Ever wondered what it would be like to stay at the famed Raffles Hotel, mama? Here’s your chance to walk the same hallowed halls as authors, monarchs, and movie stars!
Earlier this week I got to take a behind-the-scenes-tour of Raffles Hotel Singapore that’s affectionately being termed “A Last, Lingering Look at an Icon”, in reference to the fact that the hotel will soon be closing for renovation (due to re-open in mid-2018).
Tours of one of Singapore’s grandest historic sites are normally reserved for hotel guests (“residents”) only, but each day through 12 August, the public will have the chance to tour some of the hotel’s most beautiful private spots while being regaled with juicy tidbits from its illustrious past by in-house historian Leslie Danker, who’s worked at the Raffles for 45 years.
We began the tour in the Presidential Suite, also known as the Sarkies Suite after the two brothers who bought the hotel and made it into what it was back in 1887.
At the time, the hotel was a 10-room bungalow that looked out over the beach (that’s where Beach Road got its name). It’s always been kind of hard to actually picture that set-up, so I loved that the tour featured all sorts of unique antique photos throughout.
With two bedrooms, a dining room, and a sumptuous living room, the Sarkies Suite has played host to luminaries ranging from Queen Elizabeth, to American presidents and famous authors. Perhaps its loveliest feature, though, is its private balcony that overlooks the lush gardens of the Palm Court addition, which was added in the late 19th century. One neat tidbit we learned during the tour: when the Raffles re-opened after a major reconstruction in 1899, it was the first hotel in Singapore to offer electricity and fans.
While we explored the Sarkies Suite (I don’t know about you, mama, but I’d never seen a Presidential Suite before!), we also heard the famous tale of “the last tiger in Singapore”, which legend has it was shot under the billiards table at the Raffles in 1902. Turns out this story is partially true: the tiger in question had escaped from a circus, and really WAS shot in the Bar & Billiards Room by the principal of Raffles Institution, however the real last wild tiger in Singapore was captured in the 1930s.
From the Sarkies Suite we meandered over to the “Walk of Fame”, which features photos of the many, many illustrious guests who’ve graced the Raffles over the last century and a half. We also got to see a photo of Ah Boon, the bartender who invented the Singapore Sling at Long Bar so ladies could inconspicuously drink liquor in public.
Along the way we heard about the Raffles’s famous ballroom, which used to be where the paved driveway now stands. At various points in its history, it held everything from Singapore’s grandest parties (its New Year’s Eve bashes were the stuff of legend) to rollerskating!
Indeed, the Raffles fell into a bit of decline from the 1940s up until the 1980s, when it was sold and closed for a major renovation.
It’s hard to picture a time when one of Singapore’s most luxurious hotels – in a city absolutely rife with them! – was a bit down on its heels, but again the historic photos served as hard proof. I kind of loved seeing an image of the hotel in the 1950s with a giant neon sign out in front!
From the Hall of Fame we made our way to a suite meant to recreate the era of one of the hotel’s most famous guests, Rudyard Kipling, who spent time writing at the hotel and even came up with the idea for The Jungle Book there.
It was interesting learning a bit more about Kipling’s childhood in India (the recreation includes a tiffin carrier and dish filled with curry at his bedside), along with some of his writing inspirations. While the “Kipling Suite” is more luxurious than the actual conditions he might have stayed in (again, we got to see lots of photos from the late 19th century demonstrating exactly what a room really would have looked like), it’s fun using your imagination to picture the sights and sounds Kipling would have experienced during his time in Singapore (apparently he was quite fond of walking down the beach).
Finally, we moved down the hall to learn about one of the hotel’s most longstanding traditions: grand weddings. We saw photos from Lee Kuan Yew’s nuptials, and got to look over more than a century’s worth of elegant menus (turns out “Red Turtle Soup” was quite popular into the early part of the 20th century).
The tour then wrapped up with one of the coolest stories of all: in one corner of the suite was a huge pile of gleaming forks, knives and spoons. When Japanese invasion was imminent in 1942, the hotel staff preemptively hid the silverware since the Japanese had a reputation for melting down gold and silver for weaponry and ammunitions. Unfortunately, due to a series of unfortunate events, everyone forgot about it, and it wasn’t recovered until the hotel was renovated in 1989!
With its dark wood floors, historic furnishings (suites still feature a brass button that you can push for butler service!), languorous ceiling fans, and luxurious, sprawling green spaces right in the middle of the city, the Raffles is such a stunning landmark and one of the few remaining visual monuments to old Singapore. It’s always one of my favorite places to bring visitors, and while I’m sad that it will be closed for a while, I look forward to seeing it come back stronger than ever in 2018.
Click here for more information on the “Last, Lingering Look at an Icon” tour at Raffles Hotel, which will be running daily through 12 August, 2017. Tickets are priced at $12 per person and include a hotel souvenir; according to the hotel all tour slots are currently booked, but you can contact them at [email protected] or (+65) 6337 1886 to enquire about waiting list spots.