The Prestige Hotel, Penang, Malaysia
Leaving one Malaysian island for another, is technically island hopping. But when the one you are leaving is a beach front chalet on stilts, offering white sandy beaches and prerequisite piña coladas, it’s quite a wrench to up sticks and hop to the hustle and bustle of Penang.
Unsure of what to expect, the taxi flew along the coast, past shiny new high-rise developments, sprawling building sites, sun scorched parks and tumbledown housing echoing its colonial heritage. Hazy mountains in the distance were the only clue we were on an island.
Arriving in George Town, dazed and confused in the midday sun, we wove our way through the narrow streets. The colourful capital is a melting pot of Chinese, Malay, and Indian cultures. The streets were teeming with rickshaws, scooters, and bikes, dwarfed but undeterred by space-hungry lorries, buses, and cars. Mosques, Hindu temples, and British colonial buildings stand amicably next to Chinese temples and ornate clan houses and Chinese temples like an architectural mosaic.
The pace slowed as we drove through Chinatown, where the shops, cafes and bars spill out onto the roads, from well-trodden walkways. Turning a corner, silk saris hanging from shop doorways, sandwiched between bicycle repair workshops and curry houses, marked our arrival in Little India, and if you weren’t hungry when you started your journey, you’ll be positively starving by the time you are dropped at your lodgings. Our lodgings – for want of a better word – was The Prestige Hotel.
Like so many other hotels, The Prestige – a member of Design Hotels – flew well under the radar when the pandemic hit, missing out on what should have been its moment to shine, and boy does the Prestige shine brightly! From the off it’s an extraordinary experience. For starters, the concept is inspired by the eponymous 2006 film, which for those not in the know centres around illusion and rivalry between two magicians in Victorian London. The psychological thriller might not be for the faint hearted, but as one critic surmised, it is ‘intricate and elaborate’ which is a fitting description for the hotel.
Housed in a colonial style white stucco building, first impressions of The Prestige Hotel are a bold amalgamation of concrete, brick, aluminium, glass, and steel, and is a striking departure from the more traditional hotels that dominate the George Town hospitality scene. Dreamt up by the award-winning team at Ministry of Design, the hotel is the epitome of modern heritage – layering a contemporary interpretation of Victorian design with optical illusions and verdant local flora.
Entering through the brass framed glass doors, takes you into a bright white space – a visual continuum of the white facade behind you. Ahead a curved etched mirrored reception desk appears to magically balance on chrome spheres, offering the first hint of the magic to come. The pale marble floor inlaid with a black key-hole shaped design leads the way, past an array of contemporary rattan chairs with cushions in soft muted tones. The overall effect is futuristic with echoes of Victoriana, and feels more reminiscent of a tour of Universal Studios than a hotel lobby. It’s visually surprising and doesn’t quite fit into a recognisable genre.
Leaving the reception in search of the lift, took us along the ground-floor arcade, where brass mullions alternately conceal and reveal retail and dining spaces, and though I understood the concept, the Burlington Arcade it’s not. Unfortunately, most of the shops sat white and empty, emitting a slightly ghostly feel. Though it certainly fitted in with the theme of the film and may well have been a part of the experience, I think it was more likely a hangover from the pandemic and a reminder that Malaysia is still in recovery. However, breaking the silence is the hotel’s concept restaurant, The Glasshouse, which has overtones of a Victorian conservatory with wrought metal lattice work, abundant greenery, and forest-green banquettes. Reassuringly busy in the early afternoon, local delicacies and international cuisine is served at white rattan tables and chairs, all reflected in the mirrored walls, augmenting the sense of light and space.
Stepping back into the Arcade we ventured on to find the elevator, and turning a corner we are suddenly back in the magic. The lift is a stunning affair and a million miles away from the whiter-than-white ground floor behind us. The Gatsby gold is back, framing and latticing its way across dark glass doors which quietly slide open to reveal a dark mirrored box. Walls wrapped in intricately etched smoked mirrors stare back at you, as you are whisked silently to the floors above. Stepping out into a corridor, the trickery returns, with walls that alternate between dark charcoal and light grey, giving the illusion of walking through shadows. It’s weird yet wonderful.
By this point I am intrigued by what awaits behind the door, and with good reason. Stepping into our Loft suite, we arrive in an open plan living and bathroom space and are immediately faced with what appeared to be a huge gold and glass framed magician-style cage reminiscent of a Victorian lift. On closer inspection it revealed itself to be a custom shower and wardrobe enclosure that apparently emulates Houdini’s elaborate escape box. It was so unexpected, we momentarily stood stock still, unblinking as we worked it out. Under the pretence of modesty, but more likely for dramatic effect, a heavy ‘stage’ curtain hangs from a gold rail, which can be drawn around it.
Beyond the cage, is the living area, where a large wall mounted television hangs opposite a contemporary sofa and chair. Brass wall lights pick up more gold detailing throughout the space, including a bell boy trolley in lieu of a wardrobe, which also turns out to be the back of the shower. It is a wizard of a design!
The walls are decked with a-symmetrical panelling and conceal a hidden bar area. So hidden in fact, that we were there for a good half hour before finding it. Adding to our confusion was the apparent lack of a toilet – which left us quite literally feeling the walls like jet lagged mime artists, searching for clues to locate a door. I take my hat off to the designers, who must have entertained themselves no-end as they imagined hapless guests shifting from foot to foot, nervous they were running out of time.
Set over two floors, a staircase with under-rise lighting and brass rails leads up to the mezzanine level. Here, a huge bed lit from below appears to levitate under soft concealed lighting. Floor to ceiling mirrors confuse matters further as tired eyes try to decipher what was real and what was a reflection, but like the living area below, had us whooping with glee as we got our bearings.
Grabbing towels, relieved they at least were where they should be, we all but ran up to the pool on the fourth-floor rooftop. Here, a saltwater infinity pool looks out across Penang Bridge and the mainland. Easing our way in – too scared to dive in case there was more trickery abroad – we bobbed around quietly, trying to make sense of our introduction to Penang and The Prestige.
Back at my desk, it’s been a start-stop-process trying to write this review. The Prestige is so utterly different to other hotels and has left a lasting impression. It’s totally original in concept and light years away from the heated frenzy of Georgetown. Though full of subtle illusions at every turn, it isn’t gimmicky or Disneyesque on any level. It’s wonderfully grown up, extremely slick, and ergonomically, it delivers a masterful design in a prime location where space inevitably comes at a price. I would strongly urge anyone who finds themselves in Penang, to throw The Prestige into the mix when choosing a hotel – it will simply add an unexpected layer of magic to your trip.