Column: Shallow, I know, but experiencing another Noah’s Ark-like flood sent me back to the more tropical climes of Southeast Asia.
Still the distant hubbub, the scorching heat, all the senses attacked at every turn. And where his hotel can become a refuge. No more than in one of the “Grandes Dames” of Asia.
These exotic and immaculate hotels, traditionally one of the most notable per Asian capital, have long offered an exquisite retreat to generations of travellers. And my visits to many of them while working with Asian Hotelier magazine in the 1990s gave me a real insight into their golden past.
Trusted names like E&O in Penang, Hotel des Indes in Jakarta, Imperial in Tokyo, The Strand in Rangoon or Royal Station in Kuala Lumpur. A lucky few like the Peninsula in Hong Kong, the Raffles in Singapore and the Oriental in Bangkok have been showered with millions.
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Some I mourn, like my Bela Vista, an eight-suite former colonial mansion on Penha Hill overlooking Praia Grande Esplanade in Macau.
Not only has the magnificent inland port it once presided over been recovered, but it is now occupied by the Consul General of Portugal, as part of their agreement for the cooperative handover of the former Portuguese colony to China in 2000.
Once, while dining on the spacious tiled veranda of this Bela Vista, I badly cut my finger slicing a Portuguese chorizo with the sharpest bread knife I had ever been provided with.
Blood everywhere, all over the tablecloth, so embarrassing. I was forced to finish my meal with a cotton napkin wrapped around my finger.
I swear the impeccable Macanese waiter showed genuine grief by shouting me an extra bottle of Portuguese wine to tone down mine.
These “Grande Dame” hotels are brimming with something that younger hotels can never claim to have: ardently nurtured traditions.
When I visited the opulent Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi, the manager and I sat on the veranda next to an empty rattan chair still reserved daily for the hotel’s founding owner, Mohan Singh Oberoi.
Every day he came for afternoon tea and sat in the same chair. Even though he is long dead, the current staff still save his favorite chair for him and serve him a cup of the best Assam tea every afternoon.
I love the way the ice tinkles in those grand old hotels, the way the butlers wait (or so they did) at the end of every hallway, how you can take your shoes out at night and find them polished like a mirror by Morning.
It’s the small touches, but their stories go way beyond that.
During World War II, General Rensuke Isogai commanded the Japanese invasion of the Pacific from the requisitioned Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Towards the end of the war, Allied fighter planes combed all the windows on the 8th floor with gunfire, the floor where he was thought to be staying.
After the war, it took two years to tidy up the hotel before it could reopen.
General Douglas MacArthur did the same at the Manila Hotel. The top brass knew where to stay while their grunts were chopped on lost atolls.
Visitors can still rent the MacArthur Suite for $3,300 a night, as these hotels cater to their guests’ appetite for vintage nostalgia. The Continental Hotel in Saigon warmly reports that Graeme Greene got drunk there most nights when he lived in the city.
For around $3400 a night, you can indulge in the Somerset Maugham suite at the Oriental in Bangkok. Worth a photo google, all stately red, hot pink and gold colors, matching canopy beds and elegantly designed furniture.
This is the hotel that, before electricity, employed four “fan wallahs”, to keep well-paid guests cool in their rooms while they slept.
You can still visit James Clavell’s small side room under the stairs at The Peninsula in Hong Kong. We’re not talking about spending the night here. Clavell wrote his entire Asian trilogy of Noble House, Taipan, and Shogun while staying in “The Pen.”
Even if you can’t afford to stay overnight, you should at least visit the Peninsula Hotel when traveling through Hong Kong. Fifty bucks will still get the elegant afternoon tea and strawberry cakes in the lobby, mingling with a few members of the city’s high society while being accompanied by a four-piece orchestra.
The peninsula lobby is a bit like Alice in Wonderland. The ceiling fans may be long gone, replaced by more efficient air conditioning, but the tall columns, ornate gilded ceilings and carved angels exude as much opulence as the day it opened.
It used to be customary for ‘ladies of little virtue’ to sit on the left or west side of the hall, while social matrons and their daughters adorned the eastern part – a typical sample of colonial high society life. .
Although the connection is obvious, the term “grand hotel” is not so much associated with grandeur, but rather with the definition of a totally autonomous establishment which, for the first time (towards the end of the 19th century), combined all aspects of hospitality under one roof – accommodation, fine dining, opulent corners to hang out at, on-site laundry, currency exchange, telegraph and telephone operator, even sports and exercise facilities, basically everything guests need needed, even the ability to make later booking arrangements.
I have to admit I like them a bit faded, as the Majestic was in Saigon where I was always staying before it got carried away.
Dirty tiles with patina and peeling wall paint were standard decor. Not expensive too. Ten bucks a night, there was no hot water and I always had to open my balcony doors which were always nailed down to keep thieves from climbing in,
Breakfast was served on the open roof, overlooking the bustling Saigon River.
“Take care of yourself, my friend. It can be a very dangerous city,” the doorman warned each time I left the hotel. But I still remember the feeling this hotel gave me after a day spent so painfully outside, where the air was still heavy and oppressive.