An extensive renovation brings the iconic 132-year-old hotel into the 21st century while retaining a timeless grace
(Main picture): In the Grand Lobby, the eyes are drawn upwards to a single glittering chandelier, made in Prague and boasting 8,142 crystals. Raffles Hotel was opened towards the end of 1887 by the Armenian Sarkies brothers. Twelve years later, the original beach house was replaced with a new building designed by English-born R A J Bidwell, which was then expanded over the decades.
(Dec 2): It is clear a visit to Singapore’s Raffles Hotel is going to be special when your car pulls into the circular driveway. The crunch of gravel gives the place an air of Downton Abbey, but the hotel’s famed Sikh doormen, in their white turbans and ornate uniforms, are an instant reminder that you are firmly in ex-colonial territory.
Before you have uttered a single word, the hotel knows more about you than you might think. To personalise guests’ experiences, their profiles start to be reviewed about two weeks ahead of arrival, according to Grace Kiong, the hotel’s head butler. This attention to detail ensures that when a visitor arrives, their personal butler — every suite gets one — is one step ahead when it comes to anticipating their possible needs.
The Presidential suite
After alighting from your car, it is just a few paces to the red carpet, where staff open the door and a wave of serene elegance washes over you. The lobby itself is a beautiful location for an afternoon tea, with parlour seating, a crystal chandelier and stairs leading to higher floors in the back.
Hidden away on the top floor is the pool, enticingly blue on hot days in the city
The liveried Sikh doormen (pictured is Narajan Singh) are the first staff members to greet guests, from weary tourists to heads of state. They have been known to go above and beyond. In 1904, a wild boar on its way to market gave its owner the slip and ran into the hotel, where one particularly athletic staff member was said to have wrestled with it on the ground. One uniform, ruined.
Raffles, which held a grand reopening festival in October following an extensive renovation that brought the icon into the 21st century, has hosted everyone from Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, to Elizabeth Taylor and King Edward VIII (the monarch who abdicated the British throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson). From humble beginnings in 1887, it now houses a variety of restaurants, bars and numerous upscale shops, in addition to its luxury suites.
“For me, the very special grace of Raffles is that it offers such intimacy and such a sense of quiet and of privacy,” Pico Iyer, the essayist and novelist, who recently completed a stint as the hotel’s writer-in-residence, says via email. “Because there are only 115 suites, and they are spread out across so much space, a guest really feels she has a whole world to herself. The verandas outside each room, the books placed inside each room, the green lawns near almost every room and the quiet spaces on the second and third floors overlooking the lobby all invite one to take a break, to read, or sip a drink, or make sketches, or write letters, or keep a diary.”
The best thing about working at Raffles? “My colleagues are like family to me,” shares senior doorman Narajan Singh, who has been with the hotel for 28 years. Even though it is situated in the centre of a busy city, he says, “you will always be able to have a quiet moment to yourself, sitting at one of the benches around the hotel’s courtyard or gardens”.
The hotel often welcomes guests whose parents and even grandparents have previously stayed there. “I can’t stress enough how special the Raffles Hotel is to people,” says head butler Kiong.
The ultimate emblem of the hotel’s place in history is the Singapore Sling. Bartender Ngiam Tong Boon created the cocktail here in 1915. Guests willing to brave the lines of tourists can enjoy one at the famous Long Bar. And if you have had a Singapore Sling elsewhere and did not like it, it is still worth trying this one — it is far better than most iterations. If you really love the fruity concoction, the hotel even offers a masterclass in how to make them.
On the dining side, one in-house option is La Dame de Pic, the Singapore outpost for Anne-Sophie Pic, a gifted and delightful French chef who has 10 restaurants and seven Michelin Stars under her belt. The tasting menus do not disappoint. Pic’s signature berlingots — pasta with French cheese fondue filling — explode with flavour. The wagyu beef is spectacular, and the tomato and fish dishes are lovely on the eye as well as the tongue. The cheese cart is worth saving room for. Be prepared for a hefty price tag, especially if you opt for the wine pairing, but the menu is equal to the cost.
For a post-dinner tipple, the Writer’s Bar is a small but sophisticated place off the lobby, featuring a series of cocktails inspired by famous authors who have visited the hotel over the years. There is even a drink based on the traditional Southeast Asian dish rojak, a spicy fruit and vegetable salad. The bartenders fall easily into conversation, but will also offer privacy when a patron wishes. Here, in August, Iyer waxed poetic about his writer-in-residence gig — a stint that produced his book, This Could Be Home: Raffles Hotel and the City of Tomorrow.
The “ultimate moment” at the hotel, Iyer says, “is the early evening, maybe six o’clock, you sit out on the veranda drinking a cup of tea or something stronger, you have a book there or a diary or a postcard, the wind is coming in off the sea taking the heat off the day.”
For yet another slice of history, be sure to visit the Bar & Billiard Room, which opened in 1896 as a club under British colonial rule. It is the oldest standing bar in its original location in Singapore and is said to be the place where the last tiger was killed in Singapore, in 1902. The space has just reopened as BBR by Alain Ducasse, offering shared dishes that highlight Mediterranean cooking. Small plates such as salted cod fritters and octopus with paprika and olive oil are served along with heftier dishes such as roasted sea bass and barbecue striploin steak.
The Tiffin Room, which has been part of the hotel’s history since 1892, serves North Indian cuisine in tiffin boxes — containers with multiple compartments stacked on top of each other that are used for meals in India and beyond. Wooden floorboards have been brought back to revive features from the early 1900s.
Yì by Jereme Leung brings adaptations of provincial cuisine from across China
Another dining option is Yì by Jereme Leung (the name means “art” in Chinese), which brings adaptations of provincial cuisine from across China. The wide-ranging menu features suckling pig and dim sum selections, along with braised sea cucumber and abalone. There is even a section for “Chef Leung’s favourite drinking snacks”, including Sichuan Spiced Crispy Fish Skin and Century Eggs with Roasted Peppers and Pickled Ginger.
Outside, the Raffles Courtyard contains an open-air bar that sits in a beautifully landscaped area of the Raffles Arcade. A gazebo-like structure covers the main bar area and there are umbrellas over other tables. Guests are provided with paper fans to help cool off from the Singaporean heat.
When it comes to the choice of rooms, all suites are not created equal. There are 115 in nine categories, from the modest studio suite at 495 sq ft to two presidential suites — the Sarkies Suite,named after the original Raffles founders, and the Sir Stamford Raffles Suite, named after the founder of modern Singapore. The suites are 2,798 sq ft each and come with an iPad to control things such as lighting and temperature. If that is too much for you, simply summon the 24-hour butler.
“My very first night of my 15 recent nights in the new Raffles, I was introduced to a little lounge in the spa in which one can recline in a quiet, dark room, sip tea and nibble at the nuts on offer and, quite wonderfully, do nothing at all,” Iyer says in his email. “One does not have to get a spa treatment or even use the Jacuzzi to enjoy this lounge if one is staying at Raffles, and every time I visited, it was completely empty and beautifully, liberatingly silent.” — Bloomberg LP