Singapore: In the temple of the rich (+photos)

By Jim Eagles

The most impressive thing about Singapore's marvellous old Raffles hotel is the welcome.

Oh, sure, the elegant building, magnificently restored at a cost of $136 million, is as majestic as the hotel's reputation.

The photos of previous guests which line the corridors - Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner, Andrew Malraux, Pablo Neruda, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, assorted US presidents, most recently George Bush and Bill Clinton, countless prime ministers, previous Princes of Wales - are fascinating.

And the 40 luxury shops and 18 restaurants and bars, including the Billiard Room where an escaped tiger was shot in 1902, cater for every taste. But for me the welcome was the highlight.

Perhaps that's because I was a little nervous as we swept up the tree-lined drive, to be greeted by the doorman, a 2m Sikh in full turbaned regalia.

This hotel is like a temple for the rich and famous, a place of deep serenity, with lofty ceiling, timeless music, elegant decorations and priests in special costumes busily performing mysterious rituals.

And, as with any visit to an unknown temple, the intruder feels slightly nervous about doing the wrong thing.

But Raffles is a temple to hospitality and its priests are dedicated to making newcomers welcome.

So right inside the door is a smiling acolyte who somehow knows my name (apparently they have a meeting every morning to discuss who is arriving that day).

"Mr Eagles? Please follow me, I'll take you to your room."

Up the magnificent central staircase we go, past the James Michener suite, along a verandah screened by the frangipani trees growing in the grassy courtyard below, the air sweet with their blossom, to one of the gallery suites.

This is the oldest part of the hotel, built not long after it opened in 1887, and oozing colonial atmosphere.

Our suite is truly enormous, the size of a small house - though it's apparently one of the smaller suites, a mere 67sq m, compared with the 263sqm Sarkies suite - lined with marble, polished teak and whitewashed plaster ceilings at least 6m high, and furnished with antiques.

It has a dining area, a parlour, a vast bedroom with a chaise lounge, a dressing room and a bathroom with a marble bath you could just about swim in.

Our valet meets us with a cool drink, our luggage is discreetly deposited in the storage area and only when we are relaxed and seated is the tawdry paperwork sorted out.

So much more civilised that that horrid business of queueing to check in.

The acolytes vanish and we are free to enjoy the unaccustomed luxury. Two television sets. Two phone lines. Oriental carpets on polished teak floors. A bowl of exotic fruits. Flowers. Chocolates. A minibar filled with classy wines.

At night when they turn down the bed they also set out pairs of slippers and freshly laundered foot mats, and they leave a little bedtime story, one of a collection called Fables from the Exotic East, just in case the modern novels on the bedside table or the 10cm-high pile of the latest magazines aren't enough.

When your paper arrives in the morning the wrapper advises, "If the news today should overwhelm, healing is available at level three" - home of the hotel's Amrita Spa.

The bard of Britain's colonial era, Rudyard Kipling - who has a suite named after him - said in 1899: "When in Singapore, feed at Raffles."

Out of respect for his opinion, we lunch at the Raffles Grill, which reflects an unashamedly French influence - a beautiful formal dining room, the finest of silver service, proper standards of dress and food that is superb.

Just to be sure, we also had high tea in the Tiffin Room, a place redolent of the Raj era, with white-jacketed waiters and mountains of sandwiches, savouries, pastries, cakes and scones, not to mention oriental sweetmeats, to enjoy with a refreshing pot of Earl Grey tea.

Oh, and we mustn't forget the Long Bar, where the Singapore Sling was invented a century ago.

You haven't really been to the East if you haven't leaned back in your chair, sipped a couple of Singapore Slings, cracked a few peanuts, tossed the shells on the floor - that's part of the tradition - and exchanged tall stories.

Jim Eagles stayed at Raffles with the help of House of Travel, Air New Zealand and Raffles Hotels & Resorts.

- NZ Herald

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