Gatsby glamour, Asia-style

MICHAEL GEBICKI
Last updated 05:00 28/05/2013
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GORGEOUS BUILDING: Raffles Hotel, Singapore.
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ON SCREEN GLAMOUR: Leonardo Dicaprio and Carey Mulligan in The Great Gatsby.
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A DAZZLING HOTEL: The Writers Bar, Raffles Hotel, Singapore.

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"I've been everywhere and seen everything and done everything," says Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby.

As the world welcomes yet another Jay Gatsby to the big screen - this time the work of Australia's own Baz Luhrmann - expect a nostalgic rekindling of the style and fashions of the period.

You might even be inspired to pack your cream linens, steamer trunk and best straw hat and take yourself off to one of the hotels, relatively close to home, in the Far East where Gatsby, the man who had been everywhere, would have stayed.

The Strand, Yangon, Myanmar

Overlooking the Yangon River, this neo-classical hotel strikes a statuesque pose among the faded glories of what was once an outpost of the British Empire.

The hotel opened in 1901, built by the Sarkies brothers, who also created Raffles in Singapore and the Eastern & Oriental in Penang.

It quickly became the place to stay in Rangoon, as the city was formerly known, at a time when this was a busy trading port, and Burmese were banned from entering the hotel unless they wore a servant's uniform.

Following the postwar British retreat, the hotel settled into a long and genteel decline.

By the time I first stayed there in the early 1980s, the rot bordered on the comical.

Dining room staff clung to their once-white uniforms with disintegrating collars, mildew inked the walls and power and hot water were absent for long periods, but you could have lobster for less than $5.

In the 1990s, The Strand was completely renovated and, ever since, it has been the city's finest hotel for the traveller in search of atmosphere.

Built around a central atrium, the hotel's public areas are refined but understated. The plush spa makes a bow to 21st-century tastes, although the modest size of the property means there are no gardens, and no swimming pool.

The Strand has just 30 guest suites, each with teak floors, ceiling fans and marble-plated bathrooms. Local lacquerware and oriental antiques hint at the steamy world that lies outside.

Dimensions are generous. Guest room ceilings are four metres high and the smallest suites start at 50 square metres. The coffee-and-cream colour scheme is inoffensive but unexciting.

The luxuries are all in place - the butler service, the silky couch in your room, the abundant fluffy white towels - although the look is distinctly Asian-style conservative.

The hotel has benefited enormously from Myanmar's recent tourism surge and rooms are now available only if booked several months in advance.

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Essential experience: Afternoon tea, served with proper pomp in the cool confines of The Strand Cafe, between 2pm and 6pm.

Rooms from about $260, including breakfast. ghmhotels.com

Raffles, Singapore

This gorgeous, gleaming birthday cake of a building casts a spell. If you happen to arrive aboard one of the hotel's fleet of automobiles, which includes a Bentley Continental Flying Spur, you'll feel like royalty when Narajan Singh, the legendary Sikh doorman, opens the door.

The Sarkies brothers opened a 10-room colonial bungalow on this site in 1887, but it was not until 1899 that the present-day facade was completed.

Over the years the stately hotel went through a number of alterations, many of them unsympathetic, until it closed in 1989 for a two-year renovation that saw it not just restored but vastly improved. Over the years, Raffles has spawned its fair share of legends.

When Elizabeth Taylor stayed with husband Mike Todd, she wore a too-tight dress, which resulted in a wardrobe malfunction over the dinner table. Most famous of all, a tiger was once shot beneath the billiard table in the same bar.

The hotel is at its dazzling best in the atrium-style lobby, where well-polished marble, chandeliers, dark wood, wingback chairs, potted palms and Persian carpets create a belle epoque extravagance.

Light spilling from the upper levels of the atrium levers the eye upwards. In Gatsby's day this was the Tiffin Room and the mysterious millionaire would likely have enjoyed the mild chicken curry, one of the few items on Raffles' menu with a touch of Asia about it.

However, as a man of discretion, he would have avoided the corner of the hotel known as Cad's Alley, where rakish chaps would ogle passing women.

Rooms are arranged off the verandahs that run along the three-storey hotel. The front door opens to a parlour - and no other word will do - with the bedroom beyond and the bathroom at the back. At 60 square metres, even the smallest of Raffles' rooms dwarf the executive suites in most hotels.

The rooms need refreshing and the services of an interior stylist. The dark woodsy desk, wardrobe and dressing table come from that unfortunate era of interior furnishings known as the 1980s and the old-style CRT TV, set into a cabinet on the far side of my room from the bed, does not belong in a hotel room that aspires to five-star luxury.

