George Town, on the Malaysian island of Penang, and its larger and better-known sibling, Singapore, were both born at a time when the sun famously never set on the British Empire. Located at the northern entrance to the strategically crucial Strait of Malacca, George Town, unlike Singapore, still evokes an age of travel by steamship among storied ports and their grand hotels, an era that began with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
It was a Hindu feast day on my arrival, and on the road into town from the airport, I caught a glimpse of a happy, colorfully dressed crowd, its members draped with marigold flower necklaces and following several huge, brightly painted puppets. In quick succession, we then passed a large mosque, a Buddhist temple and a handsome white church. George Town is an ethnically diverse city — with a population chiefly of Malay, Chinese and Indian heritage — which helps to explain its conspicuous vitality.
A natty doorman in shorts, white knee socks and a pith helmet opened the door of my taxi when we pulled up in front of the 100-room Eastern & Oriental Hotel. The welcome in the sedate lobby was cordial and slightly formal, just as I had expected. This legendary hotel was created in 1885 by the Sarkies, an Armenian family that went on to open The Strand in Rangoon and Raffles in Singapore. At the time, it was considered to be the definition of luxury, with electric lights, hot and cold running water, even elevators.
What I liked most about the Eastern & Oriental was that, unlike so many other renovated heritage properties, it hadn’t been turned into a pastiche.
Although I’d chosen to stay at the Eastern & Oriental primarily for its historic atmosphere, it turned out to be an extremely comfortable and well-run hotel. Our suite in the Heritage Wing — which is preferable to the modern, high-rise Victory Annexe — came with glossy teak floors, white crown moldings, a four-poster bed and casement windows overlooking a beautifully landscaped terrace, one of the property’s two swimming pools and the Andaman Sea. The separate lounge was attractively furnished in an appropriately Victorian style, and the spacious bath provided two separate vanities and an extra-long claw-foot tub. Everything technical, including the air-conditioning and Wi-Fi, worked perfectly. What I liked most about the Eastern & Oriental was that, unlike so many other renovated heritage properties, it hadn’t been turned into a pastiche. Instead, it had a pleasantly sleepy atmosphere and an unselfconscious sepia-toned charm.
My only disappointment was that the food seemed a reprise of the British Victorian kitchen. Aside from a very good breakfast buffet, dishes in the restaurants were typically overcooked and under-seasoned. However, in a city as justly renowned for its cuisine as George Town, this was a very minor problem. I left the Eastern & Oriental with real regret and a strong desire to return for a longer stay.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The strong sense of place and history, creating a uniquely pleasant atmosphere; the very comfortable and commodious rooms, which are good value for the money.
DISLIKE: The mediocre food aside from the lavish breakfast buffet.
GOOD TO KNOW: Use the hotel’s second swimming pool at the Victory Annexe if you want afternoon sun, since the seaside pool at the Heritage Wing quickly falls into shadow.
Eastern & Oriental Hotel 92 Deluxe Suite King, $215; Straits Suite, $300. 10 Lebuh Farquhar, George Town, Penang. Tel. (60) 4-222-2000.
The growing popularity of George Town has led to a mini-boom in development, with many of the so-called “shophouses” in the old city being converted into boutique hotels. The shophouse is George Town’s most emblematic form of architecture. The term refers to a contiguous row of houses, rarely higher than four stories, with stores on the ground floor. The idiom became common as a result of Chinese immigration in the 19th century, which explains why so many shophouses have a distinctly Chinese appearance, with ceramic tile roofs and elaborate decoration.
The 18-suite Seven Terraces opened in 2013. A hugely ambitious project, it was the brainchild of hotelier Christopher Ong and his Austrian partner, Karl Steinberg. In 2008, they acquired seven fire-ruined shophouses in a small lane near the center of the city and undertook the massive task of restoration. Ong was born in Penang, grew up in Australia, and had a successful career as a banker in Sydney before becoming a hotelier, first with the Galle Fort Hotel in Sri Lanka.
While preserving the 19th-century façades, Ong and Steinberg managed to create a large, tile-floored central atrium ornamented with sweet-smelling frangipani trees in huge glazed pots. The ground floor includes Kebaya, serving a menu of classic Indo- and Straits Chinese dishes, plus a bar, a library and a small lap pool. The public rooms display Ong’s spectacular collection of local antiques, including figurines, lacquered tiffin carriers and teak couches inlaid with mother of pearl.
The Seven Terraces is a truly distinctive and utterly delightful hotel.
The suites are decorated in a similar style. The most desirable are the duplex Argus Suites, which overlook a quiet back street. Ours came with a spacious lounge furnished with red velvet-upholstered sofas, Chinese antiques and colonial-style furniture of British, Sri Lankan and local provenance. A huge white bath with a honeycomb-tile floor provided a single vanity and a rainfall shower. Reached via stairs, the bedroom opened onto a small private balcony overlooking George Town’s Anglican church. Throughout our stay, service from the mostly Sri Lankan staff was outstanding. The Seven Terraces is a truly distinctive and utterly delightful hotel.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Exquisite décor in public spaces; convenient location; fine restaurant; charming staff.
DISLIKE: The lack of room service after 5 p.m.
GOOD TO KNOW: The Mews Café, just a five-minute walk from the hotel, belongs to the same owners and is an excellent choice for lunch, with a selection of well-prepared Asian and Western specialties and friendly service.
Seven Terraces 95 Argus Lane Suite, $205; Argus Lane Grand Suite, $385. Stewart Lane, George Town, Penang. Tel. (60) 4-264-2333.