The new Raffles: a look inside one of the world's most famous hotels

An extensive renovation brings the iconic 132-year-old hotel into the 21st century while retaining a timeless grace.

By David Flynn, October 20 2019

It’s clear a visit to Singapore’s Raffles Hotel is going to be special when your car pulls into the circular driveway. The crunch of gravel gives the place an air of Downton Abbey, but the hotel’s famed Sikh doormen, in their white turbans and ornate uniforms, are an instant reminder that you’re firmly in ex-colonial territory.

Before you’ve uttered a single word, the hotel knows more about you than you might think. To personalize guests’ experiences, their profiles start to be reviewed about two weeks ahead of arrival, according to Grace Kiong, the hotel’s head butler.

This attention to detail ensures that when a visitor arrives, their personal butler – every suite gets one – is one step ahead when it comes to anticipating their possible needs.

As dawn breaks, the windows of Raffles Singapore glow from within, as they have done for decades.
As dawn breaks, the windows of Raffles Singapore glow from within, as they have done for decades.

After alighting from your car, it’s just a few paces to the red carpet, where staff open the door and a wave of serene elegance washes over you. The lobby itself is a beautiful location for an afternoon tea, with parlor seating, a crystal chandelier and stairs leading to higher floors in the back.

The liveried Sikh doormen⁠ – this is Narajan Singh⁠ – are the first staff members to greet guests, from weary tourists to heads of state. They’ve been known to go above and beyond. In 1904, a wild boar on its way to market gave its owner the slip and ran into the hotel, where one particularly athletic staff member was said to have wrestled with it on the ground.
The liveried Sikh doormen⁠ – this is Narajan Singh⁠ – are the first staff members to greet guests, from weary tourists to heads of state. They’ve been known to go above and beyond. In 1904, a wild boar on its way to market gave its owner the slip and ran into the hotel, where one particularly athletic staff member was said to have wrestled with it on the ground.

Raffles, which hosts a grand reopening festival on Friday following an extensive renovation that brought the icon into the 21st century, has hosted everyone from Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling, to Elizabeth Taylor and King Edward VIII (the monarch who abdicated the British throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson)

From humble beginnings in 1887,  when it was originally built as a beach house – before land reclamation and the march of modernity left the property positioned in a busy downtown area, flanked by main roads and high-rise buildings – it now houses a variety of restaurants, bars and numerous upscale shops, in addition to its luxury suites.

In the Grand Lobby, the eyes are drawn upward to a single glittering chandelier, made in Prague and boasting 8,142 crystals.
In the Grand Lobby, the eyes are drawn upward to a single glittering chandelier, made in Prague and boasting 8,142 crystals.

“For me the very special grace of Raffles is that it offers such intimacy and such a sense of quiet and of privacy,” Pico Iyer, the essayist and novelist who recently completed a stint as the hotel’s writer-in-residence, said via email.

“Because there are only 115 suites, and they’re spread out across so much space, a guest really feels she has a whole world to herself. The verandas outside each room, the books placed inside each room, the green lawns near almost every room and the quiet spaces on the second and third floors overlooking the lobby all invite one to take a break, to read, or sip a drink, or make sketches, or write letters, or keep a diary.”

Striding through the newly renovated lobby, the staff members look almost as sharp as the hotel, with their suits, waistcoats and red neckties.
Striding through the newly renovated lobby, the staff members look almost as sharp as the hotel, with their suits, waistcoats and red neckties.

The best thing about working at Raffles? “My colleagues are like family to me,” shares senior doorman Narajan Singh, who has been with the hotel for 28 years. Even though it’s situated in the center of a busy city, he says, “you will always be able to have a quiet moment to yourself, sitting at one of the benches around the hotel’s courtyard or gardens.”

The hotel often welcomes guests whose parents and even grandparents have previously stayed there. “I can’t stress enough how special the Raffles Hotel is to people,” head butler Kiong says.

Clockwise from top right: A waiter presents delicacies offered at the Grand Lobby’s high tea. A harp player entertains visitors in the lobby. A bust of Sir Stamford Raffles, the British founder of modern Singapore. Tuck into a book along with your cocktail at the Writers Bar.
Clockwise from top right: A waiter presents delicacies offered at the Grand Lobby’s high tea. A harp player entertains visitors in the lobby. A bust of Sir Stamford Raffles, the British founder of modern Singapore. Tuck into a book along with your cocktail at the Writers Bar.

