The Grand Dame: Singapore’s Raffles Hotel

A postcard photo of Raffles Hotel in the early 1900s

131 years ago, this beautiful façade opened in the heart of Singapore and has been an iconic landmark ever since. Singapore’s famed Raffles Hotel reopened in August last year after a two-year restoration break.

It’s clear a visit to this colonial-styled hotel is going to be special, especially when you are whisked in by a car. When the car pulls into the circular driveway, the crunch of the gravel gives the place an air of Downtown Abbey, but the hotel’s signature Sikh doormen in their white turbans and ornate uniforms soon remind you that you are in ex-colonial territory.

A big part of the hotel’s charm its storied history, starting from the Sarkies Brothers who built the hotel in the late 19th century. Born in Iran but ethnically Armenians, the three brothers: Martin, Tigran, and Aviet were known for founding a chain of luxury hotels through Southeast Asia.

Since the Raffles’ opening in 1887, it has played hosts to an “A-list” of kings and queens, politicians, writers, and not a few Hollywood stars. The novelist Somerset Maugham used to spend his mornings under a frangipani tree in the hotel’s Palm Court to be inspired by the conversations taking place around him. The Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, who was the first Chilean Consul General to Singapore, was also the first to romanticize the idea of having gin and tonic on the verandah of the Raffles Suite. Other luminaries who walked through its doors include Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner and King Edward VIII. They would have been ushered into famous Long Bar, the birthplace of the signature Singapore Sling (first concocted in 1915), or the Writer’s Bar, a small but sophisticated place off the lobby, or the Tiffin Room, which has served North Indian cuisine in tiffin containers since 1892. For Pico Iyer, who had a stint as writer-in-residence at the Raffles, the “ultimate moment is the early evening, maybe six o’clock, (when) you sit out on the verandah drinking a cup of tea of something stronger and you have a book there or a diary or a postcard, the wind is coming in and off the sea taking the heat off the day.” I’m drooling for a revisit to this “Gem of the East.”

The hotel was established by the Sarkies Brothers (pictured) who were well-known as the foremost hoteliers of the East during the Straits Settlements period in the late 19th century.
The glamorous Ava Gardner at the hotel back in the 1950s.
Noel Coward’s classic melody, “I’ll see You Again” is played each evening when the grandfather clock in the Grand Lobby strikes eight, bidding guests a fond farewell.
The Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, who was the first Chilean Consul General to Singapore was also the first to romanticize the idea of having gin and tonic on the verandah of the Raffles Suite.
In 1921, the well-known British playwright and novelist Somerset Maugham made the first of his many visits to the hotel. Legend has it that he used to spend his mornings under a frangipani tree in the Palm Court to be inspired by the conversations taking place around him.
The refurbished Raffles in August 2019
The hotel’s long-serving Sikh Doormen are an instant reminder that you are in ex-colonial territory.
Lush palm trees around the courtyard
The hotel’s grand staircase
Three floors of classic elegance
The timeless beauty of the hotel’s famed corridors.
An intimate courtyard suite
“The only hotel in the Straits lighted with electricity, electric bulbs and electric fans” – advertisement in 1899.
The refurbished Residential Suite living room.
Sunny verandahs, marble walkways and lush greenery surround the hotel.
Some of the hotel’s spacious verandahs have become lounge areas, a reminder of the laidback vibe of Singapore’s colonial days.
The cast-iron fountain in the Palm Garden.
The elegant Raffles Hotel lobby has been the venue of countless storied dining parties and events.
The Triffin Room has served the flavors of North Indian cuisines since 1892.
The Raffles Grill, a popular venue for power lunches.
Next to an evening lounge is the Long Bar with the famed Singapore sling (first concocted in 1915) is English afternoon tea to while away the hours and beat the tropical heat.
The pristine-white façade bathed in the evening light.

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