Hotel reviews: Fairmont Singapore and Fairmont Peace Hotel Shanghai
Jason Y Ng
Here’s a little known fact: Four Seasons and Fairmont, two of the world’s largest luxury hotel chains, are both Canadian-owned. Headquartered in Toronto, the Fairmont group boasts an impressive collection of historic hotels across the globe. Within Canada, the group operates such national icons as Château Frontenac in Quebec City, the Royal York in Toronto and the Banff Springs in the Rockies. Outside Canada, its portfolio includes the Plaza in New York, the Savoy in London and the Peace Hotel in Shanghai. The very names of these premises evoke pageantry and timeless romance.
So how does the Fairmont Singapore stack up against such an illustrious list? Well, it doesn’t. The Fairmont Singapore is made up of two towers on the intersection of North Bridge Street and Bras Brasah Road, adjacent to the Raffles City shopping center and a five-minute taxi ride from the main financial hub. Despite its central location, the hotel is dated and in desperate need of a facelift. As of now, it is just another business hotel for weary travelers to check in and check out. Look around the lobby and all you see are men and women in dark suits pulling a Tumi carry-on with one hand and thumbing a Blackberry with another.
If there is any doubt that the Fairmont Singapore is devoid of character, their generic guest rooms should put it to rest. The combination of cherry wood and beige upholstery is straight out of an IKEA catalog in the early 1990s. The only thing going for the room is the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking the sprawling city. If you crane your neck, you will actually see the Singapore Flyer – a copycat of the London Eye – shining in the night. Although the bathroom is spacious by Singapore standards, the white tiles and glaring fluorescent lighting give it the charm of a hospital supply room.
All that, however, is assuming you get a refurbished room in the south tower. Life is so much worse if you are stuck with one of the "classic rooms" in either building. These older rooms are dark, musty and shockingly bad. They are relics from the 1960s and an embarrassment to the Fairmont name. If the front desk gives you an old room, ask for a room change immediately, even if you have to pay a bit more. It may seem like throwing good money after bad, but the alternative is unthinkable.
The Fairmont Singapore is a functional hotel. Get your room key, turn on the lights and plug in your laptop for a night of work emails and spreadsheets. Register as a Fairmont President’s Club member and get free WiFi access for your entire stay. But you won’t bat an eyelid because your company is picking up the bill anyway. You are grateful, however, that the Bose radio on the nightstand has an iPhone dock and an alarm clock that will wake you up at 7:30AM for your client meetings the next day. The Fairmont website describes the city of Singapore as a “pragmatic center of business.” It appears that the hotel itself falls squarely within that description too.
The Fairmont Peace Hotel Shanghai
The Peace Hotel in Shanghai comprises two buildings on the Bund separated by the bustling Nanjing Road. The one to the south was built in 1908 and was where Sun Yat-sun once stayed during the Xinhai Revolution. It is now the Swatch Art Peace Hotel. The building to the north, the prettier of the two with the signature copper pyramid top, was built in the 1920s during the Jazz Age. It is now the five-star Fairmont Peace Hotel. You may think that the Peace Hotel was so named because some important peace treaty was signed there. Not so. The twin buildings didn't carry their current name until the 1950s when the Shanghai government took over the premises. It isn't clear where the name actually came from.
In 2007, the Fairmont Group began renovating the north tower and re-launched it as the Fairmont Peace Hotel three years later. A new wing was added while most of the original art deco architecture was kept intact. Restored to its former splendor, the grand lobby and the famous Jazz Bar will transport you back in time to the heyday of Shanghai, a time when jazz music and ballroom dancing lasted all night, when Jay Gatsby and Jake Barnes schmoozed with their party-going friends over a highball. Today, you will more likely run into local tour groups coming and going in droves. Between all the loud talking and camera flashing, peace is in short supply at the Peace Hotel.
The rooms at the newly-renovated hotel are good-sized and furnished in art deco style. A handsome writing table and a generous crescent sofa sit atop lush designer carpeting opposite a super-king poster bed. Each room is fitted with an Illy coffee machine in a well-appointed foyer area that doubles as a mini-bar. The marbled bathroom features a claw-foot tub flanked by a vanity and sink console on each side.
As is the case for many luxury hotels in China, the hardware at the Fairmont Peace Hotel is far better than the software. And by software I mean the people who work there. Many of the hotel staff look confused and act confused. The hotel manager I dealt with was abrupt and at times rude, which is upsetting and, considering the amount of effort the Fairmont Group poured into the project, also unfortunate. Hospitality is a tricky business. Hotel operators can’t buy a new staff like they do furniture and coffee machines and expect them to hit the ground running on Day One. It will be years before the customer service industry in China finally gets it right.
With new hotels popping up in Shanghai on a monthly basis, the Fairmont Peace Hotel faces stiff competition. For roughly the same price, you will find more peace and quiet as well as superior service at either the Peninsula a short walk away or the Waldorf-Astoria on the other end of the Bund.