Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Bellevue hotel up at Penang Hill

Um, so where was I on New Year's Eve? Oh yes, I was up at Penang Hill with my wife. This had been a trip that we had been looking at for quite a few years already but we never really had the chance to have an overnight stay there over a new year because the only hotel there, the Bellevue Hotel, was always fully booked whenever we inquired.

Possibly this was because we had asked the hotel's reception too close to the end of the year when other people had already made their bookings long ago. The Bellevue is only a small hotel with only 12 rooms and like everywhere else, reservations are always on a first-come basis.

This time, I had made my inquiries quite a while ago, possibly about six months back. I was mildly surprised that the hotel did not bother to ask for a booking fee in order to keep the room for us but seeing how the place is always full at the end of the year, I suppose the hotel is not afraid of any guest not turning up.

The Bellevue is actually an aged bungalow that had been converted into a hotel. The present building is about a hundred years old but the operations here started maybe 60 years or so ago.

The hotel had undergone considerable renovation about 18 months ago and the room we were allocated was modern, clean and very decently furnished. The beds and pillows were very firm and a joy to lie down and sleep. The whole hotel has no air-conditioning as the day-time is rather mild while the temperature at night could plunge to the low 20s. There is a stand fan, though. The bathroom was spacious but what we found missing were basic amenities like soap and bath gel. We inquired at the reception and was told proudly that the Bellevue was a detergent-free establishment. They boast of this water system where guests can bath, wash and clean effectively without using soap, shampoo or toothpaste. Moreover, the waste water discharged from the rooms are recycled and reused for watering the gardens.

I was told that the original building and its grounds - not more than 100 metres from the Penang Hill Railway's upper station - was once the residence of either a William or Thomas Halyburton who was the first (and possibly part-time) Sheriff of the Prince of Wales Island (Pulo Pinang). It dated back to the early 18th Century under the British East India Company, and the site was named Halliburton’s Hill.

The main attraction of the hotel is undoubtedly the terrace at the back of the building. It houses a modest restaurant (see note below) and guests can either choose to dine in the indoor section or the outdoor section.

My personal preference is to go outdoor where one can wander around the garden and look down at the breath-taking view of the city of George Town from the promontory till Ayer Itam. From left to right, the scene stretches from Tanjong Tokong to Glugor, where the two Penang bridges can be seen linking up the island and the mainland. The mainland is right across the stretch of water known as the Channel and on a clear day, even the faraway Kedah Peak can be seen. Of course, right ahead of us on the mainland is the Bukit Mertajam hill.

There used to be a snake coiled among the upper vines on the terrace of the outdoor dining area but on this trip, it wasn't there anymore. I asked the hotel staff what had happened to it and I got a sad reply.

About a year ago, the hotel was visited by some officials from the State Wildlife Department (Jabatan Perhilitan). Not only was the snake confiscated, the hotel was fined for keeping it. The slimy creature had been such a constant feature of the hotel in the past and to know that it is not there anymore was quite a letdown.

Still within the grounds of the hotel and looking down towards the city is an amphitheatre with a small geodesic dome. Have I mentioned before that the owner of the Bellevue was a good friend of Buckminster Fuller who popularised the construction of the geodesic dome in the later half of the 20th Century?

At the front of the grounds is a small Aviary and Garden, free for hotel guests to enter. There is a private collection of native and exotic birds - some of which were originally rescued from the illegal wildlife trade - including Pheasants (Argus, Peafowl, Crested Fireback), Parrots (Cockatoo, Eclectus, Macaw) and Pigeons (Nicobar, Crown, Pied Imperial). The botanical collection include rare and endangered Malaysian plants.

Okay, I was mentioning earlier about their modest restaurant. Let me say now that this hotel as a whole has a charming Old World character. When we checked into the Bellevue, we were informed by one of their staff that we could order coffee or tea there while enjoying the sights of the city below. However, he did warn us that the service could be slow. That, I already knew from one of my schoolmates who, not so long ago, was working for the owner of the Bellevue. During his two or three years at the company, he had tried to change the attitude of the staff there but it turned out to be an impossible task. My friend has since resigned.

But what I didn't expect was that slow was an understatement. After we had left our belongings in the room, we did got to the terrace, hoping to order some tea. We were there for about a half hour but nobody came to take orders. Oh well, we really didn't require the tea. We wanted more to wander around the garden than anytime else.

The next morning, we went back to the restaurant for breakfast. Our room package included breakfast, see, an English breakfast, actually, of coffee, bread, butter and jam, and complete with sausage and egg. We were told that the kitchen staff would come in only after 8.30 a.m. Unusually late for a hotel kitchen to start operating, but never mind again.

We sat down at our table at 8.40 a.m. and indicated to the restaurant staff that he could begin serving us breakfast. At nine o'clock, our jug of hot coffee arrived with a glass of orange juice. More waiting followed. Our coffee was getting cold. And then at 9.21 a.m., the rest of our breakfast arrived. Bread, sausage, eggs. All this while, we were one of only three parties at the restaurant. "Do you want more hot coffee?" the restaurant staff asked us politely. "Erm, no, thank you," I answered, "we are done, and we really want to go explore the Aviary now." And we beat a hasty retreat from the restaurant....

Yup, this Bellevue hotel has a character, all right!

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