Cool in the city

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

Sin­ga­pore is com­pact, to be sure, but it is a city-state of de­fined neigh­bour­hoods, each with its own char­ac­ter and cul­ture and it is fun to stray from com­fort-zone ho­tels into lesser-known ar­eas.

I am un­fa­mil­iar with the newly fash­ion­able Bugis and Bras Basah neigh­bour­hoods, which surely must be plan­ets re­moved from the former’s in­car­na­tion in the 50s-70s as a precinct of trans­ves­tite bars and the sort of shady go­ings-on now only as­so­ci­ated with “old” Sin­ga­pore.

When the In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Sin­ga­pore opened here in 1995, soar­ing above a pre­served row of 1920s shop­houses, the naysay­ers de­cried it as a bad move. Most de­vel­op­ment at that time was squarely in the CBD ho­tel heart­land while a few de­vel­op­ers had taken a punt on Sen­tosa, the is­land off the south coast that’s now a golf­ing, theme park and re­sort des­ti­na­tion with lead­ing brands such as Sof­i­tel.

But, Bugis and its en­vi­rons? Well In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal got it right. This is now a flour­ish­ing arts, cul­tural and her­itage dis­trict with more than 20 sig­nif­i­cant his­toric sites, na­tional mon­u­ments, ma­jor gal­leries and mu­se­ums. The Na­tional Li­brary is across the street; the Na­tional De­sign Cen­tre is in nearby Bras Basah.

Af­ter a re­fur­bish­ment un­veiled in stages and com­pleted ear­lier this year, the 403-room ho­tel is look­ing very smart in­deed. De­sign­ers have wisely up­held the early Per­anakan (Straits Chi­nese) her­itage of the neigh­bour­hood and in­cor­po­rated both sub­tle and strik­ing cul­tural de­tails into the in­te­ri­ors.

Some ref­er­ences are small, such as the brightly coloured and pat­terned tiles with aus­pi­cious mo­tifs of fruit and flow­ers, set into the four-sided bases of col­umns in the soar­ing lobby. Oth­ers are boldly imag­i­na­tive, such as the tableau-like set­tings in the Club Lounge, which is un­like any ex­ec­u­tive club I’ve seen.

For­get iden­tikit cor­po­rate fur­ni­ture and job-lot lamps and shelves of busi­ness mag­a­zines. Here you have or­nate Chi­nese fur­ni­ture, tex­tured rugs in bold geo­met­rics, planter’s chairs in­set with rat­tan, lat­ticed screens and pretty porce­lain or­na­ments in vivid yel­low, pinks and greens that are (ir­re­sistibly) for sale on the spot.

It’s a con­vivial feel that’s re­peated in the Concierge Lounge op­po­site the re­cep­tion desks in the lobby. This area feels so much like the lounge­room of a mon­eyed Per­anakan fam­ily that it would hardly be sur­pris­ing if a house­hold ser­vant were to ap­pear and of­fer tea in a yel­low ce­ramic pot swirled with phoenixes, a sym­bol of pros­per­ity. Shelves are ar­rayed with ev­ery­day items such as an old tran­sis­tor ra­dio, gin­ger jars and books; prints of pe­onies and a col­lage of Straits Chi­nese faces and mo­tifs add fur­ther dec­o­ra­tive in­ter­est.

Gue­strooms in the 16-floor tower in­clude the pop­u­lar Deluxe cat­e­gories with rather Parisian-look­ing pan­elled walls, gen­er­ous bath­room, padded bed­head and black lac­quered mini­bar cab­i­net with a gilt fin­ish, where com­pli­men­tary items in­clude a se­lec­tion of Sin­ga­pore’s fine TWG teas in hand-sewn cot­ton bags. Per­anakan style is more sub­tle in these gue­strooms, but walk­ing from the con­tem­po­rary phoenix swirls of the hall­way car­pet to a muted cham­ber of cream and duck-egg blue with silken wall hang­ings feels uni­fied and rest­ful.

The Her­itage-branded cham­bers on the lower lev­els, re­vamped in 2011, are tucked within the shut­tered fa­cade of the shop­house orig­i­nals and come rec­om­mended for those who like a colo­nial feel, all French doors and pol­ished floor­boards, tall ceil­ings, old-style tub chairs and a well-cap­tured sense of days gone by.

