Two Enchanting Holiday Destinations of Contrasting Charms

After having travelled to many parts of  the world and as we have advanced into the golden years of our lives, my wife and I now prefer to reduce the tiring long-haul trips and to savour the many holiday destinations in the Asian region instead, in particular those in Southeast Asia closer to our native Singapore. Apart from land tours, we are increasingly becoming regular cruise enthusiasts, which we find much more relaxing and the un-hurried seaboard life suits us both physically and mentally, with its gentle sea breeze, good books to read, delectable food to nourish our bodily needs and watching the rising and setting sun from the privacy of our own balcony. The voyage tends to make us feel completely at peace with ourselves and free us from the worldly stresses and cares, if only while the voyage lasted. We prefer ocean trips of between five and twelve days’ duration. This year alone, we had already gone on two such cruises and enjoyed every moment of it. As travelling has become a chief delight of our retired lives now. we have also been charmed by two land destinations and had just returned from two wonderful vacations there recently. They are West Malaysia’s Penang island, a world Heritage Site, and the remote hill resort MesaStila in Indonesia’s Central java region, where the current President of this republic comes from.

Penang – the World Heritage island

We had visited Penang several times before when our three children were growing up and we usually stayed at the seaside resorts some 18 km from the city centre and seldom went to the urban areas. The youngsters showed only lukewarm interest in the popular tourist attractions and a quick drive through the old town areas of the urban centre’s narrow and crowded streets and alleyways drew only a passing interest from them. They much preferred to spend their time at the pristine beaches at the various resorts which suited them perfectly and the sea was an ideal playing ground for their youthful exuberance and boundless energy. The many seafood outlets there served delicious food at very affordable prices which all of us enjoyed with gusto. The interesting and colourful nightly street market there completed an outdoor activities filled day. We all slept very soundly every night.

Our recent Penang trip was made all the more enjoyable because we decided to stay at the recently expanded E and O Hotel, with easy access to the city centre. It has a 250-metre long seafront, the longest among the seafront hotels in the world. This hotel was established in 1885 by the redoubtable Sarkies brothers and became the toast of the British colonial ruling elites and the abode of the world-renowned personages who passed through Penang. The Sarkies brothers went on to build the even more fabled Raffles Hotel in Singapore in 1893 and the famous Strand Hotel in Rangoon later. The E&O became “the best hotel East of Suez” in the eyes of the well-heeled British and other Western travellers. It was low season when we went there and we got a very favourable rate for our four-day stay.

We decided to be lodged at the newly built Victory Wing in elegant classical style, instead of the much older three-storey Heritage Wing because of the better sea view that the high floor room commands. As we were celebrating an important milestone of our married life, the Assistant Front of Office Manager, Mr Cheah Choon Loong, hospitably extended to us the spacious Corner Suite on the top floor, with a splendid view not only of the sea but also a city and mountain vista as an added bonus. We thoroughly relished our stay there, with its good food and warm service, and is looking forward to  a return visit to this historic hotel of distinction in the new year.

Penang Chinatown street (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Penang Chinatown street (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

During this trip, we pleasantly discovered that the old town areas, especially the Chinatown, with its dilapidated century-old shop houses, temples, clan associations, medicine shops, street vendors and hawkers and a variety of other traditional trades still exist and thriving. In many other Asian cities these had long vanished to make way for  modern developments in the name of urban renewal and progress. This evoked my childhood memories of old Singapore being that way in the 1940s and 1950s.

Among these old buildings was a modest looking two-storey shop house where the founding father of the Republic of China, Dr Sun Yat Sen, used to reside there for five months, before he and his supporters overthrew the decadent Qing Dynasty in the 1911 revolution. It is now a memorial museum in honour of Dr Sun, with photographic exhibits of his revolutionary activities there when he made several trips to Penang to raise funds and support of the Chinese community for his patriotic venture. I was surprised to learn that Dr Sun’s two China-born daughters attended a girls’ school there, taken care of by Mdm Tan who was the constant companion of Dr sun. As soon as the Chinese revolution succeeded, she lovingly declined to accompany him to China knowing that this would hamper his nation building task and spoil his image as the first Interim President of the new Republic. This museum is well visited by tourists from China but remains relatively unknown to other foreign visitors. A novel street art flourishes on the many walls and blank boards in these old quarters and helps to add colour and ambiance to this already vibrant locality. They depict everyday life in Penang with whimsical drawings for the benefit of tourism. The Chinatown there is best explored leisurely on foot. A guide might be useful for those not familiar with Chinese culture and customs.

The neighbouring Indian quarter provides a distinctive South Indian flavour and atmosphere and tasty Indian food can be enjoyed at its many eateries. There is also a variety of shops and stalls selling Indian fineries and other goods at prices that are cheaper than elsewhere on this island. It reminds me of the bigger and more vibrant Little India in Singapore. In the centre of it is an old Hindu temple, which has become a popular tourist attraction and a landmark there.

