Batu Feringgi Beach, on the north coast of Malaysia‘s Penang Island, has long been a highly desirable vacation spot. The Kuok family, who founded and still own Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts, had a 15-acre summer home there, on the beach. In 1973 they generously gave the land over to building a splendid five-floor resort, which they called Rasa Sayang, meaning ‘love for life and its pleasures‘. Some of these pleasures, says the gal, are undoubtedly the gorgeous gardens, highlighted by giant plane trees that are so old they could well be deemed eternal. Although the 301-room luxury resort is completely full, it does not feel it. There is so much space outside, and bedrooms start at 650 sq ft so it is quite likely that many spend a lot of time at home, so to speak – a premise even more likely to be true for those lucky people who have outdoor tubs on their balconies.
Since I was dining with two Malaysians it seemed like a perfect opportunity to eat a local dish, namely Penang Hokkien Char, braised mixed-wheat noodles and rice vermicelli with seafood and vegetables. I was brought three small side dishes with additives that would probably have burned the inside of my mouth – I will never know. Next time I will choose from the hotel‘s just-launched Wholistic wellness menu, say an albumen almighty breakfast dish (protein, 84 calories), a lunch rye-bread club sandwich (avocado to reduce cholesterol and ward off heart problems, 300 calories) and, for dinner, salmon and steamed broccoli (omega 3 to lower many chronic diseases, 248 calories). As we ate, I heard from GM Elaine Yue how she manages a family, and her 14-year old daughter, and running not only this hotel but the nearby Golden Sands, a sibling hotel. Her colleague Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman, a 27-year Shangri-La veteran, said the majority of repeat customers here cite the lovely staff as a main reason to return. At least 50 different families have been coming back regularly, again and again, for a minimum of ten years, he said.
Some regular holidaymakers must like this 398 sq mile island so much they want to move here permanently. Since 2006, I am told, Penang is semi-autonomous, ruled by the Yang di-Pertua Negri (Governor), Tun Abdul Rahman Abbas, who is not immediately responsible to central government in Putra Jaya, next to Kuala Lumpur. This means that the island state has been able to court investment expansion in tech, electronics, manufacturing and other business sectors. Many high-rise condos have been put up, to sell to Europeans wanting retirement homes in a friendly place with good English-speaking help – they can own 100%, if they deposit ringgit 100,000 in a bank, and they get tax concessions. Meanwhile, I think more-transitory visitors are also attracted to this resort by its facilities. There are two big pools, one for kids and play, the other for noise-free, kids-free, swimming – there is a circular performance space right by this latter pool that would be great for weddings.
This luxury hotel has two wings, both topped by minangkabau tiled roofs, like open books, spine down: Garden Wing has just had a ringgit 35 million face lift, but Rasu wing is more like one big executive club, with a gigantic all-day club lounge forming its entire ground floor. Look out, from here, at rooftops of the eleven spa villas of CHI spa, which is reached by a metre-wide fretted wood walkway flanked by tall bamboos – interesting 40% of the spa business is male. I am having such a good time I feel like many of those regular guests. Why leave? I even have a wide choice of dining, both here and at Golden Sands. The dinner-only Feringgi Grill, by the way, is top look-at-me venue for Penangite millennials whose daddy conveniently has a lot of money.