Travel and Lifestyle Journalist

Old-School Decadence

Originally published in SCMP, November 2013


Old-School Decadence

Originally published in the South China Morning Post, 6 November 2013.

For all that one might lambast Singapore for being a nanny state, you can’t deny its sense of preservation. While Hong Kong happily tears down centuries-old structures to forge a gleaming metropolis, Singapore is searching for an ideal balance: towering skyscrapers alongside quaint examples of its culture.

The Sultan is a prime example of the latter. The hotel is located in the predominantly Malay and Arab district of Kampong Glam, an area which still retains much of its old appeal; there are ornate mosques, dusty antique stores, and decades-old eateries lining its many side streets.

Sitting comfortably in this heady brew of exoticism is The Sultan – but you wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking closely. The hotel’s lobby is accessed through a small side door that could easily go unseen. Once you’ve penetrated the entrance to the compound, the labyrinthine corridors become a kind of a maze.

But with the assistance of the hotel’s helpful staff, guests are guided through this hidden escape. The hotel’s owner, a great enthusiast of the city’s history and heritage, bought up 10 neighbouring shophouses, with plans to convert them into a boutique property where colonial intricacies met Middle Eastern indulgence.

Sultan Jazz Club.The result is a hotel of old-world charms: pure white walls, bamboo courtyards, open-air shutters and rustic carvings. The Sultan’s 64 rooms and suites are designed with this in mind – and while many share such features as high ceilings and ornate details, no two are alike.

For example, our Skylight Suite was located on the hotel’s top floor, with bright-blue views of the city, but its discreet use of earthy whites and browns meant it felt more modern than the warm reds and yellows of neighbouring rooms.

This focus on uniqueness is partly to create a distinct atmosphere for each guest, but also due to space restrictions because of the city’s high property prices. But while other boutique hotels have little choice in the matter, The Sultan has cleverly used minimalism to work in its favour: in the most basic of rooms, Japanese-inspired platform beds allow you to sleep on top of the storage space, while the grandest suites have a loft design, with a living room on the ground level and a bedroom on the mezzanine.

Reflecting the design, the hotel’s sparse but satisfying food and beverage options balance simplicity with a sense of secrecy. Toots Brasserie, the hotel’s high-end French restaurant, is a snug 40-seat restaurant that serves up classic country-style food, including rustic, long-forgotten favourites such as escargot and frogs’ legs.

We particularly enjoyed their poulet, a full chicken served in its cooking pan, and the heart attack-inducing beef Rossini, a large steak topped with foie gras.

Nightcaps can be sipped to the accompaniment of quality music at the intimate Sultan Jazz Club, or at the Room 101 rooftop bar.

The Sultan might be modest, but it adds up to something rare and long-forgotten. At a time when snap-happy tourists flock through the lobbies of major hotel chains, and even so-called “boutique” properties have more guests in their bars than rooms, The Sultan stands out as one of the few hotels to offer some simple but exclusive pleasures.