Butch Carungay reviews the Lion City’s latest shrine to the maximalist aesthetic
It’s been well over three decades since I’ve been to Singapore so I jumped at the opportunity to visit the Lion City’s Design Week last month even though I had just gotten back from an extended vacay in Europe. While on the Continent, we stayed in some seriously cool independently-owned lodgings, including the Only You in Madrid that last year won the Best Boutique Hotel in the World Award. So I was very excited to find out that the fabled French designer Jacques Garcia had recently completed his first hotel in Asia in the form of the Hôtel Vagabond.
Set in a row of historical Art Deco shop houses from the 1950s on the fringes of Little India and Arab Street, the Vagabond may be a bit off the beaten track. However, it is precisely this very eclectic, somewhat messy, and extremely fun character of the area that is integral to the identity of the hotel. Somehow the gritty Singapore of yore – which is still pervasive on the streets – when juxtaposed with the opulence within not only complements the experience but magnifies it to the nth degree.
Once past the unassuming façade and Ginger, the peeing dog topiary that steadfastly guards the front door, guests are immediately transported into a fantastical world that is at once Moroccan eclectic, Maharajah luxury and Parisian sophistication. Ascetic Singapore this is not people. After all, who would have expected a life-sized brass rhinoceros (that took six months to make) as a front desk, an over-abundance of cutting-edge art all over the walls, twisting brass banyan trees that writhe throughout the public spaces, the stylized gold monkey at the bar and the massive gold elephant by the restaurant?
All of these seemingly disparate elements could have been the recipe for a monumentally kitschy disaster but meld perfectly well in the deft and masterful hands of Monsieur Garcia who has long been associated with the contemporary maximalist movement. Obviously his past projects which include the Costes in Paris, the NoMad in New York, along with advising on the restoration of Versailles have more than prepared him for the Vagabond.
The property’s 42 rooms, which are larger than most of the city-state’s new crop of boutique offerings, are understandably more sedate – but no less luxurious. In keeping with the hotel’s eclecticism, the top-notch furnishings are tropical/colonial/modern and are filled with vintage-esque knick-knacks, art and a myriad of photographs personally taken by the owners from their worldwide travels. No detail has been spared from the amazing bed kitted out with high thread count sheets, to the Etro toiletries and the extra-fluffy robes in the toilet, to the 100 grams of organic dark chocolate at turndown, to the daily carafe of flavored water accompanied by a handwritten note.
And while the hotel may revel in history, it also does not forget that the modern traveler expects the latest in technology. Each guest room comes with a Roberts Bluetooth speaker that is way more useful that than the already-obsolete ipod docks that other properties are so proud of. A smart phone that offers complimentary unlimited local and international calls (to select countries), in addition to unlimited internet and city/area guides is also provided.
Being a small property, the only option for in-house dining is the Vagabond Salon which is contiguous with the Lobby. It is comprised of the 5th Quarter Restaurant, helmed by the award-winning Australian/Italian Executive Chef Drew Nocente. Centered around his love for charcuterie, Chef Drew, smokes and cures everything in house and has come up with a menu that is both novel and comforting at once. Drinks are served at the adjacent Bar where their head mixologist, Shah, serves up the most delicious artisanal concoctions made from the freshest and most premium of ingredients.
It is also in the Salon where guests can interact with the artist in residence for daily happy hour – a first for Singapore. Sadly, we just missed the last artist by a few days during our stay but were fortunate enough to be introduced to the owners by the hotel’s PR maven, Han Ping Ping. So it was over a flurry of drinks, much chatter, and even more laughter that the story of the Vagabond came together for me.
The last few lines of this article certainly will not do justice to Satinder Garcha and his lovely wife, Harpreet Bedi–for both of them have had extremely successful and illustrious backgrounds. He, as an IT entrepreneur/real estate developer/polo player. She, as a lawyer/Bioethics advocate, mother of three and day to day boss of the Vagabond. But it was by getting to know them, their passion for life and their unique outlook in contemporary hospitality that I understood why they were able to create such a unique experience – on this, their first attempt. And why I wait with bated breath with the impending launch of two more properties in Singapore and one in Chile in the very near future.
39 Syed Alwi Road, Singapore