The Hard Rock Hotel Penang, Penang Island: Rock me gently

Good, clean, family fun ... the Hard Rock Hotel Penang's pool.
Good, clean, family fun ... the Hard Rock Hotel Penang's pool. 

Read our writer's views on this property below

Ben Groundwater is on the hunt for crazy stars, but finds a perfectly good holiday instead.

So, where are the rock stars? They must be around here somewhere. Maybe not actual rock stars - you could settle for wannabes who act like rock stars. Or even people who just look a bit like rock stars.

But there aren't any here. There's a young family in the lobby, the parents signing their "autograph" to check in while their children mash fingers into their Game Boys. There's a Middle Eastern couple over by the pool, him in board shorts, her still covered up. There are a bunch of kids playing in the water fountains too, splashing and grinning in the sun.

A Lil' Rock Suite at the Hard Rock Hotel.
A Lil' Rock Suite at the Hard Rock Hotel. 

But rock stars? Not here. No TVs have sailed out of windows. No motorbikes have been ridden through the lobby. It's all ... safe.

This hotel might be Hard Rock by name, but you have to get used to the fact it's not Hard Rock by nature.

Every guest here gets the rock-star treatment.

That might have something to do with its location. This Hard Rock Hotel isn't in a party town such as Las Vegas or San Diego, but in comparatively conservative Malaysia, on the island of Penang. It's a rock-themed establishment that caters to a crowd that doesn't want to rock. They just want to feel as though they could if they decided to.

The Beach Club Crew.
The Beach Club Crew. 

The fitout is definitely Hard Rock though, right from the huge electric guitar outside that competes with the palm trees along the main road at Batu Ferringhi Beach, the resort-packed strip of sand on Penang's north shore.

Step into the lobby and the walls are lined with music memorabilia: signed guitars, outfits worn on stage by various groups, and a large mural of the Beatles. Those four Liverpudlians appear frequently, in fact - in a country not known for its rock'n'roll fandom, the Hard Rock designers had to figure out which musicians would be most recognisable to the local clientele, which is why the Fab Four and a certain Mr Presley from Memphis crop up throughout.

OK, so there aren't any stars present. But could this still be a den of rock'n'roll debauchery? Hardly. The whole hotel is distinctly family-friendly. If the Hard Rock Penang was a band it wouldn't be Motley Crue or Black Sabbath - it'd be the Wiggles. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's a very shallow pool of potential guests that would want their beach-resort stay filled with groupies, drug overdoses and broken furniture. Everyone else just wants to have a pleasant stay in a fancy hotel in the presence of some interesting memorabilia. And that's what you get here.

It's almost comically un-rock-star, the way children are so well catered for. There's a childcare centre at the Hard Rock that opens daily. It sits right next to the kids' play area in the pool, which is always packed. There's also a teen club, where probably-not-angst-ridden adolescents can play pool, or table football, or PlayStation, or Wii. (In fact there's just about everything a kid could want bar actual electric guitars - that could get out of hand.)

On the accommodation side of things there are a range of standard hotel rooms available, but also suites known as the "Lil' Rock Suite", built for families sporting starry-eyed offspring. Kids get their own separate room here with pop-star posters on the walls, Guitar Hero on the PlayStation, and their own room service menu to order from.

But every guest here gets the rock-star treatment - or, at least, the wannabe rock-star treatment. It starts with the check-in form, which really does ask for your "autograph". Then there's the turn-down service each night, when staff leave a song lyric on your pillow as inspiration. Not inspiration to go wild and pitch some electronics off the balcony, you understand. Just to be generally inspired.

And there's also the staff habit of telling you to "have a rockin' day" each time they bid you farewell. It's not very Malaysian, and it's not very Penang. But you're here to be a rock star, remember, not a tourist.

By day the Hard Rock has that languid feel you'd find at any beach resort, the vibe of people who like to spend their days relaxing rather than recovering.

The pool is huge, winding in endless contortions around the beachside garden. There's a swim-up bar and deckchairs to lounge on.

The Strait of Malacca is out there just across the sand, but few people feel the need to venture to it.

Night-time is key. That's when rock stars come alive, with gigs and hectic parties. It's also the time Penang comes alive, with markets and food stands.

Stroll the streets around the hotel and you're in market paradise, with all the knock-off CDs, watches and handbags you could ask for.

Walk a little further and there's a hawker centre peddling the island's famous cuisine.

Back at the hotel you can head next door to the Hard Rock Cafe, which dishes up American-style burgers and beers. Its stage plays host to live bands most nights. If you really do want to rock out, this is the place to do it. Over in the hotel lobby, however, things are far more sedate. There's a jazz band playing covers in one corner, a few couples swaying softly to familiar beats.

There are no rock stars here. But that's not really the point.

The writer travelled as a guest of the Hard Rock Hotel Penang.

Trip notes

Where The Hard Rock Hotel Penang is in Batu Ferringhi, on the north shore of the island, about a half-hour shuttle ride from Penang airport.

How much Rooms start from $124 a night, including breakfast. The Lil' Rock Suites start from $210 a night. penang.hardrockhotels.net/.

Top marks Children are extremely well catered for here, from the day care facilities to the teen games room and the special play area in the pool.

Black mark The constant entreaties from staff to "have a rockin' day" get a little old after a while.

Don't miss Cocktails down at the Lobby Lounge. When the sun is setting over the Andaman Sea, there's no better place to be sitting.