Raffles Hotel Review Singapore
Argh, the Raffles Hotel, the Grand Dame of Singapore. How much I miss you already. You are everything I dreamt you’d be, only better.
The Raffles Hotel was the one property that I most wanted to review on my tour of Singapore and I had butterflies in my stomach from the anticipation. It left me edgy and uneasy. A meld of fear, apprehension, excitement, adrenalin.
Would it live up to its reputation? Would it let me down?
I relate to history. I was exposed to it from an early age, born into an aristocratic line that owns most of England and Scotland, and probably killed much in between. It left me with a cluster of notable friends that would make for really fun dinner talk: actors, prime ministers, foreign secretaries, royalty, writers; and less interesting “common” folk…like me.
When your own family reads like a Who’s Who of peerages and gluttony, history comes with the territory. I was unwittingly the perfect candidate for the Raffles Hotel.
When my taxi crunched to a halt on the circular gravelled driveway, a tall, smiling doorman, sporting regimental Sikh livery, stepped out from under the shaded portico to open my door and welcome me. I realised then that my quest for knowledge had begun. How was he able to wear a full-length coat and turban and not suffer from the oppressive humidity? I’d just left the comfort of an air-conditioned cab and was dripping wet!
The battle of doubts versus wants had ended. This was real. I was about to enter the most iconic hotel in Singapore. To follow in the in footsteps of so many great names. I was bubbling with excitement. I couldn’t wait to relive what they had seen and done. To hear the voices of the past.
When I stepped out of the cab, I did so with new purpose, strutting up the red carpet, past the doorman’s dais, and thorough one of the French doors into the vastness of the white marbled lobby. My heart quickened and my pace slowed. The immensity of the moment gripped me. And so did the space. I was like a bewildered child caught by the twinkle of Christmas lights.
My quest for the old-world had begun in earnest. I had arrived. I was no longer a voyeur. I had become part of the Raffles story.
The staff were amazing and faultless as they escorted me to the check-in desk on the right. I barely remember doing more than scratching my signature on the guest registration form before being ushered to an arm chair beside one of the giant white Corinthian columns. I put my hand luggage down and before I could blink, there was a silver tray sporting a complimentary Singapore Sling in a tall glass with a pink straw poking out of it, and a carefully balanced cherry and slice of pineapple on the lip.
I got up and walked a few metres to the adjoining Writers Bar musing over my cocktail and surrounding space. I was glowing with invented thoughts. Did Somerset Maugham sit here? Noel Coward there? I wanted to break open my pad and pen, just to say I’d been in the bar and scribed something important too.
The Singapore Sling is one of my litmus cocktails that I often use to gauge the proficiency of bartenders worldwide. A gin and tonic is another one. And I’m not saying this lightly, but I truly think that was the best Singapore Sling I have ever had.
By being at the Raffles, I had traced the Singapore Sling back to its roots,. It was here in 1915, at the Long Bar on the first floor, that a very clever bartender called Ngiam Tong Boon would create his infamous masterpiece and thus his ascension towards fame. Nowadays, people flock from all over the world just to have a Singapore Sling (and get poor in the process), a testament to both his wizardry and its enduring taste.
I tried cocktails at many other venues, but I can say with absolute authority that the Raffles Hotel is the King of Sling.
They are truly unrivalled and unmatched.
For me, there is another side to appreciating this wonderful cocktail, both fascinating and enshrined in the history of the Raffles. What Ngiam Tong Boon did was very daring for his time and in total breach of convention.
The Long Bar was a popular watering hole for colonial Singaporeans, almost a social institution, and it was not uncommon to see the gents tipping away on their glasses of gin or whisky. However, this was in stark contrast to the women. Prevailing etiquette dictated that they should not drink in public…in case, I presume, they got tipsy or worse still. It was very unladylike to see a woman swaggering or wobbling in public, but quite okay for men to do so. Alcohol was very much the preserve of male habit in those days. Ladies were relegated to sip on juice or water or tea.
