So we’ve just spent a weekend (3 days and 2 nights) in sunny Penang, a short one hour flight from Singapore, but truly a world apart. Here are my photos and tips on how to make it a junior-friendly excursion!
Stylish boutique hotel Macalister Mansion may not come to the top of mind as a family friendly location, but it was an awesome experience that exceeded all expectations, and one reason we really enjoyed our experience in Penang.
Here’s the entrance, with a modernist sculpture at the arrival (which Bubu refers to as “Big Head”) as you drive up the sweeping driveway to a graceful colonial style mansion. “Big Head” also makes an awesome photo opp … If only Bubu didnt get scared and run away!
This is a boutique design hotel set in a heritage mansion with only eight rooms. All the rooms were unique and had different layouts, I recommend booking way ahead to get the room you really want. Two of the rooms are adjoining if you are traveling in a larger family party.
Being a family of three, we checked into Room 3 which is the largest room with its own huge balcony, sitting area and a massive room-sized bathroom.
He had fun exploring the room, it was a good family size with a super king bed that fit us all comfortably.
Bubu LOVES the bathroom, the look on his face says it all!The bath tub is the highlight of the hotel for him. I considered for 10 seconds to let him sleep in it because he climbed right into it and lay down right away (and because Macalister isn’t entirely baby-friendly, they don’t provide extra beds or baby cots). Spot the Bubu below…
Next we proceeded to explore the grounds and various nooks and crannies in the hotel, and found…
Quaint and quirky design touches can be discovered all over the hotel if you take the time to explore. The cafe had beautiful wall murals which echoed the street art in Penang. I highly recommend brunch at the Living Room (open daily 8am to 10pm) even if you don’t stay in Macalister Mansion. The food is great, the space is pretty and the coffees are satisfying!
The cafe and gift shop space
The quaint curated offerings in the gift shop
Just next to The Living Room is a room which houses the gift shop, and has a big central table that doubles up in the evenings as a pool table. The gift shop sells all kinds of cool curios like these funky porcelain cups. I also bought some beautiful hard-cover children’s classic books – Peter Pan, Secret Garden and Frankenstein- to decorate the boys’ rooms with, and hopefully become cherished keepsakes as they become older.
Next, we wandered into The Dining Room- a beautiful wonderland of a restaurant which featured an elegant all-white tree as its centerpiece and a baby blue and pink deer. Such a dreamy space for an intimate wedding dinner – love!
Bubu would greet the animals in the little courtyard outside the restaurant each morning, with a VERY LOUD “Hello Bear!” – thankfully, with only 8 rooms, we had the whole property pretty much to ourselves (another perk of staying in a very small hotel)!
Giant book on the landing which shows Macalister Mansion among other cool design hotels from all around the world.
There are many foodie blogs which detail where to go for the best this and that – so I’m not going to do that here (Don’t be lazy, do a bit of your own research!) … But I will say that the best Or Luak (oyster omelette) can be found at Lam Ah kopi tiam (opposite the fire station) and the yummiest Penang Char Kway Teow (fried seafood noodles) can be found at Pulau Tikus. Most of these local eateries do have high chairs, and they are very cute, old-school 80s style antiquities (read: bring wet wipes!!!).
Now my favorite part, the street art in Penang. So most of you will be familiar by now with these iconic wall murals. The most famous and original ones were done by artist Ernest Zacharevic – we found a series of three – the swing, the basketball and the bicycle, all in the Jalan Pantai area.
You may be asking how to find them, and in all honestly, I couldn’t exactly tell you, they’re not really side by side, as I expect they were designed to be part of an exploratory trail.
The swing is my favorite, as the bicycle can get very crowded being in the middle of a busy weekend street market which despite being closed off as a pedestrian throughfare still had cars and bikes going through. I will tell you later though exactly how we found them, and that’s one good way to explore.
The swing was tucked away in a small side alley, no one there but us. Don’t sit on the other swing for the photo, it will block the little painted kids which are the highlight, unless your tot is so tiny he/she doesn’t go past their knees.
The basketball mural – daddy takes a shot!Other murals can also be discovered along bustling Jalan Pantai. So a good place to drop off if you want to explore the area on foot would be at China House. It looks fairly unassuming like a regular shophouse from the outside (look out for some flags on the exterior which help you locate it), but the inside is a long, snaking series of gardens and cafes.
Inside the gorgeous interiors and escapes of the China House (with my grumpy Bubu). Graffiti covered walls make for a subversive cool arty/underground vibe.
There’s even a pretty pond and garden inside – so unexpected. Cake spread at the cafe inside Asia House.
There are so many fun and memorable photo spots- Enjoy yourself scouting them all out and interacting with them to create your own Penang Family Album!
It can get uncomfortably hot for tots in the afternoon, the best time to probably have gone would be about 4 or 5pm as the sun is still up, but it wouldn’t have been as hot and humid, and the market and street life would start to transition to evening.
Bubu starts to get grumpy about 20 minutes in, and and clamours to go back to the van, even though there’s so much to see and buy, that I was wishing I had brought the pram!
I really wanted a small hand-knit Totoro, but made the mistake of taking a photo first and when I turned around – it was gone! Many of the things in the market are one-off or hard to find again, so if you see something you love, just buy it first!
