“Rasa Sayang” is a Malay-language folk song and its meaning, “loving feeling,” captures the essence of this lush seaside sanctuary. Opened back in 1973, it was the very first resort by the Shangri-La Group; past guests have included Malaysian and Saudi royalty, as well as Princess Margaret. From the retro seventies furniture in certain rooms to the mature tree canopies, there’s an undeniable charm that instantly makes people feel at home. The five-star retreat has cultivated a loyal following of travelers who return decade after decade, this writer’s family included.
A 30-minute drive northwest from the center of George Town, Rasa Sayang is a world of its own in the suburb of Batu Ferringhi, which serves as the gateway to Penang National Park (with its hiking trails and secret beaches) and nearby durian plantations. “Batu” means rock in Malay, while “ferringhi” was a term used to describe the Portuguese; its two-kilometer stretch of fine golden sand was once a stopover for European explorers and merchants who sailed through the Strait of Malacca in search of spices. Locals would climb the big rock by the curve of the shore and swing kerosene lamps so sailors could see where they were going.
With over 12 hectares of 200-year-old rain trees, hibiscus, bougainvillea, and birds of paradise, the grounds are a habitat for monitor lizards and the black-and-white dusky leaf monkey. Look out for betel nut palms—the tree on the flag of Penang. Wandering through these tropical gardens, you’ll be soothed by an ever-present soundtrack of ocean waves and chirping birds. The resort is divided into the Garden Wing and the more exclusive Rasa Wing with its fan palm–shaded adults-only pool. Artwork depicting local folklore and culture have been thoughtfully woven throughout the resort: a carving of the Tree of Life done in wayang kulit (shadow puppet) style is the centerpiece of the Garden Wing lobby, while gorgeous Peranakan hairpins adorn the Rasa Wing walls. At the Rasa Wing’s reception area, a large hand-carved wooden sculpture of a coral reef alludes to the area’s natural beauty.
The 189 rooms in the Garden Wing were overhauled in 2015 with neutral tones: think timber-trimmed cream walls and blond-wood floors. Sofas in each room convert into an extra bed; guests can order from a pillow menu to ensure a good night’s sleep. Over in the Rasa Wing, which was last revamped in the mid-2000s, sea-facing Deluxe and Junior suites have spacious balconies with a day bed and soaking tub. Little touches such as gecko-shaped door handles allude to the critters that roam the gardens. Room 2450 is the enormous one-bedroom Penang Suite, where views of coconut trees and the sand beckon from a wraparound balcony, and original wood-and-rattan furniture from the ’70s give the living area a homely feel.
Food and drink
An on-site spice and herb garden provides ingredients for Rasa Sayang’s three restaurants. The fine-dining Feringgi Grill has been around since day one, and longstanding chef Yeoh Chee Teong—who has helmed the kitchen for the past three decades—pioneered signature dishes such as the pepper steak flambé and the tomato soup cooked tableside and set ablaze with Beefeater Gin. Cocktails and fine single-cask whiskies are on the drinks list at the adjoining Feringgi Bar. The all-day Spice Market Café serves local specialties including Penang assam laksa and prawn noodle soup, alongside Western, Japanese, and Indian fare. It’s especially popular for its seafood buffets from Fridays to Sundays. Right next door, FIP (the acronym stands for Fun, Interactive, and Play) is a family-friendly lounge with live music performances twice a week. Casual beachside venue Pinang Restaurant and Bar offers the perfect spot for an apéritif as you watch the sun sink over the sea and the jungled hills to the west. Patrons here dine alfresco or in a series of thatched pavilions; the diverse menu spans burgers, pastas, and chicken kapitan curry.
While the 24-hour gym features a yoga studio and floor-to-ceiling windows that frame ocean vistas, the real highlight is Chi, The Spa. Guests enter through a curved wooden passageway by the beach, and half of the 22 spa villas come with their own frangipani-fringed garden. The hourlong signature Propolis facial alternates between hot and cold sensations; locally inspired treatments harness the healing properties of indigenous herbs and rhizomes like ginger, lemongrass, and pandan.
Spice Market Café and Pinang Restaurant and Bar both offer a kids’ menu. Accommodation options at the Garden Wing include three kinds of family rooms and two categories of connecting rooms. Downstairs, children can try their hand at water volleyball and make use of the ping-pong tables by the Garden Wing pool. FIP has board games and a big-screen TV that plays cartoons. There’s also an indoor Adventure Zone (complete with rainbow-hued drop slides) shared with next-door sister property Shangri-La Golden Sands. Keep an eye out for Mr. T, the resort’s roving turtle mascot, and his girlfriend, Sandy.
Batu Ferringhi Beach was a sea turtle nesting site until the ’80s when poachers sold the eggs at markets. Rasa Sayang stepped in and helped with the relocation of the endangered reptiles to the national park’s Pantai Keracut (aka Turtle Beach), where the resort runs a hatchery and education center. Transportation and guided tours are best arranged through the concierge. On-site environmental practices leave no stone unturned, whether it’s wooden room keys, drinking water in glass bottles, or sensors that shut off the air-conditioning when balcony doors open. Only organic fertilizers are used for the gardens; an inspector regularly checks on the rain trees and applies eco-friendly treatments.
Rasa Wing guests enjoy complimentary high tea, scones, and sandwiches at the Rasa Lounge from 3–4 pm and cocktails and tidbits such as lobak (five-spice meat rolls) and karipap (curry puffs) from 5:30–7 p.m every evening. Also on the grounds is a nine-hole pitch-and-putt golf course ensconced in verdant greenery. For those wanting to explore the historic sights of the city, a twice-daily shuttle bus runs to sister hotel JEN Penang Georgetown.
Reviewed by Dana Ter