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Trip report from the Philippines in July 2014 Aug 25

Gard and Nikki in sunset on Boracay. Photo by Dongeun MinNikki and I went to the Philippines in July 2014 and we had a chance to check out metro Manila, Bohol/Panglao, Boracay and a short stop in Cebu. The most amazing moments were probably swimming with whale sharks in Oslob in Cebu and coming to our hotel in Boracay and seeing the beautiful White beach for the first time.  You can check out the trip report with pictures, links and maps on the homepage http://gardkarlsen.com/Philippines_trip_report.htm . I hope that the trip report can be of use to other people that are planning a visit to the Philippines. Get in touch if you have any questions or comments.

Regards
Gard
http://gardkarlsen.com – trip reports and pictures

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Cooking class with Gamidah in Cape Town May 13

We have been to Cape Town before and we have walked through the beautiful and colorful Bo Kaap area before. This time we decided to do a cooking class in this area to learn more about cooking Cape Malay style. My wife found and booked a class with Lekka Kombuis (which means something like tasty kitchen ). I did not really know what to expect but we walked to the address that we had been given. When we got there we were a bit confused as it looked like a regular house. I knocked on the door and it turned out to be the right place – the cooking class would actually take place in the home of Gamidah Jacobs. Gamidah greeted us into her home and it felt like coming over to a friend as she was like “Sit down for  second – I just have to finish cleaning the floor in the kitchen”.

But we soon got into the cooking with Gamidah and this was not the kind of class were you just get to look. We had to get into it and help with all the dishes – it turned out that it was only my wife and I in the cooking class and hence we felt like we got a special treat. We started out by frying up onions and spices to get started on the chicken curry and as we were working we chatted with Gamidah about family, history, about everyday life etc. While the curry was boiling we got started on the roti and we made it from scratch – I guess it is all in the wrist as Gamidah made it look so easy – the same goes for the samosas! In the end we fried up the roti, samosas and chili bites and we got to eat what we just made as lunch.

All in all I would say that this is the best cooking class ever. We got a special treat by being invited into Gamidah’s home and we got to cook with her – in her kitchen! How amazing is that. It didn’t feel like a cooking class but rather being invited over to a friend and cooking together. She treated us like friends and telling us about family, about her husband and kids. We got to make the food step by step and she gave us useful instructions and hints. If you are planning on taking a cooking class in Cape Town – look no further. I can highly recommend Lekka Kombuis. And Gamidah…if you make it to Stavanger in Norway let me know. I will invite you over to our house and cook some Norwegian food with you!

Read more about the cooking class on the Lekka Kombuis homepage.

Regards
Gard
gardkarlsen.com – trip reports and pictures

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Villa Zest in Cape Town–great boutique hotel May 06

We stayed at Villa Zest for 3 days in April 2014 – we booked it directly on the boutique hotel homepage and we choose it as the reviews were good and we wanted to stay at Green Point. When we landed at Cape Town airport we decided to take the bus into town as MyCiTi buses stops at Stadium (Green Point Stadium) and it is a short walk from the hotel.

This is a boutique hotel and there is only like 7 rooms. When we got there we rang the “doorbell” and the gate was buzzed open. The house seemed like just a large villa and we got a great welcome by the receptionist. Our room was not ready just yet but she used the opportunity to take us for a small tour of the hotel and to give us a welcome drink. It only took a few minutes for the room to get ready and we got a room on the ground level.

The room has white tiles on the floor with a furry carpet. The room and hotel seems pretty new so the interior is quite modern. The room was not that big but it included a pretty comfortable king-size bed, a tiny desk and a funky chair, wardrobe space and a tiny flat screen TV. On the desk we found all the stuff that you need to make some coffee and tea and also a couple of bottles of water that was complimentary even if you can drink the tap water. We also had a nice modern bathroom with a large shower, a bathtub and a sink with some amenities. My wife was quite impressed when she saw that one of the amenities was a makeup remover serviette.

