The Malaysian state of Sarawak has long attracted ecotourists to its ancient Borneo rainforests, but increasingly, savvy travellers stop off for a few days in the riverside capital, Kuching. Built up as a thriving trading post by the Brooke family, the English "white rajahs" who ruled Sarawak for a century, Kuching boasts a splendid architectural heritage, similar to Penang. It's still well-preserved, despite no Unesco World Heritage recognition, with hardly a high-rise building to spoil the skyline. The street food is spectacular - this is one of Anthony Bourdain's favourite stop-offs - but now there are also lively gourmet bistros, alongside fashionable boutique hotels. Instead of the traffic jams, pollution and suffocating skyscrapers of modern Asian cities, Kuching takes visitors back 30 years, a genuinely "slow" destination in which to relax, with locals who couldn't be more welcoming.
A comfortable bed
The city's top address is the iconic Hilton Kuching (www.hilton.com), which dominates the waterside promenade. Double rooms cost from 336 Malaysian ringgits (Dh293).
Housed in two ancient Chinese shophouses, the romantic Ranee (www.theranee.com) is decorated in an eye-catching mix of traditional handicrafts and bold modern designs. Doubles cost from 285 ringgits (Dh248), including breakfast.
The Batik Boutique Hotel (www.batikboutiquehotel.com), with its stunning psychedelic facade, is more for hipsters. Doubles cost 280 ringgits (Dh244), including breakfast.
Find your feet
The perfect introduction to Kuching and its exotic history is a tour of the enchanting Sarawak Museum, which hardly seems to have changed since opening in 1891. Walk down towards the boutiques of Main Bazaar and the waterfront, where a solemn statue of the colonial ruler, Rajah James Brooke, stands outside the magnificent colonnades of the Old Court House, recently transformed into a vibrant hub of restaurants, fashion boutiques and art galleries, a live-music venue and a funky cafe that features 20 different mouth-watering cakes each day. Kuching isn't strong on formal sightseeing, but it's the perfect walking city to just get lost in the ancient backstreets of the historic Chinatown, lined with artisan workshops, fragrant spice sellers and colourful textile shops.
Meet the locals
Kuching's picturesque waterfront esplanade stretches along the Sarawak River and is packed for the ritual sunset promenade with local bands performing alongside a kaleidoscope of food stalls. Locals love their barista coffee, and a popular place to hang out is Black Bean Coffee (Exe Hai Street), which roasts locally grown beans, while a more fashionable set turn up at Granary (Wayang Street), for flat whites and aeropress. At night, join the crowds at Top Spot (Jalan Panungan), a seething rooftop food court, where seafood stalls serve more than 500 people, communally seated at round tables.
Book a table
The hot new gourmet address is the elegant BTB dining room (Old Court House Building), serving pan Asian cuisine with subtle French influences, such as succulent rack of lamb with roast pumpkin and turmeric potatoes (78 ringgits [Dh68]).
Diners sitting around the koi ponds and Zen courtyard of the Bla Bla Bla restaurant on Tabuan Road sample Chinese-inspired fusion dishes like tangy mango duck for 48 ringgits (Dh42), plus a big selection of vegetables, including a spicy salad of midin jungle fern and crispy sweet potato leaves.
Adventurous foodies must try the cuisine of Sarawak's native tribes. A sampan ride across the river takes you to the Malay village of Kampong Boyan, where My Village Barok (Jalan Brooke) is packed with locals each evening, Don't miss the umai, a raw fish ceviche with lime and chilli.
Lepau (Ban Hock Road) serves unforgettable tempoyak - fermented durian with crispy anchovies - for 16 ringgits (Dh14).
Street food is everywhere, and the one must-taste dish is Sarawak laksa, a rich noodle soup with prawn and chicken, best enjoyed for breakfast at the simple Choon Hui Coffee Shop (Ban Hock Road).
Forget glitzy shopping malls and haute couture labels, and seek out bargains among traditional Chinese goldsmiths that line Carpenter Street, or head for Tanoti (www.tanoticrafts.com), an atelier of young weavers producing ethnic silk songket cloth for chic made-to-measure fashions at 3,000 ringgits (Dh2,600) a yard. Offbeat boutiques to track down include Junk Home (Wayang Street), whose collectable bric-a-brac range from ancient Chinese posters to Bakelite radios, while Livian (Main Bazaar) displays exquisite tribal beads.
Crossing the Sarawak River, especially at sunset, on the sampan ferry for the grand cost of 1 ringgit (Dh1).
What to avoid
Kuching may mean "cat", but its Cat Museum is seriously kitsch - despite 4,000 exhibits, and an expensive taxi drive out of the centre.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) and Etihad (www.etihad.com) fly from the Dubai and Abu Dhabi respectively to Kuching, via Kuala Lumpur, from Dh2,510 return, including taxes.