Another place we loved for having uber cool decor was the Awesome Canteen. Being stuffed already, we didn’t get to try the food and drinks, but it’s on my must-try when we return list. Check out the photo below, it’s like dining in the sunny courtyard of a heritage house.
Bubu finally gets happy again when we get back to the van!
Next we head on to Penang Hill to catch the train that takes you to the top of the hill, one of Penang’s most popular attractions.
Waiting for the train…On board the train with the “aunties and uncles” as he calls them. We traveled in a group of 7 adults and Bubu, and I’m happy to share that Penang if well-planned (like having a van with a driver that fits everyone), is a fabulous group destination that can accommodate both adults and kids.
The journey by train takes about 10 minutes up and down either way. If I’m honest, I don’t see a lot to do at the top of the hill- unless you’re big time into scenery, and maybe it was the haze, but it wasn’t all that clear, and Bubu got bored after about 10 minutes.
However, I would still recommend this place because of the stupendous train ride.
Here’s the million dollar tip: Sit at the very front of the train coming down. Pay the RM30 extra for the express ticket – there seems to be less of a queue going up than down). We saw the snaking, long queue that would take about three train loads to clear – not great with small kids, so we bought the express pass at the top for the return journey, which gave us access to an air-conditioned waiting room and the privilege to board the train first. Of course we made a beeline for the first row with a huge window overlooking the track directly – and this totally made the trip worthwhile (best SG$10 you can spend to make sure baby and you get the best sears in da house)!
After a day of eating and sightseeing, we carried on with more gluttony into the night, dining at the Jetty Restaurant in Bukit Tambun. It’s not as scenic as it looks in these photos, mainly smelly fishy water and it took us an hour to drive out to the mainland. The food was so-so, I would give it a miss traveling with young ones, especially if you’re on a short weekend trip.
Good morning Macalister Mansion! Note, Room 3 is the only one with a balcony and it has quite a low railing, so if you’re traveling with more than one tot, or unable to keep an eye on your little one all the time, lock the door leading to the balcony- that’s just safety common sense.
That view though! We check out the pool before heading out for the day. Good news! It’s baby-friendly with shallow splash areas, and also daddy friendly with a bar built into the pool. We headed out for a spot of shopping on Gurney Drive, where you’ll find big shopping centers like Paragon and G Plaza next to the iconic Gurney open-air hawker centre. Another highlight for Bubu, we found a kids amusement area on level 4 of G Plaza where we changed RM20 (about SG$7) worth of tokens and he rode on all the car, plane, helicopter and train rides to his little heart’s content!
Tip: make a video on your phone of him riding each ride if he’s the kind of kid that loves to watch his own videos. Bubu has been reliving the joy of these Gurney Plaza rides over and over again – RM20 well spent indeed!
We wrapped up a busy weekend with high tea at the E&O Hotel. It’s kinda like the Raffles Hotel of Singapore… Ish. The pool was super crowded when we checked it out, and the hotel can smell a little old and musty- but it’s still a grand old dame, and you can have lovely tea and scones there if that’s your cup of tea! (Note: they are purist about their colonial style high tea. We asked if we could have coffee and were met with a snooty negative!… I would take the Living Room at Macalister Mansion for tea in a heartbeat over stuffy E&O for a fraction of the price).The waterfront at E&O is a little hazy and grey. Still in the mood for taking fun photos, these canons are part of the heritage setting at this historic hotel. High tea at the E&O (I did say it looks a lot like Raffles Hotel). Bubu is grumpy because he still wants to go back to the van!
Okay, so I wanted to end by sharing that apart from the standout experience at Macalister Mansion, the tip to ride at the very front of the train coming down from Penang Hill and the Or Lua at Lam Ah – the best tip I can give you is to book a driver and car (in our case a van) for getting around. First, a good driver comes equipped with local knowledge on where to go, and won’t take you to the tourist traps, and he will be able to take you straight to all the fun street art and murals (even those tucked away)!
I am happy to recommend my van driver, Mr Ong +60 16 473 2138. He was patient, friendly, always nearby and knew all the places we wanted to go to. He collected us from the airport, dropped us off, and charged RM500 per day for 10 hours , and always had a smile on his face. This could explain why Bubu was always asking for the van! If you are a smaller group traveling and don’t need a van, you can call Mr Teh +019-411-9703. Mr Teh was recommended by a friend of mine who swears by his services, and Mr Ong was his introduction when we needed a van.
One last note: there can be quite a lot of walking in Penang – with the street markets, walking trails etc- if you have a grumpy (and extra heavy) toddler like mine, a pram could be a lifesaver! I can’t recommend enough a pram that folds up small enough to hoist into an airplane overhead compartment, cutting out the wait on arrival where even if you are first to exit the plane, you are last to reach the customs. This one is the Mothercare XXS, smallest pram in the world (and check out the funky leopard print)! Clocking in at a mere 3.9kg, it still supports my giant baby at 20kg (even though we are over the recommended weight limit); we actually bought it for future travel with Baby Jake, and I foresee a lot of use coming out of this little lifesaver!