Checking in at the Eastern & Oriental’s new Viceroy Annexe is a very discrete affair, almost like slipping through the back door. The entrance looks out over the sea, and I walk into a cool marble lobby, bustling with tourists and their kids, businessmen buried behind iPads and chic shoppers laden down with couture shopping bags. The efficient staff – men wear old-fashioned stiff wing collars and black tuxedos – whisk me up in the elevator for a welcome drink in the much quieter club lounge, and when I get to the room, the luggage is already there.
Walk out of the Viceroy and you are immediately in the buzzing heart of George Town, one of Asia’s last authentic Chinatowns, booming with restaurants, galleries, cafes and bars since it earned Unesco World Heritage status. Wander past the stately Kapitan Keling mosque, a pulsating Little India and opulent Chinese Clan houses like the Khoo Kongsi. The hotel has free bus service to the beach resort of Batu Ferringhi, and is about to inaugurate its own private boat service that will take guests to Straits Quay, a cutting-edge mall and marina, with designer boutiques and fashionable restaurants.
The E&O is one of Asia’s mythic colonial hotels, founded in 1885 by the Sarkie brothers, who would later open Raffles in Singapore. The firmly contemporary Viceroy Annexe is a very clever attempt to give discerning travellers the best of both worlds. Viceroy guests can step back in time and wander across to the old-fashioned heritage E&O, straight back to the days of Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward.
Could not be more friendly and welcoming, though the restaurant staff are so keen they often try to take away plates before you have finished eating.
The Studio Suite is a spacious 55 square metres, while I almost got lost in the Corner Suite, which runs to nearly 125 square metres. Every room has a balcony, and the views over the Straits of Penang are stupendous. I loved the bathroom with its free-standing old-fashioned bathtub, while the Corner Suites come with an innovative double rainforest shower as well.
The signature Sarkies restaurant buzzes all day, one of the most popular gourmet venues for Penang movers and shakers. I’m a bit surprised that there is only a no-choice buffet for 58 Malaysian ringgit (Dh67) at lunch and 98 Malaysian ringgit (Dh113) in the evening. But the spread is sumptuous: steaks, succulent roast chicken and juicy lamb chops, rich Malay curries, grilled fish and a surprising selection of vegetarian options. The fifth-floor Planters Lounge is à la carte though, and only open to hotel guests, with simple dishes like grilled salmon at 54 Malaysian ringgit (Dh62). In the afternoon, the Planters tends to get packed out as complimentary cocktails, mocktails and canapés are served from 5.00 to 7.00pm
Breakfast. The buffet is foodie heaven, from a trad English fry-up to sushi, steaming dim sum or a plate of spicy Penang Kuay Teow noodles straight from the wok.
The unimpressive entrance has none of the pomp and grandeur of the E&O’s heritage wing.
This is early days for the Viceroy, which needs to establish its own identity compared with the heritage part of the E&O. But it is already packed and should succeed, as visitors to Penang have been looking for this kind of urban luxury resort combined with colonial charm.
The bottom line
A studio suite for two people at the Annexe (www.eohotels.com; 00 604 222 2000), including breakfast, costs 680 Malaysian ringgit (Dh782) per night, plus 10 per cent service charge and 6 per cent tax, while the Corner suite is priced at 1,080 Malaysian ringgit (Dh1,242).