George Town, Malaysia

Photo: Goh PS (originally posted to Flickr as A1 Dawn View) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Goh PS (originally posted to Flickr as A1 Dawn View) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
You have your arrival down to a science. When you land in a new place, you grab your bag from the overhead bin, complete your paperwork ahead of time so that you can glide through customs, and make a beeline for the taxi queue. Then off you go. While your fellow passengers are still waiting to claim their luggage and board shuttles into the city, you’re already en route to your peaceful, relaxing resort. But you could be missing something with all of your efficiency. That’s right, those line-waiting people may actually have a leg up on you.

You may be fast-tracking your way out of the airport, but you’re losing a lot by not stopping in the city like everyone else. You might find spot-on service, quiet spots, and breathtaking views from your secluded location, but you miss the history, the culture, and the food that make each place unique. Still not convinced? Let’s test drive the theory in Penang.

Penang is a state and an island on the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Malaysia’s fourth-largest island is home to a historic capital and great cultural diversity. A British sea captain founded George Town along the Far East spice trade route in 1786, and Fort Cornwallis was built upon his initial landing spot soon after. The Pearl of the Orient then remained part of Britain, except for the Japanese occupation during World War II, until Malaysia gained its independence.

Photo: Campbell House Penang
Photo: Campbell House Penang

Today, George Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Clay-tiled roofs and 19th-century shophouses fill its well-preserved colonial core. Churches, mosques, and temples harmoniously coexist. You can eat Chinese dim sum for breakfast, Indian turmeric chickpeas as a snack, and Malaysian rice steamed with coconut milk for lunch before choosing a chic restaurant for dinner in the China House complex. Old mansions have been restored and opened as museums. The esplanade offers stunning views of the Strait of Malacca. While a funicular, which brings you to fresh air and the island’s highest point, sits just outside of the city.

George Town even has new boutique hotels that perfectly combine tradition and innovation. The Campbell House, built in 1903, used to be a hostel. It now has 11 individually decorated rooms that feature iPod docks and espresso machines. When you arrive, take off your shoes (per house policy) and find the Sari Room. The first-floor bedroom has a high ceiling and a beautiful sari silk headboard. Chilled lemon tea was left in the fridge for you, so you pour a glass and open the door to your private balcony.

In a little while, you’ll check out the rest of the hotel. The library has antique furniture, gorgeous coffee table books, and a telescope. Il Bacaro, which looks like a traditional Venetian backstreet tavern, serves cicchetti (simple small plates) and Italian wine. Plus happy hour is held among the silk pillows and the flickering lanterns on the rooftop terrace. You’ll walk along Armenia Street to check out the street art, the markets, and the food in the heart of the city. Then, eventually, you’ll head to a beachfront resort and resume your original itinerary. Unless the rest of your plans have changed now as well.

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