Written By Amanda Jaffe and photographs provided by Raffles Hotel
Great cities have great hotels to welcome travelers, but the greatest cities have a grand hotel with a reputation to match. Marina Bay Sands may claim Singapore’s skyline, but Raffles Hotel, with its ivory exterior, wide verandas, and uniformed Sikh doormen, is Singapore’s grand hotel.
Raffles began with four Armenian brothers from Isfahan, Iran. The Sarkies Brothers had already launched successful hotels in Penang when they sought their next opportunity in the 1880s. They looked to Singapore, which had been “promoted” to crown colony status as part of the Straits Settlements some 20 years earlier. In 1887, Sir Stamford Raffles’ statue was unveiled on the Padang, and the Sarkies Brothers opened a ten-room bungalow hotel at the corner of Beach Road and Bras Basah. In a nice nod to Sir Stamford, they named their new venture Raffles Hotel.
They say real estate is all about location. Raffles enjoyed a prime beachfront location (prior to land reclamation), but timing played at least as great a role in its success. The hotel’s opening coincided with a golden age of travel to the “Far East,” thanks to the growth of steamships as a mode of ocean travel and the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal. With a new breed of long-distance tourist eager to travel “East of Suez,” to quote Rudyard Kipling, Singapore became a critical refueling stop for the ships that carried them.
The Sarkies Brothers began expanding Raffles only two years after it opened, to accommodate a flood of first-class travelers “requiring” a first-class hotel. They added two-story wings on either side of the bungalow, followed by the Palm Court Wing. By 1899, the bungalow had grown to include a three-story atrium, with Carrara marble floors, a 500-seat dining room, and the first electric fixtures in any Singapore hotel. When the Bras Basah Wing opened in 1904, Raffles’ reputation was firmly established.
As permanent as it feels today, Raffles’ fate has not always been certain. After the last Sarkies brother died in 1931, Raffles almost went bankrupt in 1933. It was renamed Syonan Ryokan (“Light of the South Hotel”) during the Japanese occupation and restricted to Japanese military officers — but not before the staff buried its sterling beef wagon in the garden for safekeeping. While Raffles regained its stature as Singapore’s grand hotel throughout the 1950s, ocean liners gave way to commercial airlines, Singapore underwent a few changes, and by the 1970s, Raffles’ fate was uncertain again. Its place in Singapore’s heritage carried the day, however, and Singapore declared Raffles Hotel a national monument in 1987.
Raffles’ first major restoration, in 1989-1991, used original building plans and old photographs to restore its 1915 appearance. Decorative plaster was repaired. Features were reinstated or restored, such as the Beach Road entrance’s cast-iron portico and the lobby’s timber staircase and skylight. Ceilings previously lowered to accommodate the addition of air-conditioning were restored to their original, 14-foot height. A new block including the Raffles shopping arcade was added. During this time, a cast-iron fountain that had graced several Singapore locations since the 1890s before being dismantled and forgotten was rediscovered and donated to the hotel. It sits in the Palm Garden.
This past August, Raffles completed a second, multi-year renovation that preserved its heritage features while refreshing every space to suit 21st century expectations. Raffles’ soaring lobby now boasts a stunning chandelier containing over 8,000 crystals and 56 lamps, assembled by hand. Every suite has been updated with contemporary furnishings; Peranakan tiles, laid individually by hand, grace the bathrooms. New dining venues by celebrity chefs include BBR by Alain Ducasse; Le Dame de Pic by Anne-Sophie Pic; and Yì by Jereme Leung. Other dining traditions have been rejuvenated, including the Tiffin Room, Long Bar, Afternoon Tea, and Writer’s Bar, which has returned to its original location thanks to elimination of the hotel’s front desk. Even the Singapore Sling has been elevated with craft ingredients to create a more “serious” cocktail for discerning customers. This is surpassed, if possible, by the Long Bar’s new “Sling Shaker,” a custom-made, cast iron, hand-cranked wonder that can mix six cocktail shakers (18 drinks) simultaneously.
Legends of all varieties have visited Raffles. Writer’s Bar honors literary legends, such as Rudyard Kipling, who famously lauded Raffles’ cuisine, and Somerset Maugham, who turned conversations overheard at Raffles into short stories. The roster of celebrity guests would exceed this article’s word limit. Then there are the legends who brought a different sort of ambience. These include the last tiger killed in Singapore (shot under Raffles’ Bar & Billiard Room), a boar (wild) and pig (domesticated) who tried to enter without a reservation, and a 15-foot python initially mistaken for an overcoat. Were any of these animal tales enhanced by a Singapore Sling? Either way, they’re now part of Raffles lore.
Beyond a “staycation,” there are many ways local Singapore residents can enjoy the rejuvenated Raffles. The hotel is generally open to the public, other than suite floors and the upper levels of the lobby atrium. Food and beverage venues are all open for reservations. The lobby is open to hotel guests, as well as anyone visiting for a meal or a drink. Raffles Courtyard, the hotel’s alfresco bar, has been newly landscaped to create intimate spaces perfect for a date night; Raffles has even reduced the alcohol content of cocktails to account for the effects of Singapore’s heat on patrons. Raffles Spa, an oasis of serenity, offers single- and double-treatment rooms, and can accommodate parties of six to eight for a ladies’ spa event. Raffles Arcade offers a range of carefully curated, high-end lifestyle shopping. Finally, for those interested in history, monthly heritage tours that will be open to the public are in the works.
In Raffles’ Grand Lobby, just inside the entrance, stands a grandfather clock. It’s one of Raffles’ oldest pieces, possibly older than the hotel itself. Each morning, a Raffles employee winds the clock and each evening, as the clock strikes eight, the lobby pianist stops to play “I’ll See You Again,” by Noel Coward, another literary legend who visited Raffles. It’s a longstanding tradition. But as central to Raffles tradition as that clock may be, it sits in a lobby lit by a stunning new chandelier, in a hotel committed to evolving with the times and the tastes of its guests. In the end, that’s the essence of today’s Raffles Hotel – a mixture of tradition, elegance, and evolution.
In addition to exploring Singapore for Bamboo Telegraph, Amanda Jaffe writes about her travel adventures on her blog, Rambling Llama (www.ramblingllama.com).