It was our fourth trip to Penang in a little over a year but our first as tour guides. I derive great enjoyment from revisiting favourite places. I find that it is usually only when I take it upon myself to show other people round that my love for a place truly embeds.
Fourth trip and fourth hotel. We’d first succumbed to the lure of a great deal and free access to the Executive Club Lounge at the Traders Hotel and then, the next time, submerged ourselves in the heritage restoration of the Seven Terraces deep in George Town. I’d had a few nights in one of the suburbs and now it was time to sample the boutique hotel that comes out top on Trip Advisor, with a massive score of 9.7. Campbell House.
Past reviewers had all raved about how wonderful the hosts, Nardya and Roberto were but frankly that kind of put me off. I didn’t see the point of getting to know other expats like me. Further, I don’t go on holiday to meet hotel owners. But still the reviews had grabbed me and I took a punt and booked for two nights’ visit with our great friends, Sue and Pete Valentine.
It’s a small hotel, just on the fringes of George Town. Only about ten rooms over three floors and a quaint pulley system that helps them get your luggage upstairs. It has a restaurant where we would take our breakfast but I have to admit to being disappointed that it was Italian. We were in Penang for God’s sake and this was the place where you came to do two things – see street art and eat local food. I’d compiled a list of must-dos. Admittedly, they are my must-dos, but I thought our friends would approve. They included, in no particular order:
Jo’s Top Ten Must-dos in Two Days in Penang
- Street art for photographs (allow several hours spread over few trips because it is hot)
- Chinahouse for lunch or coffee and cake
- Cocktail at the Eastern and Oriental
- Tek Sen for Chinese local food eaten by locals
- Seven Terraces for dinner
- Blue Mansion aka Cheong Fatt Tze
- Penang Hill for the view
- A street market
- Nutmeg juice
- The clan jetties to see where the original settlers arrived and many Chinese families still live
But arriving at just before 3 pm as we did, it seemed the local restaurants were closed and so we were forced to eat at Campbell House’s own Il Bacaro, which means a back street restaurant, apparently. We thought at least we could share a pizza and salad.
“We do cicchetti, if you fancy that,” suggested Nardya. “A sort of Italian tapas. You know, lots of little dishes.” She was bright and engaging. Olive-skinned. I thought she might have been Italian, brought up in London. She was nice. But then she asked if I was the writer.
“I saw your website on your email to us, so I had a look. Read your blog too,” she said. “You just went to Beijing, didn’t you?”
I was stunned. Never, in all my experience as a traveller have I known a hotel be that interested in their guests. She should write a book on hospitality.
The cicchetti sure looked good and so we ordered the ‘large’ one, made up of nine dishes. We expected that one would be olives, another bits of salami, a marinated aubergine if we were lucky. What we received was more food than they could fit on the table. Garlicky steamed clams, red pepper purée, duck patties, fish cakes, tomato bruschetta, mozzarella, rocket and turkey ham rolls and more. It was utterly delicious. Roberto came over to see how we were doing and we soon learned that it was his brother who led the kitchen. We also learned that Nardya was actually half-Malay but had grown up in Essex. Not only were they friendly but they were interesting too and totally genuine in their ability to be the gracious hosts. Hosts we wanted to be our friends. Hosts who offered food we were hard-pressed not to have at every meal.
But this blog is supposed to be about Penang. So, Sue and I forced ourselves to have a wander among the streets and street art in the afternoon before the inevitable thunderstorm arrived. We left Lebuh Campbell, crossed into Love Lane, then Lebuh Muntri and onto Lorong Stewart and home. It’s probably well under a kilometer but took us two hours as I expected.
Sue stopped every couple of steps to take another irresistible photo while I basked in the bliss of looking at the beauty in real time, not through the lens of a camera. We also found an artist with the entrepreneurial spirit so typical of Penang, selling her mother’s homemade nutmeg juice from a cooler outside her gallery. It had been a ‘two tick’ afternoon.
The E & O that evening was magical and I was able to extend the nutmeg theme by exploring a cocktail that contained nutmeg cream. Not unlike a Baileys, it was dangerously drinkable. Another tick.
