Catriona is on a mission to find us a bargain beach holiday with good food, good shopping and a bit of reflexology … I think she's found it!
Penang Island is linked to Malaysia's mainland by Asia's longest bridge a massive 13.5km long span. Thanks to its outstanding beaches, interesting sights and exotic food, Penang has been well known to some for many years and is generally known as the Pearl of the Orient, though in literal terms the name means "island of the betel nut".
When Captain Francis Light landed at the site where Fort Cornwallis now stands, the island was full of lush vegetation, much of which was betel nut palm, and was a haven for pirates. He acquired possession from the local sultan on behalf of the East India Company in 1786, making it the oldest British settlement in Malaysia.
Car ferries offer a 24-hour crossing service from the mainland to Penang, and you can travel by train or plane. George Town, the island's capital, is a most vibrant and interesting city. The official language is Malay, but Mandarin, Tamil, Cantonese, Hokien and English, as well as other languages and dialects, are spoken, showing how multi-racial the population is.
From Penang Hill you get to see the layout of George Town and coast. It's 830m above sea level and accessible only by funicular railway, which has been operating since 1922, or a four hour hike. At the top are beautiful gardens, a cafe, bungalows, a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque. The temperature at the top is refreshingly cool.
George Town's old world charm can be leisurely explored on foot or by trishaw. Its cultural diversity, architecture and lifestyle can be enjoyed in minute detail. Mosques and temples have their own features and the streets are packed with stalls piled high with goods for sale and bargains of all sorts.
A visit to the Snake Temple is definitely worth it. It is dedicated to a Buddhist healer-priest and folklore has it that snakes slithered in from the jungle the very night the temple was completed. They have been de-venomed and, due perhaps to the amount of incense burning around them, are quite sleepy.
Kek Lok Si, known as the Million Buddhas Precious Pagoda, was built between 1890 and 1910, and with its 30m high tower is most spectacular.
St George's Church is a stately Anglican colonial church built by convict labour in 1818. It features a memorial canopy dedicated to Captain Light who is buried in the adjoining cemetery.
Sri Mariamman Hindi Temple was built in the late 19th century and features marvellous sculptures of gods and goddesses over the entrance and on its facade. The interior is ornately decorated and has a priceless statue of Lord Subramaniam which is embellished with gold, solver, diamonds and emeralds. During the annual Thaipusam Festival it is carried through the streets on a silver chariot to the temple at Jalan Waterfall.
The Penang Butterfly Farm has hundreds of species of butterflies and insects fluttering around landscaped tropical gardens. The city's Botanical Gardens are a place of peace and tranquillity with vibrantly coloured flora and a waterfall. The place was created by the British in 1884 as a tribute to Charles Curtis who collected botanical specimens from the hills and jungles which become significant in collections around the world. The gardens also have bold Rhesus monkeys.
The bird park in Seberang Jaya has more than 400 species from around the world. The beautifully designed aviaries are complemented with islands, cascades, gardens and ornamental plants. It also has a wide variety of orchids and hibiscus.
On the northern end of the island is Ferringhi where you will find the Shangri-La Golden Sands Resort, a clever blend of the magic of the east and comforts of the west set in five hectares of lush gardens. Its architecture is classic English and Portuguese, it has two lagoon-style pools, a children's club and a business centre.
Batu Ferringhi's sands and waters are right there at the hotel for you to enjoy. They offer many eating and drinking choices Peppino, an Italian restaurant; Sigi's by the Sea, a mix of eastern and western; the Garden Cafe, serving international and local fare; Kuda Laut, great for drinks and snacks, and the Sunset Lounge, a spot aptly described by its name.
Available activities include a flying trapeze, archery, petanque, tennis, table tennis, boating, water skiing and a gymnasium, while just outside the resort is an open air market stretching for about a kilometre. It's hard to know when to stop buying as the merchandise includes clothing, handbags, luggage, CDs, watches, toys and decorative items.