Raffles Hotel is more character than edifice, writes Vicki Virtue. If it could speak it would tell of literary giants and wartime adventures.
While much of the mysticism that once shrouded the East has largely disappeared in our newly connected world, Raffles Hotel in Singapore has lost none of its allure.
For more than a century it has been a meeting point for global travellers.
"Raffles stands for all the fables of the exotic East," said the writer and guest of the hotel, Somerset Maugham. Since then, the rich, royal and celebrated have crossed the fabled threshold, and entered the dazzling world of Raffles Hotel.
You'll no longer find tigers in the Tiffin Room (the last unfortunate feline to make that mistake was shot under the billiard table in 1902), but you will find a hotel lovingly restored to its former glory, and the famous tiffin curry: a culinary mainstay of the Tiffin Room since 1899.
Raffles first opened its doors on December 1, 1887. In those early days it was a modest 10-room bungalow. It quickly expanded and gained a reputation as the epicentre of social gaiety in Singapore.
A young Rudyard Kipling visited and advised travellers to dine at Raffles when visiting Singapore and a 1904 newspaper report declared Raffles to be "The most magnificent establishment of its kind East of Suez". High praise.
In 1920, an airy ballroom replaced the veranda, and quickly earned a reputation as The finest ballroom in the East. Charlie Chaplin, Maurice Chevalier and Jean Harlow paid visits, and Maugham spent his mornings under a frangipani tree in the Palm Court, turning the gossip and scandals he overheard at dinner into his famous stories.
But, by the early 1980s, Raffles had lost much of its grandeur, and developers were eyeing the rundown complex as the site for more profitable skyscrapers.
In those heady days it looked as if Raffles might be reduced to rubble before its 100th birthday. But, in 1987, the Singapore government stepped in, and declared Raffles a National Monument.
A $160 million refurbishment followed and, by 1991, Raffles was restored to the grand elegance it was famed for in the 1920s. The Grand Old Lady of the East had made her glorious comeback, and so the legend continues: a witness to history and a monument to another time, when travelling was a more elegant and glamorous affair.
The welcome that greets arriving guests at Raffles is their first taste of the hotel's aura of calm, cool, orderliness. In Singapore's cloying heat, it is a relief. Photo / Supplied
Not that I was feeling particularly elegant or glamorous as our taxi pulled up at Raffles' imposing front entrance. It was a hot, sticky Singaporean afternoon, and we were resplendent in our (not altogether clean) tramping boots, that had obstinately refused to squeeze into our luggage at Kathmandu airport. But, as the immaculately groomed doorman invited us to step out on to the red carpet, and into the cool pillared lobby, I felt like Cinderella in glass slippers.
I don't know about you, but I generally find the marbled lobbies in five-star hotels make it difficult to remember if you've just landed in Frankfurt, New York or Mumbai. But stepping into Raffles is different: the Colonial charm, the gentle swishing of ceiling fans and the subdued chinking of antique china in the Tiffin Room, are all reminders that Raffles is no ordinary hotel, but a living legend.
Just like the Singapore Sling we selected for our welcome drink. Our personal butler offered us a choice, but is there really anything more reminiscent of Maugham under his frangipani tree, or the unfortunate tiger under the billiard table, than an iconic Singapore Sling? We didn't think so. And so we sipped ours on the breezy veranda outside our room, overlooking The Palm Court, and transported ourselves back to the early 1900s, when the cocktail made its first appearance on Singapore's social scene.
Called a Gin Sling in those days, the iconic drink now comes in seven pricey options but, given the hotel's barmen and women serve up more than a thousand of the pink concoctions each day, the $30 price tag is hardly proving to be an obstacle.
We certainly didn't let it prevent our daily visits to the Writers Bar in the lobby. The bar was so named to celebrate Noel Coward, Joseph Conrad, et al, without whom Raffles would not be what it is today. And whilst my literary genius is yet to be discovered, I did rather enjoy this legacy from my more illustrious predecessors.
