Penang has been on the region’s hip radar for a while now, thanks to great food, old Chinese architecture and a thriving local arts scene. It’s become such a hot destination for all the right reasons that it now has its own Time Out visitors’ guide and dedicated website. Helping fuel Penang’s rise has been a boutique hotel boom in the main city of George Town, starting with the opening of the restored Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in 1995. Since then, a number of world-class places to stay have sprung up, defined largely by their modest size and quirky old-world vibe. You’ll find shades of Imperial China, Marrakesh and white-washed modernity in the stunning hotels here, none of which has more than 16 rooms.
Guide to Georgetown, Penang
Go boutique in Georgetown, Penang
Campbell House is an 11-room boutique hotel owned by Malaysian-born Briton Nardya and her Italian husband, Roberto, who left the corporate world in London to turn this heritage building overlooking Old Chinatown into a romantic retreat. There are reminders of Marrakesh and colonial India in its suites, whose memorable names include Indochine and Calligraphy, each of which has a high-beamed ceiling and is filled with family heirlooms. The Opium Suite, for example, has a mother-of-pearl opium bed and a free-standing bath. The hotel has a gorgeous roof terrace where guests can sip classic cocktails, and a Venetian tavern restaurant, Il Bacaro, that’s decorated with vintage photographs of Roberto’s extended family. Suites from MYR300 per night. See www.campbellhousepenang.com.
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion
Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion is the original George Town boutique hotel. The Blue Mansion, as it’s known, was the favourite home of the eponymous 19th-century jet-setter (he had others in Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and mainland China), said to have been the ‘last mandarin and first capitalist of China’. Thanks to architect Lawrence Loh’s award-winning restoration in 1995, the hotel now has 16 themed bedrooms with names like the Fragrant Poem Room. Of the hotels on this list, this one has the most authentic, old-China feel. The original features have been retained in many rooms, such as the Old Kitchen studio, home to a wood-fire cooking station and utensils. Guests are served breakfast in an open hall by the inner courtyard. This place doesn’t have the mod-cons of, say, Clove Hall or Muntri Mews, but it’s as close as you can get in George Town to staying in a museum. Rooms from MYR420. See www.cheongfatttzemansion.com.
Located on a quiet residential street on the edge of George Town, Clove Hall is a classic Edwardian black-and-white villa, restored and privately owned by Jo and Jim Lim, with the help of local boutique hotel maestro Christopher Ong. It has a white, airy, World of Interiors feel inside, with elegant chinaware giving it a modern Oriental feel. The six suites are distinctive: Star Anise is set around its own little garden; Clove boasts a groovy sunken bath; Cinnamon has a living room that overlooks the elegant, tree-shaded pool; and Saffron and Cardamon have shaded balconies. Rooms from MYR550. See www.clovehall.com.
Located behind Kuan Yin Temple and around the corner from Little India, Coffee Atelier is a collection of five shophouses built in the 1920s. Number 53 was a coffee roastery, hence the name. The coffee here is made using the original wood-fired roasting equipment. The owners – Stefan from Switzerland and Lorina from Hong Kong – have turned this property into a charming blend of restaurant, coffee museum and gallery, with four gorgeous suites in two shophouses. The rooms are creatively decorated in bright pastels, some with wooden shutters and four-poster beds. But the standout touch is the charming courtyard restrooms. The adjoining 55 Café serves Mediterranean food and tapas, while the Gehrig Gallery showcases the work of local artists along with Stefan’s photography. Suites from MYR380 per night. See www.coffeeatelier.com.
Originally constructed to house wooden horse carriages, Muntri Mews – in a Grade II-listed garden property at the end of a blind alley – recalls 19th century Penang at its most beautiful. The property was acquired in 2009 by award-winning hotelier Christopher Ong, the man behind Clove Hall, and turned into a stunning collection of nine suites that combine clean mod-minimalism with the flavour of old Penang. In spotlit, wood-floored rooms, you’ll find old Chinese tea flasks and dark wood four-poster beds. Boasting long balcony corridors, a leafy garden and a shop selling vintage plates and bowls collected by Ong, Muntri Mews oozes romance, charm and cool. Rooms from MYR300. See www.muntrimews.com.
Malihom Private Estate
Located in the steep hills of Balik Pulau, Malihom is a stunning retreat where the accent is on solitude and relaxation. Guests stay in one of nine very different ‘barns’, which were a cluster of old traditional wooden rice barns from Thailand before receiving forest-retreat makeovers. Most are equipped with hammocks and offer dramatic views across the hills to the sea. Three of them are two-room units. Three daily meals made with fresh, seasonal produce are included in the price, massages are available and you can mountain bike, swim or do yoga. But really this place is about total relaxation, breathing in the fresh air and listening to the forest. Barns from MYR700 for two, including meals. See www.malihom.com.
Air Asia flies to Penang from $152 return. See www.airasia.com. For more information on Penang, see www.timeout.com/penang.