Lee Cobaj is pleasantly surprised by a makeover that adds wow factor while retaining the spirit of Raffles Singapore
"Keep young and beautiful ... if you want to be loved." This 30s ditty plays in my mind as I sip from a long-stem glass of Eternal Youth, a heady cocktail of Billecart-Salmon champagne, 1915 gin and lemon vermouth. It's being served to me in the Writers Bar at Raffles Singapore, Asia's grandest of grand dames, newly unveiled following a two-year facelift so wildly expensive that the owners think it vulgar to mention the actual cost.
"We have undertaken the most intensive and extensive renovation possible," Christian Westbeld, the general manager, tells me. "It's not just the rooms, restaurants and public spaces that have been updated, but also the plumbing, electrics, air-conditioning, kitchens, even our collection of antiques — the Steinway piano and the grandfather clock."
Raffles is a classic, a bright-white bouquet of colonial-era architecture and palm-painted gardens squeezed between skyscrapers in the heart of Singapore. Named after Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, it has been declared a national monument, immortalised in novels, film and song, with a guest list including everyone from Noël Coward, Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling to Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor and Nelson Mandela. To mess with such gorgeous heritage is a dangerous thing. I arrive for my third visit hoping that any improvements won't have altered the DNA of the hotel too much.
First impressions are reassuring - that instantly recognisable white wedding cake facade remains unchanged, as does the cast-iron veranda and red-carpeted entrance guarded by handsome Sikh doormen.
As I venture inside I can't help but let out a gasp — a great big, "Oh!" Is it a good "oh" or a bad "oh"? I'm not sure for a moment. The three-storey atrium lobby is essentially the same — the Corinthian columns, teak balconies, skylight and crossbeams all where they should be — but the overall look is lighter and brighter, dazzlingly so.
My eyes are immediately drawn upwards to an enormous, impossible-to-miss chandelier, a new addition, its silvery arms filling the air with Venetian glass and glittering crystals.
Elsewhere, the flowery detailing on the columns and cornices is sharper and prettier, the marble floor so white and shiny I could reapply my lipstick in it, and the ruby-red rug and chintzy wing chairs from before have been replaced with a palette of muted greys, browns and beige. Every piece of furniture is bespoke. Where walking into Raffles always felt like strolling into a sepia-toned photograph, it now feels like a vibrant high-definition experience. I decide it's a good "oh".
There's plenty more to eye-up throughout the rest of the hotel, too. Chief among the improvements: the revitalisation of 10 bars and restaurants, which includes La Dame de Pic, from Anne-Sophie Pic, the three Michelin-starred French chef. The decor is tres chic, all champagne, cream and rose tones, buttery leathers and hoops of gold. The service is synchronised to balletic levels and every dish — pasta parcels filled with fondue and chou cao herb, Tajima wagyu beef with osmanthus-infused broth, cubes of white mille-feuille — comes as a wonderful surprise.
Future foodie additions will include a Chinese restaurant from Jereme Leung (opening in September) and a Mediterranean restaurant from Alain Ducasse (also September), but it would be a pity to miss at least one meal in the terrific Tiffin Room, the longest-serving restaurant in Singapore, with its velvety paneer, gunpowder-hot curries and ambience.
The Long Bar, another Raffles institution, with its well-known carpet of peanut shells scattered across the floor, also remains in situ. The dark woody interiors have been painted and polished and the 104-year-old recipe for the Singapore Sling updated to a less cloying concoction. What does remain, however, is the long line of noisy camera-toting tourists forever queued outside the door.
Another talking point is the remodelling of the rooftop swimming pool, which remains the same size but now feels twice as large thanks to the addition of ivory-white floor tiles, less obtrusive greenery and outdoor furniture.
Then there's the spa. Previously small and unremarkable, it has been relocated from the corner of the rooftop to the ground-floor Raffles Arcade, and expanded to include seven treatment rooms, "tranquillity" rest areas and male and female suites with whirlpool baths, steam rooms and saunas.
But it's in the suites where I feel most relaxed and at home. A bit of architectural jiggling has increased their numbers from 103 to 115, without sacrificing any of the previous space.
My suite (there are only suites at Raffles), is one of 12 named after renowned guests (Somerset Maugham, Ava Gardner, Pablo Neruda). They're located in the Palm Court Wing, a part of the building that dates back to the 1890s and has retained the tripartite layout, which incorporates a bedroom, parlour and balcony.
They feel spacious, sumptuous, sexy even, in a kind of star-studded, update-of-an-Agatha-Christie-film way. The deep reds of the past are out, now richly decorated in white wood panelling and jewel blues and adorned with fine furniture, soft fabrics and subtle contemporary artworks, as well as some lovely little touches like a pillow menu, complimentary pressing and minibars disguised in vintage-style leather travelling trunks filled with complimentary drinks and jars of toffees and nuts. The proposition is just too beautiful to leave — so I don't, spending three nights, feeling not in the least bit guilty having visited Singapore too many times to count and aware of what a special experience it is. Has Raffles remained young and beautiful? Without a doubt. Will she continue to be loved? Well, yes. Certainly by me.
GETTING THERE: Singapore Airlines flies direct to Changi from Auckland.
DETAILS: Suites at Raffles start from $975.
— Telegraph Media Group