Established in 1885, the property was the first by the illustrious Armenian Sarkies brothers—Martin, Tigran, Aviet, and Arshak—who built some of Asia’s finest heritage hotels, including Raffles Singapore and Yangon’s The Strand. With a blazing white facade on the George Town waterfront, Mughal-inspired cupolas, a domed lobby, sweeping views over the Strait of Malacca, and lawns studded with old java trees and bougainvillea, the E&O, as it is commonly known, has long been a focal point for Penang’s glitterati. In 1927, it was even marketed as the ‘The Premier Hotel East of the Suez.’ Alongside well-heeled travelers and colonial administrators, the hotel played home to global celebrities like Charlie Chaplin. Today, the Eastern & Oriental is an elegant all-suite affair that matches old-world style with modern comforts; its historic main structure emerged from a US$10 million renovation in late 2019.
The hotel sits inside the buffer zone of George Town’s World Heritage district. It’s an easy five-minute stroll to reach key tourist sites including the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and the terrace houses and art deco buildings of Muntri and Campbell Streets, the quaint Indian workers’ cottages sitting side-by-side with ornate Taoist clan temples in Little India; the decidedly unimposing Fort Cornwallis, built by the British East India Company in the late 18th century as a deterrent for pirates and other European powers in the region; and the Esplanade’s grand Victorian- and Edwardian-era government buildings.
Two wings make up the Eastern & Oriental: the four-story Heritage Wing and the Victory Annex, which was first added in the 1920s before being redeveloped into a 15-story tower in 2013. The two connect via a shaded walkway lined with restaurants, bars, event spaces on one side and luxuriant seafront lawns on the other. Interiors maintain a colonial vibe with lofty ceilings, polished wooden floors, and foliage-print furniture, but the Heritage Wing has the upper edge, thanks to its sweeping driveway, old cannons rescued from Fort Cornwallis, faultless service, and a stunning pool nudging the waterfront.
Expect four poster beds, marble bathrooms, and all manner of Asian-themed artworks and furniture: there are cherry blossom prints, hand-painted Chinese cabinets, carved wooden chairs, gold-flecked room dividers, antique pottery, and original botanical sketches from Malaysia. Book a sea-facing suite to watch the ships glide past from your private balcony. Guest rooms in the Heritage Wing also include access to The Cornwallis—a clubby private lounge for breakfast and cocktail hour—and use of the hotel’s legendary oceanfront pool, shaded by a towering java tree planted in 1885.
Food and drink
The restaurants and bars in the Heritage Wing were completely rebuilt during the recent renovation. Among these venues, the most notable is Farquhar’s Bar with its forest green Chesterfield lounges, long wooden bar, Cuban cigars, and simple but well-thought-out list of classic cocktails, like the Negroni with vermouth aged in oak barrels, and the Gimlet, which was the tipple of choice for British navy officers during the early days of the Eastern & Oriental. Next door, Java Tree offers classical British-style dishes that are well cooked but would benefit from higher quality ingredients. The grain-fed meat in the beef Wellington lacks the flavor of grass-fed bovines; hydroponic tomatoes used for salads are bland and waterlogged. A better bet is to drop by Palm Court, the glamorous brasserie with tile floors, plantation windows, and rattan furniture for cucumber sandwiches and other high tea treats served with prosecco and a dash of pomp.
The Victory Annex contains a small spa with five treatment rooms; therapists use botanical-based products from the Panpuri brand by Thai socialite Vorravit Siripark. The spa menu is not long, but offers a range of massages, facials, and other indulgences using traditional Thai, Ayurvedic, and Balinese techniques. (Japanese shiatsu also makes an appearance.) Staff at the Eastern & Oriental say that all towels, sheets, and bathrobes at the spa are made from organic cottons.
When the Heritage Wing reopened at the close of 2019, it was adults only. These days the baby ban has been lifted and kids of all ages are welcome to hang out by the pool and in the lounge. Across the hotel, there is no kids’ club or children-specific activities on offer.
The Eastern & Oriental is in the process of phasing out single-use plastics in line with targets set out by the Malaysian government. For now, some guest rooms offer refillable glass bottles, although plastic bottles are also still in use. Aside from standard waste reduction practices like recycling and an ongoing push to go paperless, the property collects fats and cooking oils from its kitchens to be made into biofuels.
For a dash of literary inspiration, book one of the four Writers Suites in the Heritage Wing, a nod to the plethora of big-name writers who have stayed here over the years, including Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Noel Coward, and Hermann Hesse. The latter passed through while researching his 1922 novel Siddhartha. The E&O Gallery, a museum-like space in the Victory Annex, displays mementos and personal artifacts contributed by hotel guests and staff members alike.
Reviewed by Leisa Tyler