In a genius moment of early Singaporean marketing prowess, Ngiam clicked that he could slip a dash of gin and cherry brandy into his pink “fruit cocktail” and the men (and public) would be none the wiser.
And thus was born the Singapore Sling and his legend. He may well have become the most sought after man in the country.
THE LONG BAR
The Long Bar is the public and much-hyped part of the Raffles Hotel. It is flaunted and well-marketed. I last visited it in 2004 when you could smash a few peanuts and drop them on the floor with wanton abandon. I seem to remember that the beer was well chilled and on the steeper side of expensive. Of course, it didn’t shock me to discover that nothing has changed since my last visit. Not at the Raffles, nor the Long Bar, nor with alcohol prices throughout Singapore.
My gorgeous personal butler, bedecked in pressed beige uniform, escorted me through the grey cast iron gate that delineated the separation between the public and the private guest quarters. To my right lay a perfectly manicured square lawn that had me thinking, “croquet and cocktail” parties. As we walked around the edge to my room, I had this overwhelming sense that I had stepped back in time. Voices and faces from the past were reaching out to me in flashes. But there was no one there. Just me.
The Raffles Hotel is grand and my room was no exception. It felt like a furnished apartment with high ceilings that you lived in, not a room that you stayed in. You stepped through the door into a small ante-room. To the right was a round breakfast table with an orchid and welcome fruit bowl on it. There was enough space for two chairs and a standard lamp. Botanical prints hung above it. A Nespresso machine was on the counter opposite. To the left was a small couch. I didn’t know what to try first.
Giant tied-back curtains partitioned the ante-room from the huge bedroom with its two-post bed, chaise long, suit stand, writers table and giant armoire wardrobe. And beyond there was the timeless green marbled bathroom with two rooms; one with basin and Raffles amenities; the other with toilet, shower, giant bath tub and ceramic elephant pot holders. I felt as if I could live in this room alone!
You truly got the impression that time has stood still. The colonial furnishings and nuances unblemished. Egyptian cotton sheets. Tapestry bed seat. Even the wicker table under the colonnade outside my bedroom door was in keeping with the “old world” charm. I would have my coffee there each morning. So peaceful. Mind you, a word to the wise, the air conditioning in your room will be so cool that when you step out in the warm humidity, everything fogs up – glasses, cameras and all. Enjoy those moments of being electronic free, as you can’t fight the condensation until all temperatures equalise.
I loved my room and really, for a single traveller, it was overkill. The king-sized bed was enormous, soft and all mine! I would never trade it for anything else.
BAR & BILLIARD ROOM
Sunday brunch at the Bar and Billiard Room should be on everyone’s bucket list of things to do in Singapore. For me, this was unquestionably “the” highlight of my stay at the Raffles Hotel. The sheer scale and size of the offerings would rival almost any decadent banquet and although I have seen bigger, I had certainly not eaten better.
Almost every taste was catered for, even with bite-sized morsels in shot glasses (my favourite being the Seared Tuna and Sweet Soya Sauce Gazpacho), exquisitely laid-out salads (loved the asparagus and crab meat), wooden chopping boards with cut meats, a carvery under heat lamps, a slurry of chefs and wait staff running everywhere.
I loved the neon blue ice bar with giant prawns, Irish and Tsarskaya oysters, Fine de Clair, crab claws and half lobster tails. The dessert selections were outrageous, some daubed in gold leaf, others drowning in wide glasses and fruit. The Coffee Caramel, served in small green elliptical bowl was simply stunning and enough to trigger my “get out soon” mode. I made for the door, passing rows of chocolates, dodging even more calorie bullets before hitting the cheese board selections and realising that I had failed in my escape. I needed a more worthy death, by cheese!
