Any old hotel worth its salt will have plenty of stories about the great and not-so-great who have passed through its portals. But it is a rare establishment that will have an historian on its staff and a museum on its premises. Experienced travelers, however, should win no prizes for guessing that this unusual distinction belongs to Singapore's famous Raffles hotel, recently restored at a cost of $160 million, and standing (as it has since it opened in 1887) on the corner of Beach and Bras Basah roads in the heart of Old Singapore.
American-born Gretchen Liu, the wife of a Singaporean native, has put together the long and full history of the hotel. "The famous Singapore Gin Sling is supposed to have been concocted at Raffles in 1915 by Ngiam Tong Boon, a Hainan Chinese, of whom there were a large number in Singapore at that time," she explains. "We are not sure what the original was like--drink menus didn't exist in those days--but we have some of the tools he worked with, including his bar safe." It's that kind of focus on the most minute details that keeps Raffles at the top of the agenda for any traveler to Asia.
The Raffles that was is very much the Raffles that exists today. That point was driven home on September 16, 1991, the day the hotel reopened its doors after a two-year renovation. The hotel's architects left Raffles a rambling, two-story "estate" with 104 very private suites that open onto shaded patios and leafy gardens--a total of 50,000 plants in all. The dominant center structure of the hotel has teak floors and railings, 14-foot ceilings and slowly revolving overhead fans.
Of course, there have been changes. A large swimming pool, once located in the courtyard, is now on the roof. The famous Long Bar is now two L-shaped bars, one upstairs and the other downstairs at the rear of the building. As before, the latter is the world headquarters of the famous Sling cocktail.
The most famous suites now bear the names of their famous guests, with correspondingly royal prices for the privilege of staying in them. Room prices range from $406 for very basic accommodations, to $594 for the Noel Coward or Somerset Maugham suites.
Singapore's severe smoking restrictions can cramp the style of cigar smokers, but the hotel dispenses a range of Davidoff Dominican cigars at prices ranging from $6 to $24. And the Billiard Room, which adjoins the hotel, is a marvelous locale in which to smoke fine cigars, but only after 8 P.M.
Under the stewardship of German-born chef Peter Knipp, Raffles probably offers the richest cuisine of any quality hotel in Asia, replete with Cantonese, Mandarin, Thai, Malay, Indonesian, Indian and Vietnamese cooking. No doubt about it, of the half-dozen eateries in the hotel, the most fun is the Raffles Courtyard, which is sometimes used as a rewarding test for visiting chefs from neighboring countries. At the other end of the scale is the Empress Room, described simply as "elegant Chinese."
A standard three-course luncheon in the hotel costs $38 per person; supper is about as much or as little as the customer wants to spend. As for the wine, Raffles probably has the most comprehensive wine list in Southeast Asia today, some 267 labels in all. But care is required--there is an abundance of house wines, running at about $25 for a Muscat de Rivesaltes, Domaine Cazes, to a wide range of French and non-French in the $38 to $48 range. But for those with no worry about expenses, consider these: a 1973 Krug Champagne for $330; a 1983 Montrachet Marquis de Laguiche, Joseph Drouhin for $405; a 1980 Château d'Yquem for $325, and a 1970 Château Petrus at $905.
But Singapore is a tropical land, best enjoyed with beer and cocktails. Bartenders at the Long Bar will tell you that the famous Sling contains gin, cherry brandy, Bénédictine, Cointreau, pineapple and lime juices. But the proportions are their secret. Sit back with one in the Billiard Room and light up a fine cigar. It's the way things are done in the tropics.
-- Frank Gray is a correspondent for the Financial Times of London.