The end of summer break was nearing and every parent knows exactly what that means – you are somewhere just south of your last nerve, you’ve done all the crafts, you’ve gone to all of the places, you’ve purchased all of the school supplies and you are READY for those kids to head back to school. Afterall, we can’t miss them if they don’t go away! To close out the summer we wanted to do a family getaway. We wanted to chill by a pool with books, but we have little kids and so that is a future dream. Next best is a hotel with lots of options for our wee ones and just enough class to make us feel like real, live adults again…basically it needs a bar and nice smelling soaps.
In swooped Penang like Pegasus to whisk us away from the grueling home stretch of summertime. This Malaysian island has a lot of history and countless cultural experiences to explore. Don’t take our word for it – even UNESCO is on board. If you’re inclined to geek out over history, then Penang has lots on offer. You can go way back to early settlements, jump to the 1770’s when the British East India Company was pulling some shady moves, dive into the marine battles of WWI, or the Japanese occupation during WWII. Yeah, there’s a lot!
That said, we were in family chill mode and so none of those reasons are why we picked Penang. In echoes of it’s colonial past, the level of spoken English across Malaysia is very high. Armed with English as your lingua franca, you won’t have any trouble navigating your time in Penang. The island is also serviced by an international airport with fights by major carriers and regional contenders. Getting around the island is easy as there is a great network of roads and the driving is tame (please read as “more familiar to folks from the northern hemisphere”). If you’re wanting to explore further afield, Penang State includes the island and some of the mainland. They are connected by 2 bridges. Unless you’re headed to IKEA, Penang Island has everything you need.
There’s lots to see and do in Penang – click here for THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN PENANG, MALAYSIA.
Covered in low-lying mountains, Penang is covered in jungle. The major pockets of development rest along the coasts in the pockets between mountains. It is a beautiful mix of nature and human creation. Because of it’s location, Penang is home to many international offices. There are some significant expat bubbles and it would be entirely possible to come to Penang and never experience Malaysia. Mix in the packs, gaggles, hoards of monkeys which come out to pay in the mornings and evenings, and you’ll find yourself at quite the intersection of wild, tamed, foreign, and familiar.
We arrived at Penang International Airport (PEN) on Air Asia. Think budget like Ryan Air, but with an all red colour scheme. ** Travel Tip ** check out an airport’s departure / arrival information to see which airlines travel there. You may discover a previously unknown carrier with a better deal or flight times. We got our visa on arrival (they’ll digitally capture your picture and fingerprints), grabbed our bag, and were through customs in no time. PEN is a mid-sized airport that serves over 7 million passengers per year. It’s small, but mighty and has everything you need. When flying out of PEN, we grabbed dinner before clearing security as there are slim pickings for food options by the gates.
There are taxis and car options to get you around town. When traveling with our kids, we try to have a transit game plan. Nothing is less patient than a child who has just flown and scrambling for a taxi can be the difference between airport meltdown (ours or theirs) and sailing through in serenity. We pre-booked a 7 passenger van through KLOOK. If you’ve never KLOOK’ed before, check them out. They have great options for a number of cities across Asia. When we exited the arrival hall, our driver was waiting for us with our name on a sign. We checked in with him, went to grab cash and a SIM card, and then he led us out to a nearby 12 passenger van. He spoke great English and pointed out the highlights as we drove from the southern end of the island to the north (drive time approx: 50 minutes). The van was clean and safe and we enjoyed it so much, we booked it for our return trip. It cost $26 CAD / $19.50 USD / €17.50 per way.
Apparently you can do that drive for cheaper using GRAB. So let’s take a moment to get GRAB-ified. Though Asia has Uber, GRAB is so much more. You can arrange deliveries, order food, hail a taxi, rent a chauffeured car, hail a motorcycle taxi, hail a van, or hail a private car like Uber. With the app downloaded to your phone, you can set your pick-up and drop-off locations and pre-schedule your rides. GRAB will email you a receipt and you simply pay the driver in cash. Other than the airport runs, this is how we got around. Each experience was great with friendly English speaking drivers and clean vehicles. When you sign-up and book your first ride, use the code GRABWYKANDCO. It won’t get you a better price, but it will get us 40% off one of rides and we’re pretty likable so you should go ahead and do that.
