Cool in the city
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.
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