The banks of the Malacca River have been paved and spruced up in recent years. Picture: Steve McKenna

It feels like one of those incredibly satisfying "This is the life" moments. I'm perched in a leather- backed armchair, beneath slow- whirring ceiling fans, in an elegant lounge kitted out with porcelain floors, teak furniture and a selection of oriental ornaments, including tiffin boxes and silk pillows.

A mini-banquet is laid out on the coffee table in front of me. There is, says the waiter: pie tee (deep-fried sliced turnip with Merlimau prawn), inche kabin (fried chicken), udang kuah pedas (prawn in spicy sweet-sour broth with fresh pineapples and spices), chap chye (sauteed, garlicky mixed veg stew) and bubur hitam (black glutinous rice with coconut cream).

This smorgasbord of dishes is a tantalising introduction to Peranakan cuisine. Also known as Baba-Nyonya, or Straits Chinese, the Peranakan people derived from the intermingling of Chinese migrants and indigenous Malays in the steamy ports along the Straits of Malacca - most notably here, in the city of Malacca, 150km south of Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

While you could cram Malacca into a daytrip from KL, it's worth staying longer, especially if you base yourself in the enchanting Majestic Malacca. Set in a refurbished 1920s Sino-French style mansion formerly owned by a Chinese rubber plantation owner, this stylish boutique hotel isn't just a lovely place in which to sleep - as my delicious, belly-swelling Peranakan mini-banquet proves.

After lunch, I join other guests for a Peranakan-themed cookery class, led by Majestic chef Po, who proceeds to rustle up some superb dishes; gleaned, he says, from his grandmother's recipe book. We sample ayam pong teh (succulent chicken marinated in preserved bean paste), udang kuah pedas nenas (prawn pineapple curry) and telur dadar cincaluk (omelette with fermented shrimps).

It's possible to absorb more Peranakan culture in the Majestic's modern wing, where the in-house spa draws on Baba- Nyonya rituals. Tempted as I am by pampering treatments that include palm sugar and honey body scrubs and bird's-nest facials, I opt for my own DIY wellness session: a warm soak in a claw-footed bath, then a siesta in my cotton-sheeted, four-poster bed.

It has been a busy day so far, to be fair.

Earlier, I had enjoyed a fascinating walk with Ho Peck Choo, a fifth generation Peranakan (or Nyonya). The resident historian at the Majestic, Choo leads twice-daily heritage walking tours for guests.

We'd started by strolling the new riverside boardwalks and promenades near the hotel. Shaded by betel nut palms, these walkways are lined with smart- looking guesthouses and alfresco cafes, teahouses and restaurants.

"Things have changed enormously here in recent years," Choo, who asked if I could remember the 1999 movie Entrapment (the one where Sean Connery gets to canoodle with a catsuited Catherine Zeta-Jones), said. One of the most memorable scenes in Entrapment sees Connery's wily art thief and Zeta-Jones' sultry insurance investigator boating down a squalid, slum-edged river, as the Petronas Twin Towers, the conjoined pearl of KL, gleam in the background.

"The footage was actually filmed in Malacca," Choo revealed. "The towers were superimposed on to the clip (in true Hollywood style). The prime minister (Mahathir Mohamad) was jumping mad when he saw the film. He thought it gave a terrible impression of KL. And he was angry with how bad Malacca looked."

Stung, the Malacca authorities plotted a clean-up of the Malacca River and its banks.

"These buildings were very dirty before; embarrassing when the tourist boats came past," Choo said, as we ambled past buildings, whose backs are now caked in giant colourful murals depicting scenes, and characters, from Malaccan history and culture, including bearded sailors and pale-faced temptresses.

As a small vessel cruised by, carrying camera-snapping passengers, Choo stressed that the riverside hadn't been completely tamed. Beside a near-abandoned fishing village of battered wooden shacks, she pointed to a chunky monitor lizard rummaging in mangroves.

In 2008, Malacca was jointly awarded a UNESCO World Heritage rating with George Town, on Penang, a Malaysian island with which it shares cultural traits (including Peranakan populations) - and a fierce rivalry. It was the rise of Penang - along with Singapore and Batavia (now Jakarta) - allied with the silting-up of the Malacca River, that signalled Malacca's decline at the end of the 18th century.