Outside the villa there was a small garden with a swimming pool that we never got to try out – but it looked very inviting. There was also a corner with a sofa and a gas fire place and around the pool there were enough sunbeds. The lobby area had some funky decorations – apparently the owner is inspired by the 70’s and there were lots of old phones, 8 track players and some funky wall papers. A staircase took us to the next floor and that was used as a lounge area and breakfast area. The breakfast was pretty simple but we had all the stuff that we needed…bread, cereal, fruit and you could order eggs made your way. At night you could use the lounge area to just relax in the sofa and watch some TV and sit in front of the gas fire place – and the hotel also had free wifi in the room and in the lounge area. There was yet another staircase leading up to a small but wonderful rooftop terrace but we did not get to use that much as we were on the move most of the time.

The location of the hotel is great – it was possible to walk into the city bowl or to the V&A waterfront in like 20 minutes but it was also easy to get around by cab.

All in all we really enjoyed the Villa Zest experience. The staff was extremely friendly and helpful and chatted with us and helped us organize taxis at night (apparently the area is not that safe for walking at night). If you are going to Cape Town and want to stay at a small hotel, I can’t imagine that it can get much better than Villa Zest. Read more about the hotel on the hotel website.

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Pumba Private Game reserve–a great safari experience May 05

It is a bit tricky to write about Pumba just focusing about the accommodation as the game driving is a part of the whole experience. But I will try to focus on the Pumba camp in this review.

We booked the Pumba safari online on their homepage and there was a bit of back and forth as I was not able to pay with my credit card so I had to fill out some forms and send this over to Pumba and that was of course a bit of a hassle. We also booked pick up at Port Elizabeth Airport and transfer to Gramhamstown after the safari. When we got to Pumba we had to wait for a few minutes before we were picked up by one of the rangers in a Range Rover – I guess it was a good thing as the road into the Msenge lounge is rather bumpy. But it didn’t take us long before we saw various bucks and a rock monitor and we were contemplating if the animals had been put there on display just for our viewing pleasure.

When we got to the Msenge lodge we were taken to the reception and a huge Blesbuck was feeding on some trees right outside the entrance. We had to sign some papers where we probably signed that we could not sue them if we were eaten by a lion and then we were taken to lodge H. The room itself was great –as you walked in we were met by a large bed surrounded by a mosquito net and the room was surrounded by large windows – this gave us access to a terrace and also a view to the surroundings including a view to the watering hole. The room also included a closet with a small fridge, a table and a couple of chairs, a torch, a pair of binoculars, a desk and a wood fired oven. It gets cold at night in South Africa and it was great to light the small fire place on the first evening and fall asleep to the sounds and sights of a fire place.

The next room was the bathroom and the walk in wardrobe – when we came to our lodge the suitcases had already been placed in the wardrobe and it also included a small safe. The bathroom was incredible – is included two sinks with various amenities (including SPF 15 and mosquito repellent), a large glassed shower that allowed us to take a shower while keeping an eye on what was happening outside and there was also a bathtub where you could take a relaxing bath while looking at the animals outside. There was a separate room for the toilet and also a door leading out to an outside shower. But there were several doors leading out to the balcony / terrace where there was a couple of sunbeds, a parasol and a plunge in pool. I jumped in the first afternoon that we got there and it was pretty freezing.

All out meals were included so in the mornings we had breakfast after the game drive. Lunch was a three course menu and it was possible to enjoy it on the lounge deck which included a view to the watering hole where giraffes, zebras, bucks etc came to drink. At night we also had a three course dinner with free wine and various other drinks but it was also possible to order special vintage wine if you were looking for something special. All the food was served in the main lodge and that included a small gift shop, a small PC room (there was free wifi in the main lodge),  a game room and the restaurant – there was also a fire place in the middle of this main lodge and it was great to sit around the fire place at night, look at the stars and look at the menu for the evening.

There were also a couple of other buildings that included a spa, a gym and conference facilities. We tried the gym one day and the treadmill was not the great and Nikki was not that impressed with her manicure. We were pretty impressed with the food –the dinner was a nice selection of salads, soups, vegetarian and meat so it was not a problem finding some good options.

The Pumba Privat Game Reserve is located right outside Grahamstown and about 1 hour from Port Elizabeth so the location is not that ideal. But the game drives were great and we got to see elephants, while lions, rhinos, hippos, bucks etc.

All in all we were very happy with our stay at Pumba. I think that the safari experience is probably better in the Kruger park area but this was also a great experience. If you are looking for a safari experience in the Port Elizabeth and Grahamstown, Pumba is a great option.

