This iconic resort, on Penang Island, off the Malaysian coast, reopened September 28th after a 21-month rehab, much needed after 33 years of action.
I wanted to check out the ‘love of life and its pleasures’ that Rasa Sayang means, but the usual one-night stand had to be extended since I arrived at 10pm and left at 6.30am. As my car drew up after the 45 minute ride from the airport, I was met by a posse of absolutely charming employees and taken upstairs to room 2522, on the fifth – top – floor. May we take your photo? Gosh, how would this look, after such a long day.
Once alone, I quickly ordered room service, unpacked and, hey presto, dinner arrived. For a simple salad and pasta request I got a wheeled table with white china and crispest white linens, highlighted by an old-gold ikat mat that matched the orchids. The napkin was stylishly folded through a striped shell napkin ring. Dishes were covered metal hats that could have been designed by Philippe Starck – and the al dente penne, liberally covered in what seemed like a no-calorie ‘cream’ soy sauce with baby asparagus bits, was totally delicious. Designer baths, hinting at the elixir of youth and wellness, are complimentary, and a rose petal and pink French clay special had been drawn in the marble bathtub that was sexily out on my balcony. I slunk into it, hoping there were no Peeping Toms around, wallowed marvellously, and collapsed into bed.
In the morning I had a good look around my room, a 680 sq ft Premier category in the Rasa Wing, the super-luxury category of what is now a 304-room resort. The space flows, from marble foyer to marble bathroom, with one glass wall (with blind) looking into the bed part of the main room, which is divided by a ten-foot work desk with lots of electric sockets and speedy wired broadband – there is wireless in public areas, including gardens. The bed is like a mass of white clouds, its bed head a wall of silk panels in the room’s colours, namely golds, persimmon, soft brown. The mini bar comes with a blue martini shaker, the wall-set flat-screen is Philips, the safe has a little box for jewellery, and the notepaper has my name on it. Light switches are all labelled (someone has a lot of common sense, here).
Through the all-glass wall fronting the terrace, I could now see how fabulous the grounds are. Nine of the trees on the total-30 acre estate are protected rainforest species, apparently over a century old. The newly-landscaped walkways and immaculate lawns include a circular arena for weddings. The wing has its own curvilinear salt-water pool – down one S-shaped wall, you can swim past 27 small horizontal water jets into a water protuberance (like the sticking out part of a jigsaw piece) which is a vitality pool. Beyond are shady lawns with wood lounge chairs and tables. Beach concierges bring you discreet wireless bells: ring, and someone comes running, or perhaps cycling, to take your order. Beyond this is the sandy beach, which from later this month will have a full dive centre.
My wake-up run took me around all this, and the executive (that is to say bijou) golf course, and pair of tennis courts, and the neighbouring, more-casual, Garden wing of the hotel. I looked back up at the Rasa wing’s roofs, each of which is built in typical Minangkabau style, like two big open books, spine up, the whole then sprayed with dark brown paint. I admired the clever layout of balconies which means no-one can in fact see anyone having their outdoor baths.
The theatre-style breakfast buffet, in Spice Market, was copious, with fabulous juices-to order, and Greek-type home made yogurt and exotic
fruits. There is Malay hot if you want it, or Chinese, English, Japanese, or anything: all serving stations are decorated with mammoth sculptures of brightly-coloured spices from a local merchant. There is a good gym but most guests, who were predominantly European during my stay, prefer to spend the day outside, being energetic but in the main lounging in a private area somewhere in the grounds. This is a resort to get lost in, if you want. Rasa guests can also lounge in their lobby, which serves complimentary-everything day and evening long. There are 550 employees for the whole resort, and every one seems to know every guest’s name: perhaps the arrival photos are used as aide-memoirs.
It was fortunate that I had a reservation at CHI, The Spa at Shangri-La, which appears to be doing thriving business from both sexes. Even getting there is an experience. You hardly realise there is a winding meter-wide walkway that, shielded by a tall bamboo walls, wraps around that curvilinear pool. After 60 steps I found myself in a ten-sided Tibetan house, topped by a giant bell. I was led to Namshe, one of 11 ‘homes’ in the adjacent ‘spa village’. Inside, a foyer led to full bathroom one side, the treatment room the other. Beyond, shielded by an eight foot stone wall and more bamboo, was an outdoor tub for two. My feet were washed, my face was treated, my feet massaged while the mask set. Delicate bells awoke me (a treatment is a great place for a quick shut-eye).
Back in my room, butler Syed had returned my laundry, in a big brown leather box, with interior compartments, each laundered item individually wrapped in crisp tissue paper. The bowl of whole fruits, under a gauze hat, had been replenished. It was time for dinner at the Feringgi Grill, where couples seemingly anonymous by day have been transformed by smart-casual shirts for him and mostly sleeveless-long frocks and quite a lot of jewellery (hers). Walls here are old bricks, the carpet cranberry, table linens white. Add candelabra bearing three twisted gold candles, and mottled green display mats produced by a local glass blower, and view into the night garden or, looking in, across to the kitchen. There is lots of table-side service, with real flambés performed with theatrical panache. Regulars head straight for the beef, mostly Australian. 60% opt for the kobe-style wagyu, which is three times the price of merely grain-fed. Rasa Sayang attracts the value-seeking connoisseur rather than the quality-less penny-pincher.
My bed had been turned down, and my photo, taken the previous night, stood in a souvenir leather frame with the hotel’s name on it. Clever. No wonder there are so many repeat guests here. The night was all too short, room service breakfast arrived with enough of that yogurt to keep centenarians living for many more decades. Downstairs, still pre-dawn, GM Arbind Shrestha – surely the only Nepalese-American GM in the ultra-luxury hotels industry – waited. Well, he said, I am a hotelier. This is my job, and passion. Butler Syed was also there, and he came with me all the way back to the airport.