When it comes to the choice of rooms, all of Raffles' 115 suites are not created equal.

There are nine categories, from the modest studio suite at 495 ft² to two presidential suites: the Sarkies Suite, named after the original Raffles founders, and the Sir Stamford Raffles Suite, named after the founder of modern Singapore, which come in at 2,798 ft².

One of Raffles' two presidential suites.
One of Raffles' two presidential suites.
Unique touches add personality and splashes of color to this Palm Court suite, from the Charlie Chaplin keycard – the actor was a guest in 1932 – to flowers in the bathroom.
Unique touches add personality and splashes of color to this Palm Court suite, from the Charlie Chaplin keycard – the actor was a guest in 1932 – to flowers in the bathroom.

Each suite comes with an iPad to control things like lighting and temperature. If that’s too much for you, simply summon the 24-hour butler.

The Long Bar returns

The ultimate emblem of the hotel’s place in history is the Singapore Sling. Bartender Ngiam Tong Boon created the cocktail here in 1915, when etiquette dictated that ladies shouldn’t consume alcohol in public. Boon’s creation was designed to look like plain fruit juice but with a sneaky hit of gin and liqueurs. Guests willing to brave the lines of tourists can enjoy one at Raffles' famous Long Bar for SGD$33.

The world-famous Long Bar, an institution within an institution, pictured here sometime in the early 1980s.
The world-famous Long Bar, an institution within an institution, pictured here sometime in the early 1980s.

The original home of the Singapore Sling cocktail, the bar dates back to the early 1900s when it was simply a series of tables pushed together facing Bras Basah Road catering to visiting plantation owners. The recent renovation keeps the plantation theme at the forefront, with rich colors and much greenery.

And if you’ve had a Singapore Sling elsewhere and didn’t like it, it’s still worth trying this one – it’s far better than most iterations. If you really love the fruity concoction, the hotel even offers a masterclass in how to make them.

French chef Anne-Sophie Pic has made her Asia restaurant debut at Raffles with Le Dame de Pic, under the guidance of chef de cuisine Kevin Gatin.
French chef Anne-Sophie Pic has made her Asia restaurant debut at Raffles with Le Dame de Pic, under the guidance of chef de cuisine Kevin Gatin.

On the dining side, one in-house option is La Dame de Pic, the Singapore outpost for Anne-Sophie Pic, a gifted and delightful French chef who has 10 restaurants and seven Michelin Stars under her belt.

The tasting menus don’t disappoint. Pic’s signature berlingots – pasta with French cheese fondue filling - explode with flavor. The wagyu beef is spectacular, and the tomato and fish dishes are lovely on the eye as well as the tongue.

Also worth trying: the Hokkaido sea urchin with dill and sobacha and fine mikan jelly, or the sea bass with Oscietra caviar and Champagne sauce, followed by a superlative selection from the cheese cart. Be prepared for a hefty price tag, especially if you opt for the wine pairing, but the menu is equal to the cost.

The intimate Writer's Bar, just off the main lobby, offers cocktails inspired by some of the more illustrious guests who have visited.
The intimate Writer's Bar, just off the main lobby, offers cocktails inspired by some of the more illustrious guests who have visited.

For a post-dinner tipple, the Writers Bar is a small but sophisticated place off the lobby, featuring a series of cocktails inspired by famous authors who have visited the hotel over the years. Try the Forever Elizabeth, a heady concoction of Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, Sipsmith Raffles 1915 gin, lemon vermouth and a spray of Taylor’s own Forever Elizabeth perfume.

There’s even a drink based on the traditional Southeast Asian dish rojak, a spicy fruit and vegetable salad. The bartenders fall easily into conversation but will also offer privacy when a patron wishes. Here in August Iyer waxed poetic about his writer-in-residence gig – a stint that produced his book, This Could Be Home: Raffles Hotel and the City of Tomorrow.

For yet another slice of history, be sure to visit the Bar & Billiard Room, which opened in 1896 as a club under British colonial rule.

