To boogie around the Bugis and Bras Basah neighbourhoods in Singapore’s bustling Rochor district is to exercise the senses, largely thanks to the vibrant area’s bustling culinary and cultural scenes. Strolling past the food stalls along Bugis Street, once a notorious haunt of sailors and transvestites, I feel my olfactory glands tingle from waft after waft of succulent grilled treats here, and rich bubbling sauces there. Each stall busily rustles up delicacies from a different part of Asia, and golden-yellow Hainan chicken rice gleams beside delicious fried radish cakes – a signature Singaporean speciality – and steaming bowls of laksa.
Not too far away nestles the historical precinct of Kampong Glam, home to colourful Haji Lane and Arab Street in the city’s Muslim quarter. Here, independent clothing shops have sprung up among conserved two-storey shophouses, home to many restaurants and purveyors of imported Middle Eastern perfumes and fabrics. In less than 20 paces, the latest top-40 international hits emanating from one store give way to Arabic instrumentals seeping out from another. Punctuating this web of Rochor streets are venerable buildings of faith, including Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho and Masjid Sultan, a Chinese temple and mosque respectively, which have coexisted harmoniously since the masjid’s completion in 1928.
Bras Basah is slightly more subdued. The street, its name the Malay for “wet rice”, is on land that was once a lagoon, and gateway for rice boats. That all changed when Stamford Raffles, founder of colonial Singapore, chose the area to be the European quarter. It’s now home to the National Museum of Singapore, the city’s oldest fire station and further monuments demonstrating Singapore’s multicultural history, including the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator, and Chijmes, an historic building complex that began life as a Catholic convent with a Gothic-style chapel.
Within walking distance of all of these hum-ming neighbourhoods and their myriad sights, I’ve booked myself into the newly renovated InterContinental Singapore for the weekend. The 403-room hotel, itself a landmark, has been in operation since 1995, and the refurbishment worked into its elegant interior elements of the area’s history, particularly Peranakan culture – predominantly Malay-influenced but associated with the descendants of Chinese immigrants.
The influence is immediately noticeable in the pale-pink and white colonial-style facade of the hotel, which is reminiscent of the shophouses that once lined the street on which it stands, and the hotel’s opulent ballroom is popular for the city’s most chic weddings. In the lobby, intricately patterned marble floors and the carved backs of chairs flanking entranceways give the impression of a well-appointed mansion from a bygone era.
Light floods into my suite from floor-to-ceiling windows that stretch across the bedroom and sitting room. It’s an elegant interpretation of serene colonial quarters, complete with marble bathrooms, and once my cases have been delivered, I throw myself onto the velvet sofa to channel hop, my TV housed in a gorgeous mahogany cabinet that I’d love in my own home.
My suite is equipped with a 4G mobile phone (as, in fact, is every room and suite in the hotel) so that guests can feel more at home in the city. I fill in my details for Whatsapp and Instagram, and plop the device into my bag.
I head down to the hotel’s Club InterContinental Lounge for afternoon tea. The lounge is a real treat and a clear indicator that this is primarily a business hotel. There’s an extensive reading library, a comprehensive package of business-support services and a generous supply of food and drink. Breakfast, afternoon tea and the evening cocktail services are all to write home about. The only downside is that I’m lured into the gorgeous mahogany den so often that I miss the stunning Lobby Lounge, which also serves breakfast, lunch and dinner in a lofty, chandeliered room – an ode to old-English grandeur. Majestic pillars border the space and are covered with Peranakan tiles.
Instead, I spoil myself with Sunday brunch at Ash & Elm, the hotel’s European restaurant that offers everything from buffet rooms of charcuterie and cheese, a charcoal grill and a caviar table to à la carte choices of lobster ravioli and foie gras. All may be accompanied by unlimited champagne and Bloody Marys made to your specifications and served from a rolling cart.
A weekend is simply too short to sample all that the hotel and the vibrant area in which it sits have to offer. With restaurants galore – there’s Japanese fine dining at Chikuyotei, Chinese at Man Fu Yuan, and artisanal breads at Baker & Cook – InterContinental Singapore is a well-catered luxury bolthole at which to enjoy respite after so many local adventures.