Whenever the school holiday season approaches, you either: (a) have offspring and fancy a getaway, or (b) don’t have offspring and fancy a getaway to avoid the crowds of children positively everywhere. Either way, the latest offering from Far East Hospitality offers a staycation at the exclusive Barracks Hotel Sentosa now offers tours – which it dubs “Heritage Safaris” – to spice up the itinerary.
Why come here when you can travel overseas? Well, The Barracks Hotel is a destination in itself, and its Sentosa address and carefully palm-fronded grounds provide more than adequate island vibes for a relaxing time.
The charms of the cosy property remain as appealing as they did on opening week two years ago: 40 rooms and suites, housed in former military barracks, are guarded by gated access and assure privacy to those who can afford to unwind in a conserved 1904 building dripping with British architecture and Singapore history.
The rooms (only one size: 99 square metres, the rest being suites of 79, 89, and 118 sqm) are bigger than average hotels and thoughtfully outfitted with bespoke furniture that suits the colonial-era travel theme. Modern bathrooms, while not cavernous, are cleverly designed to feel so, and all rooms have balconies overlooking a lovely leafy pool shared among so few, it’s likely you’ll have it to yourself. The only downside is the lack of onsite restaurants.
Best of all, the impeccable service has been maintained. There are mosquito patches as part of the amenity kit. At The Living Room – the small but swish lounge that offers free snacks, canapes and cocktails – staff in pressed suits address guests by surname and expertly read minds, proffering alcohol to stressed-looking, work-from-hotel types, and icy drinks to sweaty arrivals.
It’s clear Barracks’ people are well trained and go beyond the job scope. For example, should you enter from the basement lift, Gopal from security will deliver a history lecture on framed photos of the building from British occupation days – an initiative entirely his own. “We observe the guests carefully,” a driver tells me proudly in the car, asking how I’ve slept. He later appears at the lounge bearing a pillow menu.
The downside to all this is that being in the hotel is like existing in a perfectly manicured bubble, which bursts the moment you exit, presumably to try out the customised, small-group tours that tie in with the colonial theme.
There are two choices. The Colonial Architecture tour promises guided walks of Fort Siloso, Mount Imbiah, Dempsey Hill, Gillman Barracks and Seletar estate up north, plus an optional dinner of Thai food at restored colonial manor Tamarind Hill in nearby Labrador Nature Reserve.
Our guide spends the bulk of time at Siloso, skipping Imbiah and Seletar, and spending only the briefest stop at Gillman Barracks and Dempsey. We conclude this tour is more for folks keen on the wartime history of Singapore (tip: bring the mosquito patches.) The lovely, red-bricked military church at Dempsey – St. George’s – is a highlight, but closes early and groups often don’t make it in time to go inside. Meanwhile, dinner is delicious, but doesn’t gel with the theme.
On the other hand, the Cultural Gems tour offers walks in one of four spots: Chinatown (Chinese culture), Kampong Glam (Malay culture), Katong (Peranakan culture) or Tiong Bahru (the odd one out, a photography walk). Those particular about being fed and watered should avoid picking Kampong Glam: it’s the only option without any lunch, offering instead a brief stop to buy kueh, then a two-hour batik session in Geylang Serai.
Both tours can be purchased as a package price with the room if you have Far East Insider membership. They come with a tour guide and a driver commandeering one of the hotel’s Jeeps, the main mode of transport for British soldiers back in the day. Younger guests will like the change, just like they will like the monogrammed safari shirts made at Joe’s Tailoring that form part of the experience.
The guides from the tour operator, Tour East, are knowledgeable and well spoken, but offer mainly surface information about Singapore history most locals will already know.
Crucially, they aren’t able to offer the same quality of service as we were accustomed to in the hotel. Unfortunately, our tours are scheduled for the hottest days in May, which feel like 41 degrees out, and both guides have little strategy on how to avoid overheating. The tour must go on, one says, while the other admits a guest has, in the past, come down with heatstroke.
While it’s unfair to expect these guides, whose job it is to dish out historical tidbits (“The rings on the domes on Sultan Mosque are made of glass soy sauce bottles donated by Muslim families; in Dempsey, buildings are named after former commanders”) – to proffer iced water, prepare fans and chart shaded routes, after being pampered at the hotel, the drop in attentiveness and comfort on these excursions is clear.
The Barracks Hotel may have to step in if it wants to bridge that gap; perhaps by stocking its Jeeps with some sort of ‘safari kit’ comprising hats, sunblock, cold towels, snacks and the like, or by offering an alternative of driving tours on ultra-hot or rainy days; or even by working with its tour partner to train the guides further in the art of service.
The itineraries will also benefit from tweaks to be more cohesive and meaningful for the hotel’s clientele, who are likely more culturally sensitive than the average traveller.
So, are the added tour options worth booking a fresh staycation? We say: book The Barracks Hotel either way, for it is enjoyable enough to merit a stay, tour or not.
Those on the fence about adding the heritage option to their trip can avail themselves of the free Heritage Tour of the property on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays for a taste of what to expect – it is, impressively, still led by World War II veterans who served in the Barracks themselves. If after that, you’re still hankering for more, then the ‘heritage safaris’ are an enjoyable way to play tourist, before returning into the comforting arms of the hotel once more.
The Heritage Safari room package is priced at $2,988 nett for a 2-nights stay in a Premier Room and $3,588 nett for a 2-nights stay in a Suite. Both packages include the choice of a Heritage Safari itinerary.
All photos taken by Rachel Genevieve Chia