Down a quiet laneway off the “street of harmony”, where a mosque stands shoulder-to-shoulder with St George’s Church and the Goddess of Mercy Chinese temple in the historic quarter of Penang’s capital George Town.
After winning the UNESCO Award of Distinction for his part in the restoration of Galle Fort Hotel in Sri Lanka, Australian-educated entrepreneur Chris Ong returned to his family’s ancestral home and acquired the crumbling ruins of seven Anglo-Chinese terrace houses in Stewart Lane, in the heritage quarter of George Town. The replacement for the original Lee Kongsi building is less a faithful replica than a calming oasis of 18 suites that captures the spirit of a bygone era, when Penang stood at the crossroads of East and West. Where once the terraces’ ramshackle kitchens stood is now a striking tiled reception area bearing floor-to-ceiling, gold gilded wooden screens and period antiques, a light-filled breakfast dining area, and a pool and lounge where a complimentary afternoon tea of traditional sweets is served daily. Beyond lies a central courtyard paved in granite, open to Penang’s skyline. Ong’s vision to capture the city’s Peranakan period in architecture, handicrafts and textiles is inspired by the Jim Thompson House museum in Bangkok and the effect is of elegant similitude.
Accessible by a curving staircase of cast iron lacework dating back to 19th-century Scotland, The Argus Apartment is Seven Terraces’ grandest suite, resplendent with gleaming aged wooden floorboards, blackwood and mother of pearl antiques and vintage carpets from Ong’s personal collection. For our family of four spending a week in George Town, the apartment was an ideal retreat from the tropical midday heat and bustling street life. Like many of the hotel’s suites, the king-sized, four poster canopy bed sits on a separate mezzanine level, boasting a private balcony with views of St George’s Church, as well as separate bath. A second bedroom with two singles and bathroom opens off a living room of plush red couches and a rosewood daybed where many a card game was played. But for the modern amenities of a 51-inch flat screen TV, Bose speakers and free high-speed Wi-Fi, it wasn’t a stretch to imagine ourselves living the ways of an Emperor.
With the popularity of local hawker fare and cafes, George Town doesn’t really have a restaurant scene. The on-site Kebaya Restaurant is an exception, living up to its boast of serving some of the best Indochinese and Peranakan fare in Penang. In the stately dining room, Kebaya offers a set price degustation menu of entree, main course, vegetables and dessert. Red snapper cooked with garlic and turmeric and baked in a crispy pastry, duck confit caramelised spiced plums & oranges in cinnamon, star anise, cloves and nutmeg and organic roast pork served with a hoisin balsamic reduction dipping sauce are among the stand-out dishes fusing Asian and western sensibilities. The blue and white ceramics, traditional music, marble topped tables, plush drapes, and bar capped an elegant dining occasion but never felt over fussy. Breakfast comprised a selection of tea, coffee or freshly squeezed juice, fruit and options of a full breakfast, eggs benedict, French toast and nasi lemak, roti bread with dipping sauce.
There is no shortage of food, drink and entertainment options close by to Seven Terraces, with Little India, the hawker-choked Chulia Street and backpacker hub of Love Lane an easy five-minute stroll. To help with the overwhelming sense of choice, Ong has prepared a list of his favourite eateries and destinations for guests including the Khoo Kongsi Chinese clan house, the traditional Chinese jetties and Chowrasta Wet Market. Walking the streets of George Town is itself a pleasure, admiring the street art and rows of heritage shophouses. Around the corner is the city’s last traditional joss stick maker who is happy to chat.
Prince Charles rested here in the Argus Apartment when he visited George Town in October and we can attest it was lodgings fit for a future king.
Room rates start from $225 per night, georgetownheritage.com
My one vivid image of Seven Terraces was at dusk looking down the upstairs verandah, heavy red shutter doors open to the breeze and lanterns flickering. Magic.
The steep stairs to the apartment’s upper bedroom could be difficult for the elderly to manage.