Need a family friendly getaway? The E & O Hotel in Georgetown on Penang Island, in Malaysia’s far northwest, is one of those hotels – so refined, relaxed and amiable that it’s tempting to spend the entire trip holed up inside its hallowed, 130-year-old halls. But you will want to venture out – especially as Georgetown is a charming, ramshackle city with fascinating people, culture and cuisine.
Best explored at a leisurely walking pace, Penang’s largest city, Georgetown, is saturated with the kind of nostalgic charisma that many Asian cities have lost in the race to modernise. Thankfully, its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site has helped Penang preserve a large chunk of the city for all to enjoy.
An ideal weekend break from Singapore, for couples and families alike, this quirky Malaysian city has much to offer: fantastic food, street art, culture galore, historical temples, Chinese and British colonial architecture, and unique accommodation.
Our family of four, including an energetic nine-year-old boy and laid-back 11-year-old girl, recently returned for a second visit, and spent three days exploring the new things, plus the bits we missed first time round.
Stay: The Eastern & Oriental Hotel
Best described as Malaysia’s answer to Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, but without the hefty price tag, this property is simply known as “the E & O”. We stayed to experience the colonial luxury evocative of a bygone era, and the acclaimed service that guests throughout its 130-year history have enjoyed.
The enterprising Sarkies brothers, who hailed from Armenia, are often credited with creating Asia’s first hotel chain. Their legacy includes The E & O in Penang, Raffles Hotel in Singapore, The Strand Hotel in Yangon, Myanmar, and two hotels in Indonesia.
Today, the E & O Hotel offers graceful and elegant rooms across two wings; 100 in the Heritage Wing and 122 in the new Victory Annexe. Both wings have their own distinct charm, with separate entrance and foyer. We stayed in a deluxe suite in the Heritage Wing, in a 58-square-metre room with separate living area, walk-in dressing room, enormous marble bathroom and bedroom with two double beds, more than large enough for our family. In the Heritage Wing, a butler is on call at the flick of a switch.
Rooms in the Annexe, opened in 2013, naturally lean towards a more modern décor, but the style in both is classic and elegant. Guests from both wings have access to two pools, the first on ground level in front of Farquhar’s Bar, the second in the new wing on the sixth floor. We spent our late afternoons swimming and resting weary feet after a lot of walking.
Though we didn’t have time to take advantage of it, a shuttle service operates to sister property Lone Pine Hotel at Batu Ferringhi; and a new water limousine, the Lady Martina, tootles across to the Straits Quay shopping and dining complex regularly. Both are complimentary for E & O guests.
Breakfast at Sarkie’s is the full buffet affair, with numerous stations offering a global selection of cuisines, including local favourite roti canai; to the kids’ dismay – and their parents’ approval! – there’s no chocolate fountain. (For more on E & O’s restaurants, see below.) Hotel chefs offer Malaysian culinary courses on Wednesday lunchtimes, and complimentary yoga classes are offered poolside on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
The E & O was undoubtedly the highlight of our stay in Penang, and we can’t recommend it highly enough.
Penang has a formidable reputation for food, from hawker classics to value-for-money Western fusion, and top-notch local cuisine in fine-dining restaurants. After check-in, we made a beeline to the yellow-and-green shophouse eatery Hameediyah for a late lunch of cheap and delicious Indian fusion food, murtabak. We’d eaten there previously, on the recommendation of British chef Rick Stein, and were not disappointed with the large buttery roti stuffed with a choice of meat or vegetables, and fiery curry sauce as accompaniment.
Sharing the limelight with char koay teow as Penang’s signature noodle dish is assam laksa. Substantially different to the coconut-milk version served in Singapore, this iteration is based on a tamarind and fish broth, with mint, cucumber and chilli for zing and sweetness. Hawkers all over Georgetown sell the dish for about four ringgit (about S$1.50), and we recommend enjoying it with a traditional nutmeg juice – the spice is grown locally.
I’ll confess that the kids were not keen on these spicy delights, so they fell back on ever-reliable Hainanese chicken rice, which is ubiquitous too. Pick up the handy Penang Street Food brochure, which lists the outlets where many popular hawker dishes are sold. A word of caution: Red Garden Food Paradise is a large, evening-only hawker centre that’s popular with tourists, but we found the quality not up to scratch.
Want to take it easy? Dine in at the E & O Hotel for an all-inclusive family buffet lunch or dinner at Sarkies, or, for something special, at 1885, the fine-dining restaurant. Guests staying in the Victory Annexe receive one hour of complimentary drinks and small bites at Planters Lounge every night. Sitting outdoors overlooking the straits and catching a breeze as the sun goes down is highly recommended.
A unique all-rounder, offering something for everyone, is China House. This building occupies a shophouse the length of an entire block, with access from Victoria Street or Lebu Pantai (Beach Road), and is absolutely worth a visit as much to check out the multi-restaurant building as for the 40 varieties of cake that the bakery section offers each day (yes, 40 – daily) and the excellent coffee (made with beans from Singapore roaster, Nylon and Toby’s Estate). Breakfast, lunch and dinner are taken care of with top-notch fare, and kids are well catered for.
Walk: Cool breeze
At 800 metres, Penang Hill is an escape from the tropical heat. A half-day trip to the hill combines a swift funicular ride with sweeping views, and a welcome cooling breeze. Prior to its opening in 1924 (the newest train came into service in 2011), the British reached the hill station via horses and sedan chairs.
Aside from city views, a mosque, an Indian temple and short buggy rides, there’s little to keep tourists for long at the top. Some stop for a cool drink and a meal at the hawkers, or at David Brown’s Restaurant and Tea Terrace. Keen to work up an appetite, we choose to walk the roughly five kilometres down hill on a combination of sealed road, paved residential thoroughfares and a rough dirt mountain-bike track. In the lush forests we were rewarded for our efforts with the sighting of the very cute spectacled langur (or dusky leaf monkey), named for the white rings around its eyes.
Unsurprisingly, given the absence of signage, there were few people walking on our route, although several spritely 60-somethings (and that’s a conservative estimate) did pass us in the other direction, making the steep, calf-burning ascent.
Shop: Heritage traders
Much of the pleasure of a visit to Georgetown is the aimless wandering and casual observation of the city’s diverse and industrious people. It’s always been a trading port, with a harmonious confluence of Malay, European, Chinese and Indian cultures.
Many traditional businesses remain in shophouses in varying stages of decay or restoration – rattan weavers, flower garland makers, bookbinders and perfumers. A metal forger, complete with massive ship anchors, sits alongside a pastry-maker famed for egg tarts, and across from a bike hire shop. This jumbled chaos has its own charm, especially when contrasted with Singapore’s orderliness and modernity. Shoppers will find 18-ringgit knockoff Fedora hats, kitsch souvenirs, old-school enamelware trays, art and high-end street photography.
Georgetown has so much to discover, and I’m looking forward to another visit soon.
Make it happen
Penang is a one-hour flight from Singapore and well serviced by budget airlines. Our family of four flew with Jetstar for around S$500 return. Georgetown and the E & O Hotel are a 30-minute taxi ride from the airport, around 40 to 50 ringgit, paid in advance at the taxi counter just outside the terminal. The hotel is a Georgetown landmark, so there’s no need to give the driver directions. Rooms at the E & O can be found for under $300 a night. Walking is the recommended way to get around the historic city, but taxis are plentiful, and there is a free hop-on hop-off bus.
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s June 2015 issue.