Penang: Rock of ages

By John Corbett

In Penang John Corbett enjoys the reinvention of a global hospitality brand.

A Lagoon Deluxe Room at the Hard Rock Hotel, Penang, Malaysia. Photo / Supplied
A Lagoon Deluxe Room at the Hard Rock Hotel, Penang, Malaysia. Photo / Supplied

I am sitting on the shady terrace of my room, wiggling my toes in the swimming pool and feeling ridiculously happy. At my side is a bright electric blue iced tea cocktail delivered on a floating tray from the swim-up bar.

A Carole King classic is floating on the warm breeze and across the pool, which in the late afternoon is the temperature of bathwater, is a line of coconut palms and casuarina trees. Beyond are the lapping waters of the Andaman Sea.

Did I anticipate that my stay at the Hard Rock Hotel & Resort Penang would be this enjoyable? Not really. As the cab headed for the 5km stretch of hotels on Batu Ferringhi Beach I told myself that a food writer of what the French call a certain age was not the demographic that a rock 'n' roll theme hotel was looking to attract.

My worries grew when I saw a 4m sculpture of a guitar at the hotel entrance. But as soon as I walked into the foyer my doubts were dispelled - and stayed that way.

The "Beverly Hills goes to the tropics" fitout is very cool. The big spaces and neutral colours of the public areas serve as the showcase for a large collection of rock memorabilia and is continued throughout the hotel as focal points. The effect is surprisingly gallery-like and tasteful and you can easily wander around for a couple of hours just looking.

I was especially impressed by a display window next to the hotel's Starz Diner restaurant showing the couture-like workmanship of costumes once worn by James Brown and Elton John.

My room was snazzy, with big and bold details such as the hot-orange piping on the armchair cushions and guitar logos on the bed linen.

The bathroom was also snazzy with a big monsoon shower and a sliding panel mirror that featured a pixellated portrait of Ray Charles. From the private terrace, wide steps invited me to saunter into the water. There was free beer in the fridge daily and free easy-to-use high-speed broadband.

The six-storey, 250-room Hard Rock Penang, which is the third of its kind in Southeast Asia - the others are in Bali and Pattaya, Thailand and more are planned - emerged late last year from the gutted shell of the old Casuarina, one of the first hotels to be built on Batu Ferringhi Beach when tourism development took off in the 1970s. The new hotel covers many hospitality bases, including conferences, family groups, honeymooners and independent travellers who often splurge on its top-of-the-line Kings, Rock Star and Seaview studio suites and Lagoon deluxe rooms. Family and standard rooms are also available.

With the Malaysian ringgit running at around 2.3 to the New Zealand dollar, the premium suites and rooms are exceptionally good value.

Family groups love the Hard Rock's 2400sqm free-form swimming pool, the largest in Penang, which has water slides, private cabanas and unpredictably pulsating fountains. And at weekends there are live rock music performances.

Many Australians - and an increasing number of New Zealanders - like the Hard Rock. A partial explanation for that could be because the general manager, John Primmer, is a Kiwi and the executive chef, Darren Hilditch, an Aussie. The real answer, I suspect, is that the Hard Rock has a high staff-to-guest ratio and runs like a Swiss watch.

But no matter how happy you may be lounging beside the beach, it's imperative to explore Penang. An inexpensive 15-minute cab ride from Batu Ferringhi, whose Malay name "Foreigners Beach" comes from the 18th-century privateers who replenished their water barrels here, is fascinating Georgetown.

About 1000 years before Europeans ventured into the region, Penang was the thriving hub of a trading system that embraced China to the north, Indonesia to the east, India, Arabia and as far west as the coast of Africa.

Penang's location at the northern end of the Malacca Straits made it of vital strategic importance. The great powers of the time - Portuguese, Dutch and British - came through in succession and made Penang rich. During British colonial times it was known as "the pearl of the Orient".

The legacy is Georgetown's fantasmagoric collection of architecture. A mix of stately Victorian churches and public buildings stand cheek-by-jowl with mosques and museums, Hindu and Buddhist temples, Chinese clan houses and the mansions of 19th-century Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) merchants. A third of Georgetown is now a Unesco World Heritage site.

No less memorable is the food. Penang is the food capital of Malaysia and a stronghold of Peranakan cuisine, an elegant fusion of Chinese and Malay traditions.

If you're weary about trying food in a strange town, the Hard Rock's Starz Diner offers a good selection of local dishes: during my stay I happily worked my way through nasi lemak, lots of satays, Penang laksa with belacan (shrimp paste), lime and coconut-marinated fish, baked black rice custard with candied banana and gula melaka. If you and the kids like handmade pizzas and pasta and big, sizzling dishes of prawns and calamari, head for the pizzeria on the hotel beachfront.

I did a bit of thinking on the terrace on my last afternoon, partly because whoever was choosing the music for the hotel's sound system were working their way through the 1970s.

I realised I knew all the lyrics to the songs by Carole King and Joni Mitchell and Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles - unfortunately from when they were first released. I hadn't heard some of the songs for ages though and they brought a flood of happy memories.

It was the same for my fellow holidaymakers. Although they came from a dozen countries around the globe and were mostly a generation or two younger than I, the music they had frolicked to all week was the soundtrack of their lives.

It then dawned on me that it was mine too.

Not so long ago the Hard Rock brand was in a slump when customers grew tired of its cafe format. But now, in the best of rock star traditions, the brand is back, reinvented in hotel form with an offering that is irresistibly and universally popular.

I had a rockin' good time at the Hard Rock Penang.

John Corbett writes for the food website alimentary.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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