MALACCA, Malaysia — For more than a millennium this city was the genie in a bottle to merchants of the world, the Orient's richest prize and most provident port for the lively trade in spices, silk, opium, tobacco, gold and tea. And with all these treasures plying the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, piracy was a common business risk.
Founded in 1403, Malacca's wealth and strategic location on the Malay Straits so impressed the Emperor of China that he sent a beautiful daughter, accompanied by 500 ladies-in-waiting, to marry the reigning sultan. The Siamese, Indians, Arabs, Thais, Japanese and other Orientals also came, each leaving a bit of their culture to enrich an already rich city.
The peregrine Portuguese were first to colonize Malacca by force, giving way to Dutch cannons a century later in 1641. After Napoleon did in the Dutch, Britain made its move, and by the 1920s all the Malay States were in its pocket.
Independent since 1957, Malacca reeks of history, a metropolis in which you'll have a superlative nyonya meal in a modest restaurant with plastic table covers, gorgeous orchids as a centerpiece, a tiny Buddhist shrine and dainty lace curtains at the windows.
And of course there are sparkling contemporary hotels and beautiful beach resorts nearby.
Here to there: Malaysian Airlines flies to Kuala Lumpur without plane changes; JAL, Singapore Airlines, Korean Air and Philippine Airlines have one change. Drive the 92 miles to Malacca or take an express bus for $3.50.
How long/how much? You can do it in a day trip from Kuala Lumpur, but an overnight will give you a better flavor of the city. Lodging prices are moderate, dining lower.
A few fast facts: Malaysia's ringgit was recently worth 40 cents, 2.5 to our dollar. Exchange currency in banks or at money changers, which often give a better rate. Weather is tropical with little relief from heat except in early mornings and late afternoons, best for sightseeing. Do your rounds then in a trisha, at about $1 per 15 minutes.
Getting settled in: Ramada Renaissance (Jalan Bendahara; $50 to $72 double) is the town's most luxurious hotel, with acres of marble floors in the lobby and a large fountain at the center, antiques artfully displayed, comfortable rooms with every convenience, pool, three restaurants, health center.
Merlin Inn (Delan Munshi Abdullah; $45 to $60) is also new and attractive with spacious rooms, excellent Chinese restaurant, pool.
Air Keroh Country Resort (Air Keroh; $40 for motel doubles, $45 for chalets), about 15 minutes from town, is in a lovely country setting, with tennis, golf, boating, pool. This is another new one, near the Mini Malaysia cultural village.
Regional food and drink: Malaysian cooking is diverse and delicious, with elements of Thai, Japanese, Korean and other Eastern cuisines. The popular nyonya can be divided into that of Singapore, Pulau Pinang and Malacca, all heavy with lemon grass, coconut milk, chiles, limes and palm sugar.
Satay celup here is a bit different from satay elsewhere, skewered meat dipped in boiling peanut and chili sauce. Poh piah is a luscious type of spring roll stuffed with chicken or prawn, vegetables and shredded omelet. And mee Siam is fried noodles with prawns and stir-fried vegetables.
Shellfish and other seafood are fried and/or curried; fried chicken nyonya made in a sauce of chili, lemon grass, coconut and tamarind pulp. Fare fit for the gods.
Malacca is famous for its sweets, kuih being cakes. Local beer is fine; plenty of iced tea for cooling off.
Moderate-cost dining: We had our first nyonya meal at Ole Sayang (192 Taman Malacca Jaya), a bounteous banquet for about $5 per person. A lazy Susan at the table turned with lamb stew, local fish, gigantic prawns, delicious eggplant and curried chicken, all eaten with rice. A dessert of red beans, coconut milk and slivers of an unknown local green leaf sounds a trifle odd, but everyone finished it off with gusto. Another nyonya is just down the street, Nyonya Makko (at No. 123), a good choice if Ole Sayang is closed.
Excellent Chinese dishes at Hikin Restaurant, a step away from the two above at No. 112. Gaily decorated with red lanterns and tablecloths, this place really knows what to do with sizzling prawns and roast duck. Locals come for Malacca's best Chinese. If you'd like a fix of Western food and a good martini, head for Summerfield's in the Ramada Renaissance.
On your own: Malacca's sights will keep you busy for days on end. Start with the Stadthuys, completed in 1650 and the town's oldest Dutch building. It and Christ Church next door, completed a century later, are exquisite examples of Dutch building, both in breathtaking pink masonry.
Then visit the Sultanate Palace, a wooden replica housing memories and relics of the sultans' days, and Cheng Hoon Teng Temple, the country's oldest Chinese place of worship. Old Chinese houses on Jalan Hang Jebat hold the city's finest lode of antiques for dedicated shoppers.
Climb Residency Hill to St. Paul's Church, built by the Portuguese and later made an extension of the nearby fortress by the Dutch. Porta de Santiago gateway, also known as A Famosa, is all that remains after the Dutch attack on the fort. Listen carefully and you might still hear the ghostly pounding of cannons at A Famosa, or the babble of many tongues in the marketplace in town below.
For more information: Call the Malaysian Tourist Center at (415) 788-3344, or write (600 Montgomery St., San Francisco 94111) for a brochure on Malacca with map and hotel and restaurant details; another is available on all Malaysia.