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Face Lift Leaves Clubby Old Raffles a Bit Tight : Renovation elevates Singapore's grand hotel to grandiose prices and personnel.


SINGAPORE — The Raffles Hotel once was a place where local legend mixed with idle gossip, where writers and journalists gathered to drink in the sweltering heat and sometimes even write, where the rooms were large and cheap and where the stench of a bygone colonial era intoxicated visitors to this island at the tip of the exotic Malay Peninsula.

Now there is a new Raffles, a bright white and shining place, reconstructed in the shell of the old. It is a perfect replica of a classic colonial hotel, but it may be open to argument whether it is still the Raffles.

After closing in 1989 and undergoing a two-year, $80-million renovation, the Raffles reopened its doors last autumn with high ambitions. Workmen had the original 1887 blueprints in hand, and had set out to re-create the hotel as it was in its prime, circa 1915.

Unfortunately, the result is a bit too cold and self-conscious to inspire the thrill of nostalgia that an old hotel should. Its glossy white plaster, polished hardwood and sparkling brass struck me as devoid of warmth and patina.

Its tragic flaw is that it pursues two missions: to provide the ultimate in luxury lodgings to well-heeled travelers and, at the same time, to entertain the masses as one of Singapore's major tourist attractions. The new management has yet to resolve those cross purposes, and that can spoil the fun for both classes of patron.

To begin with, don't even think about making a reservation at the Raffles without first acquiring a rudimentary knowledge of currency exchange rates. The front desk clerk will quote a price of $650 a night, but that's no reason to panic--those are only Singapore dollars.

The real rate, in American greenbacks, is a mere $398 for the standard suite. Add tax and service charge, and it's about $450 a night for the cheapest room, which, the management points out, is not a room but a suite.

Should one huge bedroom, two televisions, a gigantic bathroom with oversized brass and porcelain fixtures and a rather modest living-dining area sound like it might be claustrophobic, larger suites are available. The Sir Stamford Raffles Suite, for example, was named after the hotel's patron, the adventurous opium trader who founded Singapore as a British colony in 1819.

Coddling oneself in the Sir Raffles suite for one night costs somewhere around $4,000--in U.S. currency. But the discriminating traveler gets 18-foot ceilings, 2 1/2 baths, a dining table for 10 and an antique Persian rug. As with the hotel's other 103 suites, valet pressing is free. Complimentary coffee is served at any hour of the morning.

If money is a problem, not to worry. Even tourists on the cheap can enjoy a day at the Raffles for the more moderate price of a meal at one of the restaurants in the hotel or at the adjacent shopping arcade. The Raffles history room is fun--it tells the story of the hotel with exhibits of documents and old photos, then entices the visitor into purchasing such exotic souvenirs as antique Raffles luggage stickers. There's even a small "Victorian" theater in the back where they can provide a multimedia presentation to a busload from Des Moines.

Beyond the ornate, cast-iron portico on the facade of the hotel is a grand atrium lobby, which rises three stories to a vaulted ceiling with skylights. Rubbernecking is allowed. Go ahead, walk across the lush carpet and the dark tropical hardwood floorboards, polished to a gleam, and take a stool at the Writers Bar, where the management welcomes anyone who wants to buy a Singapore Sling--Raffles' own famous cocktail.

The Writers Bar was moved out of a dark nook off the Grill Room to the middle of the cavernous lobby during renovation, one suspects with the aim of selling more Singapore Slings, or possibly, in a crowd-control tactic to keep the non-guests concentrated in a strictly public space.

A youthful bartender named Royston Png says most of his customers are tourists who wander in to buy the pink cocktail concoctions for $9 a pop. Png seems surprised to see one patron take out a pencil and a notebook and start to write.

"This used to be a place where lots of writers came," he says, as if out of personal reminiscence. "But that was back in 1915. We don't see them around now."

No wonder. Purported Raffles patron Rudyard Kipling hung up his pith helmet, eternally, in 1936. W. Somerset Maugham, the wanderlusting storyteller whom the new Raffles has adopted as a kind of mascot (yes, there is a W.S. Maugham suite), would be 118 years old if he were alive today. And he would not be caught dead drinking a Singapore Sling, which, as the fruity taste testifies, is unquestionably a lady's drink.

Lest this last statement be taken as sexist, consider that Png's patriarch as bartender, Ngiam Tong Boon, invented it in 1915 for the ladies, not for the cricket-playing gentlemen or the gin-drinking homesteaders from the rubber plantations. It always was a lady's drink and it always will be, something that might best be kept from the male tourists.

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