Hotel Puri, Malaysia review: Guest wing for comfy nesting

Read our writer's views on this property below

At this historic establishment, the regulars have their own entrance, discovers a flighty Don Townshend.

We were seeking accommodation in the heart of old Melaka when we stumbled upon the Hotel Puri. Impressed by its richly stuccoed facade, we stopped to savour the workmanship. Suddenly a couple of swallows swooped out of the darkening sky and disappeared inside the hotel. More followed quickly. Looking up, we saw the sky was pulsing with swallows, many of them skimming the low-rise rooftops of the old town.

Intrigued, we followed the swallows into the hotel. Inside, we discovered a gorgeous double-chambered lobby more reminiscent of a grand Straits Chinese (also known as Peranakan and Baba Nyonya) home than a hotel.

Around us gleamed dark-timbered antique furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, cane chairs, carved door surrounds and a superb staircase swirling up through a beautifully crafted light-rinsed air well.

The floor was patterned attractively with 19th-century British tiles.

When the doorman approached, I asked if he'd seen the birds. "No, sir," he said. "This entrance only for guests. Birds must enter along space between buildings."

I played along. "Oh yeah. And the swallows know that?"

He nodded affirmatively. "Not swallows, sir. Swifts. Their ancestors live here long time and offspring learn from parents to enter hotel from outside wall."

My wife was hooked. "So where do the swifts live?" she asked.

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"They have own room, madam," he assured her. "After you check in, I show you." It all sounded so ridiculous, we thought he was jesting. But 10 minutes later we stood in the elegantly furnished but misnamed Swallow Hall contemplating a small colony of swifts nesting beneath the cornices.

All up I counted 52 swifts, their small dark heads and spiky tail feathers protruding from nests glued to the walls.

Chirping conversationally, they appeared totally unconcerned by the human activity beneath them.

Aficionados of Chinese cuisine will know swifts' nests are composed mainly of solidified saliva. These nests are eagerly sought for consumption as bird's nest soup, with premium quality nests commanding up to $US10,000 ($14,800) a kilo.

I asked a staffer if the hotel harvested the nests for soup. She looked affronted. "No, sir. These swifts are our friends. Their ancestors lived here when this house was rebuilt in 1876. It's their home."

Yet while the Puri's swifts provide unusual curiosity value for guests, elsewhere in town they're big business. One local businessperson lamented that more than 50 buildings in Melaka's old quarter had been gutted and converted into bird houses.

Fortunately, Hotel Puri is unlikely to ever morph into a bird house. Steeped in tradition, it appeals to souls touched more by history than hotel hype. It even has a separate History Room next to the Swallow Hall, where guests can absorb the building's genealogy and appreciate how Portuguese, Dutch and British conquests influenced the town's heritage. The hotel was originally an ancestral home dating back to 1822. It opened as a hotel in 1997.

Rated three stars, service is attentive and accommodation is clean, comfortable and unpretentious. Our basic standard double with ensuite came with all the usual offerings and looked down into a lush, tropical courtyard adjoining the Swallow Hall.

The courtyard, a secluded and relaxing oasis for round-the-clock dining, merges into the rear of the adjoining Galeri Restaurant, which serves inexpensive local and international dishes, including Melaka-Portuguese, Nyonya and Malaysian cuisines. Bird's nest soup is not on the menu.

Located in Tun Tan Cheng Lock Street (known as Heeren Street or Millionaires' Row), one of old Melaka's most distinguished thoroughfares, Hotel Puri's guests are ideally placed to explore the old quarter by foot or trishaw. A stunning building is opposite and the superb Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum and other historical icons are just doors away.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Most major airlines fly from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Melaka is about 90 minutes by car from Kuala Lumpur and about three hours from Singapore. The train from Singapore to KL stops at nearby Tampin where a cab to the hotel costs about $25.

Staying there

Hotel Puri, 118 Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Melaka. A standard double room costs about $50; the top-range Puri Suite costs about $210. Phone (606) 282 5588, see hotelpuri.com.