Sitting in a beautiful brocaded armchair, sipping on Billecart-Salmon champagne created exclusively for Raffles' 125th birthday (which after much testing I can advise is a very nice drop), and eating extremely addictive cheese and pistachio cookies, I can report a writer's life at Raffles can indeed be rather a pleasant one.
Especially when, after a hard day under the frangipani tree, you return to your gracefully appointed suite with its lofty 4.6m stud, enormous bedroom and entrance hall; complete with grand arches, antique furniture and teak flooring.
With so much sumptuous space and elegance, it's rather too easy to contemplate a prolonged residence - no wonder James Michener considered it his second home.
Just be careful, though, not to mistake the butler's call bell for one of the numerous light switches, as I did at 2am - although I can testify the butlers are remarkably obliging at that unreasonable hour.
That is Raffles' philosophy: all guests are treated to the same level of superb service, whether you're visiting royalty in the Presidential Suite or a humble writer in more modest accommodation.
Not that any of the suites at Raffles can accurately be described as modest. They're all much grander affairs than you'll find in most modern hotels, which, unfortunately, made it very difficult for us to find a reason to leave our suite.
Completely renovated, Raffles' century-plus of service looks set to continue indefinitely. Photo / Supplied
Having said that, I can recommend the rooftop pool as a worthy excursion. I can't think of a better way to enjoy the tropical heat than lazing in the palm-fringed oasis, surrounded by skyscrapers, while sipping ice-cold mineral water and nibbling on skewers of chilled fruit - delivered at regular intervals by an obliging waiter.
No doubt a workout in the gym would have been a more effective means of working up an appetite, but I found a few lazy lengths of the pool worked sufficiently well.
A healthy appetite is an essential requirement at Raffles. For a start there's breakfast, where I managed to consume the value of a night's accommodation in deliciously ripe French cheeses, not to mention the divine masala omelette I ordered each morning to follow (well cooked, as the staff diligently remembered), and platters upon platters of tropical fruit.
Then, of course, there are the famed tiffin curries in the Tiffin Room. What started out as a single dish on the hotel's menu in 1899, quickly became world famous, and the hotel began packaging the powder and selling it as far away as Japan and Australia.
The reputation of the mild, spicy curries became such that, in 1978, Princess Sonia of Norway requested one on her visit to Singapore. She probably didn't join the nightly buffet for it, but we did, and boy, was I pleased I'd done those extra lengths of the pool earlier in the day.
For me. Raffles' Courtyard sums up everything I loved about the hotel. Dining al fresco on delicious Italian food, in the tropical heat, surrounded by colonial architecture and swaying palm trees, is, as Raffles' former manager so succinctly put it, tropical living at its finest.
So, like many travellers before me, I'm already planning a return to my new home away from home; because though I'm sure my presence has done little to contribute to Raffles' fame and fortune, it has sprinkled a little of its stardust on me.
And I'm very happy with a glass of Billecart-Salmon champagne instead of water from the traveller's palm: the spectacular Madagascan native that embodies the philosophy at Raffles' Hotel.
Folklore tells that this magnificent palm drew in thankful travellers of old, who quenched their thirst with the water stored in the base of its leaves, and the orientation of the leaves in an east-west direction provided an informal compass to guide them home.
For this reason Raffles has adopted the palm as its icon. It is an assurance to guests that they have found their way home.
The Raffles experience
All rooms at Raffles are suites and prices vary, but they can start as low as $700 per night. I would recommend, if you can afford the additional cost, to book a Courtyard Suite or a Palm Court Suite: the atmosphere overlooking the inner courtyards is delightful.
Be aware that the Personality Suites are not where actual celebrities stayed, but suites named in their honour. You won't be sleeping in the same bed as Rudyard Kipling.
To really splash out, the Presidential Suite is fabulous: $10,000 a night. If the thought of spending over $700 a night on a room leaves you light-headed, there are other ways to enjoy Raffles. Visit the hotel's food and beverage outlets, shop in Raffles Arcade or stroll in the gardens. It would be a shame to visit Singapore and not experience Raffles.
Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies daily from Auckland to Singapore with an A380.
Further information: See raffles.com to make a booking.