Historic Raffles Hotel reopens following two-year makeover

Singapore (CNN) — The scent of fresh paint still hanging in the air, there’s a feeling of electricity wafting through Singapore’s historic Raffles Hotel right now.

The revered property has officially reopened to guests following extensive renovations that left the hotel completely closed for about two years.

During a recent visit to the hotel, just days prior to its official August 1 reopening, the excitement among staff is palpable — and no one is more thrilled than general manager Christian Westbeld to see their years of conceptualizing and hard work finally on display to the world.

“We think this will never be done again on this scale,” he tells CNN Travel. “We’ve taken this renovation very seriously and we’ve put a lot of effort and time into it. The extended time it took has been wisely invested.

“The hotel is a lot fresher. Areas look a lot brighter, they look a lot lighter, they look a lot more inviting and approachable, which is something that we wanted to achieve. We wanted to re-look at luxury — not being stiff, formal and intimidating but rather engaging and conversational. It’s very comfortable and beyond anything that is available in Singapore.”

The refresh was led by Alexandra Champalimaud, founder of design firm Champalimaud.

This was no ordinary makeover. With the last major renovation taking place in 1991, Raffles Hotel Singapore, which opened in 1887, needed a complete overhaul.

But the challenge of course was how to retain the aura of the hotel’s colonial architecture while also providing modern travelers with the tech and comforts they’ve come to expect in a luxury stay.

Never mind that every move they made required government approval — this is a historic Singapore property, which was designated a national monument in 1987.

“We didn’t lose the architectural charm, the colonial heritage,” says Westbeld, noting that plans for the renovation were actually in the work for close to a decade.

“That’s the biggest plus and I think the thing people will notice first. Yet at the same time we’ve modernized in a way that is deserved for the current Singapore time and era we’re in.”

Though much of the renovations won’t be on display to guests — i.e. back of the house stuff like engineering systems and kitchens — repeat guests of Raffles Singapore will spot the tangible changes as soon as they step foot in the lobby, which no longer has a front desk.

This has made way for the Writers Bar, already proving to be a popular after-work spot among young locals, based on the crowds we saw during our recent visit.

Moving to the guest rooms, the revitalized Raffles offers nine categories of suites: State Room Suites, Courtyard Suites, Palm Court Suites, Personality Suites, Residence Suites, Promenade Suites, Grand Hotel Suites and Presidential Suites.

All of the bathrooms have been completely revamped.

All of the bathrooms have been completely revamped.

Raffles

The Residence, Promenade and Studio suites were added as part of the renovations, taking the total suite count from 103 to 115.

“Suites are much more comfortable than before,” says Westbeld. “No noise disturbances. Beautiful bathrooms. Technology that’s not overpowering — it’s just an added tool to make your life a little bit easier.

“It was always very clear for us what we wanted to achieve. We never want to be in the headlines or the news because we have the latest cutting-edge technology. This is not what we stand for. We’re an iconic, legendary service provider and that’s what we want to be known for.”

As part of this commitment to service, all guests now have their own butler, who is the main point of contact and will disseminate requests to the appropriate team, from airport transfers and spa appointments to restaurant reservations and room service.

Guests can request assistance from their butler via the DigiValet app on the in-room tablets, which handily control the TV, lights and air-conditioning as well.

New dining experiences

Raffles Hotel's Tiffin Room first opened in 1892.

Raffles Hotel’s Tiffin Room first opened in 1892.

Raffles

The hotel’s F&B experiences have been completely revamped as well.

Take the long-treasured Tiffin Room, part of Raffles since 1892, which serves up incredible North Indian cuisine. As part of the renovations, wooden herringbone flooring was added, along with decor that showcases locally made porcelains and tiffin boxes.

New restaurants include Le Dame de Pic — a collaboration with Chef Anne-Sophie Pic of the three-Michelin star Maison Pic in Valence, France.

Also not to be missed is afternoon tea in the Grand Lobby, featuring exquisite teas, Champagne, classic sandwiches, home-baked scones and cakes.

Even the hotel’s ultra touristy Long Bar, inventor of the original Singapore Sling, has been given a refresh and features contemporary plantation-inspired motifs. Don’t worry. You can still toss your peanut shells on the floor.

Several new dining concepts have yet to open: BBR by Alain Ducasse; 兿 yì by Jereme Leung, which stands for art in Chinese; and the Butcher’s Block, which as the name implies offers a wide selection of top meats.

Celebrating the old ghosts

Guests eager to take home a piece of Raffles nostalgia can visit the hotel's new boutique.

Guests eager to take home a piece of Raffles nostalgia can visit the hotel’s new boutique.

Raffles

Through all the talk of facelifts and modernity, one Raffles team member in particular stands out — Leslie Danker, the hotel’s historian.

He’s been with the Raffles Hotel for over 45 years and continues to guide guests around its halls and grounds, sharing his own personal anecdotes along with fascinating details of its transformation through the years.

As he leads us around the property, his pride is evident. Eventually we reach the “wall of fame,” a gallery that takes visitors time traveling through the past with images of notable guests such as Elizabeth Taylor, Charlie Chaplin, Rudyard Kipling and Ava Gardner, to name just a few.

Danker has met many of them, including Michael Jackson and John Wayne. But ask which guest truly left him star struck and he doesn’t hesitate. Queen Elizabeth II, who visited in 1989, he tells CNN Travel.

“When I was in school we were a British colony for many years,” he recalls. “I remember when I was young and it was her coronation I made some decorations for my house. So I admired her a lot.”

It’s this reverence to the past — alongside a passion to ensure the hotel’s relevance in the present, that has captured the imaginations of both Singaporeans and international travelers.

For locals, the hotel is a key page in the story of their city’s history. According to Westbeld, Singaporeans have been very supportive of the changes. Today, a new generation of Singaporeans is coming to create their own memories at the hotel — just as their parents and perhaps even grandparents have.

“It’s one of the most humbling experiences to be a part of this, to have the privilege to be GM at Raffles Hotel in such a defining moment,” says Westbeld.

“When you see this come together it’s incredibly rewarding. We all know that we’re here just for a short period of time in the lifespan of Raffles Hotel. We’re just aiming to do the most adequate and proper activation that Raffles deserves in order to set it up for the next many, many years of success. It’s a truly wonderful feeling and I will never forget it.”

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