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Doing it tough in Penang
Doing it tough in Penang

I've never been served a cup of ice-cream at check-in but at 1.15am in the expansive lobby at G Hotel Penang, the "signature" vanilla is going down a treat. It makes a novel first impression and marks G Hotel out as a place that gives a little extra. Ice-cream aside, the late-night check-in is friendly and efficient and my suitcase arrives at my room almost before I've closed the door behind me.

The room is always the clincher and they are big at G Hotel. My fourth floor room has views over Gurney Drive to the tidal flats and the mainland beyond.

None of the common hotel room niggles are an issue. There is no confusing bank of lights switches, there is plenty of luggage space. The air-conditioning control is easy to find and use and the big office desk has plugs on the tabletop. It's always good not to have to slide under a desk, like a mechanic, battling to connect a plug and adaptor to an elusive socket.

In the big, bright bathroom, the shampoo and bath gel are in pump dispensers, not tiny bottles, so I don't have to perform my soapy shower juggle. Best of all, the towels are in the shower alcove instead of on the other side of the bathroom.

These may seem like insignificant matters but add these foibles together and they can really take the gloss off a room.

It's not just the basics that the 310-room G Hotel gets right, for the place is stylish from top to bottom. The lobby is modern and alive - not merely a check-in but a meeting place. The third floor has an infinity pool, outdoor showers, spas and sun beds.

There are room choices from the spacious standard options to executive floor accommodation which includes breakfast either in G Cafe or the Executive Lounge plus cocktail hours and dedicated check-in. For newlyweds the honeymoon suite has a spa on a big decked balcony overlooking the Penang Strait.

Eating options include the G Cafe and the twin Chinese restaurants Sesame + Soy. Sesame is more informal and caters for lunch while Soy is the fine dining dinner venue with dishes such as chilli-dunked chicken with ginger and wok-fried ostrich with honey black pepper sauce. Each Friday and Saturday, the G Spot jazz bar has live music.

The hot breakfast in G Cafe reflects Penang's cultural mix with biryani, dahl and tandoori sausage alongside noodle broths, hash browns and baked beans.

Set among more than 12ha of established gardens at Batu Feringgi, Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa is a sanctuary - a place to laze the day away with a book under the tree or with a drink by the pool.

But to say it has been that way for almost 40 years tells half the story. While it's true that Rasa Sayang was Malaysia's first five-star resort when it opened in 1973, the property had a two-year $30 million-plus makeover in 2004.

So while the facilities are near-new, the commitment to service is not, according to director of communications Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman, who has been with Shangri-La for more than 30 years. A son of Malaysia's first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, Suleiman worked his way up from dishwasher and has seen guests regularly return during his time at the resort. He says they are Rasa Sayang's best ambassadors.

The resort's 304 rooms are divided between the Garden and Rasa Wings and all are well- appointed. The entry level Garden Wing rooms have free broadband and big office desks. Although the resort is targeted at mature travellers, it still attracts families lured by its big rooms.

And Rasa Sayang is true to that resort ethos with both children's and adults' pools, a kids' club, watersports centre, tennis court and a par-three golf course, as well as a fully equipped health club. Guests have access to Adventure Zone indoor playground next door at Shangri-La's Golden Sands Resort. And there are daily activities such as tai chi, cooking classes and volleyball and table tennis competitions.

Meals including buffet breakfast and dinner are served at the Spice Market Cafe where the morning egg station becomes a tandoori or satay area come nightfall. The front of the restaurant recalls the trade from which Penang made its name: two antique wooden coconut flesh scrapers and sacks full of spices such as cardamom and pepper, star anise and cinnamon give a feel for the island's history.

The pool bar and restaurant Pinang serves all-day meals and is the place for sunset drinks. I dine there twice and find it to be anything but slap-up.

Pinang palms (Areca catechu), bright hibiscus and birds of paradise are among 74 plant varieties that dot the rich gardens. The most impressive are the nine wide-canopied rain trees. The oldest was planted by merchants more than 200 years ago.

There are 11 spa villas where guests choose from more than 30 treatments, all performed by staff who have had three months of specialist training at Shangri-La's spa headquarters in Japan.

Rasa Wing guests have a dedicated check-in area in the hotel's original but renovated lobby. Nutmeg juice and a cold towel appear while Suleiman explains the privileges enjoyed by Rasa Wing guests. There's afternoon tea in the lounge every day between 3-4pm followed by cocktails from 6-7pm and refreshments throughout the day. Breakfast is in the Feringgi Grill. At night, the Feringgi Grill offers fine dining with exotic dishes such as cuttlefish, five spice quail, black cod and spatchcock chicken on the menu. Drinks are served all day by the saltwater pool, which is adults-only and exclusively for Rasa Wing guests. They are given a button to press when they want a drink but Suleiman remembers the days when they were given a flag to wave.

My Rasa premier room is sumptuous but with a personal touch. There's a cane basket with fruit and chocolates on the table. The big writing desk is replete with a full stationery set.

Behind the desk is a sitting room with a comfortable sofa and a woven cane armchair and in the bedroom, a king-size bed, two bedside tables at just the right height and, on one, a clock with real hands.

Opposite the dressing area is a marble bathroom with twin vanity set, L'Occitane toiletries and a fresh loofah. The shower is like a separate room with three heads, a central temperature controller and a marble bench. The bathtub is on the veranda, shielded by a remote control privacy screen, between a wicker chair and table and a full-length sunbed. All look out to the beautifully tended gardens, the pool and the Straits of Malacca.

In the evening, when I return from dinner, I find that my desk has been neatened, everything squared, the pencil laid neatly across the notepad.

The quilt is cornered, the television tilted towards the bedroom and the clock with the hands is facing the pillow.

  • fact file *

·G Hotel Penang is on Gurney Drive, George Town. Until December 31, standard rooms start from RM410 ($130) or RM460 ($146) with breakfast. Executive rooms which include lounge access and breakfast start from RM560 ($177). The honeymoon suite is from RM1928 ($611) per night.

·All prices are subject to service and government taxes totalling 16 per cent. ghotel.com.my

·Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa is at Batu Feringgi Beach, Penang. Until December 23, deluxe garden view rooms with breakfast for two start from RM750 ($238) plus government and service tax of 16 per cent. The resort often has online specials. See shangri-la.com and phone 1800 222 448.

·For more on Penang, see tourismmalaysia.com.au

Guests press when they want a drink . . . they used to be given a flag to wave

Niall McIlroy visited Penang as a guest of Tourism Malaysia, Malaysia Airlines, G Hotel Penang and Shangri-La's Rasa Sayang Resort & Spa.