It's a steep learning curve but Stella Martin quickly adapts to royal treatment
“Most people don’t know how to use butlers now,” states Elizabeth Dass, the communications manager, in a slightly peevish tone. “For example, if you are busy you can ask your butler to pack your bags for you.”
Hmmm. Personally, I don’t really want a stranger poking around the dirty laundry at the bottom of my bag – but maybe, with a bit of practice, I could get used to this.
My husband and I have checked into Penang’s Eastern and Oriental (E&O) Hotel which prides itself on its 24-hour butler service.
It is 25 years since we first met, having come as young teachers to work in Malaysia. With the nest now empty, we have come back for our romantic anniversary; it would be hard to find a better place to celebrate.
Our stay gets off to a good start. Having staggered in from the oppressive afternoon heat and frantic streets of Georgetown, we are quickly guided to enormous armchairs. While the reception staff perform the check-in ritual for us, we are presented with fat, cold, wet towels to mop our travel-stained faces and elegant glasses of pink fruit cocktail. I like this place already.
Then a porter, kitted out in white shirt, shorts, gloves and long socks, complete with pith helmet, takes charge of our bags as our butler guides us across the domed entrance hall.
At the end of a cool, high corridor, lined with old black and white photos of the hotel in its colonial heyday, we are introduced to our de luxe suite; “There are no rooms, only suites,” is the catch cry of the E&O. A sumptuously-furnished living room overlooks the swimming pool and, beyond the sea wall, the bay. Through the partition, our emperor-sized bed is flanked with butler-summoning buttons, and beyond the bedroom, through stained glass doors, is a black and white marble tiled bathroom. You could get lost in here.
One of the great delights of Penang is the old colonial architecture, left over from the days of the British Empire. Sadly many of the great buildings are in a state of advanced decay but the magnificent Eastern and Oriental Hotel is in beautiful condition.
Built in 1884 by the Armenian Sarkies brothers, The Eastern Hotel was such a success that, within a year, they had added another, The Oriental, next door. Eventually the two were merged; our butler points out the slightly sloping wooden floor which marks the join. A third brother added an extravagant ballroom in 1903.
The hotel was recently renovated, a project which took several years as all efforts were made to restore it to its original glory. The main staircase had to be completely rebuilt, but is identical to the one once ascended by Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Hermann Hesse and Noel Coward. The neo-classical facades, domes and Moorish minarets have been repainted a crisp, wedding-cake white.
The hotel was certainly built to last. Its solid walls provide headaches for IT specialists installing modern communication facilities, but its sea wall stood up valiantly to the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Elizabeth describes flood damage to carpets and tiles, but then talks about how she spent two weeks with displaced children in Phuket. Suddenly wet carpets don’t seem very serious.
Our butler takes us on a tour of the other suites. The four writers’ suites, named after famous scribes who used to frequent the hotel, have an additional dining room with polished table and an extra toilet for guests – and a writing bureau, of course.
But it is the Pinang suite which really takes our breath away. Beloved of princes, presidents and prime-ministers (former Malaysian PM, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, favours it) it is a sumptuous apartment furnished with antique Malaysian Chinese pieces and oriental screens. An enormous four-poster bed is supplied with footstools for entry and exit and there is a fully-equipped kitchen for the attending butler to whip up meals as required.
We ask our butler what sort of tasks he is normally asked to perform. Booking onward flight reservations, hire cars and so on are the norm. But he has also had to find helicopters, private jets and yachts for guests with a sudden desire for such fripperies. Whatever he is asked for (presumably as long as it is legal) he must try to provide; one guest decided, at 2am, that she wanted to light firecrackers so our butler had to find them – and a place for her to let them off without disturbing other guests.
We return from the pool (where towels and glasses of iced water were presented on our arrival) to find the corners of our bed turned down, a mat and slippers at each side lest the polished wooden floor chill our feet during a midnight excursion, bottles of water on the bedside tables and a flower, with a thought for tomorrow on a little card.
I have an inkling of how royalty live; I almost expect a butler to materialise at my side and squeeze the toothpaste on to my toothbrush.
There is really only one disadvantage to staying at the E&O. Penang is a fascinating island but the E&O is so seductively comfortable, it is very difficult to leave the hotel. It would be a perfect place for a honeymoon, I think, and then remember that our son – born 23 years ago in Malaysia – is contemplating marriage. How appropriate it would be for him to take his wife to the E&O.
Destination E&O Hotel Penang
Suites cost from about $300 per night for the superior or de luxe, to $1,775 for the Pinang suite and $4,260 for the even more extravagant E&O suite.
Eating: Dine in at Sarkies Corner or The 1885 – or walk five minutes into the real world to find a multitude of local eateries.
Information and booking: Phone: +60 4 222 2000 www.e-o-hotel.com – even the website is elegant.
© S.B. Martin. All rights reserved