What's the story? Staying overnight in an old garage might not be everybody's idea of classy. But this isn't your standard shed, stuffed higgledy-piggledy with tins of paint, bits of bicycle, bottles of oil and screwdrivers. This is an Edwardian-era mews - two-storey rows that were used for sheltering carriages and providing accommodation for syces, or drivers. The building, in Unesco-listed George Town, Penang, has been transformed into a sleek and carefully appointed boutique hotel. Uber-modern art and appliances have been mixed with nostalgic ornamentation. Tiled floors keep rooms cool; billowing mosquito nets add drama. Aimed at "flashpackers", the hotel has complimentary Wi-fi and guests are given a small mobile phone with which to make local calls. Each of the tiny hotel's nine "suites" includes a substantial sitting area, and the rooms on the upper row open onto a balcony, while those on the lower level lead to a deck adjoining a strip of lush garden.
Where is it? In the heart of the crumbling colonial charm of inner-city George Town. Named for mad King George III, the city was Britain's first colony in what is now Malaysia (not counting an obscure island somewhere off Borneo). In 1786, the Sultan of Kedah leased Penang to the British East India Company, and by the early 1800s George Town was rapidly becoming a cosmopolitan trading hub, and the construction of the city's shophouses, terraces and civic buildings had begun in earnest. The narrow hotel is along Muntri Street, once an upper-middle-class thoroughfare and now home to a Chinese temple, a tiny bar, a long-standing and quiet brothel, a pizza and pasta shop and, on the corner, the Hong Kong Shoe Shop, where Jimmy Choo grew up and learned his trade. Visitors can amble over to Chulia Street to sample hawker food, wander down to the wharves or head towards the razzle-dazzle of Little India.
Whose is it? Owned by highly regarded Penang-born hotelier Christopher Ong, Muntri Mews is a labour of love. A former banker, Ong and partner Karl Steinberg won international recognition with Clove Hall in Penang and Galle Fort in Sri Lanka. Both hotels have now been sold, and the pair are concentrating on a yet-to-be-opened luxury hotel - the construction of which is based on seven elegant terraces - just down the street as well as overseeing the operation of Muntri Mews. As a child, Ong played along the side passage of the property next door, where his great-grandfather was born. In 1959, the owner left the building to his children, along with a number of other properties, but his will decreed they could not sell it for 50 years. Rent-control regulations depressed the income. Ong can remember ice being sold from the front of the building and a number of workers living in what had become a slum. When he bought the property it was horribly run-down. The Unesco listing may prevent the destruction of buildings and regulate certain renovations, but it hasn't fundamentally altered the nature of the area, Ong says. "People still live and work here. It's not a museum."
Is there more to the Mews? Kafe Mews (below, far right) serves dishes such as coconut and fish laksa, grilled seabass with coconut rice and the Indonesian-style slow-cooked beef called rendang. Visitors grasping for a Western lifebelt in Penang's sea of Eastern tastes might prefer a chicken pie and a bottle of Belgian beer. Locals drop in for coffee and the staff are friendly and helpful, but don't try asking for anything in Malay - they hail mostly from Thailand, Nepal and the Philippines.
What's the bottom line? Upstairs rooms cost 360 ringgit a night (HK$900) and downstairs rooms, 300 ringgit.
Muntri Mews is at 77 Muntri Street, George Town, Penang, Malaysia; www.muntrimews.com