‘To have been young and had a room at Raffles was life at its best’ – James Michener
Have you ever had that sudden sensation that you’re starring in a movie of your own life? A moment so incredible that you just have to take a deep breath, pinch yourself, and murmur ‘this is really happening.’?
I was filled with this exact impression as I crossed the threshold into the foyer of Raffles. Escaping the cloying, Singapore humidity and the cluster of tourists with selfie-sticks, it was the closest I’ve ever felt to stepping back in time – to an era of silken dresses, top-hat-and-tails, and cocktails before dinner. The ceiling fans whirred overhead with their soporific murmur; the clink of china could be heard from those enjoying Afternoon Tea in the Tiffin Room; and the harmonious notes of a harp drifted upwards, towards the ceiling of the grand atrium lobby.
Raffles is as intrinsic to Singapore as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. It has become widely known as one of the most iconic hotels in the world, and visitors flock every day to absorb the wonder of its colonial charm – it is, after all, one of the few remaining great 19th century hotels in the world. However, only guests or those visiting the various bars or restaurants inside the building can tread the crimson carpet towards the inner sanctum. And, since I was staying the night in a Palm Court Suite, I felt the thrill of being one of those lucky ones.
Raffles ‘stands for all the fables of the exotic East’ – Somerset Maugham
The hotel was opened in 1887, and is named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who, in 1819, stuck his flag in the ground and signed a treaty to develop the southern part of Singapore into a British Trading Post. Since then it has been frequented by statesmen, authors, nobility, and simply those wishing to indulge in a serene and graceful stay when visiting the vibrant melting pot of Singapore.
There is something about the place that radiates the exotic – a heady, mythical charm that captures the imagination and makes the heart beat faster. The hotel grounds themselves are spread across Raffles Arcade, where there is also the Long Bar (famous for the iconic drink, the Singapore Sling), and cream walkways of luxury shops. But the main event is the hotel. Only guests can enter the lobby – met by a dapper concierge who exudes ultimate hospitality – and wander the lush fern grounds within.
A Tour of the Hotel
So many names fly from Raffles – The Tiffin Room; the Raffles Grill; the Writer’s Bar. It is no wonder that it is such a catalyst for the creative imagination – famous authors such as Hemingway, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling have all stayed here, fallen under the spell of the hotel’s charm, and subsequently had suites named after them. Entering the open lobby one can’t help but look high to the atrium celing, eyes scanning the banisters that wind around each floor. The tinkling keys of a piano might be playing next to the bar, or a harp’s chords from The Tiffin room, where breakfast is taken or the famous Afternoon Tea is enjoyed (piles of sumptuous cakes, succulent bites of dim sum, and fragrant tea). Authentic Tiffin boxes add to the rooms heritage, and original tiles have been carefully moved.
In fact, wandering around Raffles is almost like being in a beautiful, living museum of colonial times. This love of restoration and preservation is what makes Raffles even more impressive, and seeking out the brass crests identifying the original furnishings is half the fun. A glorious grandfather clock stands in the hallway, and is an actual antique piece from the first days of the hotel. In the Raffles Grill is a silver roast meat trolley that the servants buried during the Japanese occupation, and a billiard table in the Bar & Billiard Room is also an original, and stood there during that famous time that a tiger escaped underneath the foundations.
These incredible pieces only highlight that a visit to Raffles offers something unique – a chance to be part of history, and a sense of stepping back to that era of intoxicating wonder.
Raffles “is a gay place and the fun does not usually begin until late at night” – F. J. Dongharty
Waking up in the Palm Court Suite at Raffles, I can barely believe that I am in that fizzing, chaotic city of Singapore. There is an indefinable peace and serenity, and the rest of civilisation has melted away. These rooms are accessed via a marble tiled walkway that surrounds the patch of grass that is the Palm Court – waving fronds of waxy, tropical plants add a splash of emerald colour and further emphasise the magic of the Far East. The air is humid, and there’s the fragrance of the exotic. Sitting at my whicker table, taking morning coffee and writing my letters home, I almost expect a man to come hurrying up carrying a telegram that brings news of 1930s Britain. I’m completely lost in the moment.
The room itself is a nod to all things refined and elegant – a huge, comfortable bed; soft cream walls warmed by the glow of golden lamps; drapes that separate the bedroom from a little parlour; and dark wood furniture that holds that evocative scent of polish and history. I have never entered a hotel room and simply wanted to soak it up before – the very air is laden with secrets and whispers from years gone by.
The Long Bar
No visit to Raffles, and indeed Singapore, would be complete without trying the famous Singapore Sling. This cocktail was invented by barman Ngiam Tong Boon in 1915, who realised that the ladies might like a refreshing tipple before dinner as well as the gentlemen. Still, etiquette dictated they not drink hard liquor in public – so how about a drink that looked like fruit juice?! Naturally it was a hit, and this mixture that includes gin, cherry Heering, Benedictine and Cointreau was created – refreshing, slightly sweet, and a blushing pink colour so the females could have it all to themselves. These days men and women alike flock to The Long Bar to try a Singapore Sling, and this year marked the 100th anniversary of the cocktail. The best way to enjoy one is sitting in the Long Bar, nibbling on monkey nuts and throwing the shells onto the ground (here is perhaps the only places in Singapore one is encouraged to litter!), listening to the excited chatter that surrounds you.
So what is it that makes this iconic hotel hold such exotic, mystical allure to so many? Since it opened over 125 years ago, other hotels have sprung up that are more luxurious, more innovative, more trendy – and yet Raffles holds its own. And I think this is the key – because Raffles isn’t trying to do any of those things . It doesn’t need to. Staying here, it becomes so evident that it has something that you can’t buy or construct – that sense of history, of days gone by of a more genteel, more sedate pace of life. Move through the grand lobby and feel your body sway to the music, as so many before you will have done; imagine the sight of perfectly coiffed ladies, dressed in silk for dinner, descending the huge staircase. Raffles is a place of dancing and cocktails, of joie de vivre, of muffled giggles beneath a velvet, star-strewn sky as the band play one more number in the ballroom.
It continues to be a restorative for any souls that might find themselves world-weary, and a spark of inspiration for anyone looking to recapture a glorious era. In a world of shouting and vying to be number 1, Raffles quietly and confidently reigns supreme.