Established about 1392 by a Hindu prince from Sumatra, then seized by Islamic sultans, Malacca hugs one of the narrowest sections of the Straits of Malacca, a shipping route linking the Indian Ocean with the Far East. Nestled at a meeting point of the changing monsoonal trade winds, Malacca's port, and meandering river, became a hive of Arab, Indian, Persian and Chinese seafarers and merchants, who traded spices, dyes and silk, and injected their genes and memes into local Malay society. Then the Europeans captured Malacca; the Portuguese (in 1511), the Dutch (in 1641), and the British (in 1795). During World War II, the Japanese invaded.

Malacca's multicultural melange fuels the city's highly "walkable", and non-smoking, historic core (puffers are fined for lighting up).

On the right bank of a brackish river similar in width to an Amsterdam canal, postcard images vie for attention: the bright red Stadthuys, the official residence of Dutch governors, Christ Church Melaka (founded 1753), a replica of the 15th century sultan's palace, and the ruins of St Paul's, an eerie Catholic chapel- cum-Protestant church atop a grassy hill, from which you can capture sweeping views over the city and Straits.

Below, the Porta de Santiago is the sole trace of a mammoth Portuguese-built bastion, mostly destroyed, with gunpowder, by the Brits. A Dutch-style windmill, a wooden waterwheel and a giant Portuguese galleon (at the city's maritime museum) are among eye-catching modern additions to the right bank. On the left bank, opposite the Majestic Hotel, sits Kampung Morten.

This traditional Malay settlement was named after a former British land commissioner, Frederick Morten and, for a small donation, you can take a guided visit around the Villa Sentosa, a stilted bungalow decorated with antique furniture and exhibits.

For me, Malacca's most atmospheric zone is Chinatown. With antique curio shops, weekend night markets (selling food and trinkets) and aromatic restaurants dishing up chicken rice balls, fluffy pork buns and cendol (an invigorating dessert laced with shaved ice and cane syrup), vibrant Jonker Street is a must. But Chinatown's quieter arteries are also worth exploring.

Dubbed the Street of Harmony, photogenic Jalan Tukang has a Hindu temple, a pagoda-capped mosque, and allegedly Malaysia's oldest Chinese temple. Dating back to 1646, tranquil Cheng Hoon Teng is festooned with gilded Buddhas, mythological figurines and burning joss-sticks.

Once humming with goldsmith workshops and opium dens, the neighbouring alleys are a riot of tin-roofed pharmacies and stores selling shark fins, birds' nests, machetes, meat hooks, teapots, clocks, lanterns, rubber stamps and lacquered boards engraved with gilded Chinese characters.

At 56 Jalan Tukong, Wah Aik Shoemakers craft, as souvenirs, minuscule embroidered bound-feet shoes - a relic of the ancient Chinese custom that sought to stunt the growth of young girls' feet (apparently to help secure a future husband). More comfy are Wah Aik's pretty beaded (normal- sized) slippers - a symbol of the Peranakan people.

Malacca's Peranakan story is fleshed out at the Baba-Nyonya Heritage Museum on Heeren Street, a Dutch-built road popular with wealthy 20th century Peranakan families.

Characterised by mansions and shophouses with intricate facades and courtyards, Heeren Street has galleries and boutique hotels and a cultural centre dedicated to preserving the vintage properties of this, one of South-East Asia's most charming cities.

FACT FILE

Buses frequently go to Malacca from Kuala Lumpur's Bersepadu Selatan bus terminal (two-hour journey), see tbsbts.com.my. There are also regular buses to Malacca from KL international airport, and from Singapore (three-hour journey).

The Majestic Malacca Hotel is at 188 Jalan Bunga Raya. Rooms are priced from $125 (380 ringgit), see www.majesticmalacca.com.

For more information on travelling in Malaysia, see tourismmalaysia.com.au.

Steve McKenna was a guest of Tourism Malaysia and The Majestic Malacca Hotel.

The West Australian

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