In the past two years, the venerable Singapore stalwart, Raffles, has more resembled an installation by Christo and Jeanne-Claude than a luxury hotel, as it was quite literally kept under wraps during an extensive renovation. Singapore without Raffles is a bit like Cairo without the pyramids, so anticipation has been high for the grand reopening. Raffles is one of the few remaining 19th century colonial hotels worldwide that is architecturally intact and some loved its slightly musty air, fearing a bold renovation would brutalize its historic charms, even though it was badly in need of a technological update. Now that the doors have opened, there are smiles all round. The new Raffles is gleaming, modernised and luxed-up, for sure, but it’s also sexy, which is the last thing anyone expected to discover.
Style & Surrounds
The design? Raffles is a designated National Monument, dating from 1887, built in high colonial style, wrapped in marble colonnades that seemingly go for miles and open onto tropical gardens and manicured lawns. Historical details such as shuttered parlors in the suites, wood paneling and elaborate cast iron gates survive two renovations. New York-based interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud and her team of architects were engaged to massively overhaul the outdated technology and bring warmth and modernity to the interiors. They’ve cleverly avoided trends and anachronistic show-off pieces. It now feels airy and feminine, rather than clubby and stale.
The scene? Low-key, sophisticated, connoisseur. Ladies in pert hats take afternoon tea in the lobby; the beautiful new Writer’s Bar attracts a hipper crowd at night. The pretty-in-pink La Dame de Pic by Anne-Sophie Pic should attract some Michelin stars and create its own buzz.
The dress code? No code, but why not dress up, especially for afternoon tea in the lobby? Most guests and visitors seem to make an effort, but it’s probably not glitzy or scene-y enough for Crazy Rich Asians. They’ll stick to Marina Bay Sands.
The surrounds? Raffles occupies an entire city block with four street entrances, including a revitalized shopping arcade carrying the boutiques of travel and lifestyle brands such as Leica, Rimowa and Minotti, as well as art galleries, a barber and florist. The legendary Long Bar, serving Singapore Slings since 1915, is a mandatory stop for tour groups, but worth a visit if even to taste the reinvented Sling, which now, thankfully, is less sickly-sweet. Across the road, Raffles City offers all the usual shopping mall distractions. It’s only a short walk to the river and the National Gallery although, frankly, staying within Raffles’ cool and elegant confines is a more attractive concept than venturing out into the heat.
Day beyond the hotel? As long as Singapore’s infamous humidity doesn’t get you, it’s an easy city to explore. The Raffles concierge will arrange a car and authorized guide if desired. It’s only a few minutes from Singapore’s popular neighborhoods, Little India, Chinatown and Arab Street or the fantasy dreamscapes of Gardens by the Bay.
What character from fiction would set up camp here? Killing Eve’s Villanelle would be right at home in the sparkling white lobby wearing her pink tulle dress. There’s a faintly sinister air of spies and foreign correspondents that still lingers around the rattan chairs and wood-paneled hallways. But there’s plenty of spruced-up new glamour to appeal to the most finicky of fashion-conscious serial killers.
The room: Palm Court Suite 254.
The room type: The Palm Court suites are in the oldest part of the building. Mine is one of twelve suites named after famous guests, although they don’t differ in size to other rooms. My butler tells me my suite is known as the Noel Coward suite (Noel’s autobiography is on the bookshelf) but the face of legendary British journalist Gavin Young is on the key card, which is a touch confusing. Raffles has introduced four new Residence Suites, comprising one or two bedrooms, and two new suites overlooking the front of the building – the Lady Mountbatten Suite and the Lady Sophia Suite (for the wife of Singapore’s founder Sir Stamford Raffles). The Presidential Suite and Grand Hotel suites in the main body of the building have been given new interiors. The Presidential Suite is unexpectedly feminine, as befitting the (hopefully) increasing numbers of women presidents who might occupy it.
Bolt-hole, palatial or something in-between? It’s pretty plush - colonial charm with modern comforts such as large-screen TVs and a wall of closets. Suites include a parlor sitting room, a high-ceilinged bedroom with original timber floors and four-poster king-size bed, as well as a bathroom big enough for former guest John Wayne and his horse to rattle around in. Timber shutters and doors separate the parlor from the bedroom, and modern artworks adorn the walls. Yes, there are ceiling fans!
Room with a view? Some Palm Court suites open onto wide verandas that overlook the frangipani-edged lawn; others view courtyard gardens crowded with palms and other tropical trees. A few suites, like mine, are close to the road, although newly double-glazed windows cut out much of the noise. Avoid these if you can - they bring the modern world too abruptly into the scene.
