At a time when guests seek technological gadgetry, Asia’s grand hotels are still thriving. These heritage establishments have attained legendary status and are destinations in their own right.
In Singapore’s early days it was said that, “When at Raffles, guests should also see Singapore.” In the 19th century golden era of travel, travellers ventured to colonial outposts like Singapore and stayed in fine hotels such as Raffles. After respite from the tropical heat, they continued their Grand Asian Tour on another steamship to exotic ports like Penang, Rangoon (Yangon) and Bangkok.
The iconic Angelina Bar at Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi
These ports were the main places of interest as passengers disembarked and specific hotels became synonymous with the destination. It was an era where only those who could afford to travel did, and often these hotels were not just the best in their respective location – they were the only ones. These oases of civilisation appealed to fastidious Europeans who would contemplate staying nowhere else.
Writers visited and documented their experiences to audiences who read their adventures in newspapers and books published months and even years later. Often it was the hotel rather than the destination that inspired writers to document their tales of the East. Writers like Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Rudyard Kipling were the influencers of their time well before the word became fashionable. Most stayed in several of Asia’s great hotels while writing their stories. Adventurous travellers headed overland from these ports to explore other exotic places like Ayutthaya, Phnom Penh, Angkor and Hanoi.
Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi
Today, many contemporary travellers aspire to visit and stay in one of these gilded palaces of the past to experience their gracious service and absorbing history. They too want to live the dream that has enthralled generations of travellers. While Asia has many great hotels, it has just a few grand legendary properties. Here are six of the finest.
Eastern and Oriental (E&O) Penang
Penang’s E&O is the island’s oldest and grandest hotel brimming with elegance from a bygone era. Established in 1885 by the famed Sarkies Brothers from Armenia (of Raffles and The Strand fame), this seafront hotel is near the wondrous maze of shop lots protected as a UNESCO heritage site.
Over its 134-year history, the E&O has hosted artists, writers and celebrities. Advertising posters once proclaimed it as having an immaculate sweeping lawn and ‘the longest seafront east of Suez’. It was initially managed by Arshak Sarkies, an eccentric and flamboyant host who showed unbridled generosity in operating the E&O more for pleasure than profit. In the 1920s, it hosted Penang’s socialites and was known as the ‘Eat and Owe’ because Sarkies allowed regulars to run chits and pay months later. It came unstuck in the 1930s, when the hotel declared bankruptcy.
Rescued and revived, it continued to accommodate guests and in 2013, the 15-storey Victory Annexe was added to provide an additional 132 classic suites, restaurants, pool, spa and the E&O Gallery detailing the hotel’s history. Later this year, the Heritage Wing reopens following a refurbishment that retains its classic grandeur. New restaurants and bars will open in the Heritage Wing but the E&O’s timeless elegance is relived with classic afternoon teas served in Planters Lounge.
Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok
When it opened in 1876, the Oriental was Thailand’s (Siam) first international hotel that started as a riverside retreat for the influential and wealthy but now accommodates global travellers. Located by the majestic Chao Phraya River, its Authors’ Lounge is the place to admire colonial elegance while partaking in refined afternoon teas. Located in the Authors’ Wing, this original section has seen two extensions in 1958 (Garden Wing) and 1976 (River Wing). Recent renovations – including the latest renovation of the River Wing set to be completed this month – have retained its nostalgic charm and magnificent colonial architecture set amongst lush landscaping.
Now officially the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, and following its latest round of renovations, the property features 301 rooms and 46 suites exquisitely decorated with classic Thai silks, teak and gilded accents. Four suites are named after celebrity writers, Coward, Maugham, Michener and Conrad, who all stayed at the hotel.
In 1958, Le Normandie (Two Michelin Stars 2019) opened at the top of the Garden Wing to serve the city’s finest French cuisine. Its sweeping views, gastronomic offerings and vintage wines continue the tradition of service excellence. The China House with an Art Deco interior of carved wood and ebony pillars serves Shanghainese cuisine while Lord Jim’s offers the freshest seafood.
