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Singapore’s legendary hotel

The iconic Raffles Hotel Singapore.

Anyone with a penchant for travel keeps a mental list of whimsical “one-day-I’ll-go-there” destinations. Our list always included Raffles, the grand historic colonial-style luxury hotel in Singapore.
Raffles Hotel Singapore is one of the few remaining great 19th century hotels in the world. Our infatuation with it began about the time we were old enough to appreciate great writers — Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling and W. Somerset Maugham all stayed at Raffles. Their words transported us to exotic destinations colored with just the right amount of intrigue.
The island nation of Singapore was our final port-of-call on a 14-day cruise aboard Silversea’s Silver Shadow. The Monaco-registered, Italian-owned five-star all-inclusive luxury voyage began in Hong Kong, stopping in Vietnam at Halong Bay, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and Nha Trang; and in Thailand at Bangkok and the brilliant beaches of Koh Samui.
While aboard, we reveled in Silversea’s renowned five-star service: A spacious stateroom (including a walk-in closet, granite-lined bathroom, and teakwood deck), round-the-clock butler service, sumptuous cuisine, onboard entertainment and fun, fascinating escorted shore excursions; and the cruise line’s “no tipping” policy. Another highlight was that the elegant cruise ship holds no more than 350 passengers. It is difficult to adjust to “normal life” after such a cruise.
A multicultural experience
After experiencing these onboard pleasures for close to two weeks, a culminating visit to Singapore’s world-renowned hotel was a perfect finish to our exceptional journey.
Visiting Singapore is rather like an instant mini-tour of Southeast Asia. Within this small (224-square-mile) diamond-shaped island you can experience almost every culture, religion, and lifestyle that the region has to offer.
Singapore offers high-end shopping — go to the Orchard Road area or visit the opulent Marina Sands resort complex to find luxury brands. There’s kid-friendly Art Science Museum, Botanic Gardens (justifiably nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Little India and the Arab Quarter.
On the splendid morning that we moored here, however, our interest was entirely focused on visiting and enjoying the colonial splendor of The Raffles Hotel.
The hotel is located just a few stops from the cruise-ship terminal via Singapore’s sparkling-clean, modern metro system. Equally remarkable is that what once was a “beachside” hotel is now surrounded by high-rise buildings in the Colonial District, arguably one of the busiest sections of downtown Singapore.
Iconic front entrance
Looking at the iconic front entrance of the Raffles Hotel, a few steps from the traffic and chaos of Beach Road, it is clear why this grand survivor of the 19th century still is viewed as an essential stop for any visitor to the Far East.
Originally built in 1887 as a 10-room seaside lodge by Armenian hoteliers the Sarkies brothers, Raffles was named after the city’s founder, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), a British statesman and military leader who vanquished Dutch and French forces on the island of Java (now part of Indonesia) during the Napoleonic Wars.
One of the hotel’s earliest guests was writer Joseph Conrad, who visited the then-modest inn in 1888 while plying the eastern seas as a Russian seaman. Soon after, an equally young and then unknown writer — Rudyard Kipling — visited the newly opened hotel and famously sent an enthusiastic letter to a friend, urging him to visit Singapore and “feed at Raffles.”
The hotel’s reputation as a magnet for literary figures and celebrities was cemented when it was visited in 1921 by novelist Somerset Maugham, the British playwright Noel Coward (in 1930), and throughout the Great Depression by Hollywood’s glamorous movie stars of the day, including Charlie Chaplin, Maurice Chevalier and Jean Harlow.
A slump in the Malayan rubber trade nearly shuttered Raffles in the 1930s. It was rescued from the financial abyss by a Swiss owner, but was soon after occupied by Japanese military forces when British forces surrendered Singapore. Immediately after World War II, Raffles served as temporary transit barracks for homebound Allies detained as prisoners of war.
A magnet for celebrities
Following the war, as the years spun into decades, the Raffles Hotel would host an endless parade of literary figures (Ernest Hemingway, Gunter Grass, James A. Michener, Andre Malraux), government leaders (Lord Mountbatten, Valerie D’Estaing, Henry Kissinger, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Robert F. Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II), film directors (Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Wells, George Lucas), actors (Elizabeth Taylor, William Holden, Ginger Rogers, Ingrid Bergman, Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp), singers (Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Diana Krall, Harry Belafonte) and athletes such as Bjorn Borg.
After hosting virtually every celebrity in the world for nearly eight decades, the grand old Raffles started showing her age. Starting this month, it will implement a three-phase upgrade, starting with the Arcade, then the main building, and finally it will close toward the end of 2017 for an overall renovation, with its grand reopening scheduled for the second quarter of 2018.
“The ‘golden age’ of travel began with opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, and Raffles was an essential stop for many visitors making the grand tour of the Far East,” said Leenu Bablani, marketing communications manager of the Raffles Hotel.
“Today, many of our guests come here because they are fascinated by the colonial period and want to personally experience it. Yet, because we are competing with all of the other top-tier hotels in Singapore, our suites must have all of the luxury amenities.”
While we accompanied Bablani on a private tour, she explained that casual visitors to Raffles have access to the hotel tearoom and restaurants, but are excluded from the hotel lobby, atrium and spa to protect the privacy of guests.
Teak flooring, Persian rugs, antiques, and artworks are on view throughout the hotel. The hotel’s architecture is perfectly preserved both inside and out, giving it an intoxicating blend of luxury, history, and classic colonial design.
Lush greenery
Much of lush greenery on grounds of the Raffles Hotel grows in the atrium, and landscaping comprises one quarter of the total land area of the hotel. Gardens and courtyards include the Palm Garden; a fountain takes pride of place, with the melodious tinkle of the water providing a soothing sound day and night.
As we strolled through the grounds, we noticed the Travelers Palm. This variety of tree is said to have saved the lives of lost travelers because its fan-shaped fronds are always aligned on an east-west axis.
We could not leave without a visit to the Long Bar, the earthy interiors of which are inspired by Malayan plantation life in the 1920s. Oriental carpets are overlain on tiled floors; the furniture is traditional stained cane and rattan. A charming timber spiral staircase connects the two levels of the Long Bar with the seating above interspersed with teak lounge chairs.
Guests to the Long Bar are encouraged to toss peanut shells onto the floor. “Our unroasted peanuts are grown in Malaysia,” said Bablani, nodding to the bowl on our table and waving to the hundreds of shells scattered on the floor. “This is the only place in Singapore — which is famously known for its cleanliness — where ‘littering’ is permitted.”
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