"Blue" Mansion (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Blue” Mansion (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Apart from the well-preserved old town areas mentioned above, there are still many other 19th century monuments, a few even predating those mentioned above. These are mainly the religious artifices, such as Malay mosques, Chinese temples and clan associations, Christian churches, Indian temples and even a synagogue long out of use after the last Jewish family had migrated elsewhere. These are also well worth a visit, especially for the culture and history oriented travellers. The superb Penang Bridge, one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, is a delightful sight to behold and to travel on it. It links the Penang island with the mainland. Before its completion, one had to cross from one side to the other by ferry-boat.

For the first time visitors, the most popular attractions include the Ayer Item Chinese Pagoda Temple which can be seen in several neighbourhoods surrounding it, the majestic Blue Mansion, the former residence of the best known of all Penang elites of old, Fort Cornwallis built by the British for defence purposes, the unique snake temple, the museums and a number of colonial buildings and high officials’ mansions, including the residence of the first British Governor of this Island, Sir Francis Light, as well as a variety of old fusion-style bungalows built by the past generations of millionaires. Other attractions include the Butterfly Park, the Penang National Park and several traditional Chinese clan jetties, where many of their clan descendants still reside on dwellings built into the sea and supported by concrete pillars as well as Penang Hill, which can be reached by a funicular train. It has a marvellous view of Penang from different angles.

Armed with a guide book written by a well-known Penang journalist, I was amazed to know that this island, half the size of Singapore, has so many interesting places to traverse, and one has to make return trips in order to savour the remaining choicest of them. We learnt from this guide book that Tengku Abdul Rahman, the founding father of Malaysia, spent his entire retirement life in Penang from the 1960s to 1980s. He lived in an affluent suburb but retained his common touch and was regularly seen chatting with his many ardent admirers when shopping for his groceries and household needs in the local market and the shops in that area. He lived till the ripe old age of 80s and his passing there was deeply mourned by the various races in Malaysia. A major road in Penang has been named in his memory, in addition to other forms of honour bestowed on him elsewhere in the country.

There is more to Penang than just visual delights for visitors. Its reputation for delicious multi-ethnic foods has spread far and wide and at prices that will not hurt the purse of even the budget travellers. It has repeatedly been exclaimed as the city with the best street food in the world by international street food reviewers and tourists worldwide, including the world-renowned Trip Advisors. I know as a fact that numerous Singaporeans would make regular journeys there simply to indulge in their favourite Penang street food of great varieties and at much cheaper cost than at home!

Street art (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Street art (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It is not surprising that an increasing number of foreigners from many parts of the world, who had savoured the delights of this peaceful and easy-going city, have chosen to make it their second or permanent home if they are eligible under a government scheme to encourage them to do so for the benefit of its national economy. Among these foreigners are several thousands of Japanese nationals who have made Penang their second or permanent home and the number is increasing. Numerous Australians, Americans and  Europeans are following the Japanese example. Numerous Singaporeans also have second homes on that island.

MesaStila Resort in Central Java, Indonesia

This resort offers a refreshingly different vacation experience from that of Penang island. We chose to go there even though there are many other more accessible resorts that we are familiar with. We have never regretted our decision. Our eldest son, CT, came across an airline magazine article recommending this resort during one of his overseas business trips. He then remembered his mother’s preference to have a vacation in a cool hill resort not too far by air from Singapore. He believed this particular hill resort would meet her requirements as the flying time to the destination is only a little over two hours followed by a car journey of another two hours to reach this resort in Megalang in Central Java, the traditional home of several presidents of Indonesia including the present incumbent. It is 900-metre above the plains and  is comfortably cool throughout the year. CT offered to host our five-night stay there two years ago. All three of us liked this place so very much that our son generously offered to take us back there annually. So off we went there again last year, and the recent trip was the third in a row! The day time temperature up the hill was about the mid 20s C in September when we went, but cooler at night.

MesaStila Resort is both a hill resort and a working coffee plantation and producing a small quantity of fine quality coffee products, for which this region is well known. It covers an area of 25 hectares. The first owner of this plantation was a Dutch coffee planter who resided in a 19th century two-story bungalow on a hillock which commanded a fantastic vista of the eight volcanoes surrounding it and a wide stretch of the natural woodland all around his estate. There was a succession of Dutch owners after him. The last of whom left the country long ago and the coffee plantation then closed down and it became an uncared for wilderness gradually and forgotten.

Then an Italian designer, Gabriella Teggia, a long time resident in Indonesia, was told about this abandoned coffee plantation, came to inspect it and immediately realised it could with creativity be converted into an exclusive resort and spa and to revive it as a working coffee plantation once again to add to its charm. She secured this site in 1992 and devoted all her creative energy and financial resources in turning it into a world-class resort over time

. With the help of property brokers to scour around Java for old pavilions and traditional old buildings due for demolition and the materials to be sold as scraps, she succeeded in purchasing what she needed very cheaply and had these dismantled structures transported to her newly acquired estate and then employed skilled workers and craftsmen  to reconstruct these old structures in their new home, as close as possible to their original building plans. Among these traditional gems were an early 20th century train station office which took forty trucks to transport its dismantled materials up to the plantation on a stormy night, a majestic country villa of a Javanese prince painstakingly resuscitated at its new site and exquisite teak carvings on wooden planks, columns and beams from  a royal palace to adorn her restaurant dinning rooms. A large infinity swimming pool complex and a well-equipped spa centre with Turkish bath steam room were also added to its manifold facilities.

