Before there were direct flights, people would travel for weeks or months in large steamships to get from one continent to another. Imagine having to travel from Australia to United Kingdom before there were direct flights. During tedious journeys like these, people would stop halfway for a few days before continuing their voyage – we are talking about colonies like Singapore, Penang, Bombay and Colombo.

It was not until 1869 that steamships actually travelled to Asia. It was also during the British colonisation period and the establishment of its trading posts in the East that colonial hotels were built to accommodate travellers and seafarers of every shade and description – missionaries, merchants, officers, rajahs, mercenaries and adventurers.

Thriving ports became the most strategic location for these iconic hotels as a key landmark of the heydays. The need for luxury and comfort amongst the upper-class society witnessed the rise of some of the most beautiful colonial hotel architecture in history.

Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang (once called The Premier Hotel East of Suez) was the first to open in 1885 by the Armenian Sarkies brothers. The foremost hoteliers of the East continued to open some of the world’s greatest colonial hotels in Asia, including the likes of Singapore’s Raffles Hotel and The Strand in Rangoon.

Colonial hotels have a long and vibrant history — going through World Wars, invasion and struggling to remain relevant in current context. Some suffered permanent damage but were recently restored to its former glory. The Imperial Tokyo and Cairo’s Shepheard Hotel were reconstructed according to its original blueprints in the last decade as fabled landmarks in Japan and Egypt respectively.

Some colonial hotel buildings were lucky enough to survive the different eras and are still standing strong and stately. The Peninsula Hong Kong, dubbed the legendary Grand Dame of the Far East, as well as the 210-year-old Mount Lavinia Hotel in Colombo are still a breathtaking monument on its own.

Despite the rise of ultra-chic multi-starred hotels around the world, heritage hotels are something no architect today can replicate. They are the epitome of classical grandeur, timeless sophistication and a seamless marriage of ‘east meets west’. Next time when you’re in some of these cities, take some time to visit these colonial hotels that have stood the test of time – offering nothing less than rich heritage, old world charm, unique architecture and historical anecdotes. Click next to know more about these century-old colonial hotels.

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The Peninsula Hong Kong

The Peninsula Hong Kong in the early 1900s was Hong Kong’s to-go place for every trade and business meetings. (Credit: HKHP)

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The lobby expresses timeless grandeur and old-world elegance with gild cornices, ornate columns and classical mouldings.

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The Peninsula Hong Kong also features an infinity pool that oversees the city.

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Mount Lavinia Hotel, Colombo

Mount Lavinia Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in Sri Lanka. It was previously the residence of the colonial Governor General who built the building more than two centuries ago.

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Take a walk along the beach and around Mount Lavinia Hotel to see the remnants of the past —  a railway from the British colonisation that was used as a mode of transport as well as the strategic sea-front location overlooking the Indian Ocean. The beach around Mount Lavinia was also a favourite hangout spot for many voyaging travellers from around the world.

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Eastern & Oriental Hotel, Penang

Eastern & Oriental Hotel was originally built in 1885 with 100 rooms and a 902-foot seafront, which is up to this day, the longest of any hotel in the world. The colonial charm of the E&O is unmistakable with it being one of the first colonial hotels to be built in Southeast Asia.

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The interiors are well-preserved and carry the same je ne sais quoi as its glorious heydays. E&O is also one of the most popular afternoon tea places in Penang.

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Raffles Hotel Singapore

Raffles Hotel Singapore opened in 1887 with just 10 rooms in an old bungalow-style building. The building, overlooking the beach and the South China Sea, was established by the same hoteliers as E&O Hotel in Penang. The unmistakable classical colonial style has a blend of Moorish architecture, and up to this day remains one of the most revered heritage buildings in Singapore.

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The iconic facade has front pages of travel magazines and commercial ads. But more importantly, the drive-through lobby has welcomed some of the biggest dignitaries and celebrities of all times.

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Raffles Hotel Singapore reopened in 1991 following a major restoration and is currently going through another round of facelift before opening its doors again in 2019.

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Shepheard Hotel Cairo

The Shepheard is an institution and symbol of Egypt’s colonial past. The hotel was completely destroyed in the Cairo fire in 1952 but was recently restored to its former glory.

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Shepheard Hotel is strategically located by the water channel for obvious reasons — past mercantile activities. Today, the river lends a beautiful scenery as the building stands stately in a unique neo-classical style architecture.

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Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai

The Taj Mahal Palace is Mumbai’s first harbour landmark built in 1903. When it first opened, the hotel was the first in India to have electricity, German elevators, American fans, Turkish baths and English butlers. It is also home to the city’s first licensed bar, India’s first all-day restaurant and the country’s very own discotheque, Blow Up.

 

 

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During World War I, the hotel was converted into a military hospital housing over 600 beds. The building was attacked in 2008, causing permanent damage to its neo-classical facade. The Taj Mahal Palace reopened in 2010 following restoration works.

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Many renowned personalities, social elites and presidents have stayed in The Taj Mahal Palace including Lord Mountbatten and Bill Clinton. Barack Obama also checked in right after the restoration in 2010 and said that “the Taj has been the symbol of the strength and the resilience of the Indian people.”

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The Imperial Tokyo

The Imperial Tokyo was originally designed by Yuzuru Watanabe in the late 1800s. When the building was destroyed in a fire in 1920, American architect Frank-Lloyd Wright was commissioned to design the new hotel building and annexe in a Maya Revival style. Pictured here is the entrance to Wright’s Imperial Hotel which was subsequently demolished in 1967 to make way for a new high-rise structure.

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The grand entrance has welcomed some of the world’s famous dignitaries.

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The Imperial Hotel Tokyo today is a modern structure void of any classical resemblance but its history supercedes the utilitarian archetype. It is one of the very few buildings in Japan with an American architect’s intervention and remains one of Wright’s most cherished building designs in the world, even though it was demolished some 50 years ago.

Martin Teo
Editor
Martin has a bent for history and food culture, especially of the Peranakan heritage. Since the pandemic, he finds joy in plant parenting and continues to expand his collection of Philodendrons, Anthuriums, and Syngoniums. He's now on a lookout for the elusive Philodendron Florida Beauty to add to his urban garden.