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The new EuroBonus is here! Feb 24

Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) frequent flyer program EuroBonus will be launched in a version 2.0  in April 2014. There has been rumors about what will be new in the program but recently the secret was revealed. First of all: there will be a new Diamond level! The Pandion “level” will not be removed but it is still only by invitation only.  Read all about the new features on http://www.sas.no/en/eurobonus/new-eurobonus/

Regards
Gard
http://gardkarlsen.com – trip reports and pictures

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Good hotel for a ski vacation Feb 19

P1040934We stayed at Cristal Palace hotel in February 2014 during a short ski vacation there. It was tricky to pick a hotel in Madonna di Campiglio but in the end we chose Cristal Palace hotel as the reviews were pretty good, the hotel looked pretty new and the location seemed pretty good. I used booking.com to book the hotel room and we had to pay a total of 1168 € for 4 nights including breakfast and taxes.

P1040997We came to the hotel in the afternoon in a rented car from Verona and we managed to find the hotel without too much trouble…thanks to Google maps and Google street view. Check in was fast and we got some vague instructions on how to get to the garage at the hotel – we did manage to find it and we were able to squeeze in the rental car. There were lots and lots of snow so the roads were lined by walls of snow. There is a lift straight from the garage to the hotel floors which is great. The hotel didn’t look that big from the entrance but the hotel has about 7 stories.

P1050063We got room 602 on the top floor and we were quite pleased with the room at first glance. The room was fairly big and was dominated by lots of wooden panels and fabric “wallpaper” with matching pattern on the curtains. There was a big bed with one duvet which was comfortable enough but Nikki was not that happy with the pillow. There was a small desk with a chair, a small flat screen TV that was mounted on the wall and a wardrobe that had a few hangers – P1050070but it would have been great with even more hangers to hang up wet ski wear towards the end of the day. There was also a small safe and a small fridge. The room had a small balcony with a couple of chairs but we didn’t use it. The room had a high ceiling that made the room feel more spacious. The bathroom included a toilet, sink, bide, and large shower corner. It was all tiled with some sort of marble tiles and it was an inviting bathroom. There were some amenities – a shampoo and bath soap in one bottle, a bottle with some liquid soap in the shower itself and a box with sewing kit, shower cap etc.

The internet was also included and it was easy to get online using some of your social media details (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram etc). The internet speed is not impressive but it did the job.

P1040994Breakfast was included and was served on the third floor. The breakfast area had big windows facing the center of Madonna di Campiglio and the view was breathtaking as the hotel is located on a hill above the city center. Breakfast was not bad at all with a selection of eggs, bacon and sausages but also some cereal, fruit, bread and of course lots of sweet pastries. And as you would expect in Italy – you can ask for coffee and they make it fresh for you. So I enjoyed some espresso, some espresso macchiato etc. We did not try the hotel restaurant at night but we did have a glass of wine there. I thought it was a bit much to charge 10€ for small glass of red wine.

P1050074On level 1 of the hotel there is a spa – it included a pool, a Jacuzzi but also a separate room with a sauna, steam room and showers. It was great to sit in the warm steam room and sauna after a day in the ski slopes so don’t forget to bring your swimwear. There were some rules about access to the sauna/steam room for kids but it didn’t seem like people paid much attention to the rules. 

P1050060The location of the hotel is not bad. Located on the hillside just north of the city center it gives you great view of the city and some of the ski areas. But it seemed like the only way of walking to the city center was to follow the main road and that can be a bit scary in the dark, with slippery roads and with the road being narrow due to all the snow. There is a hotel shuttle but it is not always convenient to wait for that to show up and it stops running at about 8 pm so you will have to walk back home at night. It only takes about 5 minutes to walk to Pradalago ski lift so it doesn’t take long to get to restaurants and the city center.

P1050082The service at the hotel was both good and bad. When we asked for info about where to rent skis we were told that the shuttle would take us to a place in the city center. The shuttle took a bit of time so I asked if the people in the reception could point out where the place was on the map but they did not seem willing to do this for some reason. We tried to call the reception one evening to ask if we could get an iron and ironing board sent to our room – it took quite a bit of time to explain this and in the end the answer was no. The room was a bit warm and we tried to adjust the temperature without success. One day the AC just said “Help” and there were some clicking sounds from the fuse box but it seemed like the hotel staff was able to fix it. But we were very happy with the service from the shuttle drivers and the personnel in the breakfast area.

