Georgetown, the capital of Pulau Penang (Penang Island) in Malaysia became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008, preserving an area that holds the largest number of pre-war buildings in Southeast Asia - louvered shop houses, white colonial buildings, gold leaf-encrusted Chinese temples and palatial mosques.
Recently, savvy hoteliers have been buying up these old shop houses and homes (some so decayed that only the beams and a rickety shell were left standing) and transforming them into fine boutique hotels. Just a few years ago luxury lodging in Penang meant a business hotel or the lovely but very high-end E &O - but now you'll be spoiled for gorgeous heritage-style choices. Out on the streets or staying in your own aged revamped gem, the romance of East Asia has never been so easy to attain. Here are the latest and greatest options:
Clove Hall - In a white Edwardian Anglo Malay mansion restored to unpretentious hardwood and tiled elegance, this is the place to go if you want to feel, and be treated, like a mogul of the early 1900s. The breezy louvered building is surrounded by lush gardens of birds of paradise and has a Zen-like pool surrounded by mini waterfalls - a perfect place to escape the heat while taking afternoon tea and sampling the local cakes.
Straits Collection - If you've dreamed of living in a retro-chic restored Chinese shop house, head here. Each residence is essentially a house (but no cooking facilities) artfully decorated with regional antiques, bright cushions and designer rugs. Each is different but all have some sort of unforgettable detail such as lightwell courtyards, wooden Japanese bathtubs or ancient sliding doors.
China Tiger – You have a choice of experiences here. You can take the artsy, independent option and stay in one of two open concept self-catering apartments that are located above an art gallery and filled with quirky antiques and the owner's modern art. Or you can go old school and take one of the two homestay-style two-story apartments attached to the owner's home where you'll live in Chinese heritage elegance, get to hang out in the plant-filled courtyard and be pampered and taken around town by your hosts.
Hotel Penaga – The biggest of the new hotels has three sections: one with a row of two-story, family-friendly mini-homes, another with apartment-sized suites, and the last with generous but more simple rooms. All are decorated with a magical mix of antiques and some surprising touches like cow hide rugs, bright mid-century couches and modern art. Amenities include a pool, central gardens and a coffee shop, and it's all due to open in January 2011.
Muntri Mews - Chris Ong (owner of Clove Hall) has taken a row of shop houses in the heart of the heritage Chinatown area and is turning them into a boutique hotel. Still very much under construction, but each room is essentially a suite with a sleeping area, lounge area and a retro black-and-white tiled bathroom in the center. Verandahs line the rooms and overlook what will soon be landscaped tropical gardens. (Muntri Mews is due to open in early 2011.)
Other places are in the planning stages and owners of existing hotels are constantly on the lookout for new buildings to buy up. As more buildings are saved, Penang becomes more beautiful and so far, the lively culture seems to be weathering the upscale storm. The flipside of the issue is that if the cost of living gets too high, locals may have to move, backpacker options may be pushed out and the city may lose the unique heartbeat that pulses from within the gorgeous architecture. Only time will tell.