Curiously, there are no tea- or coffee-making facilities, but your room butler will do it all for you, speedily and with a smile that no electric kettle ever manages.

The swimming pool, which once sat in the centre of green lawns and palm trees, has been banished to a rooftop. This was a serious mistake, especially when below my room is a big courtyard with lawn where nothing much happens.

How sweet would it be to sit here by a pool, under the shade of a frangipani with a fresh lime soda in hand, writing elegant thoughts, as Somerset Maugham did when he first visited the hotel in 1921.

knows - perhaps even Jay Gatsby spotted him there.

Essential experience: The upstairs photo gallery of past guests. Featuring Jackie Onassis, Charlie Chaplin, Ava Gardner, Queen Elizabeth II, Dita Von Teese and John Howard. Ask nicely at the front desk.

Rooms from about $477. raffles.com/singapore

Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang, Malaysia

Opened in 1885, this was the first hotel built by the Sarkies brothers, and its success laid down the template for their other celebrated hotels. The hotel's waterfront position, situated in a burgeoning seaport towards the eastern extreme of the British Empire, became a Sarkies trademark.

Although the E&O is not as decorous as some of Asia's other heritage hotels, this is still a handsome establishment with patrician dimensions and colonial decor that were brought to life when the hotel underwent a total makeover in the 1990s.

Gatsby would have arrived by sea, from where the E&O was made to be seen. The entrance off Lebuh Farquhar, which is where you and I must enter, is the tradesman's doorway, although it does usher you into the domed foyer, where the tricky acoustics amplify even a whispered conversation.

In Gatsby's day, the hotel would have been full of rubber merchants. Malaya was the world's major supplier. Demand for rubber for the auto trade was booming and fortunes were being made.

The hotel's finest feature is the swimming pool, set among lawns overlooking the Strait of Malacca, where a stiff breeze will carry salt spray whipped from the waves on the breakwater below.

The base-level deluxe suites measure 58 square metres, with a living area separate from the bedroom and a swanky bathroom.

In March, the hotel opened its new Victory Annexe, which has added another 122 rooms, all with sea views and private balconies, built in a style that capitalises on the hotel's historic character.

Essential experience: Stay and make the most of that gorgeous swimming pool setting. At this price, what's not to like?

Rooms from about $179, including breakfast. eohotels.com

Sofitel Legend Metropole, Hanoi, Vietnam

Close to the heart of Hanoi's French Quarter and just a short stroll from Hoan Kiem Lake, this is one of the prettiest hotels you'll ever see.

The wrought ironwork, lacy awnings, shutters and belle epoque architecture are a direct reference to the hotel's French heritage, and who could miss the vintage Citroens parked in the hotel's courtyard?

Now part of the Accor's hotel empire, the Metropole is one of the group's Sofitel Legend hotels, a distinguished ensemble that includes only half-a-dozen vintage, patrician properties with outstanding character.

While the Metropole oozes history, it also has a savvy finger on the contemporary pulse. Splashy colours in the rooms, a sparkling, conservatory-style French brasserie and a razzle-dazzle Italian restaurant give the hotel a vivacity and panache that sets it apart from the more traditional-minded of Asia's hotel aristocrats.

In Gatsby's day, this was known as the finest hotel in French Indochina. No doubt he would have chatted with the French administrators, soldiers and rubber planters who were the mainstay of French colonial power, but probably not in the bar.

Even though he has a cocktail named after him, Gatsby was circumspect when it came to drink, perhaps fearing that a loose tongue might let slip a careless suggestion of how wealth came his way.

Past guests at the Metropole are drawn from the usual cast of globe-trotting luminaries. In June 1972, Jane Fonda stayed for two weeks, acquiring the nickname "Hanoi Jane" and the scorn of the US for her opposition to the Vietnam conflict.

Another famous anti-war guest later that same year was American folk singer Joan Baez, who probably took cover in the hotel's underground air raid shelter during the 1972 Christmas bombings.

The Opera Wing was added in 1996 yet, from the inside at least, only the sharp-eyed guest would notice the transition between old and new wings. Premium rooms, the hotel's base-level rooms, are all located in the Opera Wing.

These are slightly less expensive than rooms in the Historical Wing, and again, the differences are minimal.

Essential experience: The chocolate buffet served daily in Le Club, 3-5.30 pm. Praline, ganache, eclairs, mille-feuille pastries, a chocolate fountain and French pastries. Go ahead, you know you want it. $30.

Rooms from about $358. sofitel.com

Michael Gebicki travelled as a guest of Raffles Hotels and Singapore Airlines.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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