Conclusion
Even if there are some things that can be improved we were overall pleased with Cristal Palace hotel. The room was large, bed was comfortable and the spa was great after a day in the slopes. The hotel is not far from the city center but you will have to walk along the main road which can be a bit dangerous in the dark. But all in all – we would probably stay at Cristal Palace hotel again if we return to Madonna di Campiglio.

Regards
Gard
http://gardkarlsen.com – trip reports and pictures

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Fleischer’s hotel Vossevangen–overpriced and basic! Aug 05

My wife and I stayed at Fleischer’s hotel in Vossevangen in August 2013. We were on a short weekend trip and decided to stay in Voss as we were covering parts of Hardanger and parts of Sognefjord. I booked the hotel online on the hotel homepage and I guess I booked it quite late as I was only able to get it for the rate of 2090 Norwegian Kroner (about 350 USD).

P1040335Finding the hotel was not that difficult as Voss is not such a large place and the hotel stands out as it is built in Swiss style. The entrance to the hotel is a bit weird as you enter the reception from the back (towards the railway). We got room number 36 located on the same floor as the reception. The room was not very impressive upon entry – I was assuming that as I booked late and ended up paying quite a lot for the room, we would get a better room but I guess that was not the case. The room had light walls with a few pieces of rather boring art work and it had a wooden floor. P1040325The bed was two single beds pushed together which is not great when traveling as a couple and the bed was not very comfortable. There was a two seat sofa by the window and a table and the view was not bad at all – we looked at Voss Kulturhus and the lake. There was also a small desk and a chair – and the desk included and old school and small TV. There was a wardrobe as well but no safe and no iron/ironing board. The small fridge has a few cold drinks and there were a couple of wine glasses. The lighting of the room was really bad and it a good thing that Norwegian summers are light so that you can get natural light into the room.

P1040330The bathroom was small and tiled in white tiles and included a bathtub with a shower option, a toilet and a sink. There were no amenities apart from a shower cap! There was a soap dispenser for washing the hands and it seems like there was a similar one in the shower – so no shampoo, no conditioner etc. The shower head did not seem to work properly and it would spray water in various directions. There was also a wall mounted hair dryer. We were not that impressed by the bathroom standard as there seemed to be hair left from the previous guest and the floor appeared dirty when we started to shower and water was splashing everywhere. P1040327There was not that much ventilation so it got pretty damp in the little bathroom. I don’t think there is much focus on details at this hotel – even the trash can in the corner of the hotel room was not working. The towels were thin and worn out. It did not seem like there was any ventilation in the room so we had to keep the window open at night to get some fresh air – this means that you also hear the traffic better on the road outside.
Breakfast at the hotel was not bad – they could offer some eggs, bacon, cereal, fruit, bread etc. At first it seemed like they only had standard jam etc but when looking closer it seemed like they had more local stuff as well (e.g. strawberry jam, brunost (the Norwegian brown goat cheese) and apple juice). When we came to the breakfast restaurant there was a sign saying that we had to wait to be seated (well, it was not spelled correctly) – but as we were standing there waiting a waitress told us that we could sit anywhere.

Location of the hotel is not bad – but then again Voss is a small place and you can basically walk anywhere from any location in town. I was afraid that we would hear the trains as the railway is right next door but that was not a problem.

Conclusion
P1040331I travel a bit for pleasure and business so I think I know a bit about hotel standards and qualities. I don’t mind paying a lot for a hotel room as long as I feel that I get something back for the money. In that respect I have to say that I’m shocked by the value for money at Fleischer’s hotel. I paid 2090 Norwegian kroner (about 350 USD) for the room and the room was one of the most basic rooms I have stayed at in a long time. Not only was it basic but it also seems to be neglected in terms of cleaning and maintenance. The bed was uncomfortable, towels thin and worn out, basically no amenities in the bathroom etc. Fleischer’s hotel is a part of De Historiske – an organization that promotes charming and historic hotels. Fleischer’s hotel might be a historic hotel with many famous guests in the past but today it is a worn down hotel that is absolutely not worth the room rate.

