The Savoy. The Ritz. The Plaza. Claridge’s. The Waldorf Astoria. And, of course, Raffles. These grande dames of the hotel world remain the blueprint for luxury despite newer, shinier offerings proliferating. Nothing can live up to the grandeur of these old-world institutions, where the well-heeled have sojourned for more than a century.
Amid skyscrapers and metal-and-glass monuments to modernity a low-slung, ornate, bright-white building sits placidly, assured of its place in fast-moving Singapore. Raffles’ storied past (did you hear the one about the last wild tiger in Singapore being shot under the billiards table in 1902?) and colonial opulence have guaranteed it a spot among the world’s most iconic hotels. Indeed, Raffles was declared a national monument by the Singapore government in 1987, in recognition of its historical and cultural importance.
Grandiosity, history and nostalgia combine at Raffles, making it far more than a place to stay; it’s a travel experience in itself. At the front entrance, as in colonial days, a Sikh porter dressed in elaborate livery greets guests with a booming voice and boundless energy. Passing beneath the elaborate wrought-iron portico, you can’t help but think of the thousands of others have walked into this hallowed place including royalty, Hollywood stars and beloved statesmen and women.
White marble columns line a soaring atrium in the foyer, with polished teak balconies rising three stories up. It doesn’t matter that you’re not Elizabeth Taylor (who stayed in 1953) or Rudyard Kipling (1889); the attentive staff know exactly who guests are, even as said guests stand open-mouthed, marvelling at the surrounds. With a warm “Welcome home,” they set the mood for a stay at Singapore’s most famous hotel.
Kipling, aged 24, said that Raffles was a place “where the food is as excellent as the rooms are bad. Let the traveller take note. Feed at Raffles and sleep at the Hotel de l’Europe.” The Hotel de l’Europe ceased to exist in 1900 and Raffles went on to become the most splendid in the East. In fact, Kipling would stay there so frequently that there’s a suite named after him (complete with a framed signed autograph).
The all-suites hotel has 110 and what they may lack in complimentary iPads they make up for in space – the rooms are enormous with separate dining areas and lofty ceilings – and charm. The beds are, of course, enormous and comfortable, the furniture is antique and the robes are plush. There’s air-conditioning, necessary in the soupy heat of Singapore, as well as ceiling fans and a TV hidden inside an antique armoire. The polished wooden floorboards, antique rugs and potted plants all add to the colonial opulence. The bathrooms have spa baths with ornate brass taps and Amrita bathroom products.
There are 11 other “personality suites” named after the luminaries who stayed in them, including actress Ava Gardner, who was a guest for the premiere of her film The Barefoot Contessa; novelist James A Michener, who said “to have been young and had a room at Raffles was life at its best”; and author Somerset Maugham who gave the hotel its favoured tagline, proclaiming that Raffles "stands for all the fables of the exotic East", a statement subsequently used in advertisements for the hotel.
Restaurants and bars
The Long Bar is the birthplace of the Singapore Sling. If you don’t take a stool at the bar, order a Sling and litter the ground with spent peanut shells, you’re not doing Singapore properly. According to legend, the Sling was invented by enterprising barman Ngiam Tong Boon to resemble fruit punch. This was so that women could sip demurely without appearing to imbibe alcohol. Of course, the Sling packs a fair wallop so it’s fair to assume the ladies of Raffles’ past were solidly sozzled.
The Tiffin Room
Experience a traditional English high tea at the Tiffin Room. A tiered cake tray with sandwiches, scones, petit fours and other delightful morsels will be brought to your table, and the buffet tables are an embarrassment of riches. There’s even a dim sum station. Bookings are essential.
Long Bar Steakhouse
The cuts here come from as far afield as Ireland, the US and, of course, Australia. It’s possible to add half a Maine lobster or some foie gras to your steak, and the sides are plentiful: truffle fries, risotto, ratatouille and asparagus spears among them.
This is Raffles’ formal dining room. Put on your glad rags – there’s a dress-code to match the premium Asian-spiked French menu. The elegant interiors and twinkling chandeliers demand some Champagne while perusing the menu.
Enjoy lunch or dinner outside, in the shade of swaying palm trees and the hotel arcades. The Courtyard serves traditional Italian dishes such as pizza Margherita and penne all’arrabbiata.
Ah Teng’s Bakery
Named for a 1950s tearoom formerly located on nearby Victoria Street, Ah Teng’s is the place for a morning coffee and pastry before tackling downtown Singapore. There’s fresh bread, cakes and local nyoya kueh – small and sweet steamed cakes.
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Raffles is on Beach Road, pointing to its past as a beachside resort. Singapore long ago reclaimed the land from the sea and now, Raffles is squarely located in the middle of things. It’s just 20 minutes from the airport and within walking distance of theatres and museums. Orchard Road shopping can be reached in two minutes aboard the Mass Rapid Transit.
The Raffles Spa offers treatments inspired by Asian, European and Middle Eastern wellness traditions and also has a sauna and steam-room. To cool off after a day in the Singapore heat, try the rooftop pool and bar, open well into the night. There are two boardrooms for business functions as well as the grand Ballroom, which is regularly booked out for high society weddings. The Raffles Hotel Arcade is also home to 40 specialty boutiques.
Impeccable white-glove service is what Raffles is famous for. Each room is assigned its own butler who is contactable via a button on the phone. Press it and your butler will magically appear at your suite door to cater to any whim. The staff at the main entrance also make a point of knowing guests’ names.
There used to be an on-site Raffles Museum as well as an official historian who could recite all the famous stories by rote. The museum is no more, but the in-house historian remains. Leslie Danker has been at Raffles for more than 40 years and conducts regular tours of the property for guests. Don’t miss the fascinating photo wall, with snaps of all Raffles’ illustrious guests.
Raffles will close in stages as it undergoes an upgrade and is set to open in the second half of 2018. The hotel has recently been acquired by the Accord hotel group and Qantas Travel Insider has been advised that the upgrade will be subtle, careful and sensitive to the building’s history. Go to Raffles for further information.