WHERE George Town, Penang, Malaysia
WHY HERE With its crumbling colonial era straits architecture, quirky street art and some of south-east Asia's best hawker food, Penang's capital George Town is a fading beauty once again thrust into the spotlight. Situated on a small island off the northwestern coast of Malaysia, travellers come for the meld of Malay-Chinese-Indian architecture, to take trishaw rides through its fascinating mesh of narrow streets and to eat like there's no tomorrow. The bustling port town was made a UNESCO World Heritage listed city in 2008 – the impetus for entrepreneurs, hoteliers, restaurateurs and optimistic locals to give new lease life to its lavish mansions, century-old churches, Chinese clan houses, Indian temples, and higgledy-piggledy shophouses. Today you can stay in chic boutique hotels, drink decadent cocktails, dine at contemporary eateries and explore its vibrant arts scene, yet the charm of old Asia can reassuringly still be found.
HOW LONG You need at least three to four days to explore this vibrant multicultural city. Two to three days at least to explore George Town's ethnic quarters of Little India, its Malay kampungs (villages), Chinese and European communities, mind boggling eateries, hawker stalls and fascinating wet markets. When you've had your fill of George Town's bustling streets, where Chinese clan houses sit side by side with century old churches and ornate mosques, make for the seaside with its casuarina trees, cool sea breezes and languid kampung lifestyle.
DON'T MISS Take a scenic ride through George Town's narrow guild streets by ubiquitous man-powered trishaw (be sure and set a price before pedalling off). On the way you'll pass shophouses where tradesman tinker on trishaws and craftsmen create raffia furniture, paper lanterns, joss sticks and songkok hats. Stop for lunch at one of the incredible hawker stalls for char kway teow along George Town's backstreets, then experience the city's colonial past over high tea at the iconic Eastern and Oriental Hotel (eohotels.com). Be sure to visit Fuan Wong Gallery (see fuanwong.com), to see beautiful fused-glass sculptures, and Lebuh Armenian (Armenian Street) for wonderful street art.
After sundown head to Australian expatriate Narelle McMurtrie's China House (chinahouse.com.my), a traditional compound of three heritage buildings linked by an open-air courtyard, for food art and a much-needed latte to get you firing for the day.
The charming Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, now the boutique Blue Mansion is an elaborate 1880s Su Chow Dynasty house, which features in several films, including the classic Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve. Take a fascinating hour-long tour ($RM12 ($3.93) per person three times a day; thebluemansion.com.my) or better still, stay the night behind its vivid indigo walls.
WHERE TO STAY Australian hoteliers Chris Ong and Karl Steinberg's growing empire includes two "flashpacker" properties – Muntri Mews and Noordin Mews – along with new boutique hotel Muntri Grove.
Noordin Mews is a converted 1920's Peranakan shophouse set in a walled tropical garden with private swimming pool. Decorated in straits eclectic style, it has its own laneway mews originally used for trishaws, handcarts and as the servants quarters for wealthy families. Rooms priced from $131 twin share. See noordinmews.com.
Ong and Steinberg's astonishing Seven Terraces, a converted row of 19th century Anglo Chinese terraces, is their latest and most elaborate venture, from $195 twin share including breakfast; see seventerraces.com.
Lone Pine, the sister property of the Eastern and Oriental, meanwhile is one of the better seaside resorts, and one of the oldest. Formerly a seaside escape for British planters and colonial civil servants it received a multi million makeover a few years back, giving the historic resort a new lease of life. Rooms from $175 twin share including breakfast. lonepinehotel.com.
QUICK TIP Have dinner at Weld Quay Restaurant under a huge tree for the freshest of seafood plucked just from the sea.
The writer was a guest of Noordin Mews.