Regards
Gard
http://gardkarlsen.com – trip reports and photos

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Hotel Ombak Sunset–Gili Trwangan, Indonesia Jul 28

P1030970We stayed at Hotel Ombak Sunset on Gili Trawangan in juli 2013. We stayed on the island for 4 days and it was tricky choosing a hotel. We were not sure if we should stay in the center where most of the activities happens, if we wanted a villa or not etc. In the end we decided on Ombak Sunset as the reviews were good, the price was good and the rooms seemed to be nice – and there was a big pool. I booked the hotel online before the trip on booking.com as that gave a better deal than booking on the hotel itself and I booked a regular room.

We came to Gili by boat from Bali and took a horse and carriage to the hotel. The driver wanted 190.000 Rupiah and my wife bargained it to 150.000 Rupiah. Later on it turned out that the fixed price for this distance is 75.000 Rupiah (about 7.5 USD).

P1030956Hotel Ombak Sunset is located on the west side of the island but it seems like some maps indicates that it is on the east side (like the one on TripAdvisor) – Hotel Ombak Sunset should not be confused with Hotel Villa Ombak that is located on the south east side of the island. Check in at the hotel was done in the enormous lobby (which was totally empty by the way) and we got a welcome drink while they did the paperwork. We got an upgrade to a villa (or island bungalow as it is called) instead of a room and it seems like this happens quite often and I assume that it has something to do with the fact that all the rooms are not completed yet. We got villa 2025 if I’m not mistaken and the guy that checked us in walked us over to the villa.

P1030965The bungalow had a small terrace in front with a sofa and table. The room was a bit dim when entering the room but the standard seemed good. The floor was in creamy colored marble tiles, the walls were light and there were dark wooden furniture in the room. In addition to the king size bed (that really was BIG) there were two chairs with a small table, a 32 inch flat screen TV on top of a wooden cabinet (it was a bit too far from the bed), a small fridge, a water boiler and there was also a wardrobe with robes. The wardrobe also contained a small safe but it was locked in an open position and after reporting this a few times, it finally got fixed. The bed was comfortable but the pillows were a bit on the firm side. The aircon was controlled by a remote and worked just fine – the wifi was free but it was a bit of a hassle as we got a username and password and I had to type it in basically every time I wanted to go online. We got several bottles of water each day and it was not a problem to get more if we ran out.

P1030955The bathroom was partially outdoors and included a toilet, sink and a shower corner and a small garden. The shower had decent pressure and hot water and there were amenities as shampoo, bath gel and conditioner in small containers. Being open and with a small garden means that you also have to deal with the wildlife. There were a number of centipedes that were on a constant march and a couple of fairly big spiders crawled around. The turn down service was also quite good with decorations on the bed, curtains closed and also an electric bug repellent turned on.

P1030969The pool was enormous – I think it must be the biggest pool on the tiny island. The pool was about 140 cm deep and on the one end there was a pool bar where you could get drinks all day long and they had happy hour with 2 drinks for the price of one in the afternoon. There is also a smaller pool for children next to the main pool and a couple of small plunge pools. Across the small road was the beach that was beautiful but this place is not ideal for swimming as it is quite shallow and there are lots and lots of dead, sharp corals. The hotel has a restaurant on the beach itself where you can have drinks while watching the sun set – and it was spectacular to see the sun go down in the ocean. You also get a good view to the mountains on Bali. The restaurant served some excellent seafood – we were a bit skeptical when eating there as we were basically the only guests but the seafood was probably the best we had on Gili.

Breakfast in the morning was served a la carte and included fruit, some bread, eggs, cereal etc. The service was kind and the food was served pretty fast. I’m not sure what the deal is with all the cats by the way but there were cats in the lobby, in the restaurants and on the beach itself. There were afternoon tea by the pool and we could get tea or coffee together with some Indonesian style sweet cakes. We were not that impressed by the small cakes or the coffee.

