George Town’s E&O hotel laid the foundations for luxury hotels in the region and remains a role model today
By Daniel Besant
Raffles in Singapore, the Metropole in Hanoi and the Strand in Yangon are all synonymous with colonial-era luxury in Southeast Asia. But the granddaddy of them all – the one that set up its stall and laid the benchmark for opulence in the region – is the Eastern and Oriental, now known as the E&O.
Established by the famed Sarkies brothers, the Eastern opened in 1884 on a prime spot hugging the coast near George Town’s harbour. The very next year, overwhelmed with bookings, the brothers opened the Oriental right next door and soon combined the two into one gleaming operation attracting the region’s elite. Then, in quick succession, the busy brothers established Raffles and the Strand and high standards for the region were set.
Sea views are a big part of this classic hotel. Back in the day, shipping magnates would have been able to sip a gin sling, puff on a cigar and watch as their vessels hove into view or cast off bound for all compass points. There may be fewer vessels in the harbour nowadays, but the views are no less captivating, whether it be in the garden pool guarded by vintage cannons, up in the sixth-floor infinity pool next to the plush Planters Lounge or wallowing in a ball and claw tub in one of the Corner Suites.
Lapping up the languid vistas as the setting sun picks out a distant ship is an undeniable pleasure, but the next morning, fulfilment of a different kind can be found by taking up a table in the seafront Sarkies restaurant. In a town chock full of culinary delights and discerning gastronomes, the breakfast buffet remains one of Penang’s most tempting excursions – the perfect place to take on provisions before setting off for a stroll around the historic streets of George Town.
Those seeking more modern surrounds can take advantage of the complimentary water limousine for a trip to the gleaming retail marina of Straits Quay. Casting off from the E&O’s private pier, the Lady Marina takes a route parallel to the seaside Gurney Drive, affording passengers landward views studded with small clusters of skyscrapers – and the occasional colonial-era mansion – stretching back to the forested and temple-strewn Penang hill.
Back on dry land, set in the manicured gardens overlooking the straits, stands Penang’s oldest Java tree. Planted in 1885, the year after the hotel opened, its wide girth and deep roots stand as a symbol of the longevity and quality of service exuded by this truly historic hotel.
In the zone
The low-rise mishmash of colonial, Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures is one of the top draws of George Town, bestowed with Unesco World Heritage status in 2008. Georgian churches, exotic temples and traditional shophouses abound. With its gridiron street pattern, the heritage zone itself is easy to navigate on foot, although weary pedestrians can take advantage of a free bus service that navigates George Town’s perimeter.
Penang is, for many, synonymous with delightful food. From street stalls selling delicious Chinese noodle dishes, to shophouse restaurants specialising in spicy Indian thalis served on banana leaves, as well as airy eateries serving staple breakfasts of roti canai, this city has it all. A great way to sample what’s on offer is to head to one of the city’s food courts, such as New World Park, where you’ll find scores of Penang specialities under one massive roof, all of them at bargain street prices.
Heading into its sixth year, the George Town Festival is an annual feast of local and international arts and culture that is fast becoming one of Southeast Asia’s signature events. Lacking large performance spaces, the city itself becomes the canvas, with a host of small venues giving an intimacy that many modern festivals lack. Even better, given George Town’s manageable distances, there’s no need to spend time, money and energy getting from venue to venue.
Take it to the top
Popular for its cooler climes, far-reaching views and forested slopes, Penang Hill draws locals and visitors alike. Those in fine fettle may choose to walk the 800m to the summit, but those of a more delicate disposition may prefer to let the funicular railway – opened in 1923 – take the strain. Be sure to walk down though, as the mix of temples, forest and gardens is a delight.
Tel: +60 (0)4 222 2000. Rates: $293 for a Superior Suite, $458 for a Corner Suite and $1,160 for the E&O Suite. Suggested accommodation: a Corner Suite to catch the best views and the sea breezes from the generous L-shaped balconies.
“Rollin’ like royals” – It began with a Rolls-Royce and ended with a beautifully bleary-eyed breakfast at the Peninsula Bangkok