Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Book a room straight out of Somerset Maugham

The mysterious East of Kipling, Maugham, and Sydney Greenstreet gets harder and harder to find. Nowhere else, for example, has high-rise architecture gone to such profuse extremes. These upward trends have elbowed out most of the flavorful, colonial-style hotels of the Orient, and yet a handful of the old gents still survive, looking more handsome than they have in years.

Probably the ablest survivor is the Peninsula of Hong Kong, overseen for the last three decades by a Swiss hotelier named Peter Gautschi, who stopped off in New York the other day to pass along regards from the old stone palace. There are other notable oldtimers on my list - Raffles of Singapore, the Galle Face in Sri Lanka, the Manila Hotel in Manila, the Oriental in Bangkok - but of course Mr. Gautschi, executive vice-president of the Peninsula Group, wanted to talk of Hong Kong and the storied Peninsula.

About these ads

He agreed that some of the pungency and romance have gone out of the Orient, but he wondered if it isn't partly the traveler's fault. ''In the old days,'' he said, ''the staff of a good hotel was waiting to greet every guest and unpack his steamer trunk. I am trying to restore this kind of service. When you arrive now, someone helps you unpack and get your laundry ready to go out, and someone else comes in and presents a tray of soaps so you can pick your favorite fragrance. If you wish, another man will draw a bath for you. The trouble is, people don't seem to have the patience for this attention. Or else they're worried about having to tip too many people.''

Like it or not, Mr. Gautschi promised, Peninsula guests will continue to be treated in princely style. That includes making up your room every time you walk out.

Exactly how do the hall porters monitor each departure from the room, I begged to know.

The small Oriental riddle was explained in this way: A paper match is propped against the door, and each time a guest leaves the room, the match falls, signaling a passing porter to enter.

Mr. Gautschi noted that while the Peninsula isn't as old as some of its surviving colonial brethren in the Far East, it has weathered its share of hardships.

''The hotel was opened in 1928 as the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Paris, Moscow, and Peking was being finished,'' he said. ''The new Hong Kong railroad station was almost next door. The Peninsula was supposed to get all the new train travelers, but with the troubles in China in the 1930s, it never filled up. In 1942 the hotel was occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army, and after the war it was used to house British soldiers and war refugees. When I got there in the 1950s it was full of cracked tubs, mosquito nets, and tired old fans. Of course there were some beautiful details to work with, huge rooms with high ceilings and louvered doors.''

Restored piece by piece in the ensuing 30 years, the Peninsula is today one of the important stops on the Hong Kong tourist trail. People come at all hours to sit in the front lobby and peer around potted palms for a hint of the mystery the building still evokes.

About these ads

Perhaps even more synonymous with the mystery and luxury of bygone days is the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. The many slapdash additions and changes to the ca. 1865 hotel have not obliterated the noble white French Renaissance style. Now a full renovation is under way that will, among other things, restore the main entrance - moved by the occupying Japanese during the war - to its original location.

Long ago, the hotel advertised itself as the Savoy of Singapore and used the Kipling line, ''Feed at Raffles when in Singapore ...'' without citing his following words, ''... but sleep at the Hotel l'Europe.'' Nor are the rooms luxurious today, but they are spacious and high-ceilinged. The most inviting space in Raffles is the Palm Court, a shaded enclave where tropical birds squawk through the hot afternoon and a piano player entertains far into the evening.

No hotel quite brings back the British Raj as does the massive, whitewalled Galle Face on the oceanfront at Colombo, Sri Lanka. Built 120 years ago, it was so named because it faced the port of Galle 70 miles down the Ceylon coast. Now frayed at the edges and using just 90 of the approximately 200 original rooms, the Galle Face has not relaxed its legendary service. Ubiquitous staff move about Sri Lanka style, barefoot and in white sarongs. On steamy afternoons one can sit on the veranda and imagine polo games of old surging across the great green beside the hotel.

Only a shell of the 1912 Manila Hotel remains, but it fits neatly beside an 18-story tower opened in 1976. Some guests are smitten with the hotel's appointments - woven tapestries, hand-carved sliding window screens - and others are taken with the personal touches: elevator operators who memorize the floor number of each guest, laundry that comes back neatly folded in woven rattan baskets.

Though smartly updated, the Oriental Hotel of Bangkok still recalls its romantic past when a young sailor named Joseph Conrad arrived ''surprised and worried'' by the opulence. Almost a century later full VIP treatment awaits every guest stepping onto the landing of the riverfront hotel. Some of the most desirable suites are in the old wing, named for such past literary customers as Conrad, Noel Coward, Graham Greene, and of course Somerset Maugham, who seems to have inspired memorial rooms and chambers all over the Pacific and Asia. Maugham , it turns out, complained of the heat and the food at the Oriental in a story called ''The Gentleman in the Parlour.'' Maybe the Orient of old wasn't all romance and mystery after all.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.