It’s the oldest standing bar in its original location in Singapore and has something of a wild history, quite apart from the drinking. Legend has it that the bar was the last place a tiger was shot and killed in Singapore. It had apparently escaped from a nearby circus and was resting under the building, which was elevated at the time. A local sharpshooter was called in to dispatch the creature.

The Bar & Billiard Room, home to toffs and tigers.
The Bar & Billiard Room, home to toffs and tigers.

The space has just reopened as BBR by Alain Ducasse, offering shared dishes that highlight Mediterranean cooking. Small plates like salted cod fritters and octopus with paprika and olive oil are served along with heftier dishes like roasted sea bass and barbecue striploin steak.

The Bar & Billiard Room (left) is now home to the BBR Alain Ducasse restaurant (right).
The Bar & Billiard Room (left) is now home to the BBR Alain Ducasse restaurant (right).

The “ultimate moment” at the hotel, Iyer said, “is the early evening, maybe 6 o’clock, you sit out on the veranda drinking a cup of tea or something stronger, you have a book there or a diary or a postcard, the wind is coming in off the sea taking the heat off the day.”

A stuffed tiger bares its teeth in one of the 30 outlets that make up the Raffles Arcade, for a spot of exclusive retail therapy.
A stuffed tiger bares its teeth in one of the 30 outlets that make up the Raffles Arcade, for a spot of exclusive retail therapy.

The Tiffin Room, which has been part of the hotel’s history since 1892, serves North Indian cuisine in tiffin boxes - containers with multiple compartments stacked on top of each other that are used for meals in India and beyond. Wooden floorboards have been brought back to revive features from the early 1900s.

Another dining option is 藝yì from Jereme Leung – the name means “art” in Chinese – which brings adaptations of provincial cuisine from across China. The wide-ranging menu features suckling pig and dim sum selections along with braised sea cucumber and abalone. There’s even a section for “Chef Leung’s favourite drinking snacks,” including Sichuan spiced crispy fish skin and century eggs with roasted peppers and pickled ginger.

An art installation made up of 1,000 floral strands guides guests through an elaborate entranceway into the restaurant "藝yì" by Jereme Leung.
An art installation made up of 1,000 floral strands guides guests through an elaborate entranceway into the restaurant "藝yì" by Jereme Leung.
Jereme Leung's restaurant features adaptations of provincial cuisine from across China.
Jereme Leung's restaurant features adaptations of provincial cuisine from across China.

Outside, the Raffles Courtyard contains an open-air bar that sits in a beautifully landscaped area of the Raffles Arcade. A gazebo-like structure covers the main bar area and there are umbrellas over other tables. Guests are provided with paper fans to help cool off from the Singaporean heat.

Take some time out to enjoy the expansive Palm Court area.
Take some time out to enjoy the expansive Palm Court area.

And hidden away on the top floor is the pool, enticingly blue on hot days in the city. You’re in the heart of Singapore, overlooked by a handful of towers, but you might as well be a world away.

From British colony to world city: a remnant of old Singapore in the shadow of new Singapore.
From British colony to world city: a remnant of old Singapore in the shadow of new Singapore.

“My very first night of my 15 recent nights in the new Raffles, I was introduced to a little lounge in the spa in which one can recline in a quiet, dark room, sip tea and nibble at the nuts on offer and, quite wonderfully, do nothing at all,” the writer Iyer said by email. “One does not have to get a spa treatment or even use the Jacuzzi to enjoy this lounge if one is staying at Raffles, and every time I visited, it was completely empty and beautifully, liberatingly silent.”

David

David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

Mightyreds

Mightyreds

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

09 Feb 2015

Total posts 266

One of the worlds truly iconic hotels. Thank you for the review.

Santorini

Santorini

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

26 Sep 2018

Total posts 1

It's great history made it magic even before it was renovated. Agree, it is truly iconic and I just can't wait to stay there again.

Anne.wallace28

Anne.wallace28

05 Aug 2018

Total posts 1

I stayed at Raffles around 1979/1980 pre ANY renovation. It was still amazing then. It's worth the cost to stay in this beautiful, historic hotel as it is a destination in its own right. Can't wait to visit!


Hi Guest, join in the discussion on The new Raffles: a look inside one of the world's most famous hotels