Tub, towels, and toiletries? White shuttered windows, marble walls and a striking black and white patterned tile floor makes this a bathroom to linger in. There’s a deep, heritage-style acrylic tub with chrome hardware and – hooray – a substantial bath pillow. The butlers will draw a nightly bubble bath if that’s desired. (I would have liked some mood lighting as well.) There are two vanities, a separate marble shower stall and a separate toilet. Amenities are Isfarkand by Ormonde Jayne, a lime-basil-mandarin-cedar blend. High-gauge sheets are Fili D’oro by Gastaldi. The thick white towels and heavy cotton robes all bear Raffles’ peacock insignia.
The turndown touches? Blue and white Chinese slippers in an organza bag. The novel I was reading gained a dainty copper Raffles-insignia book mark.
If you could, what would you steal? The steamer trunk-style leather mini bar lined in burnt orange, which has compartments for glasses, cups, bottled drinks, tea and coffee, a Nespresso machine and kettle – but it would take my luggage allowance way over the limit.
Room for improvement? There are iPads for room controls, which seem a little out of place, but they’re fairly intuitive to use. Happily, for the technologically challenged, there are also old-fashioned switches. Nevertheless, I still spent too much time working out the lighting because of the compartmentalized layout of the suite.
Lobby, Bar & Amenities
If you weren’t staying here, would you go to the restaurant? Destination restaurant La Dame de Pic replaces the Raffles Grill, which was a rather dreary dining room. The soft pink, slate grey and plum-colored room, which features a gold chandelier made of cascading laser-cut spades (a play on the restaurant’s name, which translates as ‘the Queen of Spades’), works beautifully as the backdrop to Anne-Sophie Pic’s playful, minimalist dishes, interpreted by Chef de Cuisine Kevin Gatin. The disarmingly simple, subtly flavored, elegantly presented dishes are about as far from Chilli Crab as you can get. Will Singaporeans go for it? Pic has several Michelin stars sprinkled across her three restaurants in Paris, London and regional France and that will certainly be a drawcard, but the Singapore outpost also feels unpretentious, a comfortable room you want to be in now, eating food that looks dazzling but also tastes like a series of bliss bombs, exploding with nutrition and flavor.
If you weren’t staying here, would you go to the bar? The old Writer’s Bar was beloved, but it was in fact an unfriendly, gated-off section of the lobby. The new bar pays homage to the writers, most notably Somerset Maugham and James Michener, who lingered over drinks in the original. Vintage typewriters and antiquarian books line its shelves, the walls are hand-painted with palm fronds and there are cushy leather banquettes along the window. The bar itself is an impressive swirl of brass. The signature cocktail, Eternal Youth, is named for regular guest Elizabeth Taylor, and is a swell concoction of champagne, gin, lemon vermouth, flavored with Forever Elizabeth perfume. (More delicious than it sounds.)
Room service? Raffles was the first hotel in the world to introduce private butlers. These days, guests are greeted by their butler upon arrival at the portico and swiftly taken to their suite for check in. Young and enthusiastic, Raffles’ butlers are genuinely keen to be of service – summoned by the tap of an iPad, they’re not the type that disappears after check in, never to be seen again, which is sometimes the case with hotel butlers. If you don’t want to join the scrum at the Long Bar, for instance, they’ll deliver a Singapore Sling all the way to your suite. The in-suite dining menu offers oriental specialities such as satay, dim sum, Singapore Laksa and chicken rice, as well as the usual European standbys. The mini bar selection includes Chalong Bay rum from Thailand and Kavalan single malt whiskey from Taiwan.
The breakfast? Served buffet-style in the Tiffin Room, it’s not one of those buffets that go for miles, but decisions are still difficult. The quality is excellent, especially the fine French pastries (the coconut-stuffed brioche is a standout.) Hot dishes include Nasi Lemak, crab cakes and Raffles signature omelette with masala, chilli and coriander. The Tiffin Room, a beautiful space divided by shelves of blue and white vintage tiffin containers, serves North Indian cuisine for lunch and dinner.
Bring a bathing suit? Yes, there’s an outdoor pool and bar on the 3rd level, set among the high-rises.
Salon, spa and treatments: 24-hour gym with Technogym treadmills, elliptical equipment and free weights. The spa has been relocated and expanded to include a VIP room, called The Gem, with private facilities, including a bowl-shaped vitality pool. Currently the treatments are evolving – I tried a good but fairly standard 75-minute Swedish massage but I expect that the spa menu will offer something more intriguing in future.
Be warned about: Residents are required by Singapore law to register all occupants of a suite, so you need to notify your butler if you’re bringing someone home after midnight, which might be a passion killer.