Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Raffles hotel, Singapore - a fellah can dream can't he?

Let me whisk you away for a few minutes to another world and a place that might even be regarded by some as harking back to a bygone era.

Sit back, close your maybe not otherwise you won't be able to read what follows....and join me as I recount a recent stopover in Singapore and a stay at Number 1 Beach Road.

That's the address of the Raffles hotel, a place steeped in history (potted version to follow - more detail can be found here) and one of those magical names that conjures up all sorts of romantic images of a gentler, more genteel time perhaps.

Now let me admit straight up that I'm not in the habit of frequenting the watering holes and resting places of the rich and famous - far from it. Because that's what in a very real sense the Raffles hotel is.

It combines luxury with tradition, perhaps a little out of place in these times of financial woes and is definitely the stomping ground of those with probably more sense than money, world leaders and dignitaries, A-list celebrities and the like.

So what, you might wonder, was I doing there? Well it was a combination of factors really.

It's one of those hotels (along with the Old Cataract in Aswan) I've always wanted to visit, and I got the chance last week, partially as a late Christmas present from my nearest and dearest (lucky me) but also as a reward for overcoming my fear of flying and agreeing to force myself on into an oversized lump of metal to fly half way around the world in search of some winter sunshine.

Just one night mind you, and these are some of my impressions as I poked my nose through the door to see how the so-called "other half" lives.

The Raffles is of course rich with history and tradition.

Even though it's rather a throwback to British colonialism (writ large), certainly in terms of architecture and custom, it was in fact founded over 120 years ago by four Armenian brothers, Martin, Tigran, Aviet, and Arshak Sarkies.

It is without doubt a Singapore landmark and has been declared a national monument by the government. Its heyday was probably the first couple of decades of the last century, and it has in its time seen the great and glorious pass through its doors.

If its pristine white walls could talk they would probably have more than a few tales to tell.

The hotel bears the name of the founder of Singapore, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles and it survived World War II and the Japanese occupation.

It closed for business two decades ago to undergo a serious multi-million dollar makeover, reopening in 1991. It has also changed hands several times and is now owned by a private international investment company based in Los Angeles.

So much for the past (a reminder once again that you can find out more should you wish to at the hotel's official website here) how about the present?

What exactly do those with deep pockets get for their money.

Well it doesn't come cheap, that's for sure.

Perhaps I shouldn't have (after all I wasn't coughing up the spondoolicks for an overnight stay) but I checked out the rates and GULP they start at something like 690 Singapore dollars (around $US 444 or €335 Euros) for the hotels simplest suites - the hotel doesn't have any "rooms" - rising to goodness knows what at the highest end of the range.

I guess it's a question of "If you have to ask, then you can't afford."

For that you get a warm and personalised welcome when you enter the voluminous lobby and you're escorted to your room - er sorry suite - by a member of staff.

Once there, all the buttons, knobs and doodahs of exquisitely furnished "quarters" are explained, your own personal butler drops by and then you're left to wallow in the splendour.

Now a note on the butler. Of course it's all very charming to have someone around who will cater to your every whim and fancy, but it's also a little disconcerting as such a service is usually carried out by the hotel concierge and unless you're tremendously exigent, you'll be hard-pushed to really find a use for him.

The most I managed was to have him book a table at one of the hotel's eight or so restaurants (I rather lost count).

The principle at Raffles seems to be that anyone staying at the hotel is not treated as a guest but as a resident, and such service, attention to detail and all round pampering can at times be more than a little overwhelming.

Spending just one night there of course didn't really give me the chance to experience all it has to offer, the billiard room, the spa, the pool, the splendid gardens or the shopping, but of course no visit to the Raffles - be it as a "resident" or just dropping in for a quick look around - would be complete without trying out the legendary Long Bar and knocking back a Singapore Sling, invented and first served there around a century ago.

Here's the recipe for anyone who's interested.

I had been warned in advance what to expect - a mixture of businessmen, tourists, ex-pats - sat at the bar or at tables overhung with huge wicker fans, music in the background and monkey nut shells all over the floor.

You see tradition has it that as you munch your way through the nuts distributed freely around the place, you deposit the shells - where else but on the floor.

"It's all very British," I had been told by a good friend - a foreigner who clearly must believe it's typical behaviour of my fellow countrymen. But to be quite honest everyone joins in and does as tradition dictates.

So there you go - the briefest of looks at the Raffles hotel.

Time to for me to return to reality and struggle home through the rain and the rush hour traffic.

It was certainly one of my personal "must dos before the Grim Reaper beckons" crossed of my wish list, but would I really have forked out the money to stay at the Raffles from my own wallet?

Perhaps but probably not.

There again, I'm always open to offers to make a return trip there (or anywhere else for that matter) if anyone is willing to sponsor me to indulge myself on wanton pleasure at their expense.

I'll even promise to write about it afterwards.

Well a fellah can dream can't he?

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