Did you know that there are 52 bungalows located on top of Penang Hill? Ten of them are state-owned while forty two are owned by private individuals. Most of these bungalows are century-old with the oldest one built in 1789. They feature a fusion of British colonial, Asian and modern architecture. And more than their physical attributes, they form part of Penang’s historical heritage.
Among these bungalows, Bel Retiro is the most prestigious. Bel Retiro is a government bungalow built for the governor of Penang. It is set at the highest point at Government Hill, also known as Mount Retiro. The two-storey mansion we see today was built later on to replace the wooden residence built in 1789. It is surrounded by thick forest vegetation and has spacious gardens accessible to top government officials. There is also a disused helipad inside the compound.
In the earlier days, the hill was called as Flagstaff Hill in reference to the flagpole hoisted on top of Bel Retiro. This flagstaff was utilised as a beacon or signal transmitter to Fort Cornwallis. It was also used to alert the community living below in George Town of any dangers and to announce the arrival of the mail boat from Britain.
To this day, Bel Retiro remains exclusively for government use. It serves as a resort for high government officials and visiting VIPs. Since Malaya’s Independence in 1957, it has hosted important figures. It was the preferred retreat of the first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman, every time they visit Penang. In 1972, it has welcomed Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
The Bel Retiro bungalow itself is off-limits to the general public. Visitors can only go until its gateway, an arched entryway made of beautiful bricks.
Near the Bel Retiro is a bronze cannon weighing 2.75 tonnes. This 18th century artillery was a powerful symbol of British supremacy in colonial days. It was probably placed on the hill to warn of the presence of pirates.
As the notion says, closeness is next to greatness, so senior government officers also constructed their bungalows nearby Bel Retiro. The oldest building dated 1803 is the Convalescent Bungalow. Another famous residence is the Medical Officer’s bungalow located on Fern Hill. It had a infirmary to help treat patients recovering at the hill station.
The now Bellevue Hotel on Haliburton Hill was a residence of a part-time sheriff of Prince of Wales Island and a British Merchant, Thomas Halyburton. The Crag Hotel on the other hand was owned by a Scotsman, Captain J. Kerr. It was later on acquired by the Sarkies brothers and turned it into a hotel in 1895.
Penang Hill is well-known for its exotic natural resources. Matched with these man-made historical attractions, visiting Penang Hill is a fun and memorable experience.
To get to Bel Retiro, take the Penang Hill Railway. At the Upper Station, walk towards the Penang Hill Police Station along Jalan Tuanku Yahya Petra. From there, climb the hill towards the Masjid Bukit Bendera or Penang Hill Mosque. Behind the mosque you will find the Bel Retiro.