Ian’s plane was late and so we opted to hang around on the roof terrace back at our hotel and wait for him with a bucket of beer. It was quiet and delightfully shabby-chic up there, with plumped up cushions, rough-hewn tables and benches and pretty cut-out candle-holders that glowed on every table thanks to the mosquito coils that burned inside them. But when he arrived, full of good intentions to take him out for dinner, the smell of garlic that wafted up from Il Bacaro made it impossible to leave. My fettucini with mushrooms, proscuitto and cream was unbeatable and though we planned to share dishes, Ian found it hard to part with his squid ink tagliatelli with seafood, while Sue’s tagliatelle with pesto and prawns was divine. Reluctantly we passed each other a spoonful. The salad caprese came complete tiny anchovies and a soft ball of tender, flaky, buffalo mozzarella that they import themselves. Then Nardya and Roberto brought limoncello and sparkling conversation to the table and before we knew it midnight was about to strike.
Let me not bore with you with how wonderful breakfast was at our hotel, nor share about the homemade yoghurt and granola. It was time to head out and tick street market, more street art and Chinahouse’s salted caramel ice cream and cake off the list. This time we explored the daily morning market that stretches from Lebuh Campbell to Lebuh Kimberley along Lebuh Kuala Kangsar, better known as Chowrasta. We indulged in more street art along Lebuh Armenian before heading for the relative cool of the Chinahouse courtyard. A quick trip to the Blue Mansion for the final 3.30 pm tour (tick) was squeezed in before it was time for dinner at the Seven Terraces, beginning, inevitably with their iconic Georgetown Cooler cocktail that is made with gin, lime, nutmeg (again), grenadine and soda. Sue and Pete declared this their signature 120 RM set dinner ‘the best meal of the trip’. Big fat tick.
Sunday and we’d planned for the Clan Jetties to start and the hill to follow, but ever-attentive, Nardya advised we do these trips in reverse order to avoid the rain. She booked our cab for us and off we went. We made it up Penang Hill along with hundreds of locals, for this, oh dear, was the first weekend of the local school holidays and it was heaving. There was nothing for it but to pay double the fare for a fastpass on the funicular. Thank goodness for our host’s advice. The view was bathed in sunlight when we arrived in the coolness of the peak but the moment we headed for a café and a drink the clouds swept in and the view disappeared completely. It had been quite something to look down on the streets we had all come to love, the island shoreline and then across the water to mainland Malaysia. And so we made one more tick so just two remained on the list.
There was nothing for it but to head to Tek Sen that’s found at the top of Lebuh Carnarvon. It was the third trip there for Ian and me and we’d always guessed at the menu or pointed at what other people had on their plates in this simple yet permanently crowded eaterie. Again, Nardya came to the rescue and recommended the salted fish with aubergine dish and the duck. The duck with ginger fell off the bone and the aubergine, served in a claypot, was soft and succulent. Boy oh boy, had we eaten a lot! And all for less than the price of supermarket sandwich. Tick.
Sadly, by the time we made it to the Lim Jetty the rain was falling. When we headed for the Chew Jetty, the larger one, it was bucketing. There was hardly room for brollies between the makeshift awnings that lean in over the narrow walkways of this stilted community, so Ian, Sue and Pete opted for the steamy, clamminess of stylish two ringgit pink ponchos. And, like marathon-runners haring for the finish line, we’d raced back to Campbell House during a lull in the thunderstorm and collapsed, dripping onto the seats in the lobby. We’d made it – ten ticks in 50 hours.
Later, back home in Bangsar and eating a simple salad for supper, I asked Sue and Pete what their favourite things had been.
“What, apart from Campbell House?” asked Pete. “Just being there. In the streets. It’s authentic. Not contrived.”
“The streets,” agreed Sue.
Like us Sue and Pete had first visited Penang almost 30 years ago and, like us, been disappointed. Ian and I only went back because we’d come to Malaysia and it made sense. Now, you can’t keep us away and every time I visit I leave a bigger piece of me behind, on those streets, just wandering around, stopping to eat or drink and looking, looking, looking.
And next time we’ll be back to see Nardya and Roberto, for sure and eat in Il Bacaro.