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Winning Raffles
Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

When Raffles Hotel opened in Singapore, there were just 10 rooms in a classic Far East white colonial bungalow overlooking the beach.

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That was in 1887. The British Empire was celebrating Queen Victoria's golden jubilee - just as, for Raffles' big birthday 125 years later, appropriately and rather interestingly, Britain and the changed world has been celebrating Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee.

Raffles Hotel now has 103 suites over four wings. The hotel's address might still be 1 Beach Road, but the beach has long gone - a long way, in fact, the other side of an ocean of reclaimed land and billion-dollar developments.

Singapore has been changing full steam ahead and last year welcomed more than 13 million international tourists - more than double the annual 5.8 million a decade ago. Sentosa Island has become its own jam-packed destination. The three-tower Marina Bay Sands Hotel, on reclaimed land that was once South China Sea, has 2561 rooms.

In these ways, everything has changed. In others, it seems, sitting here in the Writers Bar at Raffles, little has. Certainly, and reassuringly, the essence of this fine hotel hasn't. It's not stuffy or pompous, but it is still calm and classy. I haven't stayed here for a decade but still it feels like coming home.

Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Pictures: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

I've wandered the breezy white verandah and fragrant gardens, and had high tea in the Tiffin Room. I've dined on Dover sole in the delightful Raffles Grill and even considered the degustation menu. I've stuck my nose in a martini bar which offers 50 types of this cocktail and the Long Bar, where bartender Ngiam Tong Boon invented the Singapore Sling in 1915.

It wasn't the done thing for ladies to drink in public, but something pink was considered elegant enough. Today, there are also six new Slings in tribute to the original, all at $20 each. There are still peanuts to be shelled, and their remains scattered on the floor.

And now, as I have said, I am in the Writers Bar (with a silver pot of English breakfast tea as it happens, don't-ya-know), humbled in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad, believed to be one of the hotel's earliest guests, young Rudyard Kipling on a round-the-world trip, who dined here, Noel Coward, James Michener ("a room at Raffles is life at its best" wrote the Pulitzer prize-winning novelist) and W. Somerset Maugham, who stayed three times.

Apart from the six-story collection The Casuarina Tree, in which, in The Letter, Maugham plays calm outward appearances against inner turmoils in Singapore between World War I and World War II, he famously, and helpfully wrote: "Raffles in Singapore stands for all the fables of the exotic East."

I say "helpfully" because the hotel's general manager of the day wrote and asked if he could use the line in advertising and it has been thoroughly exercised ever since.

The writers weren't the only celebrities to visit. Among the rooms are 12 personality suites, and I am spending the night in Ava Gardner. It is rather wonderful.

Ava Gardner suite at Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

The ravishing Ms Gardner stayed at Raffles when she was in Singapore for the Asian premiere of her 1954 film The Barefoot Contessa, considered her signature movie, and in which she starred with Humphrey Bogart.

The suite takes the form of the other 83 palm court and courtyard suites, then there are five grand suites and two presidential suites.

Bells and whistles: Ava Gardner suite at Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

There's a table and chairs to sit out on the long veranda. Then a reception room with a table and chairs, a sofa, coffee table and TV in a cabin. I like the two standard lamps.

Two shuttered windows are thrown open to reveal the bedroom, and I drift in through a curtained doorway. It is big, classic. There's a wardrobe, trouser press, and dressing table with a mirror.

The dressing room has twin basins and the bathroom a big bath with gold taps and a separate shower room.

But what I really want to describe is the atmosphere. Am I being too emotional? Can these rooms really feel calming? Do they really carry the air of the golden age of travel of the 1920s and 30s? Of the travel trunks and leather cases, and elaborate stickers depicting then strange and exotic places, and now so familiar to us?

Well, I think so. While Raffles Hotel is celebrating its 125th birthday, almost as significant is a 25th anniversary which also falls this year.

For in 1987 Raffles Hotel was officially declared a National Monument. It was closed for two-and-a-half years and restored to what it had been in 1915 - the year that is still the benchmark for all work done. And that monument status has kept it what it is, with the city changing around it.

I am walking around with the delightful director of marketing and communications, Annie Choy, who briefly steps aside to greet a lady who is clearly a regular guest. I don't overhear it all but Annie says they must get together, so that the guest can give suggestions for improvements. And I hear the lady clearly: "We are happy with you. We don't want any change."

Ava Gardner suite at Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Picture: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

Staying at Raffles Hotel is one thing, but even if that's beyond a traveller's budget, they are encouraged to join the story.

Perhaps High Tea, perhaps a treat of a meal, a Singapore Sling, or a sparkling water in one of the 15 restaurants and bars. Perhaps something from the Raffles Shop in its retail arcade - a candle of the frangipani scent created for the hotel. Or, being a National Monument and required to be accessible, just walking around the public areas and looking through its museum, largely the result of 40 years' work by resident historian Leslie Danker.

For Raffles Hotel, which the staff mostly refer to as "she", might be 125, but she is alive and well, and her story is still being written.

In the early days the only dining was in the lobby, and tables and chairs were moved aside after the meal to make space for dancing. Right here, where I am sitting now, writing another chapter.

FACT FILE


• For Raffles Hotels bookings, visit travel agents, raffles.com/singapore, or call +65 6337 1886 - Singapore is in the same time zone as Perth and you are sure of a helpful response.
• Singapore Airlines flies direct from Perth to Singapore in five hours, 25 minutes, three times a day, and is increasing that to four from October 28 until March 30. singaporeair.com.