CLASSIC SINGAPORE

Pockets of exotic colonial buildings make a refreshing contrast to the islands high-rise development.

JOY DODDS reports.


It wasn’t so long ago that many Australian travellers were beginning to consider Singapore as a giant transit lounge. Many of the fascinating elements of its past – colonial, Chinese, Hindu – had been progressively demolished to make way for retail and hotel skyscrapers megaliths.

Thankfully, Singaporeans came to realise the need to conserve and cherish relics of their past and the dilapidated shophouses along the Singapore River banks have been re-created as colourful cafés and restaurants. The former GPO building with its classic columns has been reborn as the Fullerton Hotel on the harbour. However the gem of luxury restoration has been famous Raffles Hotel, synonymous with Singapore itself. The Goodwood Park Hotel also offers the grace and presence of yesteryear.

A stroll around the Singapore River and the precinct around Beach Road (once a coastal road pre-land reclamation) and Connaught Drive reveals the classic architecture of the Victoria Concert Hall, the Cenotaph, Singapore Cricket Club, St Andrew’s Cathedral, the National Art Gallery (under re-construction), to name a few. The remaining riverside string of Chinese shophouses, while overlooked by high-rise, are still evocative of a bygone era. Nearby is Merlion Park, Robertson Quay, Chinatown Heritage Centre, the Lim Bo Seng Memorial and Bugis Street, while further afield lies Little India, Arab Street, Kampong Glam, Sultan Mosque and the Malay Heritage Centre. These places of interest, as well as the National Museum of Singapore on Stamford Road, make a welcome change to the non-stop shopping travellers associate with Singapore.

On a recent sojourn in Singapore, I relished the chance to experience the old Singapore, and where better than at Raffles. A sumptuous renovation has returned this gem faithfully to its original architecture, while accommodating state-of-the-art facilities. Located off the original verandah with views over exotic gardens, suites offer a classic sitting room, exquisitely-appointed bedroom with two giant beds and a sumptuous marble bathroom. The pool, once located at ground level, now sits al fresco on the top third level. Tropical gardens occupy more than a quarter of the entire estate, providing a tranquil contrast to the bustling city beyond with birdlife and palm trees adding to the effect.

The famous Tiffin Room, once breakfast is over, is the perfect place to enjoy the famous Singapore Sling, which was invented by an Indian barman as a long drink (and supposedly less alcoholic!) for “esteemed ladies”. The High Tea menu fittingly includes cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches and scones with clotted cream, of course.

A short walk away from Raffles is the Singapore Cricket Club, which offers dining and sports facilities to members of reciprocal clubs in Australia. The restaurant and bar walls are festooned with evocative photographs of the past and there is the distinct aura of an English gentlemen’s club, albeit on the Equator! Outside the nearby Victoria Theatre is a robust statue of the man himself, Sir Stamford Raffles.

Off Orchard Road, on Scotts Rd stands the Goodwood Park Hotel. Starting life as the Teutonia Club, an exclusive enclave for the expatriate German community, it came into being as a hotel in 1929, hosting such guests as the Duke of Windsor. After serving as the British War Crimes Court post-1945 it reverted to a hotel, becoming the first in Singapore to offer a swimming pool.

Another national landmark, in 1989, its historic tower was gazetted as a national monument, and the hotel was fully restored. In 2013, the refreshed Mayfair Wing was unveiled, the centerpiece of each room being a stunning headboard featuring black and white images of old Singaporean shophouses. The hotel’s restaurants, the Gordon Grill and Min-Jiang (Chinese cuisine), are renowned, as is a drink in the Highland Bar. English afternoon tea is served in L’Espresso, overlooking the pool, and the hotel’s signature dishes are delicious durian puffs and durian mousse cakes.

Without a doubt, a Singapore sojourn is enhanced by accommodation which reflects the city’s classic character and taking the time to explore the older, exotic precincts with their multi-coloured, uber-chic shophouses. Oh, and a Singapore Sling also helps!


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RAFFLES’ MILESTONES

Dating back to 1887, Raffles Hotel is one of the few remaining great C19th hotels in the world. The Sarkies Brothers, proprietors of the Eastern & Oriental in Penang, opened the hotel, naming it after Singapore's founder Sir Stamford Raffles. The location? The old bungalow at the corner of Beach and Bras Basah Roads owned by an Arab trader. Raffles Hotel opened to the public as a 10-room hotel and later, two wings flanking the bungalow were added.

Author Joseph Conrad is believed to be one of Raffles Hotel's earliest guests and not long after, the young Rudyard Kipling who was on a round-the-world trip dined at the Hotel and wrote "Feed at Raffles".- the hotel’s legendary literary tradition was born!

In 1899, Raffles Hotel's elegant neo-Renaissance Main Building was opened with great fanfare, marking the beginning of the hotel’s heyday. It boasted Singapore's first electric lights and fans and a French chef. Raffles Hotel rapidly became a magnet for travellers and Singapore residents. In 1904, the Bras Basah wing opened, making Raffles Hotel "the most magnificent establishment of its kind East of Suez", according to a newspaper report of the day.

In 1921, Somerset Maugham made the first of many visits, turning the bits of gossip and scandal overheard at dinner parties into his famous stories. The Hotel continued to play host to the rich and famous, including Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin and others.

In 1942, Singapore surrendered to Japan as British colonials gathered at Raffles Hotel to dance and sing ‘There’ll Always Be An England’. Later, in 1945, Japan surrendered to the Allied Forces and Singapore returned to British control. Raffles Hotel became a transit camp for war prisoners released, becoming a shadow of its former self.

Declared a National Monument by the Singapore Government in 1987, a $S160 million reconstruction was completed in 1991 when Raffles returned to its rightful pride of place as the grand historic hotel of the Far East. The benchmark year used for the restoration was 1915, the first heyday of the hotel.

Distinctive restaurants, such as Tiffin Room and Raffles Grill, and the Writers Bar (paying tribute to guest novelists and writers) continue the Raffles Hotel legend, as does the Long Bar where the Singapore Sling was created.

The ultimate accolades were bestowed onto Raffles Hotel this September when Conde Nast Traveller unanimously voted the hotel as their favourite hotel in Asia and No. 2 in the world, the timing coinciding with the hotel’s 117th anniversary.

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