** Travel Tip ** before traveling, have your phone unlocked. Most often this is a phone call to your provider and whatever fee they haneously charge. With an unlocked phone, you can pop in a SIM wherever you go and text, call, and surf like a local. We pre-booked ours through KLOOK. Once we collected our bag, we dashed upstairs to the Departures Hall. You pick-up your SIM from the Air Asia ticket desk and simply need to show your coupon (in the app) and your passport. It was simple and quick and we had more than enough data to keep us connected, distracted, and not lost while in Penang.
With our chill mode settings cranked to high, we wanted a hotel where we could camp – sorry cultural experiences! Our kids are beach people and we are decidedly of the pool variety. The Golden Sands Resort by Shangri-La was exactly what we needed. This 4 star hotel It’s two lovely pools are inviting and well laid out. One pool has designated adult only and kids only areas to provide spaces for fun and calm. The kids end is covered in shade and has a gradient that allows even the littlest bathers to cool off. Nestled between the pools is the Splash Zone with 2 water slides, sprayers, and a giant bucket which dumps torrents of water onto squealing kids below. Neghboruing this is a small bar which serves light fare and drinks. That’s right parents, we can sip and supervise at the same time!
Surrounding the pools are expansive lawns covered with loungers and shaded by palm trees. Winding paths will lead you to the beach where you will be greeted by smiling locals encouraging you to have a massage, go parasailing, or take a boat trip. There’s no need for you to be rude as no one here is pushy. A simple chat, a smile, and a no gets you past them and onto the sands of Batu Feringgi Beach. Municipal sand creations are our children’s specialty. They can spend hours constructing sprawling sandcastle cities – but not here. The sand was coarse and grainy. We built a few mounds / blobs before deciding this wasn’t our favourite beach. The water was refreshing, though a little murky. Our days were hazy as smoke drifted across the Malacca Strait from Indonesia where farmers were burning their fields. Don’t get us wrong, it’s still nice, but Southeast Asia has better beaches. Go for the pools and activities and not the sand blobs.
The hotel offers other kid-friendly activities such as a snake show on the lawn. The crown jewel of kiddo-dom here is the Adventure Zone. This indoor play space is open to hotel guests and non alike, though guests get a better price. Long sleeves, long pants, and socks are a must and are available for purchase as well.
A sprawling breakfast buffet was included at the hotel’s main restaurant, The Garden Cafe. With offerings from the Middle East, Asia, North America, and Europe, this is a great way to play it safe or try new things. When the first meal of the day is included, we breakfast hard, lunch light, and eat a proper dinner. We ate well each morning. We also did the weekend seafood buffet and while it was good, we left feeling as though we had paid for more than we received. Poolside pizzas became our evening staple.
If your flight is well after your check-out time, The Golden Sands has a great system in place. Check-out at the front desk as normal. They’ll keep your bags and provide you with a luggage tag. Then you are set to enjoy the pool. When it comes time to go, reclaim your bags and then head over to the Cool Lounge, just off the lobby. This air conditioned lounge is where you can grab a locker key. Head into the change rooms and in your designated locker you will find towels and toiletries. Next you’re into a private shower and change room where you can make yourself shiny and new before you travel. It. Was. Awesome. Sidenote – the soaps and shampoos at this hotel are wonderful and we even caught our kids sniffing themselves (in a good way) later on.
If you somehow get bored with playing at the pool, then take the 25 minute drive into George Town, Penang’s state capital and Malaysia’s second city.
Penang was the brain break we all needed. It gave us time to play and make memories while not tripping over some of the challenges so common with travellng outside of your own culture. It’s not our normal travel style, but it certainly what we needed this time. Thanks Penang – you’re alright in our books!