Singapore’s most famous hotel has been charming guests for over 125 years, but Leigh Ann Pow wonders, does the legend live up to reality?
Has any other hotel in the world been so mythologised as Raffles? From the tiger that strolled into the Billiard Room to meet an untimely demise to the likes of Somerset Maugham holding court from a wicker chair impeccably turned out in a suit and tie in spite of the torpid, engulfing humidity.
It has been reported that the invading Japanese found the hotel’s guests indulging in one last waltz before their privileged existence was obliterated by the brutalities of war. And rather ironically, it was to Raffles that former prisoners of war liberated from the infamous Changi were taken before being repatriated.
It is the stuff of legend. But it is also the kind of historical baggage that can haunt a property, confusing the lines between it being a fully functioning hotel and an anachronistic museum exhibit.
My husband had bought into the legend in a huge way. On previous visits to Singapore we had visited the infamous Long Bar as a tourist attraction, elevating the peanut shells on the floor from tacky to talismanic and hardly baulking at the exorbitant asking price for a luridly hued and surprisingly unpalatable Singapore Sling (historical fact number 5: the drink was invented here between 1910 and 1915). We even visited the gift shop where I refused to buy anything because we hadn’t actually stayed there.
So when we recently decided to visit the island state again, I couldn’t resist the historic allure or the chance to score kudos with my husband and booked us in for a three-night stay. Walking up the crunchy gravel drive, the startlingly white colonial exterior glows klieg-bright in the high tropical sun. Past the turbaned doorman, the lobby is gorgeous; a cool, quiet, elegant space, all white/grey marble floors, antiques and deep Turkish rugs. We are about 40 minutes too early for our room but are invited to take tea at the bar while we wait. How delightful.
Our tea and biscuits come on a tray of silver teapots and fine bone china. From our vantage point we have an uninterrupted view of the comings and goings: the Chinese tourists filling the tables in the Tiffin Room to take the hotel’s signature high tea, American guests returning from a morning of luxury shopping on Orchard Road, the discreet staff gently guiding sightseers back out through the front doors. We also have a clear view of the lobby’s grandfather clock, which ticks past our 2pm check-in time. It takes another 50 minutes, and two enquiries, before we are shown to our room.
We are led past a sign at the foot of the imposing, dark wood staircase – ‘only hotel guests past this point’ – and onto a wide, airy verandah off which our Courtyard Suite is located. Through the door and we are in a lovely little sitting room complete with a lounge area and dining table, lazy afternoon light coming in through pretty lattice-paned windows. The bedroom has two double beds, beyond which is the bathroom with its slightly Deco proportions. The furniture throughout is dark and adheres to the delicious colonial aesthetic.
There is no tea and coffee making facilities; instead there is a button labelled ‘Butler’, which we are to push should we want absolutely anything. The allure of our own butler proves irresistible, and we press the button hoping to order an afternoon snack. We wait half-an-hour before pressing it again to no avail. He did eventually come when we pushed the button a third time upon finding out that the remote control for our television was also not working.
It is essential to have breakfast in the lovely Tiffin Room while in residence, as much for the room itself as the expansive selection on offer, all fresh and delicious. It does not come cheap, but you are paying for history (and the mythology of it, of course) as well as the bircher muesli. While filling my plate at the fresh fruit station I fall in love with the vintage Tiffins on display, and determine to seek one out to take home. We ask the concierge where we might find antique dealers trading in these and are told someone will look into it and get back to us. We ask twice again during our stay and never get an answer.
The problem with building something up so much in a halcyon haze is that it is extremely difficult to live up to the mythology. While Raffles is undoubtedly still a five-star property, it is an old-world interpretation of five-star rather than the modern interpretation we have all grown so accustomed to: wi-fi access in every room, state-of-the-art fitness centre, panel controls for everything…
My husband had romanticised the property so much that every tiny glitch or oversight (and there were a few) in service becomes a disappointment. I, on the other hand, was entranced. Where he saw a slightly time-worn bathroom, I saw a riot of retro charm; he was not amused with the butler button, I loved having a button to push in the first place. He thought the rooftop pool was small, I gloried in its intimate proportions and chose to use it at night when we had it all to ourselves.
Luckily redemption, and the salvaging of my husband’s dreams, came with another unfortunate incident: our daughter’s favourite doll was accidentally bundled up and taken away with the dirty linen when our room was being cleaned on our penultimate day. When we inquired about it at reception we were told nothing had been turned in to lost property. I asked for the duty manager and explained that we had overlooked the extremely late check-in, the absent butler, the faulty technology and the unhelpful concierge, but that this was something we wanted followed up. I wasn’t holding out much hope.
And that’s when the Raffles we had imagined finally kicked in: the front of house manager came to apologise and take forensic notes on the disappearance; the head concierge also apologised and gave us the address and directions to an antiques dealer (however, as we were waiting to leave for the airport it was a bit too late); my daughter was presented with a present from the gift shop; and when we finally left the property we were waved away by a delegation of senior staff and the regal doorman.
Two days later I receive an email: the doll had been found! She arrived safe and sound (and very clean) a few days later by DHL. Now that’s five-star service.
1 Beach Road, Singapore
+65 6337 1886
• The IT Verdict
Leigh-Ann, who visited anonymously and paid her own way, says: “A fabled colonial property that has an elegance and sophistication that homogenised modern hotels completely lack. Embrace the experience, even with its occasional foibles and hitches.”
Leigh-Ann stayed in Courtyard Suite. Rate start around $700 per room, per night
• Must do
Visit the on-site museum which takes you through the storied history of the property; buy a Raffles breakfast cushion in the expansive gift shop as the ultimate souvenir of your stay.