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A friendly invasion in Penang: Heritage boutique hotels

As a heritage city, Penang is seing the development of an increased number of heritage boutique hotels in lovely restored buildings. And the best is that boutique style hotels are available in all categories including in budget accommodation.

PENANG – Famous chain brands in the hotel industry or glamorous hip properties tend to put smaller hotels in the shade. But over the last five years, the biggest growth in the hospitality sector in Penang was the boutique hotel segment. But Penang, formerly the jewel in the Straits Settlement of the British Crown, is the ideal city to develop a boutique hotel with its thousand of old pre-war buildings and shop houses. The most amazing factor is that the boutique style phenomenon not only looks after a niche luxurious product. But also small inns targeting backpackers or budget-conscious travellers are invading old buildings.

Penang has officially 115 hotels with a total of 13,102 rooms. But according to Tourism Malaysia Penang Deputy Director Logi Dhasan, they are probably over thirty boutique hotels installed in pre-war houses, villas or shop houses…

The trend was set up by the Cheong Fatt Tze House, better known as the Blue Mansion and a delightful house in purest peranakan (sino-malay) style. “We were greeted with skepticism when we renovated the mansion in 1995. Now everyone acknowledges that we pioneered a new trend of reusing properly an old building and converting into an attractive place to visit or to stay,” tells Loh-Lim Lin Lee, her Director.

They are now half a dozen of luxurious properties located now in old houses and which have been renovated with greatest care. Beside the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, the most outstanding are Campbell House, 1881, 23 Love Lane, Penaga, the Yeng Keng or Seven Terraces.

“Lots have been done to protect and turn some old buildings into boutique style hotels. But this is not that easy. We have to face lots of hurdles from local authorities before to get the green light to reconvert an old shophouse into a hotel. Then we have to spend lots of time to find the right craftmen to recreate an old-style authentic atmosphere. They are very little archives and we had to do our own research and find solutions to finally give the most authentic product and atmosphere to our guests”, explains Nardya Wray, Managing Director of the Campbell House.

The result at Campbell House is however spectacular. All the bedrooms live from their own charm with a thematic reflected in the furniture and pieces of art. “Lots of furniture came from my grand-mother or stayed within my family,” adds Nardya Wray. A very “homey” feeling which provides the Campbell House with a high percentage of return visitors…

The Penaga is for its part very community-dedicated. Not only in the materials used such as recycled wood, solar panels and LED lights. But also because the Penaga own Resident Artist Program which provides to local artists a space within the hotel that can be used as a studio. The Seven Terraces has taken over a series of Peranakan shop houses.

Beautifully restored and converted into an exclusive hotel of 18 suites, the Seven Terraces was distinguished in 2007 with the the UNESCO Award of Distinction for heritage conservation and is also a regular Conde Naste Hot List nominee.

The Chulia Heritage or the Coffee Atelier are also examples of excellent three-star hotels in beautiful historical premises. The Coffee Atelier are a series of five shophouses, each of them being used as an individual suite. For budget-conscious travellers, the old Cathay hotel, although in need of a good overhaul, retains some of its grand style, from the days it was a residential mansion of a Chinese tycoon. And it will then give also a rather authentic Penang experience to its guests…

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Luc Citrinot a French national is a freelance journalist and consultant in tourism and air transport with over 20 years experience. Based in Paris and Bangkok, he works for various travel and air transport trade publications in Europe and Asia.