Eclectic High Tea in Penang at the Macalister Mansion

The island city of Penang, Malaysia does several things to perfection: hawker food, icy cold air conditioning, charmingly dilapidated Chinese shop-fronts and renovated mansions that once belonged to rich and powerful local tycoons. The Macalister Mansion is the latter, and combines the grandeur and elegance of Penang’s Chinese and British colonial heritage with quirky modern design, all in a luxury setting.

Set in a spacious plot a little outside the boundaries of George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage designated area, the Macalister Mansion comprises the Living Room, the Dining Room, the Cellar and the Den–all serving different types of food and beverage at different times of day–as well as Eight Rooms, eight luxury and individually designed guest rooms. There is also a sparkling pool surrounded by fragrant frangipani trees, exclusively for guest use.

After several days of sampling the cheap-and-very-cheerful street-side and food-court cuisine of George Town, I enjoyed a change of pace (and palate) with high tea at the Macalister Mansion. The Living Room is bright and white, elegantly decorated with hanging pot plants and the wrought iron window grilles and English tile floors that are so characteristic of Penang. I was presented with a tea list so long that the waiter clearly perceived the confusion on my face and recommended something to me, whisking the menu away afterwards. I still don’t know what I ordered, but I was brought a pot of sweetish fragrant tea that resembled a mild jasmine tea.

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The life of a travel writer… notebook and pen out, enjoying High Tea at the Macalister Mansion
Eclectic High Tea in Penang
The custom-made artwork in one of the Macalister Mansion’s eight luxury rooms
When I was one cup in, I was brought a beautifully-presented platter of all kinds of sweet and savoury snacks. I wished I had had a friend in Penang to bring along and share it all with, but I was travelling solo. The Macalister Mansion’s high tea follows the recent trend of tea rooms and luxury hotels in many erstwhile British colonies of localising and modernising the menu. ‘High tea’ was once only synonymous with English-style cucumber sandwiches and scones with jam. Not so any longer. My platter included a spring roll, green matcha mousse, tiramisu and a mini spiced chicken burger, as well as a vanilla macaron, a mushroom quiche and a delightful scone with jam and cream. It was a diverse offering but lacked coherence, being rather puzzling in its eclecticism. Yet delicious nonetheless.

A similar eclecticism can be seen in the designer suites of the Macalister Mansion’s Eight Rooms hotel, upstairs from the dining areas and bars, but in a much more coherent manner. Each room is very different, making it almost tempting to stay for eight days and circulate them all. Each room utilises the original quirks of the colonial-era mansion, such as an interior cast-iron spiral staircase in one suite that leads up to a small sun-room, perfect for escaping to with a book. Each room also contains contemporary art, especially commissioned for the Macalister. Penang is famous for its street art, both outdoor wall paintings and wire cartoon scenes. One room features such a work of wire art, of a colonial-era British lord and lady.

Colonial-era heritage can be seen everywhere in Penang. What sets the Macalister Mansion apart is its focus on quirky contemporary art and crafts. A giant white angular sculptural head of Sir Norman Macalister, one of the first early nineteenth-century British Governors of Penang, greets visitors at the entrance. The Lounge is equipped with a flickering fire on an LCD screen (the thought of a real one in Malaysia’s heat is unbearable!), flanked by nineteenth-century style portraits, authentic-looking save for the animal heads in place of human ones. In the Living Room, the cozy fireplace theme is extended, with a line drawing of a fireplace and mantelpiece on the wall, with cats playing on top. The overall impression of the Macalister Mansion is of a playful luxury that doesn’t need to be taken too seriously.

Penang is a rich city that is a treat to all of the senses–the taste of the amazingly diverse food, the smells of tropical Asia, the colours of the old buildings, the intellectual stimulation of learning about the unique history of Penang Island. But overstimulation is also possible, especially in the intense Southeast Asian humidity. For some time out in a rejuvenating calm setting, the Macalister Mansion is a great option.

I received a complimentary high tea at the Macalister Mansion as a writer for Style, Body and Soul. All opinions are entirely my own, and all links are provided for informational purposes only.


  1. Superb description and sounds like a fun place to go, but can I afford it? We will be in Penang sometime next year to photograph the street art and a tea break would be good. . .

    1. The high tea isn’t too expensive! The same can’t be said for staying at the hotel though 🙂 Penang is lovely, I highly recommend it

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