Raffles Le Royal Hotel Phnom Penh
Discerning travellers who have visited the Cambodian capital since 1929 choose to stay in Le Royal with its spacious rooms, airy conservatory, pool and restaurants. Situated on a wide boulevard, the hotel with French Art Deco architecture and interiors featuring Khmer textiles and historic photographs is a city landmark.
Operating under the Raffles moniker since 1995, its 175 rooms and Amrita Spa provide a refuge from Phnom Penh’s lively street life. The Elephant Bar is the venue to take in the hotel’s ambience and sip signature cocktails like Femme Fatale created by Jackie Kennedy when she visited in 1967. Le Royal has not always been as grand as it is today having fallen into disrepair during the civil war from 1970 to 1975. Then, foreign correspondents covering the war stayed here as documented in the movie The Killing Fields. In 1997, new rooms were added to the Landmark Rooms and Signature Suites located in the original building.
Guests can dine on French and Royal Khmer cuisines – the latter with recipes handed down by the decree of the Royal Palace – in the hotel’s Restaurant Le Royal or more casually in Café Monivong. Raffles Le Grand d’Angkor is Le Royal’s sister property that adjoins the famous Angkor temples and offers similar refined facilities and services.
Raffles Hotel Singapore
Probably no other hotel in the world is more a destination than a place to stay than Raffles. Epitomising many of the fables of the exotic East, Asia’s best-known heritage hotel is an essential stop on any visit to Singapore. Built in 1887 and recently renovated, this national monument sets standards that others follow.
Located on Beach Road, it once overlooked the sea but Singapore’s expansion has seen Raffles now well and truly landlocked. Its rattan and teak furniture, louvered shutters, ceiling fans and antiquated plumbing have been replaced, for even nostalgia has its limits with contemporary travellers. Practical reality ensures that modern facilities have been discretely incorporated within the hotel’s outer heritage shell.
While its aura of colonial grandeur has been retained, the hotel that featured in Crazy Rich Asians is not locked in a time warp as culinary luminaries like Alain Ducasse (BBR), Anne-Sophie Pic (Le Dame de Pic) and Jereme Leung (Yì) now craft their magic in Raffles. Even the iconic Singapore Sling, created in 1915 and served in the atmospheric Long Bar, has received a contemporary shake and stir to ensure it quenches the thirst of modern palates.
The Grand Hotel Métropole Hanoi
Located in Hanoi’s inner heart, centred on Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter, the 210-room Métropole has provided a haven for discerning travellers since its opening in 1901. This historic luxury 364-room hotel with French colonial styling has welcomed luminaries including, most recently, President Trump and Kim Jong-un who met here for discussions.
Others like Graham Greene, correspondent for Paris Match and regular at the hotel bar, crafted the hotel into his novel and later movie, The Quiet American.
The stately property has had several incarnations with a bomb shelter four metres beneath the hotel, one of the hotel’s more unusual features. Staff and guests sought shelter here during the bombing of Hanoi in the Vietnam War. Things are now more civilised with a new accommodation wing (Opera Wing), luxurious spa and restaurants such as Le Beaulieu Restaurant for creative French cuisine and bars such as the iconic Angelina Bar.
The Strand Yangon
This colonial landmark opened in 1901 in Rangoon, the then-Burmese capital, and soon afterwards became part of the Sarkies Brothers Empire. This enduring building was the Sarkies’ third hotel (the E&O and Raffles being the others). While much of the hotel remains intact, Burma is now Myanmar and the new capital, Nay Pyi Taw is 370 kilometres to the north.
When The Strand opened, Rangoon was reputedly the most cosmopolitan city in the British Empire with gaslights, streetcars and telephones equal to London. However, early photographs of The Strand also portray cattle grazing opposite on the riverside verging beneath coconut palms. While one of Yangon’s smallest hotels, it is a truly refined all-suite establishment. Its fortunes have waxed and waned with several ‘thoughtful refreshments that have remained true to its architectural past’. It is recognised by the Yangon Heritage Trust for its cultural and historic significance.
Like most grand hotels, flawless and personalised service sets it apart from the competition. Guests can enjoy afternoon tea in The Strand Café, dine in The Strand Restaurant and sip refreshing beverages in Sarkies Bar at The Strand.