"Care to pop over to Penang for a few days, dear?" The question floated through my office door before my editor did. I looked at him, gestured at the paperwork and unfinished articles shackling me and groaned "Are you kidding? I can't leave this mess!"
"Don't be ridiculous," he snapped. "If anyone needs it, it's you."
And that's how I found myself, together with three other lifestyle and travel journalists, on the first Malaysia Airlines flight to Penang. Business class, thank you very much. If you can afford the spend, I'd highly recommend it. The seats are like beds from heaven. The food is fresh, clean and mouth-watering. The service is pretty much unrivalled by any airline I've ever flown. I took a wander down to cattle class to check out their surrounds, too. It certainly didn't look too shabby at all. Highly recommended.
Approximately 10 hours later, I checked in to the beautiful Golden Sands Resort by Shangri-La, refreshed and energised, and ready for a few days of serious relaxation.
The spacious property sits on the prime beach-front real estate of Batu Feringgi, on the north-west side of Penang. After undergoing a $17 million, year-long redevelopment, the family-friendly hotel boasts 387 guest rooms, among which are the largest family-sized rooms of a hotel of its class in Penang.
While you can comfortably accommodate a family of six in many of the rooms, honeymooners will also find the resort the perfect getaway, and it's also an ideal solo time-out retreat. Singles will love it too — it's close to a bustling nightlife strip, with markets and beach-front bars and restaurants.
Its open-air lobby allowed the sea breeze to fill my lungs from the check-in desk, which soon worked to melt away any Sydney stress I'd carried with me. A quick welcome cocktail in the lobby's new Cool Lounge, which also offers a gym, shopping arcade, changing rooms and showers and internet station, had me more than ready for a blissful night's sleep in my executive sea-view suite.
Note: Don't let the opulent-sounding nature of the hotel deter you — its hill-view rooms begin at around $150 per night during our spring months — totally affordable time out.
Good morning, sunshine
I awoke refreshed and energised, so took myself off for a run along the beach. I passed holidaymakers riding bareback on white horses that looked like they had just trotted out of a postcard, stray dogs with wide grins and wagging tails and local fishermen gathering their catch for the day.
It was hot and humid, and the azure ocean beckoned, but I was meeting our group for breakfast, so I took a quick dip in one of the resort's two opulent lagoon-shaped swimming pools instead.
Someone say chill out?
Our itinerary was strict. It had mandatory relaxation time, of which lazing around the hotel's lush gardens sipping cocktails, and being pampered in the day spa were priorities. Who was I to argue? Swimming and sunbaking took up the rest of the morning, lunch at the resort's Garden Café followed, accompanied by a deliciously potent cocktail served in a Gilligan's Island-style coconut shell, and then I scurried off to the Chi Spa for a full-body massage. "Bliss" doesn't even begin to describe it.
The afternoon of leisure tired me out, and I nearly skipped the trip to the night markets in favour of room service and a movie. Boy, am I glad I didn't. Penang's Gurney Drive Hawker Food Centre provides truly authentic Malaysian meals, prepared on the spot. With row after row of hawker, the biggest problem you will have is deciding on which to choose. I opted for a deliciously spicy noodle dish that saw me lining up the soft drinks in a vain attempt to settle the chilli burning my mouth!
The next morning, the men in our group took to the skies and arrived at breakfast exhilarated from their parasailing experience. They spent most of the breakfast talking about their upcoming nine holes on the resort's par-three executive golf course, while we ladies pondered, "Sunbathing or spa?"
With a bride-to-be in our midst, we decided that a stroll along the beach, followed by a light dose of UV-induced vitamin D was on the cards before lunch. Note: If that's not your cup of tea, you can take part in one of chef John Brock's cooking lessons, go jetskiing (I squeezed that in on my last day), or book in for a jungle trek.
Lunch at the Garden Cafe once again was lush — its tropical vibe is the perfect backdrop for a Malaysian feast, served with a crisp, cold sauvignon blanc. I rolled back to my room afterwards for an afternoon nap.
It should be noted, that if you're travelling with kids, they won't be bored for a second. While you're resting and relaxing, they can chill out at Adventure Zone, a huge air-conditioned indoor facility that will keep them amused with drop slides, modular play equipment, a game zone, toddler area and kids' club. They even offer themed birthday parties and a cafe.
Dinner by the sea? Don't mind if I do. The newly renovated Sigi's Bar and Grill boasts uninterrupted views of the coast, but you'll spend more time gazing at the vast menu. Contemporary Western cuisine sits alongside grilled specialities and local delights. There's also a giant outdoor barbecue pit, where parties of up to 12 can gather and watch the chefs get their grill on. Signature dish is the Tomahawk — a chunky cut steak weighing in at 1.2kg and best eaten shared around. There's also a great choice for vegetarians, the health conscious and kids.
Needless to say, we stuffed ourselves silly, and even though there was no room for dessert, we couldn't miss executive soux chef John Brock's The Bombe. It's the most fun, tasty dessert I've ever eaten. Served in a teardrop shape bowl of ice, it has mango sorbet, white chocolate parfait and Italian meringue. Don't miss it.
Nightcaps by the sea
After a delicious meal and plenty of beautiful wines at Sigi's, we wandered out of the hotel and down the road through the night retail markets. There was all manner of things to buy, from T-shirts to sunglasses to handbags (I can't vouch for the authenticity of brands). We soon found ourselves sipping drinks at a beautiful beachfront bar, while dipping our feet in the ocean. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.
George Town tour
In what was probably the most hectic day of our trip, we took a tour of George Town. The best way to see the historical town is in a trishaw — you are pedalled around by a smiling local as you sit comfortably in the back, taking in all the beautiful pre-war buildings, which are still intact. Lunch at the beautiful Café Cine, a heritage cafe in the heart of George Town, followed. Elegant and library like, this humble cafe served the most mouth-watering local dishes, in a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Sadly for our group, the trip had come to an end, and it was back to the hotel to pack and get on board our Malaysia Airlines flight home. Luckily, the service on the flight assured that we were still very much in R&R mode until we landed back on Sydney's sunny shores. The feeling continued well into the week, despite having to plough through many deadlines in the office. Perfect proof that Penang is the ultimate getaway for stressed souls!