P1040020Location of the hotel is both good and bad I guess. The great part is that the hotel is located a bit away from the main strip and you avoid a lot of “noise”. You also get a view to the spectacular sunset in the ocean. It is only 2.3 km (or about 1.4 miles) to e.g. Ko Ko Mo where the strip starts and you can rent bikes at the hotel to get around. Just note that it is pitch black dark in between the places so I was very happy that my wife had brought along a head torch. Also note that in some places the sand has blown onto the road and it made it tricky to bike there. The bikes at the hotel could be rented for a day or half a day and I think it was like 50.000 for a day. The bikes were not in great conditions but at least the breaks worked.

Right next to the bike rental store there were a couple of other stores: a small convenience store, a place to book diving trips and the spa. The store was closed one evening but they opened it up for me when I asked in the lobby – great service.

Conclusion
P1030979We had a great stay at Hotel Ombak sunset. The hotel is located a bit away from the main strip but it was not much of a problem for us as we biked there in about 15 minutes – just bring a good head torch. The pool was also great and we enjoyed some amazing sunsets on the beach. The room was pretty decent and the outdoor bathroom provided some excitement in the form of huge spiders. The staff was polite and friendly. If we go back to Gili Trawangan I would not mind staying at this hotel again.

 

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Room at Royal Kamuela in Ubud, Bali Jul 22

We stayed at a place called Royal Kamuela in Ubud in Bali in Indonesia in July 2013. Here is a short video that shows the villa.

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Great hotel for exploring George Town on Penang Jun 25

Traders hotel Penang, Malaysia

P1020790My wife and I stayed at Traders Penang in May 2013 for 3 days in May 2013. We chose this hotel as it seemed to be a decent hotel in the George Town area and we wanted to explore the historic city center for a few days. I also chose it as I’m a Jade member in the Shangri-La Golden Circle program. We took a taxi from the airport in the south of the island to the hotel and it was a fixed price of 44 Ringgit (14 USD) and it took about 30 minutes. The lobby was open with large chandeliers and marble floors. Check in was fast and we got 1419.

P1020792When we took the elevator to our room we were a bit annoyed to see that we had gotten a room right across the corridor from the lifts but this was not a problem at all. The room did seem a bit outdated upon entry to the room but I had read the reviews in advance so I was prepared for this. The walls were a combination of light wall paper and dark brown wood and the floor was wall to wall carpet. The center in the room contained a HUGE bed and the sleep quality was excellent. As a Jade member I had gotten some welcome gifts and it is always great to get some sparking water. There was also a mini bar with various items and the Coke was 8 Ringgit ( 2 ½ USD). Free Traders water in bottles was also provided.

P1020797As usual there was a desk, an old style TV and a water boiler with coffee and tea. The wardrobe also contained a safe, robes and iron/ironing board.The tiled bathroom was OK with a shower option in the bathtub but I’m not a fan of the shower curtain option. But the bathroom did contain the usual amenities that I’m used to from Traders in KL (shampoo, body gel, conditioner, lotion etc). The view from the room was not that great as we look right across to a construction site but again we were not bothered by the noise from this place.

After we checked in we took some time to try out the gym at the hotel – it contained rowing machines, thread mills, stationary bikes and weights and the pool was right outside.

P1020925Breakfast at the hotel was according what I would expect from a good 4 star hotel in Asia. A selection of bread, cereal, juices, eggs etc. But what impressed me the most was the service – when I had breakfast the first morning I went alone as my wife Nikki was not feel great due to a cold. So I tried to balance a tea and a croissant out of the restaurant and a manager stopped me and I explained the situation. He told me to put it down as he would send someone to my room and soon my wife got a croissants and tea served in bed in the room. The same guy also told us that we had to try some local stuff (like roti chanai) so I got the impression that he enjoyed his work with helping and communicating with people.

P1020912The location of the hotel is quite good as it is just in the outskirt of the historic city center. We walked all over the place but if you want to take a short cut remember that there is a free bus service from the Komter area (where the hotel is) to the jetty and most taxis seems to have a fixed price of 10 ringgit within the city center.
Conclusion: The room was a bit outdated but we enjoyed the stay at Traders in Penang as the location is pretty good, breakfast is good and the service was very good. If you are going to check out George Town for a few days this hotel is a good option.

Regards
Gard
http://gardkarlsen.com – trip reports and pictures

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