As a beach escape, Penang can’t compete with the postcard coastlines and waterways of Langkawi. On the flipside, when it comes to food, the arts and architecture, Penang is your Malaysian island of the moment.
Charted by the Chinese in the 15th century and later founded by English trader Francis Light, Penang’s colonial vestiges are becoming increasingly more of a travel highlight, with ongoing restorations bringing the island’s older architecture back to life.
British heritage is only part of the picture here, as well. During the Brits’ 171-year long rule, Penang’s role as outpost for the East India Company paved the way for a variety of diasporic communities to make their architectural mark.
Some of the most beautiful buildings are the Chinese clan houses and Peranakan shophouses that line Georgetown’s streets, many of which lie within UNESCO’s Heritage Protected zone. Also worthy of reverent contemplation – and unbridled photo-taking, where permitted – are its mosques, Buddhist and Hindu temples, Muslim shrines and monuments, and pre-war churches and cathedrals.
Travelers wishing to explore Penang’s past through architecture may as well immerse themselves in it completely by staying in a restored hotel or guesthouse. The following is a round-up of some of the most beautifully restored accommodations in Penang.
The Straits Collection
The UNESCO protected zone of Armenian street in George Town is progressively being restored and the Straits Collection is a row of shophouses within it offering shops, an art gallery, cafés and a guesthouse. Four rooms in the converted shophouse offer contemporary living for long or short stays, right in the middle of the best-preserved part of Penang.
Cheong Tze Fatt Mansion
With history and romance emanating from every pastel-blue nook, this Vogue-featured property offers 16 rooms, each one slightly different from the rest. Rambling hallways, original spiral staircases, intricate ironwork railings, mosaic tile floors and stained glass are some of its features, though it’s only really by swanning around its interiors that guests can fully appreciate the ambience of this 1880s aristocrat’s abode.
This newly-opened beach resort in Batu Ferringhi is the beach-side town’s only 5-star resort. It’s just been renovated to add more rooms, offering guests modern design, water views and private plunge pools on balconies.
Eastern & Oriental
Completed in 1885 by the Sarkies Brothers – also responsible for Singapore’s Raffles – the E&O is a Penang’s landmark hotel. The George Town property – once billed as the ‘The Premier Hotel East of Suez’ – was one of the era’s most prestigious hotels, attracting a high-profile clientele that includes Charlie Chaplin and Rudyard Kipling. The Heritage Wing is where the true history buffs and wannabe Hemingways should stay.
Also in the center of George Town’s heritage zone, this ‘kopi’ shop houses an art gallery, a café and 4 spacious suites. Suites are restored with Chinese antique furniture, preserving the building’s 1927 ambience, while not omitting modern conveniences like flatscreen TV, DVD players, WiFi and kitchenette.
Love Lane’s buildings showcase five different styles of architecture from five different periods. Starting from the 1880s, with Chinese, Indian and Anglosaxon influences, it’s now a boutique hotel offering 10 rooms with high-tech extras like WiFi, iPod dock, flatscreen TV – modcons its original owners could never have imagined.