Ash & Elm, the all-day restau­rant on the ground floor, is clev­erly di­vided into nooks with leather seat­ing and spa­ces par­ti­tioned by tex­tured cop­per screens; the long space is topped by a sky­light canopy that con­sid­er­ably changes the mood from a bright break­fast through to a din­ner set­ting en­hanced by pen­dant lights, which ap­pear to me a bit like twirls of tem­ple in­cense cones. Ash & Elm fea­tures a cheese and char­cu­terie room, sizzling grill and a pizza oven fired with West Aus­tralian jar­rah that also de­liv­ers the likes of de­li­cious pro­sciutto and arugula- topped flat­bread. It has more the feel of a brasserie than a stan­dard ho­tel din­ing room with un­ex­pected show­stop­pers such as a choc-hazel­nut dessert pizza. Sim­i­larly, Man Fu Yuan bus­tles like a classy cor­ner Chi­nese restau­rant and is filled with lo­cals dur­ing my week­end visit, a great sign of qual­ity and au­then­tic­ity. Or just drop by for the dim sum se­lec­tion, an egg cus­tard bun and slurps of fine jas­mine cha from the com­pre­hen­sive tea menu.

If you get lost in this vo­lu­mi­nous ho­tel, look for el­derly Un­cle Peter, a staff mem­ber for the past 20 years and now an unofficial “am­bas­sador”, al­ways ready with a smile and a help­ful nod to­wards your des­ti­na­tion. In my case, he smiles wryly and points over my shoul­der to the tall, columned Lobby Lounge, where ru­mours abound of cock­tails based on TWG teas. I am a few steps away from a Royal Her­itage af­ter­noon tea that seems a steal at $S42 ($40). Lemon raisin scones come with cof­fee-flavoured mas­car­pone as well as the ex­pected clot­ted cream and house-made straw­berry jam.

Then those cock­tails of Earl Grey or English Break­fast ap­pear, all jazzed up with the likes of gin, sparkling wine or or­ange liqueur. Time to boo­gie.

Su­san Kuro­sawa was a guest of Ho­tel In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Sin­ga­pore and Scoot.

CHECK­LIST

Ho­tel In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Sin­ga­pore, 80 Mid­dle Road, Sin­ga­pore 188966; + 65 6338 7000; in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal.com/sin­ga­pore.

TAR­IFF: Best deals and pack­ages year-round on web­site; a flex­i­ble rate for two guests twin-share with break­fast is $S360 ($340).

GET­TING THERE: About 22km from Changi air­port; five min­utes from Bugis MRT stop. Low-cost car­rier Scoot flies its all-Dream­liner fleet be­tween its Sin­ga­pore hub and Syd­ney, Mel­bourne, Gold Coast and Perth air­ports. More: fly­scoot.com.

CHECK­ING IN: In­ter­na­tional clien­tele; lo­cals and re­gional vis­i­tors on week­end pack­ages.

WHEEL­CHAIR AC­CESS: Level en­try; adapted el­e­va­tors and gue­strooms, wheel­chair-wide hall­ways, and ac­cess to all public ar­eas and restau­rants.

BED­TIME READ­ING: Sin­ga­pore-set nov­els such as Saint Jack by Paul Th­er­oux or Aunty Lee’s Chilled Re­venge by Ovidia Yu.

STEP­PING OUT: The newly glam nexus of Arab Street, Haji Lane and Lit­tle In­dia is close by. Check mi­nus­cule Won­der­land Cafe on Haji Lane for matcha lat­tes and creamy cakes; don’t miss the mu­rals out­side (or stiff drinks within) at Sin­ga­pura Club or the re­tail de­lights at stacked-high stalls in lit­tle In­dia Ar­cade. Take the ho­tel’s es­corted two-hour Guided Her­itage Trail walk on Satur­day af­ter­noons to com­mu­nity land­marks, in­clud­ing St Joseph’s Church, mosques and Chi­nese and Hindu tem­ples. The ho­tel ad­joins Bugis Junc­tion, a glass-cov­ered and air-con­di­tioned shop­ping ar­cade.

BRICK­BATS: The swim­ming pool seems in­ad­e­quate for a ho­tel of this size; oddly, there is no well­ness spa.

BOU­QUETS: Smart­phones are pro­vided for guest use and free lo­cal calls. The Club In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal pro­gram offers loads of ex­tras, such as Club Lounge ac­cess with break­fast, light re­fresh­ments all day and a gen­er­ous af­ter­noon tea plus evening cock­tails and an un­stint­ing spread of canapes and hot dishes; 25 per cent off laun­dry ser­vice and two com­pli­men­tary pieces of press­ing.

In­ter­Con­ti­nen­tal Sin­ga­pore’s Lobby Lounge, top; Ash & Elm Restau­rant, above; Her­itage room, above right; the tiled lobby, be­low

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