Everything I had read, everything people had told me, trumpeted Singapore hotel service and hospitality too loudly for me to believe it could be true. But I was wrong. Having your every need anticipated takes a little getting used to; once you do, there is no looking back. After Singapore, I have become the traveler from hell, furious that nothing in the West lives up to what I experienced in this tropical island city-state.
The standard is set by Raffles, which has developed the extravagant concept of valets to streamline and personalize the fulfillment of guests' needs. Each valet is responsible for a certain number of rooms. "The idea is to reduce the chances of staff disturbing our guests," Aby Chang, my twinkly valet, told me. When I wanted a jogging map, I buzzed Aby. When I wanted tea in my suite-one of 104 in this all-suite hotel-she was the one who brought it. Aby was always at hand, disappointed that all I ever had was two things for her to do instead of 20.
The valet concept is also meant to link Raffles' starry present with its even starrier past. Having opened as a 10-room bungalow in 1887, it morphed into the kind of high-pitched establishment where guests-who checked in with their own staff-came with names like Maugham and Harlow.
These days, ahem, Raffles' past is a sore subject. Old-schoolers protest the loss of the hotel's dowager virtues, due to an everything-$114-million-can-buy face-lift completed in 1991. Nostalgists also do not appreciate the new 70-boutique arcade, which they find vulgar.
But there is no quibbling about the quality of the renovation, which couldn't have been higher. For non-Western travelers, Singapore is the shopping mall of Asia-they are always happy to have a different place where they can flash their credit cards. And housekeeping at the new Raffles is breathtaking. Every surface in the hotel that does not shine, glows; every surface that does not shine or glow, sparkles. Satin paint in the lobby would have been an understandable concession to maintenance, but someone insisted on flat white, much handsomer. Imagine the finger marks. There aren't any.
Not surprisingly, Raffles is a regular stop for hoteliers in search of ideas worth pinching. At least they're looking in the right place. Almost a full city block, it is also a textbook destination hotel, a place where you can easily imagine passing three days or more without leaving the grounds. In addition to a theater, lavish tropical gardens, and a cooking school, there are 13 bars and restaurants. Not to mention all those fabulous boutiques.
1 Beach Rd.; 65/337-1886, fax 65/339-7650; doubles from $615.
The young man who summons the elevators is emblematic of everything that is right at the 13-month-old Millenia, which has 32 stories and 610 rooms. He wears a white jacket buttoned up to his chin and white jersey gloves. When he asked how my afternoon had gone he addressed me by name, and either he really was interested in how my trip was unfolding or he's the best actor since Brando. The Millenia is part of the Marina Centre, Singapore's new, $1.4 billion waterfront. The building "floats" 120 feet aboveground on chunky legs, which means that all the rooms have unobstructed views; the view of the financial district as seen through the legs is designed to race the motors of high-rolling executives as they zip into town from Changi Airport.
It never gets cold enough to wear a camel-hair coat in Singapore, but that's what the Millenia seems to call for. The pervading color is a restful honey, somehow cool and warm at the same time. And while many of the furnishings make reference to classical Oriental design, others evoke a pre-war European Modernist chic. The mix feels rich, comfortable, authoritative.
The manager of a rival property says that what worries him most about the Millenia is the razzle-dazzle bathrooms with tubs positioned below huge octagonal windows. I didn't tell him that the room curtains operate manually rather than electronically, that the door from the hall opened toward the middle of my room instead of against a wall, and that the housekeeper had missed a crucial part of her detail on her sweep through the bathroom.
But these gripes are not what I remember most about the Millenia. I remember most the concierge who very gently took my pen from my hand, clicked the ballpoint into place, and very gently handed it back.
7 Raffles Ave.; 65/337-8888, fax 65/337-5190; doubles from $340.
The bellhop took such an interest in my love of chicken rice, one of Singapore's great national dishes, that he could have been the brother of the elevator attendant at the Millenia. It was only my third day in Singapore, and already I was withering under all the attention. But was I worthy?
Both the Millenia and the Four Seasons employed the same Santa Monica firm for their interior design, although you'd never know it. Where the Millenia tries to push the envelope in its bid for sleekness, the Four Seasons, which opened in 1994, has chosen the deep-pile tradition. This is the kind of restrained department-store decorating that feels chilly in a private house but can be welcome in a hotel: down-filled upholstery with dressmaker details, shirred lampshades, old-fashioned metal drawer pulls that make the most lovely, civilized rattle. You get the picture. Nothing to scare the bronze horses on the buffet.
The Four Seasons has only 254 rooms. By Singapore standards, that makes it a boutique hotel, which is how management hopes you will think of it-as offering more intimacy and individualized service than the other big guns. Boutique: in Singapore, there is no escaping the word. Everything is rated by its proximity to Orchard Road, which they might as well call Boutique Boulevard. The Four Seasons is fond of pointing out that it is closer to the hectic shopping strip than the Shangri-La and the Millenia but not as bothersomely close as the Hilton, the Marriott, and the Meridien.
If you are one of those people for whom staying on an island means having a water view, you'll be disappointed here. Be warned, too, that south-facing rooms overlook the Boulevard Hotel, a peeling eyesore. And about that tableau of clocks at the foot of the Hello, Dolly! staircase in the lobby. It gives the time in a number of world capitals, yet there is no indication of the day, or if the times are a.m. or p.m.
But I'm sure one of the amazingly attentive staff will have already put things right by the time the general manager reads this.
190 Orchard Blvd.; 65/734-1110, fax 65/773-0669; doubles from $330.
Launched in 1971, this king-size property didn't come into its own until 1985, when it made a grab for the big time with the 141-room Valley Wing. Quicker than you can say "dim sum," the prestigious Valley dwarfed the Shangri-La's Tower Wing, a magnet for businessmen on ungenerous expense accounts, and the Garden Wing, favored by smooching holidaymakers.
Of course, the Valley Wing is more expensive. But while its standard rooms cost up to 25 percent more than those in the other units, they are as much as 30 percent larger. The peace and the privacy have also contributed to making the wing a big hit with royalty, captains of industry, and heads of state. The Valley has its own entrance, lobby, concierge, reception, and cashier. Among the avalanche of free offerings are breakfast, round-the-clock drinks, and cocktail-hour canapés. Local calls cost nothing, and AT&T connection charges are waived.
With so many interlopers rocking the Singapore hotel landscape these days, some travelers find the Shangri-La's rather old-fashioned, crystal-chandelier brand of luxury reassuring. The garden also makes it hard for them to shift their patronage. What other hotel in Singapore employs 18 full-time gardeners to look after 15 acres of fruit trees, tropical flowers, and waterfall-fed pools filled with Japanese carp?An excellent tour of the garden is held every Saturday morning. No Shangri-La regular would think of missing it.
Orange Grove Rd.; 65/737-3644, fax 65/735-5980; Valley Wing doubles from $374.