Reservations are a must and remember, this is a classy establishment, so try not to rock up in your singlet and thongs because there is a place for everything and everyone. The Raffles does not specialise in “the average” tourist meal and you pay for quality. If you want quantity and prices, McDonalds is across the road in the shopping mall. However, with the renovations to the Long Bar and the arcade, traffic is being directed to the Bar & Billiard Room.
THE RAFFLES HALL OF FAME
No stay at the Raffles Hotel would be complete without a quick traipse down the small Hall of Fame. Situated on the first floor, you’ll see a plethora of photos and pictures lining the wooden corridor.
One of the first on the left sums up the Raffles Hotel, an etched print of the main building that is headlined “Patronised by Royalty and Nobility”. It was not far wrong. Black and white photos of the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge, Bill Clinton, Ken Follett, Boris Johnson and Catherine Deneuve. These are but a few of the notables, though there are absences too like Michael Jackson.
Stories abound at the Raffles and I so wanted to pick the brains of their Resident Historian, Leslie Danker, but time was against me. I gleaned tit bits. The last tiger shot in Singapore was in 1902. It had escaped from a nearby circus and was cowering under the Bar & Billiard Room when it was noticed and shot by Raffles Institution principal Charles McGowan Philips. Or when Michael Jackson stayed. He wanted to go to the zoo but too many fans were camped outside, so the hotel “brought the zoo to him” in the form of an orangutan that subsequently ran riot around the pool.
HISTORY OF THE RAFFLES
The Raffles Hotel has come a long way since 1887, when it first opened its doors as a humble 10-room bungalow at number 1 Beach Road. As the address implied, it was originally on the “beach”, not where it is today. But thanks to land reclamation, the Raffles is now a majestic inland feature that rises three stories high, with a rather bland view of the CBD, not the ocean view that author Joseph Conrad would have relished in 1888. The number of rooms have also grown. Today the Raffles has 103 expansive suites, all framed by polished teak verandas and white marble colonnades. Their doors face inward, encircling perfectly manicured tropical gardens. It has the air of exclusiveness and privacy.
The front façade is undoubtedly impressive with its striking white-washed walls and terracotta roofing. Even the giant palm trees and frangipanis that frame the sides of the building lend themselves to this feeling of tropical greatness. A grand entrance that has contributed to the Raffles Hotel being made a National Monument. Today, she is one of the last remaining 19th century hotels left in the world.
The Raffles Hotel was named after the venerable founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles/ She was run by the Sarkies Brothers, proprietors of the Eastern & Oriental in Penang.
Business boomed for the Sarkies and they expanded their interests in Singapore. This included a major upgrade to the hotel. By 1899, the familiar Main Building, was completed and opened to a huge fanfare. Its neo-Renaissance style became the embodiment of the colonial, Golden era or exploration. Grand space. Luxury. Style. A list of firsts: electric lights and ceiling fans. A French chef.
Slowly but surely, the Raffles was giving birth to its legendary status. It became a magnet for the world’s great thinkers, travellers and actors. The Raffles became the darling of writers and “the men of letters”. They seemed to attract each other and gravitate to her doors. Names like Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maughan. Faces of the silver screen like Charlie Chaplin, Maurice Chevallier, Frank Buck, Jean Harlow, Eva Gardener and Elizabeth Taylor. Yet not every part of the Raffles Hotel’s history was rosy.
1931 saw the collapse of the Malayan rubber trade and the Great Depression. Arshak Sarkies, the last of the Sarkies brothers, died and the Raffles Hotel, including the Eastern & Oriental Penang, were placed into receivership. A new company called Raffled Hotel Ltd was created under a Swiss general manager, Teddy Troller. Even its main competition, the Hotel de L’Europe closed its doors for good.
In 1941, Singapore was consumed by World War II, surrendering in 1942 to the ravages of the Japanese invading army. But in 1945 she was liberated by the Allied Forces under Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. She became a transit camp for war prisoners – a shadow of her former self.
But the Raffles survived, allowing me to become another part of history.
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