SITTING just off the west coast of Malaysia, Penang is an island with huge contrasts. Despite a landmass of less than 300sq km, it has an abundance of activities for visiting groups.
Unesco World Cultural Heritage site Georgetown, the island’s only major town, combines colourful architecture and traditional markets, with high-end accommodation and gleaming shopping malls. Only a few miles away visitors can immerse themselves in the rainforest, or hike to hidden spots in the island’s National Park.
All of which can make it exceptionally hard for organisers to whittle down a to-do list. But to make that job a little easier here are six of our top recommendations for tours and day trips on the island, all ideal for groups.
1/ Rainforest escape
Opened in 2016, The Habitat (right) immerses visitors in the sights, sounds and smells of the Malaysian rainforest, yet sits only a short walk from the tourist bustle of Penang Hill. Located on the fringes of 130-million-year old virgin rainforest, visitors can either follow the 1.6km winding nature trail at their own pace or opt for a guided tour by one of the reserve’s highly qualified naturalists.
Either way you’ll have the chance to catch a glimpse of some of the island’s many insects, reptiles and mammals while traversing a picturesque canopy bridge swaying over the treetops and taking a pitstop on one of the reserve’s giant swings. For an extra special touch, join the reserve’s Sunset Walk, where groups can arrive at the reserve just in time for a view of the sun setting over Georgetown from the 13-metre-high Curtis Crest Treetop Walk followed up by a Guided Walk of the nature trail by lantern light.
2/ Tropical Spice Garden
It’s easy to miss Penang’s Tropical Spice Garden (below). Just metres off a bend in the coastal road to Batu Ferringhi, the island’s tourist hub, there is a sprawling eight-acre oasis where the sounds of traffic and the busy hawker’s market opposite fade the minute you take your group through the entrance archway.
Each visitor is handed an audio guide to use on their stroll around the landscaped part of the gardens with detailed information on the 500 types of flora and fauna to be spotted. Stroll through the fascinating and fragrant spice terraces, then keep your hands firmly by your sides in the poison garden, and finish with a break at the herbal tea kiosk.
For a more in-depth experience, try one of the attraction’s popular group cooking classes, which includes a guided tour of the garden and the chance to learn the recipes for some of Penang’s most famous dishes.
3/ High tea at historic Suffolk House
Built in the early 1800s as the home of successive British governors, the painstakingly restored Suffolk House is a great way to explore a piece of living history in Penang.
Only a few miles out of Georgetown and situated down a quiet road, the gleaming white Georgian mansion is a stunning example of Anglo-Indian architecture, with both its interior and exterior maintaining period features from two centuries ago. So acclaimed is the restoration project that it was the location for the family home in the BBC drama Indian Summersin 2015.
Visitors can soak up the atmosphere and history, perusing rooms furnished with Anglo-Indian antiques on one of the guided tours offered by the owners, and finish up with high tea in one of its airy downstairs dining rooms, or the North Terrace facing out onto the manicured gardens.
4/ Cool off at ESCAPE
Temperatures and humidity can be sweltering in Penang, particularly during the dry season, and the recently opened Escape theme park provides a great one-stop destination to cool off and enjoy some record-breaking rides. The attraction found itself the subject of a number of excited headlines in Malaysia when it emerged that the water park’s newest ride, a 1,111m-long water slide, had broken records as the world’s longest inner tube slide.
For those nervous at the thought of throwing themselves down a Guinness world record-breaking water slide, the park offers a variety of other rides and activities.
Alongside several standalone swimming pools there’s the slightly gentler Family Twister slide, diving boards and a Dunk Tank. Outside the water groups can clamber through the treetops on Coco Climb, hurtle along a zipline or scale Gecko Tower.
The park also offers two dedicated programmes for teambuilding, which includes challenge exercises led by coordinators, access to all the activities and meals.
5/ World’s steepest funicular
Though best avoided on weekends, when queues can become frustratingly long, a trip up the steepest rail track in the world – and the views it leads to on Penang Hill – makes a great day excursion.
Arrive early at the lower station to catch a seat on the famous funicular railway. First opened in 1923, the track was overhauled and modernised in 2010, and small carriages now whizz guests up and down the hill at regular intervals. Get a spot by the window for the best views as the train travels up a bafflingly steep track through rainforest and past a few remote houses. After a little over five minutes disembark at the Upper Station and take advantage of numerous viewing platforms located along the deck for an unparalleled view of the island below.
Before heading down stop for a drink at David Brown’s, a colonial-style restaurant which serves tea and scones on Strawberry Hill in elegant surroundings.
6/ Penang’s famous street food
No trip to Penang would be complete without taking advantage of the islands’ myriad hawker markets, selling some of the best and most varied street food in Asia. The multicultural population on the island, made up largely of those of Chinese, Indian and Malay heritage, means visitors can enjoy a huge breadth of dishes all in one place, from Malaysia’s signature noodle dish, char koay teow, to freshly made roti, fragrant curries, dim sum and – of course – the divisive Durian fruit. All for an incredibly reasonable price.
For those new to the island, one of the best options is Long Beach in Batu Ferringhi. Stall owners are happy to chat you through their menu and recommend dishes. There are also good options for vegetarians as well as dessert stalls selling bao buns and ice-cream. Create a base at one of the long tables (and remember the number) before taking your time browsing through all the options before ordering. Place all the dishes in the middle of the table and share everything for an authentic Malaysian experience.