What is it? With its opulent interior and its artists-in-residence programme, Hotel Vagabond is a first in Singapore, a city that is rather conservative and skittish when it comes to hotel concept and design. There are plenty of large luxury hotels in the Lion City's gleaming steel and glass central business district, but the five-star, 42-room Vagabond is located in a still colourful area that has an authentic local feel. The hotel is housed in a restored art-deco shophouse with a seedy history: it has been a brothel, drug den and bike shop. The reborn interior is a mind-bending amalgamation of styles: Moorish North Africa, princely Rajasthan and fin de siècle Paris. Open only a few months, the hotel has already become a place where international and local artists of all genres mingle with arts-loving guests from around the world. The dramatically designed Vagabond Salon is the hotel's all-purpose space for dining, live performances and films. "Art," says Harpreet Bedi, the hotel's chief operating officer (and wife of owner Satinder Garcha), "is in the DNA of this hotel."
Design driven or just cute? When the couple decided they wanted to create the "visually edgiest place in Singapore", they sought out design-world royalty, Jacques Garcia. The French architect has brought his romantic and charmingly excessive vision to the Vagabond, his first project in Asia. At the entrance, two life-size gold elephants (top) flank the lift. A 2,300-kg brass rhinoceros, crafted by Rajasthani armourers, doubles as reception desk. The languorous salon area (below) is a field of rich velvet crimson and mauve textures, punctuated by a half-dozen handcrafted brass banyan trees whose glittering branches appear to grow out of a leopard-patterned carpet. In the filtered light of the glass ceiling sits a large gold relief of a monkey staring out over the salon's hammered brass bar. Video installations on the walls and in the lift seem to wink at passers-by. Are we in Casablanca or Jaipur? Manhattan's Chelsea or a 19th-century Paris salon? Or, as one guest asked, "Are we in a hallucinogenic zoo?"
Should we eat in or out? Depends on whether you're carnivorous or not. Hotel Vagabond's restaurant, 5th Quarter, specialises in nose-to-tail cooking. The charcuterie/grill serves up offal and offcuts prepared using traditional smoking, curing and pickling techniques. The eatery's Italian-Australian chef, Andrew Nocente, admits some of his creations have made diners "flinch … at first". But his duck tartare, salt-and-pepper tripe and pork tail confit have already become local favourites. For those hankering for something more familiar, Nocente also turns out his nonna's home-made pasta every day. As an alternative, he suggests, pay a visit to his favourite nearby snack joint, Swee Choon Tim Sum, a late-night chefs' hangout.
Other than Iceland's first lady, with whom might we rub shoulders? The hotel is hugely popular with the young grandees of Singapore business, who find the edgy design coupled with five-star service a seductive weekend escape from a more strait-laced Singapore. At the nightly "Artist Hour" in the Vagabond Lounge, guests can hobnob with an intriguing collection of visual artists, writers and musicians who are either in residence or drawn to the hotel's bohemian ambience.
What else is there to do? The hotel is almost equidistant from two of Singapore's most offbeat and still-intact historic neighbourhoods. Nearby Little India is bustling and vibrant, especially on Sunday nights. Encompassed are sari shops, henna tattoo parlours, south Indian hole-in-the-wall restaurants and even a cinema in which visitors can catch a midnight showing of a Bollywood film. Kampong Glam, the traditional Muslim quarter, is also a few minutes' walk from the hotel. Here, the sound of the powerful daily call to prayer comes from the gold-domed Sultan Mosque, which welcomes visitors for tours. In the enclave's narrow streets, lined with converted pastel shophouses, all things heritage and hip are on display. More than a century old, Aik Joo Textiles carries Korean silks and Thai batiks. The nearby hipster bar and lounge LongPlay spins vinyl from the 1950s to the '70s, and visitors can indulge in Indonesian nasi padang at the decades-old Sabar Menanti restaurant.
What's the bottom line? For five-star luxe, Hotel Vagabond is a steal. Classic rooms (above) go for less than HK$1,700 a night and a suite will set you back HK$4,400. For more information, visit www.hotelvagabondsingapore.com.