On 1 Beach Road, not too far from the frenzied shoppers of Orchard Road, stands Raffles, a hotel easily counted as one of the best in the world. Opened in 1887, it is older than the city-state of Singapore and has served up luxury and colonial-era charm with a generous side of Far East exoticism to guests like Somerset Maugham and Charlie Chaplin.
Walking into Raffles is like flitting in and out of the pages of a gold-spined, first-edition. Every step has a way of taking you to a different time—the driveway clacketed with horse carriages in the 1800s; the lobby swayed with roller skating parties in 1904; and Long Bar oversaw the invention of the city’s classic cocktail, Singapore Sling, in 1915 so British ladies could hide behind its pink hue and drink freely in public. I can see why they refer to Raffles as the grande dame of the East; it’s easy to think of her as an ageless, elegant lady at a party, dressed in satin, watching the world go by.
When Rudyard Kipling visited Raffles on 1 Beach Road in 1889 to eat turtle steak, the hotel did face the sea. Now, a century and reclamation projects later, she preens herself in the glass mirrors of high-rises of the Civic District. Raffles is the centre of attention in Singapore: it’s bang in the middle of the city and keeps interesting company. The Civilian War Memorial commemorating victims of the Japanese Occupation is just across the road from one of its entrances; so is Chijmes, a historic complex that was a convent school in the mid-1800s and now houses bars and restaurants. The City Hall, National Library and National Museum all lie within a 15-minute walk from Raffles. One morning, I walk by the old HDB complex of Bras Basah, right behind Raffles, eyeing second-hand bookshops, coveting stationery in stores, and watching kids queue up for music class. If I am peckish between the hotel’s lavish meals or miss the Singapore of kopitiams with wooden stools, I pop by Kafei Dian across the street for their kaya between golden toasted buns.
Raffles spent two years—and a sum that owners are tight-lipped about—to lure to a younger, more Crazy Rich Asians sort of clientele. But old-timers shan’t have much to complain about when their cars slow down in the familiar gravel driveway, palm fronds nodding at them. They’ll walk up to the same cast-iron, red-carpeted verandah. I note how the 132-year-old grande dame keeps a firm grip on her colonial past. Even the liveried Sikh doormen are still here, patient as ever when guests sidle up for selfies.
Inside, the three-storey atrium has a new cynosure: a massive Venetian chandelier whose 8, 214 crystals wink under the skylight roof. A grandfather clock that predates the hotel has remained; it is still wound by the concierge every day. When it strikes eight in the morning, the pianist on the second floor plays Noel Coward’s classic, I’ll See You Again.
A king-size parlour, a four-poster in the bedroom beyond, and a tub to sink into planted in a marble bathroom—the 115 suites at Raffles, with their teak floors, brass switches and personal butlers on call 24/7, are sumptuous. My wee nephew, who drops by one afternoon, proclaims my Palm Court suite fit for a game of hide-and-seek. For reward, he raids the mini bar (cleverly concealed in a leather trunk in the parlour) and gobbles up, to my dismay, all the nuts coated with gula melaka.
The suite becomes my sanctuary, like the rest of them must have for Maugham, Ava Gardner, and Elizabeth Taylor (whose image is embossed on my brown leather keycard). I begin my mornings lost among frangipanis in the teakwood verandah outside, nursing tea or Colombian coffee made in the Nespresso machine, lost in a rattan armchair. When I want to sing tunelessly, I pull down the blinds and play music (both controlled by iPads), slather on bath amenities by Ormonde Jayne and pretend to be Andrew Bird in the rain shower. I also ignore how fast the jar of toffees in the parlour empties.
Those who think it sacrilege to be here and not sip the famous cocktail, Singapore Sling, may head to Long Bar where it was invented in 1915. The bar’s floor is littered with peanut shells as per tradition. It is also likely swarming with tourists.
I walk into Writers Bar one evening, curious because I hear the menu is written by Pico Iyer, Raffles’ Writer-in-Residence in 2019. I flip through the leather-bound journal and find sepia photographs of old Singapore, and Iyer’s scribbles on the idea of home, finding England, New York and India in Singapore, and living in fractured times. “Singapore is and always has been a Rojak city, a mixture…” he writes, referring to the famous local salad of fried beancurd, turnip, cucumber, pineapple and fried dough fritters, all tossed in a sauce made of fermented prawn paste, sprinkled with peanuts. I try the cocktail named after the salad (or the city). Sweet-spicy with peanut calvados, gula melaka, and chilli, it is pure, liquid joy.
Raffles brings star chefs to the tropics: Alain Ducasse’s Mediterranean restaurant, BBR, is a relaxed space. But the octopus and paprika, and lobster with tomato, bell pepper and bisque are so-so—so if you have one meal here, make sure it’s at La Dame de Pic by chef Anne-Sophie Pic, who holds seven Michelin stars under her belt. Every minute of the three-and-a-half hours I spend on the courses in the French eatery is a revelation. There are zesty emulsions, and textures I’ve never tasted. Berlingots, for instance, are triangular pasta parcels filled with French cheese fondue, fennel broth and absinthe red Kampot pepper; in white millefeuille the cream feels like liquid air; even turnips taste tantalising in the poularde de bresse. The experience feels like impressionism took hold of the kitchen; as if Monet and Degas donned toque blanche and stirred dishes to life like they were colours.
Leslie Danker is a man with a ready smile and a sea of stories. He is Raffles’ resident historian, and has been around for 47 years. His two-hour walk is an omnibus of stories about the hotel, true-or-false legends, and the rich and famous who have stayed in the suites. He shows me a little packet filled with fine sand he found under the marble flooring of the lobby in 1989, when the hotel began its first renovation—a reminder of the days when Raffles began as a seaside, 10-room bungalow in 1899. He has taken the likes of John McCain, Queen Elizabeth, Bill Clinton and Karl Lagerfeld around the hotel, photos of which hang in the Hall of Fame.
His favourite story took place in Ducasse’s restaurant which was then the Bar & Billiards Room. “One evening in 1902, a tiger escaped the performing circus across the road, went for a swim, and crept under this restaurant (which stood at an elevated platform). The staff summoned a headmaster who was known to be a hunter, but he missed three shots at the tiger because he was tipsy,” chuckles Danker. “What do you think happened?”
“I hope he escaped,” I say.
“The headmaster had a reputation to maintain. He caught the gleaming eyes of the tiger and pulled the trigger…”
Other stories aren’t about doomed animals, thankfully. Like when Elizabeth Taylor was chided by a dressmaker at a Raffles boutique, or the curious case of the kissing columns in one of the wings. But you’ll have to visit Singapore for that.
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.