Lush surroundings (Photo credit: Hotel website)

Lush surroundings (Photo credit: Hotel website)

After several years of careful planning and painstaking creative efforts, the Losari (essence of trees) Coffee Plantation and Spa was ready to receive its first guests from Indonesia and overseas, with its unique collection of 26 exquisite looking villas with good views of the surrounding 8 volcanoes, un-mutilated jungles and five charming Kampongs (villages) ringing it. This active coffee plantation can boast of its unpolluted air, more than 2200 trees of various species, some with colourful leaves and attractive flowers on them, 50 different types of elegant and sturdy bamboo plants, plentiful of different kinds of flowering shrubs everywhere, rice fields and a variety of organic fruit and vegetable gardens which served the needs of its guests. Bird watching guests will find the various species of birds there an added bonus during their stay. Surprisingly, there are no monkeys making their home there.

The plantation is very well maintained and there are well laid paths and paved walkways for ease of exploring this vast plantation, with row upon row of neatly grown coffee plants to produce fine coffee beans for the Indonesian market and the guests’ consumption daily right at its own grinding and packing station and at the restaurant. Guests can sample its products there in the morning together with tree-ripening bananas on site without charge. Losari was very well regarded by the discerning travellers both in its home country and elsewhere and had received very favourable reviews by both guests and travel magazines including the world-renowned Trip Advisors. Its spa too had been voted to be among the top 100 in the world.

After having owned and managed this resort for close to a decade, the talented Italian lady unexpectedly came down with a terminal cancer affliction and had to return to her native Italy in the desperate hope of finding a cure for it. She was compelled to sell this resort hurriedly to a well-known Indonesian hotel group who then renamed it MesaStila Resort, as part of its group’s resort brand name. The Italian lady missed the Losari Plantation so very much that, despite her frail state of health, she made a final trip back to her beloved resort for a short stay and died in Italy not long thereafter. She will long be remembered for her creative genius in nurturing this fantastic resort which has won her much praise and ardent supporters including ourselves.

View of one of the villas (Photo credit: Hotel website)

View of one of the villas (Photo credit: Hotel website)

To be objective, this resort may not suit everyone’s taste as many might well find it boring as it is far removed from easy to reach sightseeing places, shopping amenities and a variety of food outlets outside the confines of this resort. We like it there because of its back to the nature environment which relaxes our minds and we would temporarily forget the stresses and cares of our more hectic city life. This soothing and tranquil setting also makes one more reflective on one’s life and whether one has lived it meaningfully to make it more fulfilling. We never felt bored during our three visits because we brought  along  good books to read, throughly enjoying the delicious and healthy fusion food that the Executive Chef skilfully prepared for the guests. We always looked forward to our early morning and late afternoon strolls in cool air and gentle breeze around its extensive grounds, which always energised our body and mind. To us, these were precious moments for family bonding that we would truly treasure and made us want to come back again.

For those guests who would like to pursue more active activities at the resort, they can enjoy a variety of complimentary as well as paying outdoor activities. These include yoga exercises, coffee plantation and coffee tasting tour, circuit fitness training in the Fitness Centre, batik painting lessons, Javanese dance and gamelan playing. One can also learn horse riding on the plantation grounds or hire a guide for jungle walking in the vicinity of this resort. Whole day trips to the 9th century Borobudur Buddhist monument, the largest in the world, or to the historic city of Semarang can also be arranged by the resort for those on a longer stay.

Borobudur (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Borobudur (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

All our three visits to this resort were during the off-peak season, when the occupation rate was low and so were the villa tariffs. As we were treated as regular guests, the resort management hospitably extended to us a very special rate as well as upgrading us to a spacious two-storey bungalow, previously occupied by the Italian lady owner, and built on an elevated ground, complete with an elongated and wide covered terrace on the upper storey. It has the most impressive vista of a wide stretch of the surrounding array of trees, bamboo plants, a variety of fauna and free-flowering shrubs and fruit gardens right below our bungalow for us to marvel at and to savour their awesome beauty throughout the day. Our terrace also faces two mist-covered volcanoes, including the Merabi which erupted some years ago. It is in fact quite far from our resort and did not really affect the hotel staff and guests there. We spent a great deal of our daylight hours on the terrace admiring the unrivalled beauty of mother nature and reading our books and a variety of magazines stocked by the resort on three comfortable reclining rattan couches with stools provided by the resort’s house keeping people to enhance our holiday experience there. That to us was one of the high points of our stay in this  truly delightful coffee plantation resort.

If there is really a paradise on earth, in my view this unique holiday resort will come quite close to it. All too soon, our five-night stay there came to a close as we bade a fond farewell to MesaStila but all three of us look forward to our next visit in 2015

. Lam Pin Foo

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