many cross-cultural elements: Victorian chandeliers and claw-foot baths, Portuguese tiles, colourful steamed Malay sweets left at turndown. Service is attentive and nothing seems too much trouble. Be sure to take the complementary historical walk through town with one of the informative staff.
TS Lim (63 Jalan Tokong) is a shop specialising in handmade Nyonya beaded slippers, something of a dying art since many of these traditional slippers are now machine-made. The intricate designs can take weeks of careful sewing.
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Malaysia Airlines, Tourism Malaysia and The Majestic Melaka.