Travel: Sling yourself into Singapore’s spirit
- Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images
This city-state has a world-class hotel in Raffles, but its blend of antiquity and futuristic designs proves a potent cocktail for Jon Dean
If someone asked you to name the most famous hotel in the world, what would you say?
The Ritz is a definite possibility; the Plaza; maybe that shark fin one in Dubai.
But pretty high on most people’s list would be Raffles, in Singapore – favourite of Rudyard Kipling, home of the Singapore Sling and monument to colonial elegance amidst a bustling modern metropolis.
The story of this remarkable establishment is a fascinating one; intertwined with the history of the island state itself.
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First established by a pair of Armenian brothers in 1887 on what was then the coast (Beach Road today looks like a massive misnomer) it was named after Stamford Raffles – the founder of Singapore.
The height of sophistication at the turn of the century (featuring, as it did, electric lights) it quickly found favour with the likes of Somerset Maugham, then latterly Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock, as well as royalty from around the world.
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Despite the odd tiger attack (a wild cat found its way into the billiard room in 1902 and hid under the table from terrified guests before reportedly becoming the last tiger shot in Singapore) the hotel continued to be popular, with plenty of distinguished visitors and bartender Ngiam Tong Boon creating the Singapore Sling.
The came the recession, and the Second World War – rumour has it the Raffles ballroom saw one last dance as the Japanese invaders approached – during which Raffles was used for prisoners of war.
It closed in 1989 for a colossal $160million overhaul, and today stands proudly as one of Singapore’s best known buildings – complete with iconic liveried Sikh doormen and an impressive array of classic cars permanently on the gravel drive.
But what’s it like to stay in? Lovely.
The sense of history was inescapable as we wandered the elegant white corridors, palm fronded courtyards and huge, sweeping staircases.
Pictures of famous guests – world leaders, statesmen and superstars – adorn the walls and even the name of our room, the Charlie Chaplin suite, gives you an idea of the calibre of visitor the place has enjoyed over the years.
It’s a huge complex – incorporating several restaurants, bars, shops, gardens, billiard room (no longer avec tiger), outdoor pool and so on and so forth.
It’s possible to amble happily around here for a good day, or at least an afternoon, without getting bored at all; sauntering, shopping, getting lost, marvelling at the architecture, imbibing a few slings and monkey nuts at the Long Bar (a right of passage for all visitors to Singapore) and generally feeling like part of the erstwhile British Empire.
Dinner is a cinch – our indulgent meal at the Raffles Grill was a dream; incorporating cool oysters, giant langostine, incredible cuts of beef, foi gras, all the things you’d expect from a luxurious meal at a top end hotel.
But despite the scale and comfort of Raffles, there’s a vibrant, bustling city out there that needs exploring.
In some ways incongruous amid the dusty chaos of much of south east Asia, Singapore is a sleek, modern conurbation with a well run tube, skyscrapers for days and hotels that look like they belong in the future.
The Marina Bay Sands is particularly crazy – a
kind of surfboard on top of three skyscraper legs, complete with casino on nightclub on top.
Right next door is the Gardens by the Bay, litterred with giant, man-made ‘supertrees’ which, with concrete trunks and steel branches, stand as tall as the giant buildings around.
Every night, this metal canopy lights up in fluorescent wonder, eerie iridescences pulsing in time to music as awestruck tourists, including us, gasp below. There’s nothing remotely like it in London.
As you’d expect, Singapore has more shopping than you could shake a stick at, from ultra modern malls and super-swish Orchard Street to the cool and calm colonial district, all of which make for some pleasant retail therapy – if you like that sort of thing.
But, in one of the most charming aspects of Singapore, amid the modern maelstrom there are heaving pockets of antiquity.
Chinatown, for example – where myriad stalls sell tat, lanterns guide your way and dumplings abound; Little India – a hustling, bustling snapshot of the subcontinent; and the ubiquitous street food markets, dotted across the city, where you can snack on some of the best grub in this part of Asia at a price that belies Singapore’s expensive reputation.
And if you need respite from the hot, humid city, the impressive open plan zoo or the island village of Plau Ubin provide a slower pace.
A trip to Singapore tends to be a two to four day affair, which is about right, and one of the must do attractions is a visit to Raffles’ long bar for a sling. But actually staying there is a bit of a ‘bucket list’ ticker. If you can go the whole hog, do.