If I had a few days to head off anywhere at the last minute, my inner compass would whirl greedily around before swivelling north to Penang. She’s a wondrous jumble of an island wafting beachfront barbecues and joss sticks, who bustlingly serves up world-class arts and lit festivals, invites you to sample the delicacies of a living UNESCO-anointed heritage culture, before you even get to the hilltop lushness of her jungle-clad bones. There’s a lot of The Pearl to get to know. So plan a string of dates with her.
There is nowhere better to lay your straw hat than on an original pre-war hatstand at 23 Love Lane. There are numerous graceful heritage-conversion boutique hotels in George Town but one keeps coming back to 23 Love Lane for its charmingly individual spaces; from a light-filled single room with French windows overlooking the courtyard at the main house to a gilded three-bedroom townhouse around the corner on Muntri Street. One could go just to gaze at the gallery-worthy art collection. The cheerful Peranakan tiles complement the familiar friendly service; ditto the strong posh coffee with the strong runny cheese. Think the palest mint green with a shot of cobalt blue. It’s a soothing satisfyingly quirky combination of your grandmother’s home with all mod cons and a terrific tenderloin (medium rare with melting Café de Paris butter sauce, please) thrown in.
Always have shoes made for walking in George Town. The postcard-worthy clusters of colourful shophouses lining the narrow streets are made for wanderings. Visitors drag their suitcases behind them like obedient pets sniffing out the best char koay teow, cendol and nasi kandar. And yes, one could have dessert several times a day among the stalls of sweets and spices. But there are also gorgeous bookshops and jewellers, printers and calligraphers, and old sundry shops next to traditional medicine vendors. Take a breather in a delightfully sculpted pocket park, then jump on a bicycle and tick off the container art sites from Prangin Mall to Karpal Singh Drive.
If you’re lucky enough to be afloat in Penang on a Sunday, the market at the Hin Bus Depot showcases an integrated community that speaks upcycled vintage and sustainable food and fashion, against a backdrop of murals and sculptures that, in keeping with the vibe of the market, just want to have fun. My star picks—Marimasks made from exquisite local and regional batik, sensuously dyed in natural indigo and mangosteen pigments, jungle coffee, and oh my that cempedak crumble by Nely.
Just off the Clan Jetties the IG-conscious queue at the cyclopean pivot door to Norm Micro Roastery and Café. Delectable pastries accompany full-bodied coffees in a pared down all-white setting that’s more city skylight than swooshy seaside. While across the road nestling quietly in the mini-mall of the recently opened Prestige Hotel is an unassuming jewel of a tea shop, Yu Yang. Do drop in for an elegant cuppa with the owner, Tony, who will pour you a perfect sampling cup or three of Pu Err or Oolong. Don’t leave without purchasing an aromatic brick of the best raw tea you’ll ever taste and a porous purple clay pot for greater absorbency of your noble brew.
The virgin experience not to be missed is up Penang Hill at The Habitat. Perched on the fringe of our astounding 130-million-year-old virgin jungle reserve, it boasts the breathtaking elevated span of Langur Way and the soaring Curtis Crest Tree Top Walk. But the real high is your adrenaline flow as you trek this. Even better take three hours out of your day and breathe in the green culture of the Forest Bathing programme; recently unveiled as their impressive response to the psychological and physiological stresses of The Lockdown. Tensions will melt, vigour increase as you literally hug this land and truly come alive with all five senses fully awakened.
Balik Pulau on the other side of Penang is a nostalgic throwback to a quieter almost forgotten Penang. The coastal roads wind past rural fishing villages and remind you of the breezy Feringghi of your childhood. Here the pretty paddy fields come with kites bobbing overhead. You’ll want to paint this. There are ducks in canals fringed by sugar cane and tapioca and coconut groves swaying in the salty air. You’ll also want to stop for laksa made with ikan tonggol and Kak Mah’s mee udang. Spend a night or three in a luxurious converted Thai rice barn at hilltop hideaway Malihom and indulge in it all. Then check out the utterly charming Nada Natural Farming for uncompromising farm-to-table grub that’s achingly cool.
Evening sunsets are still best viewed with a favourite tipple at the E&O or Beach Blanket Babylon to a soundtrack of Melakan Straits sea spray. After which, one of the most interesting new places for dinner just off Beach Street is the relocated oyster bar and restaurant, Heap Seng at 29. Gallagher oysters are the house favourite. They sparkle crisply on ice in an aluminium trough that runs the length of the well-stocked bar in a throbbingly fashionable repurposed Chinese shophouse. Owned by Penangite Arthur Wilkinson with a couple of old Uplands School friends, the walls showcase Chinese paintings alongside artwork by local artist Rebecca Duckett, who just happens to be mum. And if the very popular oysters are sold out, there’s ceviche tacos, local clams or even slow-cooked oxtail risotto.
THE PENANG GO-TO LIST
- 23 Love Lane. 23 Lorong Love, 10200 George Town, Penang. 04 262 1323
- Marimask. https://marimask.com
- Nely’s Passion Heart. 23 Jalan A.S. Mansoor, 10050 George Town, Penang. 016 443 1336
- Norm Micro Roastery and Café. 13 Gat Lebuh Gereja, 10300 George Town, Penang. 016 527 6273
- Yu Yang Tea & Gifts. 8 Gat Lebuh Gereja, 10300 George Town, Penang.
- The Habitat Penang Hill. Jalan Stesen, Bukit Bendera Air Itam, 11500 Penang. 04 827 2677
- Malihom. Kiri NT 168, Jalan Bukit Penara, Mukim 6, 11000 Balik Pulau, Penang. 04 261 0190
- Nada Natural Farming. Lot 646, Jalan Kuala Sungai Burung, Balik Pulau, Penang. 010 403 7988
- The Eastern & Oriental Hotel. 10 Lebuh Farquhar, 10200 George Town, Penang. 04 222 2000
- Beach Blanket Babylon. 32, Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, 10450 George Town, Penang. 04 262 2232
- Heap Seng at 29. 29, Lebuh China, 10200 George Town, Penang. 04 261 1177