The old island has been re-energised, writes Tim Roxborogh.
The subject of getting old was a recurring theme during our four days in Penang. Turns out this 293sq km island (the state of Penang also encompasses a further 755sq km on the mainland) has become quite the magnet for westerners looking to retire somewhere warm and exotic but still modern, safe and with good healthcare.
Malaysia has a retirement programme targeting foreigners called "Malaysia My Second Home" and the 10-year renewable visa has had such a strong uptake in Penang in particular that the island regularly makes "best places in the world to retire to" lists.
Forget waiting until retirement however because we came away from Penang thinking we'd happily live there now. Like a less hedonistic, more developed Phuket, or perhaps — with its combination of jungle-covered hills, its skyscrapers, British colonial mansions and Chinese shop-houses — like a smaller, slower-paced Singapore, Penang has been pulling in travellers from all over the world for centuries. Add to that the coexistence of old churches, temples and mosques, it's little surprise that the state capital of Georgetown is so highly regarded.
That wasn't always the case. Up until the early 2000s, much of Penang's tourism was focused around the beach resort area of Batu Ferringhi (still home to some of Malaysia's best large four-star resorts, including a newly refurbished Parkroyal that had us wishing we were staying longer) with historic Georgetown neglected and in disrepair. Frustrated locals then banded together to save the dozens of beautiful but decaying buildings that line the capital's narrow streets and a gentrification process began. That sped up in 2008 when 260ha of the old part of Georgetown was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.
As a result, boutique hotels began opening, the streets became alive with street-art and all the while, the reputation of the food scene that had long been a hallmark of Penang was further enhanced. "The culinary capital of Asia" is non-hyperbolic praise everyone from CNN to Conde Nast Traveller have bestowed on this island in the past decade and when you taste the cheap and delicious char koay teow (flat rice noodles cooked in a flaming wok with things like egg, bean sprouts and soy sauce), you'll see why.
Days could happily disappear in Penang getting lost on foot in Georgetown, gorging on the street food, marvelling at the street art, popping into galleries and museums and picking which boutique hotel you'd like to stay at on your next visit. For many tourists, that would be sufficient, but with Penang there's still so much more. Things like hiking through tropical jungle in Penang National Park, lounging by an enormous hotel pool in Batu Ferringhi, counting butterflies at the remarkable indoor Entopia butterfly farm, attending a cooking school at the world-class Tropical Spice Garden, sipping sunset cocktails on the 68th floor of the Komtar tower or riding the cable car to the top of 800m Penang Hill.
It was on Penang Hill that we explored what is being touted as one of Malaysia's premier eco-tourist sites, The Habitat. From canopy walkways through the dense rainforest to dramatic lookout points, The Habitat is also home to a huge array of animal, bird and insect species and at a temperature slightly cooler than at sea level.
The views from The Habitat and Penang Hill were incredible and somewhere in the jumble of Georgetown in the distance would've been the century-old Chinese mansion the Japanese had co-opted during World War II that is now the luxury boutique The Edison.
One of countless heritage buildings that have been restored to former glories in Penang, this was our home for two of our three nights on the island. We felt very, very lucky.
For the young . . . and young at heart
Escape, a dry-land theme park, was built in 2012 as the brainchild of Penangite Sim Choo Kheng. The founding ethos of Escape was that technology is dominating our lives to a potentially detrimental effect, so why not have a theme park that could operate even in a power cut?
Filled with things like zip-lines, old-fashioned go-karts, rope courses, rock-climbing, mid-air see-saws and oversized trampolines, Escape has been such a massive success (rated by Tripadvisor as Malaysia's #1 theme-park) that the plan is to take it global. Turns out that kids of the 21st century (and their parents) can have fun without a screen in their hands.
Across the road, the new Escape Waterplay opened last year and it's a kid's — and a grown-up kid's — dream. Alongside a lazy lagoon, a wave pool and every imaginable kind of waterslide, there's a Wipe Out-style area where you try to run and jump from one end of a swimming pool to the other without the obstacles making you fall in. Too much fun.
Occasionally it was fun coupled with extreme fear, notably when you're inside something resembling a rocket ship with your legs crossed, arms folded and a trap door about to open. Waterplay has three of these slides and I was (just) brave enough for two of them.
As that countdown starts and you're looking down at your feet and the door that's about to give way, you briefly question the sanity of putting yourself through this trauma.
CLUNK! You hear the sound of the trapdoor activating just as you register you're in virtual free fall. Then before you know it you've been flung several metres in the air, have splashed ungainly into a pool and you're frantically hoisting your boardies back up over your briefly exposed buttocks. I hope I never get too old for this.
flies from Auckland to Penang, via Kuala Lumpur.
Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's The Two, Coast Soul on iHeartRadio and writes the RoxboroghReport.com